I believe in the Indians.
I believe that what’s happening these last few weeks — the wins in 18 of their last 22, the plus-54 run differential in that span, the relentless pursuit of runs even against Cy-caliber arms and the opportunistic approach to the late innings — is more omen than mirage.
I believe that this is a deeper, more balanced, more complex club than the ones that faded — and faded thoroughly — in 2011 and ’12.
I believe that while a manager’s in-game effect is often overstated, the best ones know how to instill a culture of camaraderie and confidence, and that’s what Terry Francona has done here.
I believe Francona when he praises the job first-year pitching coach Mickey Calloway has done with the pitching staff, which is exceeding all expectations.
I don’t believe that the rotation will sustain a 3.24 ERA (which is what it has posted in this 22-game stretch) over the long haul, but I do believe that it doesn’t necessarily have to.
I believe a versatile lineup with a deep bench, an array of switch-hitters and a ton of speed and power is dangerous enough that you need only an average assemblage of starting arms to survive.
I believe that, one way or another, the Indians can patch together at least an average rotation, particularly with the way Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister have looked from Day 1 and the way Ubaldo Jimenez has been pitching lately.
I believe bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. when he says this team has that “’95 style. You just come to the ballpark expecting to win and never say die.”
I also believe Alomar when he compares this club to ones of recent past and says, “We have more depth. When you give guys a rest, you’re not losing anything. That’s the big difference between the past and now. You’ve got guys with track records — like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and Jason Giambi — who have been in winning situations before and can help the young guys stay on the path and keep from collapsing.”
I believe that feeling rubs off on guys like Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes and helps them make the most of their limited playing time.
I believe the Indians are not one injury away from a complete collapse at any given moment, as they were in ’11 and ’12.
I believe that if the Indians are still in the hunt come July, general manager Chris Antonetti will try to be as creative and aggressive in the summer trade market as he was in the winter one.
I believe his aggressiveness and creativity won’t have to be quite as desperate as it was in ’11, when he sold the farm for Ubaldo.
I believe that there won’t be many days like Monday, when Vinnie Pestano, Chris Perez and Joe Smith each served up a late-inning home run.
I believe that the Indians were awfully lucky to win a game in which Pestano, Perez and Smith each served up a late-inning home run.
I believe it’s better to be lucky than good.
I believe the Indians are both.
I believe the AL Central is more interesting than expected.
I believe the Tigers’ bullpen is making it more interesting than expected.
I believe the next two days, when the Indians face the Tigers’ Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in succession, will tell us quite a bit about the current state of both clubs.
I believe we’ll probably read too much into the results.
I believe it’s also kind of fun to read too much into the results.
I believe that it’s the eighth week of a six-month baseball season, so my beliefs are very much subject to change.
I believe that, in Cleveland especially, some part of you is always waiting for the catch, the drawback, the booby trap.
But I believe that it’s hard to watch a team win 18 of 22, sometimes in the wildest of ways, and not believe.
The Indians have been a contending team at this late (and by late, I of course mean … not at all late) juncture of the season schedule for three consecutive years. They have established a tradition of early season excellence. Or at least competence, which, even when followed by second-half heartbreak, at least beats the alternative option of an all-uphill effort in which you truly feel each and every step of the 162-game schedule.
Now, contention means different things at different times. A year ago at this time, the Indians were in first place in the AL Central, but you still had to talk yourself into believing it. Their standing was a product more of their surroundings than their own success. Their top two starters (Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez) had ERAs north of 5.00, their best hitter (Shin-Soo Choo) wasn’t hitting, their stopper (Derek Lowe) was striking out nobody and Jose Lopez, Aaron Cunningham, Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon — none of whom are even in the Majors now — were getting plenty of playing time.
That Tribe team was still in “contention” — by the loosest definition of the word — in late July, but not enough to compel Chris Antonetti to add anything more than Brent Lillibridge (no, he’s not in the Majors now, either). When they won just five games in August, it felt more cognitively correct than when they won 16 in May.
I’d say 2011’s “contention” was more believable than ‘12, if only because of the mathematics involved. The Indians went 30-15 out the gate. I still can’t wrap my head around that. While the Tigers certainly had star power, they had not yet gone overboard in their pursuit of a monster middle-of-the-order and they had not yet assembled a resplendent rotation beyond Justin Verlander. It didn’t really seem a foregone conclusion, as it did in ’12, that the Tigers would wake up one day and begin dominating the division.
Besides, did I mention? 30-15! All suspicions that the Indians were “out over their skis,” as one scout told me at the time, were countered a little bit by the simple fact that the Indians had bought themselves some mathematical breathing room. It is, after all, hard to screw up being 15 games over .500 (and seven games up in the division) more than a quarter of the way through the schedule.
Naturally, they finished under .500.
All right, so here we are again. We’re basically at the quarter-pole of the season, and the Indians are contending. Through 39 games, they are 22-17, a half-game back of Detroit. More to the point, they’ve won 14 of their last 18 and are “undefeated” in their last nine series (five wins, four splits). They are, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi put it the other day, “a much different club” than they were even a month ago.
“They’re swinging the bats really, really well,” Girardi said. “There’s balance in their lineup, and there’s speed.”
The pitching has come a long way in a short time, too. If you watched Masterson shut down Girardi’s Yanks for nine innings Monday afternoon, what you saw was a bona fide ace effort on a day when the Indians had to preserve their bullpen. If you were the most pessimistic of people when it comes to Jimenez (and my hand is raised), even you had to be intrigued by the way he tamed the Tigers in a ballpark where he has traditionally had nothing but trouble. I remain skeptical about a guy who had to, in his own words, “erase everything,” shortly after a seven-week Spring Training camp, but not defiantly so. Furthermore, Zach McAllister continues to defy expectations based off his Minor League career, Scott Kazmir continues a strong comeback effort and Trevor Bauer seems to get a little bit better with each spot start. Where once I compared the Tribe’s rotation outlook to turnpike dining, they are now starting to resemble that dive off the side of the road that has surprisingly good burgers. Hey, that’s improvement.
