Vogt has taken Guardians to top of AL Central in first year

CLEVELAND — The fishing boat captain’s chair that provided former Cleveland manager Terry Francona a comfortable vantage point during games the past few years was removed from the home dugout steps before the season.

It’s gone, just like the beloved Francona, aka “Tito” to everyone in baseball.

That padded seat — along with his famous scooter, and indomitable spirit while battling major health issues and seasons that often extended into October — symbolized Francona’s successful 11-year run with the club.

It was going to take someone special to replace him.

Stephen Vogt’s off to quite a start.

“I feel like he just picked up where Tito left off,” Guardians catcher Austin Hedges said.

Only two years removed from playing, the 39-year-old journeyman-turned-All-Star catcher has guided the Guardians to the top of the AL Central.

What began as a surprise has morphed into something more: Cleveland looks like a legitimate championship contender under Vogt, who had never managed a game — at any level — before being hired.

MLB’s top four records currently belong to the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, and the Guardians, who are 20 games over .500 heading into a weekend series with Toronto.

No one expected this.

One of baseball’s youngest teams has done it playing with an aggressive, throwback style that reflects their manager. The Guardians scrap.

Cleveland doesn’t rely on power but placement — put the ball in play and run the bases with abandon — “hard 90s,” they call it.

The starting pitching remains a major question, but Vogt, who was Seattle’s bullpen coach last season, has been adept at knowing when to turn to his relievers. Of course it helps that he can hand the ball in the ninth to hard-throwing closer Emmanuel Clase, who has 20 saves and a 0.84 ERA.

It hasn’t been flawless. Vogt has made mistakes, and he’s still far from mastering the daily juggling act of multiple meetings, media obligations and more. He admits sound sleep is often elusive.

But he has settled in.

“The game’s the best part,” he said. “It’s where you get to watch your guys go play. But I’m feeling more and more comfortable. I’ve gotten sped up a number of times and I’ve learned from them.”

Cleveland already has 17 come-from-behind wins, the Guardians are 15-6 in games decided after the seventh inning and 6-2 in extras.

Vogt has them believing.

“I’ll tell you what,” Hedges said. “Our group in general is really upset when we lose, like really heartbroken. And the best part about it is that we respond the next day. We show up the next day and we don’t let that happen again.”

While it would have been hard to forecast this turnaround for a team that lost 86 games a year ago, the Guardians have been convinced this was possible from the moment the affable, easy-going Vogt took over.

During their expansive offseason search to find the successor for Francona, the winningest manager in franchise history, the Guardians knew what they wanted. Vogt checked every box — and then some.

The team felt Vogt’s journey from backup catcher barely holding on to a dependable, two-time All-Star who became a folk hero of sorts in Oakland, would resonate with players.

Five minutes into Vogt’s first formal interview, general manager Mike Chernoff knew the Guardians had found their man. His instincts were right.

“He’s been tremendous,” Chernoff said last week before the Guardians hosted the second-place Kansas City Royals. “The most important thing is the way that he connects with people. Whether it’s players, staff, media, fans, he is such an extrovert and outgoing personality that he builds culture through every one of those individual connections.

“He’s hit the ground running from Day 1.”

Vogt seemed predestined to manage.

As a minor leaguer, he had talent but also quenchless curiosity. Vogt lived the game, absorbing information and picking the brains of coaches and managers while trying to make himself a better player.

He’s borrowed a little something from each of the managers he’s played for, and it’s an impressive, varied roster that includes Joe Maddon, Bruce Bochy, Craig Counsell, Brian Snitker and Scott Servais.

Royals manager Matt Quatraro was first to recognize something special in Vogt.

A 12th-round draft pick by Tampa Bay in 2007, Vogt made quite an impression on Quatraro, who was cutting his managerial teeth at the time with Single-A Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League.

“From the day I met him, he’s been a tremendous person, great family, great worker,” said Quatraro, who in a full circle moment is now managing against someone who considers him a mentor. “His successes are not surprising to me. He’s one of the guys that I’ve enjoyed being around the most as a minor league coach.”

While Vogt could always hit and worked to improve defensively, Quatraro said other qualities set him apart.

“He was incredible on the bus trips, just keeping it light, busting on guys,” he said. “His sense of humor that everybody knows about is just incredible.”

Vogt has yet to break out his hilarious imitation of comedian Chris Farley’s classic “Saturday Night Live” character Matt Foley. That could be coming.

For now, he’s nailed Francona.

“Vogter is very similar to Tito in many ways,” Hedges said. “But also different in his youth and the fresh-out-of-the-game perspective. Change had to happen and the guys who got to play for Tito got a nice foundation of what it’s like to be led well.

“Vogter has the same type of presence and same expectation.”