It's hard to pick a winner from this manager pairing


It's probably time to eject "skipper" from the baseball lexicon. The word is just too inadequate. The modern manager is so much more than the captain of a ship. He is a counselor, a teacher, a leader, a thinker, a storyteller, a cheerleader and a bearer of news, both good and bad.

If there's one thing this epic World Series has demonstrated, it's that the Cubs and Indians are here because of their managers. It's not just a coincidence that two storied Midwestern franchises with C's on their uniforms are facing each other in the seventh game, hoping to finally write a happy ending. It's also a dazzling demonstration of how the manager has evolved in modern baseball.

Joe Maddon and Terry Francona are both Italian-American, both close to their families, both from small, working-class, Pennsylvania towns. They're not exactly alike -- the ready-for-his-close-up Joe likes fine wine; the self-effacing Tito fondly recalls Boone's Farm -- but they share a sensibility for their players, a willingness to think outside the box and a gift for expressing their thoughts honestly and humorously.

Take the obligatory news conferences they gave before Game 6. Asked how Cleveland has differed from Boston, with which he won two championships, Francona said, "I mean, there were a lot of times [in Boston] I thought my name was, "You Suck" because that's all I ever heard."

Maddon used the forum to make a proposal: "I think there should be two forms of Twitter. There should be the positive form of Twitter and the negative form, and you have to choose one ... There needs to be Twitter police because there's so much negativity that's generated on a daily basis."

They are both turning postseason baseball into a breathtaking battle of wits. Jim Leyland, the longtime manager who helped bridge old school to new school, knows them well.

"They have been brilliant," he said. "The way they've used their bullpens, the way they've focused on the importance of that night's game ... I'm enjoying the hell out of this."

Cubs president Theo Epstein, who hired Francona over Maddon when he made him the Red Sox manager in 2004, then hired Maddon when he became available after the 2015 season, sees similar basic qualities in both men.

"They both allow players to be themselves, and they're not afraid to turn convention on its head," Epstein said. "Oh, there are differences. Joe believes in balancing baseball with outside experiences, and Tito loves nothing more than to get to the clubhouse early. But they treat their players with respect, and that's what's made them so successful."

On the face of it, Francona had the harder challenge in getting the Indians here; they were 68-94 before he took over in 2013. Now they're looking for their first World Series title since 1948. The Cubs were built to win by the time Maddon took over. But they also were on a 0-108 streak when it came to winning world championships, and more to the point, they were down three games to one after Game 4.

In the seventh inning of Game 5, up 3-2 but facing a man on and one out, Maddon brought in closer Aroldis Chapman and let him finish the game. The move was preceded by a few days of gentle persuasion to convince Chapman that he could pitch multiple innings -- precisely what Francona has asked Andrew Miller to do throughout these playoffs (so often, in fact, that it earned Miller the ALCS MVP trophy).

Yes, Maddon's was a gutsy decision, but it was done with consideration and respect. When he saw the same moment of crisis in the seventh inning of Game 6, with the Cubs leading 7-2, he did it again -- damn the second-guessers.

These two really don't care what you think. At this point, they care only about winning, and therein lies the shame of this World Series. As someone who has known Francona since he was a rookie outfielder with the Montreal Expos in 1981, I can't help but root for him. I can still see him going up to each of his Red Sox players after they beat the Indians in the 2007 ALCS and whispering his thanks in their ears. Nor can I help but hope that Maddon is the manager who finally breaks the Cubs' curse; his joy for life and baseball are a constant inspiration.

For now, it's on to Game 7. After the Cubs' 9-3 win in Game 6, Francona said, "It will be exciting to come to the ballpark tomorrow. Shoot, I just might wear my uniform home."

For his part, Maddon said, "Both sides have played really good baseball. It's just correct and apt that we'd go seven games."

May the best team win. It might be hard to find better men, though.