Anyway, it’s the lineup, when it’s rolling, that makes this team inherently fun to watch. And while that lineup has provided enough power to push the Tribe to nine blowout wins, the most compelling stat is that the Indians have won 10 of their 13 one-run games. For that, you can thank the timely hitting, a defense that has been steady if not always showy and, of course, the continuing reliability of the relief corps, even though Vinnie Pestano has been missed.
How does all this compare to 2011? I have no freaking clue. I know the division is deeper now than it was then, thanks to the Tigers’ elite standing and the Royals’ revamped rotation. But I also know there’s a little bit more conviction in that Tribe clubhouse, given that it’s a more veteran club that can actually account for these early season accomplishments, to say nothing of the two-time World Series-winner at the top dugout step.
“Then [in ‘11], we were raking, and it was, at times, maybe playing a hair out of our shoes, if we were being honest and evaluating it correctly,” Masterson said. “This year, we have guys who are still not where they’d like to be and everybody’s not perfect every night. But the pitching is picking up the offense, the offense is picking up the pitching at times, the defense is helping everybody, and the bullpen’s as great as it’s always been. There’s a little bit more consistency, guys are more comfortable, and I like where we’re at and what we can do for the rest of the season.”
It’s a good sign that the offense has been as productive as it has (sixth in MLB in runs per game, fifth in on-base percentage, first in slugging percentage) despite Michael Bourn missing more than 60 percent of the games so far, Lonnie Chisenhall earning a demotion to Triple-A and Jason Kipnis starting rather slowly. The performance of the bench has been encouraging, and, among the regulars, the only guys who might be accused of playing out of their minds are Mark Reynolds and Carlos Santana. Reynolds won’t keep hitting a home run every 11 at-bats or so, and Santana won’t slug at a .600 clip. But Reynolds’ pure power is certainly not a novel development, and Santana strikes me as a breakout-player-in-waiting finally learning how to separate the offensive and defensive sides of his game.
Overall, the offense, it seems, still has more upside than downturn in its near future. And an offense this explosive can do quite a bit to overcome a merely average starting staff.
Again, though, I don’t know what this means. I don’t necessarily know that this team is any more equipped to handle 162 than the ’11 and ’12 teams were. I can certainly speculate that it is, based on that aforementioned managerial influence and the track records on the roster. But as this 2013 club began to come together over the winter, it became clear that it was going to be an especially difficult club to forecast.
The good news is that it’s a team that’s interesting and, in keeping with the Tribe’s newfound tradition of early season strength, in contention at the quarter-pole. The better news is that there is a decent degree of believability that this is not necessarily the peak.
Naturally, nothing I write in this space can compare to the captivating nature of the Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight story. Or frankly, to the entertaining nature of the now-viral interview with Charles Ramsey.
But if you’re up for a distraction from the biggest story in Cleveland — or anywhere — right now, let’s talk a little bit about the Indians, winners of seven of eight. It’s been a stretch worthy of a Ramsey-like thumbs up, and, in it, we’ve seen the “dead giveaway” as to what makes the Tribe offense click:
Mark Reynolds’ 460-foot home run Monday night landed just shy of the scoreboard that sits atop the left-field bleachers at Progressive Field — a prodigious poke lacking only the satisfying smack of advertising signage that accompanied a blast off Mark McGwire’s bat in these parts back in ’97.
Even in batting practice, you simply don’t see many baseballs hit in that area. But what you do see, thus far in this 2013 season, are plenty of balls leaving the yard when the Indians are at the plate.
They hit four of them in Monday’s series-opening victory over the A’s, and they’ve averaged 1.52 per game this season, more than any other team in the Majors.
“That’s a good category to lead,” Terry Francona said.
Indeed, hitting a home run every 23.05 at-bats, as the Indians are, stands out at a time when the Major League average is one per 32.64 at-bats.
But what also stands out about the Indians is the way that profound production has come not necessarily in a steady flow but in a series of flamboyant bursts.
“If you look at our games,” Reynolds said, “we’ve either been getting blown out or blowing people out.”
If we define a “blowout” as a game decided by five or more runs, as Baseball Reference does, then the Indians have been involved in 12 of them — seven wins and five losses — in 29 games played. It’s made for somewhat erratic work for the back-end relievers, and it’s also ensured that the Indians are either as entertaining and enticing an offense as exists in the game today or, well, a bit on the dull side, depending on when you happen to tune in. They’ve scored 7.8 runs per game in their wins and 2.29 runs per game in their losses.
It is difficult, then, to get a real sense of what kind of team the Indians are, especially when their prized leadoff pickup, Michael Bourn, has been limited to just 10 games played because of injury.
But if these outburst of offense are any indication of the Tribe’s capability as the weather warms, then this could be a club that outhits the deficiencies in a starting staff that, while showing improvement, has a 4.85 ERA on the season. That’s not a great equation, of course, but the Indians will take whatever works.
For now, the offense seems to work on a “boom or bust” cycle, though Francona doesn’t see it that way. What he sees, he said, is a team that is not totally reliant on the long ball.
“I think we have a team that has a lot of speed,” he said. “We swing and miss sometimes. I think we knew that [going into the season]. I think the last week or 10 days, we’ve done a really good job of extending innings, then taking advantage of it. We’ve been a little better situationally.”
You saw that, notably, last Friday, when Jason Kipnis caught the Twins off-guard with a perfect bunt single to the left side of the infield, scoring Yan Gomes from third. But when 41 percent of your games are decided by five runs or more (and more than half are decided by four or more), such situational skills don’t always shine through. The Indians’ offseason acquisitions brought them two things that were obvious in their absence last season — power and speed — but thus far only one of those elements has made many headlines.
“There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity for bags,” Reynolds said. “Once the sample sizes get bigger and we play in closer games, especially with Bourn back [possibly later this week], I think you’ll see the speed and the little things play out.”
