October 22, 2014

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Terry Francona could take Tribe places

CLEVELAND — Terry Francona managed his first game in the home dugout at Progressive Field on Monday afternoon. It was also his debut as a Cleveland resident.

Francona

The start was rocky.

And that was before Yankees designated hitter Travis Hafner hit a three-run rocket to center field in the first inning against his former team.

And Ubaldo Jimenez looked like anything but a No. 2 starter in a playoff-caliber rotation.

And catcher Carlos Santana left the game with a bruised (for now) left thumb that required X-rays.

And the Indians lost 11-6 in front of a sellout crowd.

Francona lives downtown and chose to walk to work.

“I’m only two blocks away,” he said before the game. “I got lost three times.”

His new office is the expansive ballpark on the corner of Ontario and Prospect. It’s the one with the giant lights sticking into the sky.

“I’ve just been blessed with horrible directional (ability),” he said.

Francona can be forgiven if he doesn’t know his way around Gateway Plaza.

He’s already enhanced the city’s reputation and delivered a dose of optimism to a desperate fan base.

And he knows his way around a dugout.

“Tito kind of started off the whole offseason for Cleveland in general,” said first baseman Nick Swisher, the biggest of the player acquisitions that followed. “Bring over a guy like that, two World Series to his name, brings energy to the ballpark every day. You want to play for a manager like that.”

The on-field product hasn’t been noticeably improved to start Francona’s tenure.

The Indians are 3-4 after a week of games. They dropped their fifth straight home opener. Jimenez was his wild, maddening, all-over-the-place self Monday after an efficient start last week in Toronto.

Jimenez would’ve been better served spending his late afternoon at the nearby casino that Francona likely passed in the morning. He allowed seven runs, seven earned runs and seven hits — Jackpot! — in 4⅓ innings. He walked three, gave up two homers and threw 39 balls in 91 pitches.

Francona may not be able to save Jimenez — if he can’t, the playoffs are a long shot in 2013 — but he will have an impact in the standings.

The two championships with the Red Sox gave him instant credibility with players, fans and media. The confidence that comes with a history of success is obvious in everything he does. He’s comfortable in his skin, and the manager’s uniform.

“I could not be more honored to be playing for him,” Swisher said. “His communication skills are just amazing.”

Francona couldn’t have made a difference in the outcome Monday. Jimenez had too many bad stretches too early, and the offense did little after the first inning until it was too late. Matt Albers, the natural first reliever in, didn’t help matters by allowing an inherited run and one of his own on Robinson Cano’s second homer of the day.

But Francona will make a difference in the long run. Just ask president Mark Shapiro, who can’t stop raving about the impact he has and will have. And the crowd that — for a change — cheered with anticipation rather than nostalgia during pregame introductions.

Francona helped attract the free agents that signed, knows losing one game — even the home opener — isn’t the end of the world, has excelled in tense, end-of-game situations and is a refreshing combination of energy and calm.

“We don’t know (how good the team will be),” he said. “But I think it’ll be enjoyable trying to see how good we can get. I like this group.”

There’s a lot to like, despite the lopsided loss on a mostly beautiful day for baseball.

Swisher won’t let the clubhouse get depressed, no matter the size of the defeat or length of the losing streak. Mark Reynolds is a threat to go deep every at-bat. Santana is poised for a monster season hitting and throwing — if he can stay off the disabled list.

Francona is right when he says this team should be fun to watch. The thrill will continue into September — and possibly October — if the starting pitching and long relief are effective enough to give the offense and back of the bullpen the chance to be successful.

“This town’s fired up and hopefully we’re going to do our best to make them proud of the product we’re putting on the field,” Swisher said.

Francona is new to his surroundings, but not the Indians organization. His dad, Tito, was a player here from 1959-64 and Terry played 62 games in the Chief Wahoo cap in 1988, hitting .311.

The ties add to his motivation. But they don’t help with his inner compass. Even after he arrived at the Progressive Field garage, he needed a ride in a golf cart to get to his office.

“I think Cleveland is officially the nicest people I’ve ever met,” he said. “Everybody I walked by said hello. That was a little different than I’m used to.”

The reason for his downtown dwelling is another reason to like him.

“I like being close to the ballpark, I always have,” he said. “On the road, I’d rather stay at a Motel 6 that’s next to the ballpark than have to drive a half-hour. I hate having to make an appointment to go to the ballpark.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

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