CLEVELAND — This World Series that starts tonight in The Land is about a lot of things.
The cursed history and tortured fan bases of the long-suffering Indians and longer-suffering Cubs. The expanding-before-our-eyes use of dominant power relievers like Chicago's Aroldis Chapman and Cleveland's Andrew Miller. The dueling emergences of future star infielders Javier Baez of the Cubs and Francisco Lindor of the Indians.
And the two fascinating wizards standing in the dugout calling the shots.
Joe Maddon lost the first time he competed directly with Terry Francona, who was Theo Epstein's choice for the Boston manager's job going into the 2004 season. Maddon said then, and again now, that the Red Sox made the right call, which proved true as they broke their own hefty curse and won two World Series championships in the first four of Francona's eight seasons.
Maddon would get his chance a couple of years later with the Devil Rays, and by 2008 he got to match up with — and eventually beat — Francona in the highly competitive seven-game series for the AL pennant, the first of four Tampa Bay playoff appearances in six seasons.
In many ways, they couldn't seem more different, these two.
Maddon, 62, comes across as somewhat of an educated renaissance man, famously doing his deep thinking on long bike rides, waxing eloquently on any subject from literature to music to cinema and sitcoms, sharing his oenophiliac knowledge in discussing fine wines.
Francona, 57, wants to be known as a baseball guy and the son of a baseball guy, throwing out self-deprecating cracks like telling a reporter to go slow with a two-part question, preferring to ride a motorized scooter because "I don't want to exert more than I have to" and professing to much simpler tastes.
"I hate to say this, but, I mean, I used to drink Boone's Farm when I was in college," Francona said Monday. "I am not a real big wine drinker. I really don't know much about wine. And if I started to act like I did, I would just embarrass myself."
"They're definitely a little different," said Cubs pitcher John Lackey, one of a half-dozen guys in the Series to play for both. "Joe is a little more the eccentric kind of guy, and Tito's a little more old school."
And yet in some of the most important ways, they couldn't be more alike.
"The main thing is they have a way to communicate with you and have a way to help you feel relaxed and be yourself out there," said former Rays and now Indians outfielder Brandon Guyer. "And as a player if you feel that way, you're going to play better."
Ultimately, that really is the manager's job, right? To get the best out of his players.
While Maddon goes to some extremes, such as dress-up trips or bringing exotic animals and entertainers into the clubhouse, Francona — no surprise — takes a lower key approach.
That might be playing cribbage with players in his office, sitting on the bench talking baseball and telling jokes, or even just reminding them in a tense moment that they're just playing a game, carrying over what worked in Boston during his four seasons in Cleveland.
"Tito's whole thing is that he communicates well with the players," said Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, a former Devil Ray. "He changed the whole culture here as far as how that goes and how the player feels and what the player feels on a daily basis when he comes to the field.
"Everyone feels like they can conquer the world when they're around Tito because of how much he appreciates and shows his faith in them and the confidence in them to get the job done."
Given the bigger picture stakes — with legendary status awaiting whichever one breaks his team's curse — both Maddon (with a .535 winning percentage over 13 seasons with the Angels, Rays and Cubs) and Francona (.533 in 16 with the Phillies, Red Sox and Indians) downplayed any talk of a rivalry or even the matchup between them.
"Joe's career speaks for itself," Francona said. "He started in Tampa (Bay) and had the ability down there to kind of almost do what he wanted. He always pushed the envelope trying to do some things. … The one thing he's always had the ability to do is keep a clubhouse together, which is saying a lot, during the course of 162 games, keeping guys going in one direction."
Maddon, joking he has never had the chance to play cribbage with Francona, returned the praise, saying, "I've gotten the same impression that everybody else has — he's gregarious, easy to get to know, a good friend, and a very good manager."
But, Maddon also said, "at the end of the day, it's not about me or Tito. It's about players. This game is always about players. And if your guys play better than their guys, you win."
Well, there's that, too. Wise guys, these managers.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.