In the meantime, the Indians survive largely on the big things, with Reynolds’ 460-footer (one of 10 homers he’s hit in what has been a sensational start) chief among them. And they survive with what has been a productive bench. With Bourn out, Ryan Raburn slid into starting duties and turned in the hottest stretch of anybody in baseball last week (13-for-22 with four homers, one double and nine RBI, earning Player of the Week honors), and Mike Aviles (.744 OPS in 56 plate appearances) and Jason Giambi (.821 OPS in 36 plate appearances) have also made positive contributions in limited time.
“That’s how your team starts to get personality and form its identity,” Francona said. “We’ve used everybody on our ballclub.”
The Indians have largely hovered around .500, and that might wind up being the identity of a team with so much unproven on the pitching staff. Twelve of their 15 wins have come against teams that currently have a losing record. But we’ve said all along that if that starting staff can just be league average (and Ubaldo Jimenez’s last two starts have been a particularly encouraging step toward that direction), the Indians’ bats could make this an interesting season.
Thus far, the bats have done their damage in bunches, equal parts fascinating and frustrating, depending on the day. When they connect, they take this team a long way.
Up to 460 feet, in fact.
Spinning, I’ve come to learn in recent months, is a great way to expend a tremendous amount of energy while going absolutely nowhere. It is both exhilarating and defeating, offering all the physical benefits of performance cycling without any of the beautiful vistas or genuine sense of accomplishment in excursion.
That’s why it takes a good spinning instructor to motivate you through the 60-minute nightmare that is pumping your legs and sweating profusely in a small, poorly ventilated room in a suburban Cleveland gym. And while some instructors will try to get you to use your imagination — “We’re coming up on a big hill!” they’ll shout excitedly, while you ponder which hallucinatory drug they have recently ingested — the best know that the way to galvanize people in an exercise environment is to fill the air with tunes. Glorious, pump-up tunes.
Naturally, this is where it gets tricky. Because if we know one thing about the world today, it’s that our beliefs in politics, religious practices, social and moral standards and, most of all, music could not be more diverse, sometimes frustratingly so.
It is, then, with much chagrin that I report that my personal preference — a spinning class based solely on Springsteen (I would call it “Spinsteen”) — has not yet been met. The instructors whose classes I’ve attended tend to veer more toward the Top 40 or the ‘80s hair metal or the early ‘90s club songs. And that’s all right, I suppose. Although it must be noted that one woman did, fleetingly, inject a little Bruce into the proceedings. Somebody (not me, I swear) had requested a Springsteen song before class, and she obliged with the only such offering on her iPod.
The song? “Streets of Philadelphia,” Bruce’s haunting hymn about alienation and dispossession, written for “Philadelphia,” in which Tom Hanks plays a lawyer afflicted with AIDS.
Not what you’d call a pump-up tune.
Some do it better than others. And with that in mind, let’s see how the 2013 Cleveland Indians did in selecting their pump-up tunes, in our much-anticipated annual “at-bat music” installment of CastroTurf.
Tip of the cap, as always, to Annie Merovich, the Indians’ manager of scoreboard operations, for providing the list.
Michael Bourn: “We Still In This B&*@#” by B.o.B. featuring T.I. and Juicy J. (Favorite lyric: “Stop blowing my buzz, quit killing it” reads like a comment on the Draft-pick compensation rules for free agents.)
Asdrubal Cabrera: “Limbo” by Daddy Yankee, “El Teke Teke” by Crazy Design, “No Me Corra Cantinero” by Vitico Castillo, “Dime Que Hago” by Farruko. (Favorite “Limbo” lyric: “Y esto esta como como pa como pa como pa rumbear,” which loosely translates to, “Watch out for those dugout steps.”
Jason Kipnis: “Satisfaction” by Benny Benassi (RL Grime Remix). (Favorite lyric: “And then just touch me/’Til I can get my/Satisfaction.” That’s actually the only lyric, so I didn’t have much to choose from.)
Nick Swisher: “Who I Am (What’s My Name)” by Snoop Dogg. (NOTE: An all-time classic video. As for the song itself, not exactly similar to “Hang On Sloopy.”)
Michael Brantley: “Started From The Bottom” by Drake. (Favorite lyric: “I’ve done kept it real from the jump/Living at my mama’s house, we’d argue every month.” A tale as old as time.)
Carlos Santana: Something called “Gibberish” (I tried Googling it, and I have no idea), “Solo Sucede” by Gabriel Cazali.
Mark Reynolds: “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line with Nelly. (Favorite lyric: “She was sippin’ on Southern and singin’ Marshall Tucker/We were falling in love in the sweet heart of summer.” Another tale as old as time.)
Lonnie Chisenhall: “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.
Drew Stubbs: “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris, “Ima Boss” by Meek Mill featuring Rick Ross, “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons.
Mike Aviles: “Hit ‘Em Up” by Tyga.
Jason Giambi: “Wolfpack” by C-Murder. (Note: This is the theme song for the New World Order team in World Championship Wrestling, but I’m sure you already knew that, right?)
Lou Marson: “What I Got” by Sublime (Note: No more “Easy Lover” by Phil Collins, but this will do.)
Ryan Raburn: “Kiss My Country #@$” by Rhett Atkins, “Whistlin’ Dixie” by Randy Houser.
Justin Masterson: “Rebirth” by Skillet.
Ubaldo Jimenez: “Rie y Llora” by Celia Cruz. (Favorite lyric: “Lo que es bueno hoy/Quizas no lo sea mañana” or “What is good today/May not be tomorrow.” Amen, Ubaldo, amen.)
Zach McAllister: “Return of the Mack,” by Mark Morrison.
Brett Myers: “Answers To No One” by Colt Ford. (Favorite lyric: “A jealous man is weak, so think before you speak/If you love ‘em let ‘em know, if you hate let it go.” Boom. Outta here.)
Carlos Carrasco: “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. (Favorite lyrics: “Dreams of war/Dreams of lies/Dreams of dragons fire/And of pitches high and tight” … or something like that.)
Bryan Shaw: “Sail” by AWOLNATION.
