"The first time I put my uniform on," Francona said, "I was as proud as I've ever been. I knew I would be."
Francona stepped into a dugout as a manager Friday afternoon for the first time since 2011, when his storied run in Boston came to a forgettable close. The new-look Indians began their Cactus League schedule with a tilt against the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark, giving Francona his first chance to take a look at his team against competition.
Francona has not been the only one getting used to his new surroundings.
Cleveland's players -- many returning from last summer's 94-loss squad, and others added over the offseason -- have used the past two weeks to get to know their new manager. They have witnessed an energized Francona in the clubhouse and on the practice fields at the Tribe's spring complex, and the team has responded accordingly.
Each spring, every big league camp is filled with optimism.
The buzz in Goodyear seems genuine.
"It's easy to see why he's had winning teams under him," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "The guy has meetings every morning. He's here with a purpose every single day. He doesn't want to waste a day. He wants to do things the right way. He takes things serious.
"You can have as much fun as you want, as long as you're getting the job done and getting work done. He wants people who are excited to play the game of baseball and excited to play the right way."
Francona is best known for helping end the Curse of the Bambino. The Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918 -- a streak that ended when Francona guided Boston's band of self-proclaimed "Idiots" to the title in 2004. To prove it was no fluke, the Red Sox won another World Series crown in '07.
During Boston's run, Francona's reputation as a player's manager became well-documented. In 2011, however, he was tested down the stretch when the Red Sox suffered a late-season collapse. Boston went 7-20 in September, lost a nine-game lead in the American League Wild Card standings and were eliminated from the postseason on the final day of the season.
When the smoke cleared, the Red Sox and Francona parted ways.
Indians utility infielder Mike Aviles was with the Red Sox during that slide two seasons ago and said Francona never changed how he acted around his team. If anything, Aviles said the manager went out of his way to protect the players.
"It was a pretty tough time, it really was," Aviles said. "Sometimes, you might get that one person who cares more about saving their job. He cared more about the players and their livelihood, and fighting for the players, than him getting fired or not getting fired. That's how I took it. That's how I saw it."
Francona spent last season serving as an analyst for ESPN and said on multiple occasions that he was prepared to stay with the network this year. The lone exception was if the Indians, led by Francona's long-time friends Mark Shapiro (team president) and Chris Antonetti (general manager), came calling with a job.
That opportunity arose after the Tribe cut ties with former manager Manny Acta in September.
Francona forged friendships with Shapiro and Antonetti while working in Cleveland's front office in 2001. Francona's father, Tito, played for the Indians from 1959-64. All signs pointed toward Francona reuniting with the organization and returning to the dugout with a chance to end another championship drought; Cleveland has not won a World Series since 1948.
There has been a chain reaction on the roster ever since Francona's arrival.
"He brings something to the table that players are drawn toward," Kipnis said. "Players want to play for him."
Cleveland reeled in a pair of big-ticket free agents in Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. The Indians also signed free agents Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers to one-year deals and added an assortment of players on Minor League deals, including Scott Kazmir, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jason Giambi and Matt Capps.
"I guarantee he had a big part in bringing some of these guys here," Kipnis said.
From the time he was hired, Francona also made a point to reach out to all his players, whether via phone or text message. He traveled to the Dominican Republic and visited with a handful of players, then met a few others in Florida on his journey back to Cleveland. Communication -- both away and at the ballpark -- has been an obvious strength early on.
It has been a way to begin forming relationships and gaining trust.
"I just think that it works better," Francona explained. "Inevitably, you're going to tell guys things they don't want to hear. When that happens, you don't want to lose them. They might be angry for a day or two, or aggravated. But when they trust you, it just works better.
"Plus, the fact is I just like it. I just enjoy walking in the clubhouse, seeing the guys in the morning. It's fun. It's where I'm more comfortable."
Francona has been in the clubhouse plenty already this spring, and his leadership on the field has led to an increased intensity during workouts.
"Guys are taking it a little more serious," Kipnis said. "They're not just going through the motions like another Spring Training. I think we know what kind of players we have and the kind of potential this team has. It's a new environment.
"Now we've got players where we expect to win this year. We have a good team and we feel we can win, so we don't want to cheat ourselves by not taking this serious or not getting work done."
That attitude has been a joy for Francona to see in these early days as the team's new skipper.
"I told them I was proud of them," Francona said. "I meant that. I would not tell them that if I did not feel that way."