When it was over, and the sea of red had begun to disperse, revealing the undertow of green plastic seats, a few hundred fans remained near the home dugout, standing, applauding.
This American League Wild Card game against the Tampa Bay Rays did not go to plan Wednesday night. The Indians didn’t exactly love the matchup with Alex Cobb and his confounding curve and changeup to begin with, and Cobb did not exactly do anything to make them feel better about it as the game went along. The Indians stranded nine runners, got an 0-fer evening from the likes of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera and asked more than was reasonable out of young Danny Salazar and his fascinating fastball.
And so they lost, 4-0, here at Progressive Field, ending their storybook season and tossing the “Terry Francona returns to Boston” script into the trash.
“This sting,” Swisher said, “is going to be there for a while. But after the sting goes away, we’ve got to look at the big picture of what we gave this city.”
That’s why some small but meaningful percentage of the city stood there in the aftermath, expressing appreciation for the mere opportunity to watch something worthwhile, to congregate and call up memories of October days gone by.
This particular October entry was short but memorable, spurred as it was by a September spurt that nobody could have reasonably seen coming. And the Indians, by and large, were equal parts optimistic and realistic about their chances of extending that September stretch into another month and a more substantial setting. It’s a whimsical game, after all, especially in October and especially in this one-and-done arrangement.
So your disappointment with the result could only rest in direct proportion to your understanding that the Indians had already clinched a wildly successful season.
“We’re excited,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “We’re excited for what we’re building. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t expect us to do this good. We didn’t come out with the win today, but that doesn’t mean we should hang our head. We need to look at the future.”
Now, the temptation is to say that this was only the beginning for the Indians. As long as Chris Antonetti isn’t going anywhere, neither is Francona. Core piecaces Justin Masterson, Carlos Santana, Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Gomes and — maybe most importantly — Salazar will all be back next year, as will key bench cogs Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn. Swisher and Bourn are signed through 2016.
But we were saying similar things in the wake of the loss to Francona’s Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2007 ALCS. Back then, you couldn’t have imagined the core of CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner would be one-and-done when it came to postseason berths. The thought would have been especially difficult to comprehend had you known Cliff Lee was about to become a 22-game winner.
Baseball assails assumptions, so let’s not make the mistake of making them.
Understand, though, that Francona has made Cleveland a much more attractive destination to outsiders, and you wonder what reverberations that might continue to cause. Even with Brett Myers, Mark Reynolds and, likely, Chris Perez off the books, the budget is made tricky by the rising salaries of Swisher and Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera, not to mention the pending free agency of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. The Indians will have to be creative. They will always have to be creative. But the remarkable way they revamped a once-bumbling ballclub invites optimism about the state of their creative process.
At the risk of reading too much into a single result, this game might have illustrated what was evident in various stretches this season: The Indians need another bat. It doesn’t have to be a premier bat, but another professional one capable of working counts and coming through in the clutch couldn’t hurt.
Better, though, to be entering the offseason in search of augmentation than to enter it in search of an identity. The Indians have an identity now, and that’s made all the difference.
“I feel like we’re a family,” Santana said in the aftermath of this loss, and this was coming from a guy who basically lost his job this season, banished to DH duties at the age of 27.
Francona handled Santana’s situation the way he handles every situation — with grace and calm and charm and an honesty that earns loyalty. Up and down the roster, guys bought into those qualities this season, and the Indians, not too coincidentally, turned out to be one of those lovable overachievers.
Next year will be trickier. It’s inherently more difficult when more is expected of you. But the culture and camaraderie that was created here will have a lingering effect.
“I want them to remember how much me and the staff care about them,” Francona said. “It was an honor to go through the season with them. That’s what I’ll remember more than anything.”
With any luck, the fans will remember, too. Hopefully they’ll remember what this felt and looked like long after they’ve come to terms with the final score.
The Cleveland community was everything you’d want and everything you’d expect in this setting: vociferous, vigorous, zealous, a tad nauseous in the tense moments.
More than anything, they were present.
“The game’s over,” Swisher said, “and I’ve still got goosebumps thinking about it.”
This was the same fan base ripped all summer for not adequately supporting a winning team. There was skepticism built into that base, but this club kept chipping away at it until it crumbled. And the Wild Card game revealed the beating heart that was waiting beneath.
“My first reaction is that it almost upsets me,” Kipnis said, “because I wish I could play in front of a crowd like this every single night. But it’s a long season. You knew if we made the playoffs, Cleveland would rally behind us and come out. You tip the cap to them. They came out, they were loud, they were amped up.”
Indeed, in shirts of red and towels of white, they painted a beautiful backdrop to a ballgame that frayed their nerves and sharpened their baseball senses, which, frankly, had been dulled in recent seasons by the devastation of departed Cy Young winners and losing baseball.
That’s the grand takeaway here. The whole “Tribe Town” thing morphed from a marketing slogan to something substantial. And even if it was just for a month or a week or a single night, it was real, and it mattered.
It mattered enough that, even in defeat, the Indians had finally given their fans something to applaud.