Matt Albers: “Sleep Now In The Fire” by Rage Against the Machine.
Cody Allen: “Take It Outside” by Brantley Gilbert.
Joe Smith: “My Kinda Party” by Jason Aldean.
Chris Perez: “Firestarter” by Prodigy.
Vinnie Pestano: “Walk” by Pantera. (Note: If you thought “Firestarter” was a strange choice for a closer, then what do you make of “Walk” for a setup man?)
We’ve spent the last few months talking about how interesting these 2013 Indians would be.
Well, they’re interesting, all right.
In what was supposed to be the ninth game of the season, the Indians were set to use their seventh starting pitcher (Corey Kluber: No. 7 in your depth chart, No. 1 in your heart). That would have put the Indians on pace to use 126 starting pitchers this season (which would of course be a record… but let’s not read too much into that, because I’m sure they won’t actually use more than 100).
Anyway, rain intervened to momentarily pause the merry-go-round, and now it’s Zach McAllister getting the nod in Game No. 9. So… six starters in nine days. That already sounds better, doesn’t it?
Of course, the fun doesn’t stop there. The Tribe has also already promoted two catchers — on the same day, no less. It’s not often you get to see the backup backup backup backstop suited up in early April, so cherish this memory.
You might not be stunned to learn Chris Antonetti hasn’t exactly cherished all the early transaction activity.
“Once the games start, a number of different things can happen,” Antonetti said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation — in my experience or Terry’s experience — where you lose two catchers in a span of five days. Obviously, it puts a strain on your roster. There are a number of different things we have to work through.”
The Indians tried to creatively work around Carlos Carrasco’s five-game suspension by having him on the active roster at the outset of the season. They didn’t imagine they’d need both Carrasco and Trevor Bauer in the first week and a half, and they definitely didn’t imagine Carrasco would cause another ruckus with a post-homer hit-by-pitch that may or may not earn him yet another suspension (a suspension that would have to be served whenever he makes it back to the big leagues, as Carrasco was already bumped back to Columbus on Wednesday).
Meanwhile, Scott Kazmir is slowly working his way back from an oblique injury and Brett Myers has already given up seven home runs in 10 1/3 innings and Ubaldo Jimenez had a homely home opener and Lou Marson got steamrolled by Desmond Jennings and Carlos Santana’s hot start was stalled by his inability to catch a Chris Perez pitch and Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall aren’t really hitting yet and… geez… by this point in this paragraph the Tribe’s 3-5 record really doesn’t look so bad, all things considered.
On the bright side, we’ve seen Justin Masterson circa 2011 thus far, while Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds have arrived as advertised. They’ve had a calming effect amid the chaos.
Actually, Francona — the first to admit, in his words, “If I don’t think positively, who the heck is?” — doesn’t really feel it’s been quite as chaotic as it seems.
“The reason we’re doing these [transactions] is to keep things in order,” he said. “The hope would be things settle down and we go play baseball and see how good we can get. But sometimes you make moves just to keep things in order.”
Some teams thrive on stability, while others develop their identity in the midst of motion. The Orioles, en route to a Wild Card berth, used 52 players and made 178 roster moves last season. They were one of four postseason teams — the Yankees, A’s and Nationals being the others — to lose more than 1,000 days to the disabled list.
So, sure, the Tribe can certainly survive and maybe even be bettered by this spurt of uncertainty.
But if the rotation was a concern going into the season, it is downright alarming right now. Tribe starters not named Masterson have a 6.02 ERA, and stability does not figure to be a strength of that staff. Clearly, that’s not the kind of “interesting” you want to be.
PS: I had the pleasure today of sitting in on a special meeting between Mariano Rivera and about 30 Indians staff members who work behind the scenes. Rivera just wanted to say thank you to the people who make Progressive Field churn. One of the classiest things I’ve seen in baseball, as I wrote here.
PPS: In case you missed these recent stories: On Nick Swisher and Travis Hafner and what they demonstrate about the directions of the Indians and Yankees; On Tito Francona’s return “home” for the home opener.
You can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Or so the old saying goes. But you really don’t know the players’ hopes, dreams, fears and quirks without a media guide. Or so the public relations departments would lead you to believe.
Media guides, both figuratively and quite literally, don’t carry quite the weight they once did, in this Internet-savvy era. But even an Internet writer such as myself can be a big believer in the printed word.
And so, with the excitement about the Cleveland Indians higher than it has been since… oh, I don’t know… since Andy Marte arrived… and with so many new names on the roster, let’s do as we did a couple years back and dip into “The Guide” to see what we can learn:
EXCRUCIATING MEDIA GUIDE MINUTIAE FOR 2013…
- I never realized Terry Francona, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, was actually born in Aberdeen, South Dakota, while his father was playing for the Aberdeen Pheasants, an Orioles affiliate. So to the extent that the Indians actually have a Dakota quota (and isn’t that fun to say?), they have filled it with Francona in the wake of Travis Hafner’s departure.
- The only photo of former Guide cover boy Grady Sizemore in this or any media guide this year comes in the “Indians History” section. God, that’s sad.
- Ubaldo Jimenez lists “America’s Funniest Home Videos” as his favorite TV show. I don’t know, man. It’s just not the same without Saget.
- Justin Masterson and Joe Smith share the same birthday (March 22) and so do Lonnie Chisenhall and Drew Stubbs (Oct. 4).
- Speaking of which, birthdays are also listed for Urban Meyer (July 10) and Thad Matta (July 11), only because Tribe PR man and unabashed Buckeye fan Bart Swain wanted to see if anybody was paying attention.
- Stubbs’ favorite movie is “The Sting,” starring Shaker Heights’ own Paul Newman.
- Sandy Alomar Jr. has a soon-to-be-25-year-old daughter, and now many of you reading this feel ancient, don’t you?
- Scott Kazmir is part-Czechoslovakian.
- New bullpen coach Kevin Cash played in the 1989 Little League World Series as a member of Tampa Northside.
