The crowd was silent, talking quietly as slowly filed out of Jacobs Field. We had begun this series with high hopes of making the playoffs, and perhaps the World Series. When we left those hopes had been dashed.
I am a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians. When I was born the Indians were two years out of a World Series spoiled by Willie Mays' great catch. They had four, count'em, four Hall of Fame pitchers on the same staff headed by the great Bob Feller. They had Larry Doby and the Indians were one of the most feared franchises in baseball. By the time I was old enough to follow the game all of that was gone thrown away by a general manager Frank Lane. Lane traded people compulsively and was so despised that two relatives and a representative from Major League Baseball were the only people who attended his funeral.
When I was a boy to be an Indians fan taught me to be grateful for small things. Every year brought new hope, a new team and perhaps the chance that this year we would beat .500, and win more games than we lost.
There were so many disappointments. "Sudden Sam" McDowell had a Hall of Fame arm but had his career brought down by alcoholism. Today his life work has become helping players beat addiction. Tony Horton was a tall, strong first basemen who tried so hard to help the Indians win that he had to walk away from the game after a nervous breakdown. . We signed Wayne Garland as a free agent and he promptly destroyed his rotator cuff. Joe Charbonneau was named the American League Rookie of the Year. The next year back problems cut short his career. In the late 1980's the Indians were picked to win the American League East, and had three players featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They self-destructed and finished last. A big blow came when someone figured out that one of the above mentioned players, Corey Snyder couldn't hit an outside curveball. For his part, Corey refused coaching. His style had worked in the past and wold work in the future. He refused to accept that life in the majors is all about the ruthless exploitation of a hitter's weaknesses. Baseball is a game of constant adaptation.
The cruelest blow of all came at an all-start game when a TV reporter asked slugger Andre Thornton "How does it feel for a mediocre player like you to be at the All-Star Game." Thorton was and always will be a gentleman to the core. He said it was a great honor.. What he should have said that he was surprised to hear that 25 home runs and 67 RBI at the All-Star break would make him mediocre. Particularly when he had been pitched around more than any man in baseball, as the Indians had no one to hit behind him.
But in the 90’s Indians baseball underwent a renaissance. People talk about the impact of Jacobs Field, one of the finest facilities in sports, but the real difference was that GM John Hart chose to rebuild the Indians from the ground up. The previous decades had been spent struggling to keep the frnachise running and the farm system had been a joke. When Dick Jacobs bought the team that ended. The scouting system was fortified, as was the minor leagues. A few veterans were signed to lead the kids. By 1995 the Cleveland lineup might very well have been the most dangerous in the history of baseball, The Indians annihilated people in the regular season. Drew Carey did his stand-up routine in an Indians jersey and began with the line, "This year your team sucks!” In 1997 one miffed grounder kept Cleveland from wining its first World Series Title in 50 years.
Things had not been so good lately. The farm system was depleted as prospects were traded for veterans to fortify the playoff chases. Those veterans were getting old, and many of the rookies became free agents. Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez all went away. Cleveland is not a major media center, and thus cannot spend the money of an Atlanta, Boston or New York. Bartolo Colon was traded because they could get something for him as his price would go beyond affordable.
And for a couple years the Indians once again sucked. But the scouts were happy. The farm system had been rebuilt under new GM Mark Shapiro. The system was loaded with prospects as the scouts were good. They told us, be patient, the future is bright.
In 2004 the Tribe briefly threatened and then faded. In 2005 they were picked to finish fourthish by most prognosticators. In June we thought even that was too optimistic.
But something strange happened. Big country boy Travis Hafner has turned into one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. Grady Sizemore was the throw-in from the Bartolo Colon deal. Grady suddenly blossomed into a premiere center-fielder combining power, hitting, speed, defense and a level of hustle even Pete Rose might respect. More importantly, the pitching developed. Where the 1995 team annihilated average major league pitching, this team got great hitters out. In the playoffs, pitching matters more than hitting. Five fine starters and the best bullpen in baseball meant the Indians didn’t have to pummel people. This team was in every game. The Indians went on a late season tear that almost gave them the greatest comeback in the history of major league baseball.
I feared this would happen. To be an Indians fan is to know disappointment, even to expect it. But the fact that they came so close is reason to rejoice. The just put it together a bit too late, and they were due for a late season mini-slump. Had this young team jelled a few weeks earlier than this last series would have been irrelevant, nothing more than a tune up for the playoffs. All with a team whose payroll is less than a quarter that of the Yankees.
So this year the Indians will not be in the playoffs. But I wouldn’t bet against them in 2006.. With these arms they might be able to do what the great hitters of 1995 could not and bring home the championship.
So to Grady, Ronnie, Travis, Bob, and all the other guys I say this: You guys are all right. You are MY team. And if you stay together you will bring the championship home to Ohio.
I can also promise this. No one will begin 2006 dissing the Indians. Odds are that next year your team will be the one that sucks.
Source: Terry Pluto, The Curse of Rocky Colavito