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An Indian summer at the Jake

September 09, 2007|Bill Shaikin | SUNDAY REPORT

Baseball teams deliver this pitch from coast to coast: Build us a new downtown ballpark, and revitalize your downtown! Sellout crowds! Restaurants, shops and clubs springing to life nearby!

In Cleveland, it actually worked that way.

The Indians did not just move into Jacobs Field and start cashing in on luxury boxes. They delivered the team to make their pitch come true. Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Carlos Baerga. . . . How many runs would you like us to score tonight?

The Indians sold out 455 consecutive games, starting in 1995, a major league record that coincided with a run of six playoff appearances in seven years -- after 41 years without one.

"You had a zoo-like atmosphere for every game," said Brian Anderson, a former Angel who pitched for Cleveland in 1995-96. "You knew it was going to be rowdy."

"Louder than Yankee Stadium," said outfielder Trot Nixon, who visited with the Boston Red Sox.

"To play anywhere else was nothing like Cleveland," said outfielder Kenny Lofton.

He should know. He played in Cleveland in the glory days. He also has played in Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, L.A. and Texas.

And now he's back in Cleveland, at 40, old enough to have played in cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium in front of 70,000 empty seats, old enough to see the end of two great Indians playoff droughts.

If the Indians hang on to their comfortable lead in the American League Central, they'll be back in the playoffs, for the first time in six years. You wouldn't have guessed that, not based on their dismal record on the field last summer and off the field last winter.

In 2005, they won 93 games, staying in playoff contention until the final day of the season. In 2006, they won 78.

But General Manager Mark Shapiro looked beyond the record and decided to stay with the young core, not demolish it. The Indians fell as far as 28 games out of first place, but they rebounded to win 31 of their last 51 games.

"Everybody was picking us to win," ace pitcher C.C. Sabathia said. "We came in and got big-headed and just thought we could show up and win. We got a rude awakening."

Even in an underachieving summer, the Indians ranked second in the league in runs, third in earned-run average among starting pitchers. They also blew half their save opportunities and ranked next-to-last in errors.

"Two components of our team failed at huge levels," Shapiro said.

So he signed four relievers -- Keith Foulke, Roberto Hernandez, Joe Borowski and Aaron Fultz -- as well as Nixon and fellow outfielder David Dellucci. He traded for second baseman Josh Barfield and put pitcher Jeremy Guthrie on waivers.

That was not a Branch Rickey type of winter. The Baltimore Orioles claimed Guthrie, and he emerged as a star. Foulke, the intended closer, retired on the first day of spring training. Hernandez was a bust, released in June. Dellucci, Nixon and Barfield are on the bench.

But Borowski, who emerged as the closer, leads the league with 40 saves, even with a 5.50 ERA. The Indians have converted 78% of their save opportunities, with Rafael Betancourt (1.59) and rookie Rafael Perez (1.54) earning setup roles.

The starters lead the league in innings pitched, with Sabathia and Fausto Carmona among the top 10 in ERA while combining for 32 wins. The Indians have not had two pitchers rank in the top 10 in ERA since 2000, when Bartolo Colon and Chuck Finley did it.

Franklin Gutierrez, obtained from the Dodgers for Milton Bradley, pushed Nixon out of right field. Asdrubal Cabrera, acquired from the Seattle Mariners for Eduardo Perez, shoved Barfield aside at second base.

The trades hint at Shapiro's savvy in assembling youth and depth. Cleveland is a small market, so A-Rod won't be signing there. The Indians signed Carmona, Perez, catcher Victor Martinez and shortstop Jhonny Peralta from Latin America. But you'd figure the Indians would build primarily through the draft, because you hear teams don't trade prospects anymore.

Shapiro gets them anyway, sometimes very early in their minor league careers, sometimes for veterans when the Indians fade. The Texas Rangers needed a catcher in 2002, so Shapiro sent them Einar Diaz for Travis Hafner, who blossomed as a designated hitter.

The Indians waved the white flag that year, trading Colon for outfielder Grady Sizemore, their leadoff hitter and matinee idol. They waved in 2000 too, trading David Justice for starting pitcher Jake Westbrook.

"You have to look at every opportunity to acquire talent and take advantage," Shapiro said. "The way we've done it at some junctures has been more painful than some big-market teams would tolerate."

With no key free agents this winter, the Indians could prosper in October and beyond.

The crowds have yet to return. Perhaps they never will.

When Justice played in Cleveland, the NFL did not. Now the Browns are back, and LeBron James plays basketball across the street from Jacobs Field.

Anderson, who grew up in the Cleveland area and still lives there, called the Jacobs Field excitement of the mid-'90s "a perfect storm" for the Indians -- no football in a football town, bad basketball, new ballpark, downtown revival and championship baseball for the first time in two generations.

"It was everything to Cleveland back then," he said. "You could not have put all the ingredients together for a more perfect dish."

The Indians are simmering. The playoffs, at least, will be a hot ticket.

"If they make it to October," Anderson said, "everybody will be coming out of the woodwork."


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