Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Francona back where he belongs, in dugout

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Sitting on a counter in Cleveland's noisy clubhouse, more than one year and nearly 2,300 miles away from a rough finish in Boston, Terry Francona looks content, at ease.

As players sip coffee and layer up for their workout on a chilly Saturday morning, Cleveland's new manager is perched under two large flat-screen TVs, his back pushed up against buckets of bubble gum and sunflower seeds. This is where Francona belongs, the place he enjoys most.

Being around the guys.

From the moment he slipped on his No. 17 Indians jersey for the first time this spring, Francona has relished being back in the majors.

"I'm not really big on looking backwards," Francona said the other day. "But if you ask me if I'm having a ball here? Yeah."

It's obvious.

Whether he's hitting grounders to the club's first basemen, catching throws to the plate for third base coach Brad Mills during an infield drill or simply leaning on a netted batting cage to watch Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi launch homers through Arizona's thin air, Francona is savoring it all.

On Friday, Francona got to fill out a lineup card and was back in a dugout for the first time since the end of the 2011 season, when his days in Boston came to a crashing halt. Other than the four hours it took, he thoroughly enjoyed Cleveland's exhibition opener over Cincinnati, an 11-10 win pulled off with bottom-of-the-ninth rally.

"It was fun," he said. "It's amazing how fast the game looks the first week."

For the Indians, Francona's arrival has meant everything. He's re-energized a franchise that lost 94 games last season under Manny Acta and helped revived a soured fan base that had lost faith in ownership. Without him, the Indians don't sign Swisher to the largest free agent contract (four years, $56 million) in club history or entice all-star centre fielder Michael Bourn to come to Cleveland, either.

He's brought excitement to the Indians -- and expectations. Fans wait to see how it unfolds.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2013 B12

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