- Triple-A starter Scott Barnes’ favorite athlete is Lou Marson. Hey, I don’t blame him. Marson sometimes uses Phil Collins’ “Easy Lover” as his at-bat music, so why shouldn’t he be somebody’s favorite athlete?
- Francona and third base coach Brad Mills were teammates on the Arizona Wildcats’ College World Series team in 1979.
- Mike Aviles’ uncle, Ramon Aviles, played parts of four seasons with Boston and Philadelphia from 1977-81.
- Well, we already knew Trevor Bauer is a little bit different from the norm, and this confirms it further: His favorite band is Amon Amarth. I’ve never heard of Amon Amarth, but the 100-percent reliable Wikipedia confirms that it is a “melodic death metal band from Tumba, Sweden, founded in 1992. It takes its name from the Sindarin name of Mount Doom, a volcano in J. R. R. Tolkien′s Middle-earth.” So… there’s that.
- Bauer, much like my wife, is also a big, big fan of Duke basketball. I wonder if Coach K listens to Amon Amarth…
- First base coach Mike Sarbaugh had a minor role as a Pirates shortstop in “Major League II,” which, if you remember from my 2011 Media Guide entry, was, strangely, Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez’s favorite movie.
- Cody Allen’s favorite TV show is “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which is fortunate for him. Because you literally cannot turn on the TV and flip through the channels without landing on an “Everybody Loves Raymond” episode at some point. Go ahead, try this right now. I’ll wait. … See? It was on TBS, wasn’t it?
- Oh, Allen also lists Eric Church as his favorite musician. That is, unfortunately, about the closest any player on this roster is going to come to listing Springsteen as their favorite artist. As a Springsteen fan, I appreciate Church spreading the gospel, as it were, with his big hit. I look forward to future songs in which he references more obscure tracks like “Reno” and “Car Wash.”
- Michael Brantley aka Dr. Smooth’s favorite TV show is “The Price Is Right,” which makes sense given that ballplayers typically sleep in until (at least) 11 a.m. and work nights. On an unrelated note, Brantley got married over the winter and his wife, Melissa, is already expecting the couple’s first child. Smooth moves, indeed.
- Carlos Carrasco likes “Titanic.” This will not go over well with the Man Card Committee (but as a guy who inexplicably has “Party In The U.S.A.” on his iPod, I’m in no position to judge).
- Bryan Shaw was asked to list his favorite group or artist, and he replied, “Everything.” This can’t possibly be, can it? I mean, I know there are people who don’t have specific preferences, but to say you like “everything” is to embrace some truly miserable musical experiences.
- Hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo had one home run in his 38 Major League at-bats — Aug. 16, 1993, off Bill Gullickson. The more you know…
- Matt Albers’ favorite movie is “The Big Lebowski.” The Dude abides.
- One of Brett Myers’ favorite athletes growing up was Roger Clemens. And you know how Clemens has four kids whose names begin with a “K”? Well, same with Myers – daughter Kylie and sons Kolt, Koda and Kace.
- Myers loves him some Skynyrd.
- Chris Perez’s middle name is Ralph, which is exactly what he did on the mound after one of his saves last year.
- Want some truly obscure trivia? In the last 10 years, just two rookies or sophomores have hit five home runs in the first eight games of the season. One is Miguel Cabrera (with the Marlins in ’04) and the other is Mark Reynolds (with the D-backs in ’08).
- Reynolds’ favorite musician? Colt Ford, a former member of the Nationwide professional golf tour who now operates in the oft-overlooked genre of “country rap.”
- Nick Swisher’s favorite movie is “For Love of the Game,” which I’ve never seen. I can only hope it is better than a certain other Kevin Costner baseball movie.
- I never knew Carlos Santana’s favorite team growing up was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Good thing I read “The Guide.”
PS: Did you read the Little Lake Nellie story? If not, here’s another chance.
PPS: Our MLB.com preview of the AL Central is here.
We watched Steve Olin on that old television set in my mother’s living room. It was 1989, and my brother and I were tuned into the Triple-A All-Star Game. Olin represented Colorado Springs and, therefore, represented the Indians. They were our team, so he was our guy. And when we saw that submarine delivery — the one in which Olin seemed to fling the ball from his shoelaces — we were instantly enamored with the strangeness of it all.
A few years later, when Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident on Little Lake Nellie, it was hard for me to wrap my 11-year-old mind around it. How could that guy from the screen, with so much life in his arm, playing a boy’s game, be gone so soon? How could a sport that was supposed to be a distraction from the trauma of life and loss now be an invitation to it?
As I got older and learned more about what Olin and Crews left behind — a grieving wife and three young children apiece — I gained a greater understanding of the gravity of the situation. And as the 20th anniversary of the accident drew closer, I felt a desire to catch up with those families and see what the last 20 years of their life have been like.
What I couldn’t have expected was how gracious with their time and how open with their thoughts Laurie Crews and Patti Olin and their families would be.
It was surreal to visit Laurie’s ranch and see the exact spot where the accident occurred. We were gathered there – Laurie and her three kids and I – when I asked if it would be all right to take a picture of them together. “Yeah,” Laurie said, “but let’s turn around and get the dock in the background. That’s what people want to see, anyway, right?.” That, I quickly learned, is the essence of Laurie — no filter, no fear, no phoniness. An amazing woman.
And Patti, though a polar opposite to Laurie’s personality, is equally amazing and inspiring. We spoke for hours on end while I was reporting the story, and it was a joy to get to meet her in person at a Cactus League game last week. “You’re like Oprah, Anthony,” she had said to me between tears during the interview process. And maybe, with those probing personal questions, I was summoning my inner Winfrey. Except I was crying, too.
Anyway, the end result is a story that is very special to me and, I hope, to the Crews and Olin families. If you have some time, I hope you’ll give it a read and think good thoughts for those families during this gut-wrenching anniversary.
