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The Globe and Mail

Terry Francona pumped to be back on the bench

Cleveland Indians first year manager Terry Francona acknowledges the San Francisco Giants coaching staff before the start of their MLB Cactus League spring training baseball game in Scottsdale, Arizona, March 5, 2013.


It is still a bit strange seeing Terry Francona wearing the colors of another Major League Baseball team, but the man himself is obviously comfortable in his new blustery environment hard off Lake Erie.

The first thing the rookie manager of the Cleveland Indians asks about when meeting with reporters in the visitors dugout at Rogers Centre on Monday afternoon is the what the weather is like back home.

When told that it is much like Toronto – cold and threatening to snow – Francona nods his head. He notes optimistically that he hears warmer weather is anticipated by the start of next week when the Indians will play their home opener at Progressive Field against the New York Yankees.

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Meantime, Francona has seemingly bigger concerns on his mind – such as Tuesday night's encounter in Toronto, where the Blue Jays will finally get to unleash their new high-octane roster before an enthusiastic full-house gathering at the dome, where the weather will not be a concern.

"Daunting?" Francona replied, when asked just how difficult it will be for the Indians to open against a Toronto team many have already awarded the World Series. "Not daunting. I mean, we respect what they can do. I know they're very excited about what they've done, and they should be.

"I hope it all starts coming together three days from now."

Francona is the former manager of the Boston Red Sox and was the face of that storied franchise following eight, mostly memorably, seasons, which included two World Series titles in 2004 and 2007.

Normally with a record like that they're offering up the keys to the city.

But it all unravelled with shocking ferocity back in 2011 when the Red Sox entered September with a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League wild card race only to see it disappear on the final day of the regular-season schedule.

A couple days later, Francona and the Red Sox parted way, fuelled by salacious newspaper revelations that the 53-year-old had lost control of the clubhouse, that star pitchers were consuming chicken wings and quaffing beers in the clubhouse during their days off.

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Francona took a year off from managing and worked as a baseball analyst at ESPN before accepting the managing job in Cleveland.

He also released a book earlier this year offering his own version of events that unfolded in Boston, charging that the owners of the Red Sox were preoccupied with attracting "good-looking stars" and "sex symbols," to the club.

Maybe that's the real reason why John Farrell, the lantern-jawed former manager of the Blue Jays, pressured management in Toronto to trade him Boston during this past off-season to become the latest manager of the Red Sox.

Farrell's name did not come up during Monday's conversation with Francona but he may have been musing just a bit about the past when the topic of Nick Swisher came up.

One of the newest members of the Indians, who signed a four-year, $56-million free-agent contract to join the Tribe during the off-season, convened a player's only team meeting just a couple of days ago to discuss the upcoming season.

"I thought it was great – as long as they're not planning a coup," Francona joked.

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Too early for that yet for an Indians team that most figure are in for another long haul with a suspect starting staff led by Tuesday's opening night starter, Justin Masterson, who might qualify as a solid No. 3 on most other teams.

The Indians, of course, remain optimistic heading into the season and who can blame them after last season's fiasco in which Cleveland imploded with a franchise worst 5-24 record during the month of August en-route to a 94-loss year.

To ownership's credit, money was freed up to allow general manager Chris Antonetti some freedom to affect change as Cleveland's opening day roster will include a dozen new faces.

Along with Swisher, a switch-hitting first baseman who at age 32 should still have plenty of pop left in his bat, the Indians also went out and signed free-agent centrefielder and leadoff hitter Michael Bourne.

Free agent DH Mark Reynolds, who has averaged 34 home runs the last four seasons, has also been added to the mix along with veteran right-handed pitcher Brett Meyers.

Francona said he went out of his way after getting the Cleveland job to visit with or call as many as the players he could heading into spring training, to let them know what he is all about and what is expected this season.

No eating of finger food in the clubhouse during games might have been a good place to start.

How it will all relate into success on the field remains to be seen, but Francona is obviously pumped.

"To sit here and say we're going to win the Central, that's probably not the smartest thing in the world, " Francona said. "But I think we've improved ourselves, I don't know how much. Nobody knows.

"I guess my point is, I like this group a lot. So regardless of what we're doing it's going to be fun."

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