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On Shore of Lake Erie, Indian Fans Hope This Is Year of Big Uprising

March 08, 1987|United Press International

CLEVELAND — For most of the past 30 years, Cleveland Stadium has held echoes of past glory rather than cheers for ongoing success.

The stadium, which opened in 1933 and became the Indians' permanent home in 1947, seats 74,208. The 1948 World Series-winning campaign drew a club record 2,620,627 fans, highlighting 10 straight years of 1 million-plus attendance from 1946-55.

But the turnstiles grew silent and eventually rusty after 1,497,976 passed through in 1959. Eight times attendance fell below 700,000 and the million mark was barely reached four times--in 1974, 1979, 1980 and 1982--until the resurgence last year.

The Indians' fortunes hit rock bottom in 1985 as 102 losses matched a team record for futility set in 1914, and only 655,181 stragglers were interested in what Manager Pat Corrales readily admits was "poor baseball."

"It's the bottom line," he said. "Nobody is going to spend their paycheck on lousy baseball when people still remember how the Bob Fellers, the Early Wynns, the Lou Boudreaus were winners. Promotions help, but good baseball sells better than Cap Day.

"For a long time, people thought we were the patsies of the division. Not only the fans, but also opponents."

Except for last year, that is. Unusually steady pitching backed reliable hitting, and the resulting 84-78 record--the best in 18 years--attracted 1,471,977 to the ballpark on the shores of Lake Erie.

In 1987, continued success may well see the Indians become a serious threat both to the rest of the American League East and, though it is a long shot, to the major league season attendance record as well.

"Two million is realistic," says outgoing team president Peter Bavasi. "And who knows, the team is really potent. We may even attain numbers undreamed of in Cleveland five years ago."

The 1982 California Angels drew a American League-best 2,807,360 while the Los Angeles Dodgers, the perennial attendance leader, set the major league record of 3,608,881 the same year.

Los Angeles played before 3,023,208 last season, the fifth straight year the 3 million plateau was reached in 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium.

Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda has a few insights to share with Cleveland.

Speaking at a sports banquet in Youngstown, Ohio, Lasorda said the Indians "have all the ingredients necessary to fill the stands."

"The Dodgers are blessed with a lot of appeal because we have a history, a tradition of playing good baseball," said Lasorda. "Playing before big crowds is a stimulant, no doubt.

"Cleveland has the big ballpark and a team that's getting better. Having new, local ownership (Westlake, Ohio, developers Richard and David Jacobs) means stability."

One of the keys to Cleveland's success is Joe Carter, who led the major leagues with 121 RBIs last year and spearheads a lineup that includes home-run threats Cory Snyder, Brook Jacoby and Andre Thornton.

"There's no question we can hit," says Carter, who is making the shift from the outfield to first base. "We led the league in hitting (.284), runs (831) and RBIs (775).

"And I think we did well during the winter to pick up pitching."

Cleveland signed free agents Dennis Lamp and Ed Vande Berg, both of whom will be used in the bullpen, and added free agent veteran catcher Rick Dempsey.

"He's a take-charge guy who will guide our pitchers," says General Manager Joe Klein. "Pitching-wise, I think you'll see significant improvement."

As a result, Carter admits to a fantasy of his--the contending Indians hosting the likes of Boston or Toronto for a four-game weekend series before a full house.

"I've been giving a lot of speeches this offseason," he says. "I tell people that we can pack in 240,000, maybe 250,000 people for four games.

"A year ago, people would have laughed at that. They would've said, 'That Joe Carter tells good jokes.' But now, the Cleveland Indians aren't funny any more. We've earned respect, and our fans are believing in us again."

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