I’ve spent the better part of the last month or so traveling around the various camps in Arizona and Florida, and it dawned on me while sitting at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale the other day that I have now been to every Spring Training stadium in Major League Baseball. I don’t know what this means, exactly, but I suspect it is something along the lines of what it means to be, to borrow some “Spaceballs” parlance, your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. Which is to say it means absolutely nothing.
But somebody on Twitter asked me to rank my Top 3, and I’m going to take it to the next level. Let’s just rank them all.
23. HoHoKam Stadium (Cubs): I actually have nothing against HoHoKam personally. But the Cubs are abandoning this place after this year. And if you’re not good enough for the Cubs, who play their regular season games in a 99-year-old building with a cramped clubhouse and a rat or three roaming around the batting cages, well, what can I tell you?
22. Tradition Field (Mets): First went to this park when I was like 14, and it hasn’t changed much in the time since. It has a tradition of blahness.
21. Florida Auto Exchange Stadium (Blue Jays): This place is also just… whatever. And it always seems to be 20 degrees colder than everywhere else.
20. Hammond Stadium (Twins): Another whatever. Looks nice from the outside, though.
19. Camelback Ranch (White Sox/Dodgers): Totally state-of-the-art, of course, and I like the desert motif. But this place is rightly criticized for the lack of shade. And the Dodgers ditched the quintessential Spring Training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., to head here so there’s some sentimental docking of points on my not-at-all-scientific system.
18. Space Coast Stadium (Nationals): I always want to call it Space Ghost Stadium. I totally get the Nats’ complaints about their setup and their distance from the other Florida teams. As far as fan experience is concerned, Space Coast is certainly serviceable.
17. Champion Stadium (Braves): This is a very nice building and all. On its own, no complaints. But I just can’t get behind the whole Disney World experience. I feel a little bit more broke just talking about it.
16. City of Peoria Sports Complex (Padres/Mariners): I’ve been here. Multiple times. And to be honest, it left absolutely no lasting memory with me. I just had to do a Google image search to even remember what it looks like. Nice enough.
15. Surprise Stadium (Royals/Rangers): Open concourses down the lines, plenty of shade. No unpleasant surprises here.
14. Osceola County Stadium (Astros): Pretty generic, overall. But it’s small and cozy, the way you want your Spring Training experience to be.
13. Charlotte Sports Park (Rays): Lots of standing room and picnic areas and good sightlines. Solid spot.
12. Tempe Diablo Stadium (Angels): The only spring stadium I can think of that has a line of cabs waiting outside at all times, because the parking situation is rough. Overall, though, nice place, beautiful backdrop.
11. Maryvale Baseball Park (Brewers): I generally tend to gravitate toward the old-school places, and I like Maryvale. Definitely in need of some upgrades and not in the best area, but it’s a charming place.
10. Roger Dean Stadium (Cardinals/Marlins): One of the better Florida parks, situated in a nice little neighborhood in the great city of Jupiter. It’s just a shame it’ll probably get abandoned if and when the Nats, Mets, Marlins and Cards find a way to get closer to the other Florida clubs.
9. Phoenix Municipal Stadium (A’s): Maybe I’m crazy, but I love this place. Great access and sightlines, great mountain backdrop. But the A’s are going to ditch it because they want an improved clubhouse and scoreboard system. So they’re going to go to HoHoKam, which will get some upgrades, in 2015. Oh well.
8. Ed Smith Stadium (Orioles): Barely recognized this place from my Reds beat days when city of Sarasota remodeled it for the O’s. They did it right. What once was a soulless mass of concrete is now a stunning spot with a wide concourse, plenty of shade and crabcake sandwiches. Love it.
7. JetBlue Park (Red Sox): The fan access on the back fields is surprisingly great, and the stadium is a magnificently modern recreation of Fenway Park.
6. Joker Marchant Stadium (Tigers): This place marries today’s needs with old-school Spring Training charm as well or better than any other. It embraces the military motif associated with the former Army pilot training ground.
5. Goodyear Ballpark (Indians/Reds): The Big Chipotle, as I call it, might have stolen some design elements from the burrito chain, but the in-ground ballpark is a beauty, and the Wiffle Ball field for kids is a big plus. Bonus points for the Jamba Juice concession. Only downside is that it’s separated from the Reds’ and Indians’ facilities because of a “ballpark village” concept that, to date, has resulted only in a big, empty patch of dirt.
4. Bright House Field (Phillies): It’s got a tiki bar and Hooters girls working as ball girls, so you’re not going to find many red-blooded American males complaining about their experience at Bright House Field.
3. Scottsdale Stadium (Giants): Location, location, location. Right in Old Town Scottsdale and a jewel of spot. Only downside, I suppose, is the difficulty of getting a ticket.
2. McKechnie Field (Pirates): This is really the last of the old, old ballparks. I know it had some renovations done before this spring season, so I haven’t seen it in its current concoction. But it’s been my experience that McKechnie Field brings you back to that vibe of how Spring Training used to be.
1. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (D-backs/Rockies): A palace of preparation. Every element is state-of-the-art. They’ve even got free suntan lotion in the concourse. Not as big a fan of the parking spots specifically reserved for “low-emitting or fuel efficient vehicles only,” as they discriminate against those of us who don’t have the budget to shell out $26K for a freaking Prius, but whatever. The Talking Stick walks the walk.
All right, for the first time in a long time, with my stay in Arizona coming to a close, let’s get into the nitty gritty about the Tribe.
EXCRUCIATING MINUTIAE OF SPRING TRAINING CAMP…
- Let’s just begin with the one of the most surprising developments of this or any camp — Scott Kazmir is very likely going to come away with a rotation job. It’s one of those great Spring Training stories. “I’m hopeful,” Chris Antonetti said, “it’s a great 2013 story, not a great Spring Training story.” The fifth spot is still being decided between Kazmir and Carlos Carrasco, who was effortlessly dominant against the Giants in his last start (five innings, two hits, one run, no walks, five strikeouts, 55 pitches). But Carrasco can be optioned out and stands to benefit from a little Triple-A seasoning after missing all of 2012 following Tommy John. Kazmir, whose Minor League start was watched by front-office staff and ownership alike Sunday, likely has the job.
