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Francona relishing return with Indians

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) - Sitting on a counter in Cleveland's noisy clubhouse, more than one year and nearly 2,300 miles away from a rough finish in Boston, Terry Francona looks content, at ease.

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As players sip coffee and layer up for their workout on a chilly Saturday morning, Cleveland's new manager is perched under two large flat-screen TVs, his back pushed up against buckets of bubble gum and sunflower seeds. This is where Francona belongs, the place he enjoys most.

Being around the guys.

From the moment he slipped on his No. 17 Indians jersey for the first time this spring, Francona has relished being back in the majors.

``I'm not really big on looking backwards,'' Francona said the other day. ``But if you ask me if I'm having a ball here? Yeah.''

It's obvious.

Whether he's hitting grounders to the club's first basemen, catching throws to the plate for third base coach Brad Mills during an infield drill or simply leaning on a netted batting cage to watch Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi launch homers through Arizona's thin air, Francona is savoring it all.

He missed the game. He had no idea how much.

On Friday, Francona got to fill out a lineup card and was back in a dugout for the first time since the end of the 2011 season, when his days in Boston came to a crashing halt. Other than the four hours it took, he thoroughly enjoyed Cleveland's exhibition opener over Cincinnati, an 11-10 win pulled off with bottom-of-the-ninth rally.

``It was fun,'' he said. ``It's amazing how fast the game looks the first week.''

For the Indians, Francona's arrival has meant everything. He's re-energized a franchise that lost 94 games last season under Manny Acta and helped revived a soured fan base that had lost faith in ownership. Without him, the Indians don't sign Swisher to the largest free agent contract (four years, $56 million) in club history or entice All-Star center fielder Michael Bourn to come to Cleveland, either.

He's brought excitement to the Indians - and expectations.

But even before he signed his contract in October, Francona made an imprint. He contacted all of Cleveland's players in person or by text message. He wanted to make a personal connection with them before building one on a professional level.

It's the first step toward trust, and hopefully championships.

``He reached out right away, and from then on he's been in the clubhouse all the time, getting to know the guys and telling stories,'' All-Star closer Chris Perez said. ``It's stuff like that that helps. This game is so serious during the season, it's the human side that gets some teams through and he has a great rapport. That goes a long way.''

Almost everyone calls Francona ``Tito,'' which is also his dad's name. Tito Francona played six seasons for the Indians, and there's a photo in Cleveland's media guide of the Franconas posing in front of Cleveland's dugout at the father-son game in 1963.

The Indians track through his veins, which is why Cleveland's job was the only one Francona considered when he could have had his pick.

After he was fired after four seasons as Philadelphia's manager, Francona spent 2001 working as an assistant to Indians president Mark Shapiro and with general manager Chris Antonetti. The trio formed a tight friendship that made it easy for him to return to managing after one year at ESPN.

He rarely mentions his time in Boston. Francona spent eight seasons with the Red Sox, who exorcised the ``Curse of the Bambino'' and ended their 86-year title drought in 2004. They won the World Series again in 2007 under him, but unless he's asked, the 53-year-old Francona doesn't have much to say about those accomplishments and even less of the 2011 collapse when the Red Sox went 7-20 in September and missed the playoffs.

The Red Sox chose not to exercise Francona's 2012 option after the season and the sides parted ways, and not on such good terms. It's all in ``Francona: The Red Sox Years,'' the best-seller he co-authored with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

Indians infielder Mike Aviles was there for the slide. As far as he's concerned, Francona did all he could to keep the Red Sox together as they unraveled.

``It was a pretty tough time,'' said Aviles, traded by Kansas City to Boston at the deadline that season. ``It's really easy to hit the panic button. He was far from that. That showed me a lot of the person he actually is. He cared more about how things looked for us than how it looked for himself. Sometimes, in that situation, some people would care more about themselves than anybody else.

``He cared more about the team than himself. Sometimes, you might get that one person who cares more about saving their job. He cared more about the players and their livelihood, and fighting for the players than getting fired or not getting fired.''

It's easy to see why players enjoy playing for Francona, who spent 10 seasons in the majors, mostly as a part-time first baseman and outfielder. He makes it a point to get to know them, not just because he's their boss but because he cares. He sets the rules, and as long as they're followed, there won't be any problems.

But step out of bounds, and he'll let you know it.

That's always been his way.

``Inevitably, you're going to have to tell guys something they don't want to hear and when that happens, you don't want to lose them,'' he said. ``They might be angry and get aggravated but when they trust you, it just works better. Plus, I just like it. I just enjoy walking in the clubhouse and seeing the guys in the morning and it's fun.

``It's where I am more comfortable.''

There's bound to be some tough moments this season, there always are. The Indians have an improved roster, but they have major pitching questions and it may not go as smoothly as it seems to be right now.

Don't expect Francona to waver. He'll stay true to who he is and what he knows. He's back doing what he loves most and with a new team he's shaping into his own.

``I don't know how we're going to play, but I like our team,'' he said. ``I like our guys. If we struggle, we're going to struggle together. It's going to be fun.''

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

Copyright 2014
The Associated Press
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