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There's so much to talk about on the field during the baseball playoffs that it's hard to think about next year. But in between the wonder of Chris Carpenter, A-Rod's spot in the lineup and the Nats' we-know-better foolishness regarding Stephen Strasburg, a huge 2013 item got overshadowed this week.

Terry Francona is giving up his cushy spot in the ESPN Sunday night booth and going back to the dugout. In Cleveland.

This is no small thing for Tribe fans, who just endured a 68-94 season. The 5-24 mark in August was their worst month ever, which is saying plenty given this franchise's pre-1995 futility.

Francona has two World Series wins on his resume and the expectation was that his contract had to have more zeroes than the folks in C-Town can afford. After sacking Manny Acta with six games left in the season, it seemed pretty certain that interim skipper Sandy Alomar Jr. was going to get the job. No way Francona was interested or the Tribe could afford him.

Wrong. The parties hammered out a four-year contract in about 10 minutes (no terms have been disclosed) and there was Francona at the lectern Monday in Progressive Field.

He quickly shot down the thought he'd be better suited for a team of veterans when he said his favorite part of spring games was from the fifth inning on when he sees the prospects.

But what's the real reason for the big splash? It's based on relationships. After Francona was fired in 2000, he spent 2001 as a special assistant with the Tribe. The general manager at the time? Current President Mark Shapiro, the farm director who built the Bisons' championship teams of the '90s. The assistant GM in '01? Current GM Chris Antonetti.

Francona spent a couple of weekends in Buffalo watching the Bisons in 2001, still pretty raw from getting fired in Philly.

“You always try to learn in this game,” Francona told me one morning in the press box at then-Dunn Tire Park. “If you stop, there's something wrong with you. I want to see what the scouts go through. It's not what I want to make a career of because my place is on the field. But this is really a good way to learn.”

Prior to the '04 World Series, I asked Francona about his time with Cleveland again and his praise of the Indians was something I always remembered.

“I went to Cleveland to try to do the right thing,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be back on the field but I thought it would be a good year to learn and it was a great year to learn. I got around some terrific people.”

Francona played for the Indians in 1988 and his father, Tito, was an outfielder for the Tribe in the '50s and '60s. He said there was a “family feeling” but that's not the reason you take a job.

Shapiro and Antonetti are under the gun in C-Town. The Indians have lost at least 93 games in three of the last four seasons, got little in return when trading CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and have drafted poorly. Money can't cover up mistakes.

In 2011, the Red Sox had a $164 million payroll. This year, the Indians had a $64 million payroll.

Still, Francona remembers it was just five years ago that the Indians were a game away from the World Series before his Red Sox won the last three games of the ALCS. It can happen again.

Said Francona: “I didn't come here to go to pasture.”



email: mharrington@buffnews.com