- The biggest question – among many – with Kazmir is how he’ll hold up over the grind of a season as he accumulates innings. He pitched just 70 innings last season, after all. “That was the idea watching him all spring,” Francona said. “When he came in, he was about midseason form. To his credit, he had worked really hard to do that. Then you’re like, ‘OK, can he hold this and build?’ I know it’s only Spring Training, but to this point, his stuff has held every time out, so that’s really encouraging.”
- Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here, but if Kazmir is still in the rotation in the second half, don’t expect any restrictions on his innings. “In a lot of cases when we limit guys, we know they’re going to be here for multiple years,” Antonetti said. “With a guy like Scott, who’s a free agent, it’s a very different set of circumstances. I don’t expect that we’ll have significant restrictions on him.” In other words, they’ll eke out every last out from that arm, if they can.
- Lord only knows what to make of this rotation, which I’ve compared to truck stop dining on the turnpike. The Indians feel Justin Masterson has done a fine job focusing on pounding the zone and keeping the ball down, and they feel he’s embraced the No. 1 starter mentality. But Masterson had trouble avoiding the big inning last year, and that was the case in his start against the Reds on Sunday, when he was hit hard in the first. Masterson feels his travails last year really came down to just a handful of bad innings. “I had seven games that were really bad, and it made everything look bad,” he said. “Within those games, it was just one inning.” All the innings count, of course. “It’s good that Justin has taken some time to reflect back on things and think about adjustments he needs to make,” Antonetti said. “But I don’t want to read too much into it.”
- What should we read into Ubaldo Jimenez’s improved command in camp? Well, for one thing, we must acknowledge that it comes with a compromise, as his velocity is simply not what it was in his Rockies heyday. Jimenez seems more willing to accept that compromise. “We don’t want him just to throw BP fastballs over the plate, because that’s not the goal either,” Antonetti said. “But for him, it gets back to the goal of him having a consistent, repeatable delivery. If he can do that, the stuff and strike-throwing will still be there.”
- Speaking of Ubaldo, I watched Drew Pomeranz pitch the other day, and suffice to say the Rockies are still waiting for all that potential to turn into reality, too. Pomeranz tweaked his mechanics this spring and is getting his fastball into the low 90s again. But he’s still not quite as consistent with his command as he’d like to be, and there’s still no telling if his stuff — reliant as it is on the curve — will play very well in Coors Field. The mechanical improvement was a big one, though, in building the kid’s confidence. “I’m not feeling lost like I did last year at times,” he said. “I think in years past I’ve been good at making pitches when I need to in tough spots. But if you’re not confident in the way you’re feeling or your mechanics, it’s hard to do that. This year, I feel like I can catch my breath and lock in and make a pitch.” Still no telling who “won” that trade.
- The Tribe isn’t sweating Brett Myers’ unsightly spring stat line (12 runs on 19 hits in 12 2/3 innings). “He’s shown the arm strength we expected,” Antonetti said. “We’ve seen secondary stuff with his breaking ball. He’s just had trouble… one of his challenges has been strike-throwing. He’s walked a lot of guys, which is atypical for Brett. But we’re confident he’ll be ready to go.”
- The Indians aren’t going to rush Chris Perez back for Opening Day just for the sake of having him there Opening Day — an “artificial deadline,” as Francona said. But any concern that he might not be ready early in April, if it existed at all, seems to have dissipated.
- Both of the big-ticket acquisitions — Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn — have a daughter on the way midseason (Swisher in May, Bourn in July). Sixteen years from now, they’ll both be a wreck, but for now they should be fine.
- I spoke with Jay Bruce a bit about his buddy Drew Stubbs, who had a decent .255/.329/.444 slash line with 22 homers and 77 RBI before bottoming out (.213/.277/.333) last year. “So much upside,” Bruce said. “He’s one of the fastest guys in the game. He had a poor year last year for himself and he still stole 30 bases. In my opinion, there’s not a better center fielder out there, as far as getting to balls, running balls down, the closing speed he has, great arm, has a very good sense of where he is on the field. He’s ridiculously athletic. If he can go out there and just learn the [right field] position, there are a few little glaring differences between right and center that aren’t going to be a problem for him. He’s not going to miss a beat. He’s got a chance to be a special player if he puts it together. He has the ability to hit for power, steal bases, play the outfield and really change the game in a lot of ways. I hope the best for him.”
- Stubbs is intriguing, all right, simply because he’s such a Wild Card. But he’s still not putting up consistent at-bats just yet. “To his credit, he’s worked on his mechanics to the point where they’re so simple right now,” Francona said. “I’m not sure he realizes how good he should be. There’s no movement, just a nice little simple approach. He’s so strong and when you see him hit it, it comes off like a rocket. And he’s got the kind of speed where even when teams know he’s running, you can’t stop it.”
- I love that Jason Donald and Armando Galarraga have been in the same clubhouse (Reds) this spring.
- The great John Perrotto, of Baseball Prospectus, has taken a particular liking to the nickname the Plain Dealer’s Dennis Manoloff bestowed upon Michael Brantley — “Dr. Smooth.” And the nickname has legs. As Brantley told a giddy Perrotto, it was used by a surly Yankees fan at Yankee Stadium last year when he yelled, “You suck, Dr. Smooth!” An insult and a compliment, blended beautifully.
- Despite being late to the party, the Indians’ take on the “Harlem Shake” worked out well enough. But why wasn’t Antonetti involved? “They tried to talk me into doing it,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure there was nothing that would reflect poorly on anyone and that nobody would get hurt. Obviously I wanted the guys to have a good time. But I wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any negative repercussions.”
- Tons of love for Jason Giambi in that Tribe clubhouse. The guy has blown people away with his insight and intelligence and approachability.
