10/1/2013 7:49 P.M. ET
Impact of leadership on Tribe can't be measured
Francona, Swish, Giambi have intangible qualities that trump any statistic
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
The turning point for the Tribe came not in any single game of the 2013 season or even in the eventful winter that preceded it.
It came, rather, in August of 2012.
The Indians played 29 games that month, which they had entered feeling like they were still on the fringes of the American League Central Division chase.
They won five of them.
You can find many low points in the 113-year history of a sports franchise, but when it comes to the disconnect between on-field performance and high hopes, it doesn't get much lower than that. Off the field, players grumbled about the lack of leadership in the clubhouse. On the field, they looked absolutely lost.
So, yes, changes had to be made. And though general manager Chris Antonetti knew that much of the change had to revolve around the quality and quantity of the Tribe's depth of talent, he also knew that the 2012 team -- like the 2011 squad-- was missing an intangible ingredient that could not be overlooked any longer.
He knew precisely what he was looking for.
"Someone to lead this group of 25 guys," is how Antonetti put it at the time. "I think we're looking for someone who has the ability to inspire and motivate guys to perform at their best."
The Tribe made a statement hire with Terry Francona, because that was viewed as a signal that Antonetti and Co. would not be embarking upon the kind of rebuilding project so many had prescribed for them after a 94-loss campaign.
The Tribe then made a statement signing with Nick Swisher, because that was viewed, encouragingly, as a sign that ownership had the means and the might to make Cleveland a free-agent destination and that the clubhouse would finally contain some playoff-tested veteran savvy.
And though nobody paid too much attention to it at the time, the Tribe made a much more subtle statement when the 42-year-old Jason Giambi was extended an invitation to Spring Training camp to compete for a big-league bench job, because now the Indians possessed a former MVP on which players and coaches alike could lean.
Look, this is one of those stories that lacks statistical support. Let's just put that out there right now.
Francona might be a two-time World Series winner, but at the end of the day, he's merely a manager, a guy who is only going to perform marginally better or worse than -- if not in line with -- the level of talent he's afforded. Swisher might have a ring of his own from his Yankees days, but hobbled by the sort of shoulder injury that can betray a batter's clout and confidence, he was, for much of the season, not quite the reliable run-producer the Indians hoped to pencil into the cleanup spot. And Giambi, a long ways from that MVP heyday, didn't bat above the Mendoza Line this season.
But some stories tread beyond the statistical into the anecdotal, into the physical and mental grind of a six-month season and all the beautiful, bizarre and bumbling moments that come with it.
The truth is, this 2013 Indians team might not have had much more business competing for a postseason spot than the 2012 club. After all, Swisher struggled in the first season of his four-year, $56 million contract, and the Tribe's other big-ticket additions -- Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds, Brett Myers and even prospect Trevor Bauer, who was brought aboard in the Shin-Soo Choo trade -- had their struggles as well. The bullpen that had been such a force the previous two years took a step back, as did shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. These issues alone would have been reason enough for the Tribe to merely tread water or enter another round of irrelevance.
That never happened, though. And if you ask members of the team -- particularly those who have been around a while -- why that never happened, they'll tell you, without hesitation, that it was because of the culture that was created.
It was the kind of culture in which a franchise cornerstone like Jason Kipnis could reach his potential, the kind of culture in which bench players like Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn could log significant contributions, the kind of culture in which Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and the resurrected Scott Kazmir could post numbers better than anybody expected.
Mostly, though, it was simply the kind of culture in which the Indians never mentally crumbled. And it was that survival of the mental aspects of the 162-game grind that allowed them to maintain mathematical meaning even on the dark days, paving the way to an October berth.
"Sometimes when you do little things," Francona has said, "it adds up to big things."
You could tell, from the outset, that Francona relished this opportunity to manage in a market where the attention and emphasis was on those fundamentals and baseball's truest team-building concepts.
Not that he didn't love his time in Boston, where he won it all in 2004 and '07 and became a local legend. Not that he wasn't adept as an ESPN analyst. But Francona was more than a little uncomfortable with the off-field dynamics (and, sometimes, dysfunction) that colored his later years with the Red Sox. And the television gig simply didn't suit him. Quite literally, in fact, Francona never enjoyed wearing a suit in a Major League clubhouse, attempting to yuk it up with players he'd rather be managing.
When he decided to join the Indians because of his personal connections to president Mark Shapiro and Antonetti, Francona didn't know if this club would be a contender. But he was encouraged by the improvements made over the winter, and upon arrival to Spring Training camp, the quality of the work put in by the players. The level of professionalism in the Indians' clubhouse has risen considerably, and that's due in large part to the two men who occupy the lockers in its most accessible corner -- Giambi and Swisher.
Swisher has such a relentlessly upbeat personality that you sometimes wonder if his Gatorade's been spiked. But that perpetual positivity comes in handy on the difficult days, and there were plenty of them. And when the Indians most needed a surge, Swisher helped provide it, with seven homers and 17 RBIs in September. When they needed to lure fans back to the ballpark, he ponied up $15,000 for an extra fireworks show. Free agents don't always embrace their new surroundings quite to the degree that Swisher has his in Cleveland.
Giambi, meanwhile… well, let's just say Francona could talk all day about the impact Giambi has made. The guy hit .183, and Francona still considers him the team MVP. What does that tell you?
Remember, had things unfolded the way Giambi hoped, he would be managing the Rockies right now. He was a legitimate finalist for that job, which ultimately went to Walt Weiss, and he had a chance to remain with the Rox in a hitting-coach capacity.
Maybe next season, Giambi will be coaching or managing somewhere. But the Indians gave him one last shot at producing as a player, and though you wouldn't know it from the batting average, he's made the most of it, hitting arguably the biggest homer of the season last week against the White Sox and impacting every player who has crossed his path.
On paper, this Indians team was loaded with imperfections, or at the very least, performances that fell a bit short of expectations. It was a team that endured some very difficult losses and very difficult stretches in a season that often tried fans' patience.
But it was also a team that fit that oft-cited formula of being greater than the sum of its parts. In the end -- and quite surprisingly -- it was a playoff team.
For that, much credit can be extended to many different people and many different moments that stand out in the season storyline.
But don't forget about August 2012 and the crossroads the Cleveland Indians organization reached in that miserable month. It forced them to take a good, hard look at the clubhouse and what had been lacking.
It forced them to bring in the leadership that would guide the club to a very satisfying 2013.