At this point, we’ve all seen the of the “Harlem Shake” done thousands of times. It’s spread across the internet like wildfire. People from all walks of life have gotten involved in this phenomenon, including several baseball teams. By the time the Indians released their own last week, the general public had already moved on to the next meme.
Still, I could not help but crack a smile at this unlikely group of players dancing wildly in outrageous costumes. I thought to myself: When was the last time the Indians were this likable? Maybe 2007, when Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and CC Sabathia nearly led the team to the World Series. But this year feels different, in a way. Players and coaches alike seem to be having a better time than usual in Spring Training.
The Indians have been down on their luck for nearly five years, dealing with unmet expectations and injuries. But there seems to be a sense of optimism in the clubhouse and in the fanbase that has not been there. Yes, there are many question marks surrounding the team. But maybe they can compete for a playoff spot this year.
What caused this remarkable shift in culture? It all starts with Terry Francona.
Francona’s reputation as an involved, player-friendly manager has been a frequent topic of conversation since he was hired back in October. He was reportedly key in the major splash the Indians made in free agency, drawing players like Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Michael Bourn to Cleveland. Put simply, players want to play for Francona.
Daisuke Matsuzaka was told today that he would not make the Indians opening day roster. He could have looked for an opportunity elsewhere, but he accepted assignment to the minors because Francona told him he liked him:
Having Tito here is big. In speaking with Tito and Chris this morning, they told me that they want me on this club and they see me on this club. Having heard that directly from them, definitely made me feel comfortable staying here.
And above all, Francona is a winner—his two titles with Boston are proof of his past success. He commands respect. And the signings of two high-profile, veteran players in Bourn and Swisher definitely drive that point home. These players have had success in the past, and nothing but good can come out of surrounding the Indians inexperienced young talent with winners.
While baseball is won and lost on the field, Francona’s laid-back, winning attitude will pay dividends in the clubhouse. It is something that is tough to quantify in any useful manner, but the impact a manager like Francona has cannot be understated. He has proved an ability to bring this team together, as player testimony and videos like the Harlem Shake prove.
If players feel connected in the clubhouse, it helps their unity on the field. The environment Francona has already created is conducive to that feeling of oneness. The fact that the Indians seem to be enjoying the atmosphere this spring will create chemistry down the line. It already seems to be creating results on the field—the team is 14-8 in Cactus League play.
It is not as easy as getting a great manager, signing a few veterans and creating positive relationships in the clubhouse. Positive vibes can only go so far in the long run, and Spring Training results do not always precede regular season success. But these things are certainly an important part of creating a winning culture and getting players into their comfort zone. Francona’s attitude already seems to be paying off for the Tribe.