- You’ve got to appreciate how much Vinnie Pestano generally and genuinely cared about playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. It’s amusing to see people use the Americans’ ho-hum history in this tournament as some sort of referendum on baseball in this country, completely ignoring A. the small sample, B. the number of guys who defensibly opt out and C. the fact that it’s played at a time of year when many of the Latin American players are in midseason form following winter ball. Pestano noted that the Classic takes on a U.S. vs. the World tone. “I don’t know if we had one crowd more for us than against us,” he said. “It’s almost a lose-lose because you’re expected to win, and yet there are so many other great baseball-playing countries out there. Just because you have U.S.A. on your chest doesn’t mean you have any advantage.”
- A common critique of the Goodyear facility when it opened was that the fan experience had taken a nosedive from the decidedly fan-friendly conditions at Chain O’ Lakes in Winter Haven. But the Indians have improved the situation considerably this spring, with “fan liason” Rik Danburg now on-hand to handle concerns, answer questions, keep people apprised of the schedule, etc.
- Jason Kipnis has been eating at this P.F. Changs-owned Asian restaurant chain called Pei Wei rather frequently down here, loading up because he knows we don’t have Pei Wei in Cleveland. I don’t blame him. It’s good, fresh food served quick. (I believe I first experienced Pei Wei several years back at the urging of Indians iTrac vision coordinator Jason Stein, better known here and everywhere as “The Master of Self-Promotion.”) Anyway, if anybody with even the slightest amount of franchisinal (not a word… don’t look it up) influence is reading this, let’s get a Pei Wei in Cleveland, all right?
- By now, there’s really not much about Life Under Tito that hasn’t already been said. Francona is really bringing the best out of this group simply because he relates to players so well, and that point has been hammered home quite consistently. There was one anecdote, though, that I thought spoke to that point quite well. It came when the Indians sent Mike McDade down after a strong camp and had to tell him, as so many others have told him, to be sure to watch his weight moving forward. Francona approached that conversation in a positive light. As Antonetti recalled: “His message was, ‘You’re a really good player, you can do so many great things, you’re great hitter from both sides of the plate. We think you have a lot of potential. And you’ve heard it before, but you need to take care of your body to take advantage of your potential.’”When players get instruction from Francona, they know he’s coming from that positive place. “Inevitably, in any relationship, you’re going to have those moments where you have to have tough conversations,” Antonetti said. “It’s more constructive to have those conversations once you already have a relationship in place. Terry works really hard to establish those relationships. And it comes from a genuine place. He really is a caring person. He cares individually about every guy in that clubhouse, and I think the players feel that. So that gives him the ability and platform to, when something needs to be addressed with a guy, he can talk to them and say, ‘Hey, I love you, but these are things you need to do to get better’ or ‘You didn’t run that ball out’ or ‘Walk me through what you were thinking in that situation on the bases.’”
- Possibly the biggest news of spring camp: Nick Camino, of WTAM, became the first sober person in America to order a steak at Chili’s. And he lived to tell the tale.
- Later this week on Indians.com, I’ll have a special story about the 20th anniversary of the Little Lake Nellie boat tragedy that claimed the lives of Steve Olin and Tim Crews. I really hope you’ll take the time to read it.
There is shock in the numbers, sure.
A $48 million guarantee to a 30-year-old speedster named Michael Bourn? A $56 million guarantee to a 32-year-old run-producer named Nick Swisher? These numbers don’t mesh with our mindset about the Cleveland Indians. Numbers like these are the reasons the Indians trade away talent months before it reaches free agency. These are not numbers we associate with the Dolan ownership, because these are not numbers that revenues in the time of the Dolan ownership have typically supported.
But these are numbers that form the surreal reality in which the Indians now operate. It is a reality in which the Indians just signed two of the top five position players available on the open market this winter. And no matter the particulars of the market (it was certainly one light on top-end talent), that’s huge news.
Let’s not take this, though, as some bold new strategy on the part of the Indians or their ownership. It is, after all, an ownership that has long spent within its means, and this winter is no different. It is a front office that has always tried to apply some creativity — not always successfully, of course — to team construction to overcome its deficits, be they of the payroll or personnel variety, and this winter is no different (witness the Shin-Soo Choo trade).
What is different, of course, is that new revenue streams — mostly of the national but also of the local television variety — opened up to them at a time when the needs at the Major League level were particularly glaring.
Kudos, then, to front office and ownership alike for traveling down those roads, beginning with the addition of Terry Francona, rather than retreating into yet another rebuild.
A rebuild once seemed likely, maybe even necessary. And given the still-pertinent questions about the talent in the upper levels of the Indians’ farm system, to say nothing of the risks the Tribe is taking on in these long-term deals with players venturing toward the back side of their prime, perhaps one day we’ll look back at this wild winter and wonder whether these momentous moves were really the correct course of action.
For now, though, what you have is a lineup that looks like this:
1. Bourn, CF
2. Jason Kipnis, 2B
3. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
4. Swisher, 1B
5. Carlos Santana, C
6. Mark Reynolds, DH
7. Michael Brantley, LF
8. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
9. Drew Stubbs, RF
All right, so that’s just one version. Maybe you keep Swisher in right, put Stubbs on the bench and DH what’s left of Jason Giambi. Maybe you alternate Mike Aviles between DH and shortstop, spelling Cabrera. Maybe you platoon Stubbs and Brantley or maybe the Chiz Kid doesn’t take off and you need to put Reynolds at third and Santana at first. Or maybe… oh, I have no idea. I just know that it’s interesting to actually be interested in the Indians’ lineup again, isn’t it? It’s nice to know the major lineup intrigue in Terry Francona’s first season at the helm won’t be revolve around an evaluation of the Matt LaPorta Project v. 3.0 and that Aaron Cunningham won’t be playing in 72 games again.
The Indians have assembled a unit with speed and balance and versatility and power and on-base ability. And they have assembled an outfield with the athleticism to augment the work of the starting staff.
Ah, shoot, there I go mentioning that starting staff. I knew this would come up eventually.
All right, let’s just state the obvious: It is impossible to fall head-over-heels in love with this starting staff. I still don’t know what Justin Masterson is – starter or reliever. I don’t exactly know that the AL is going to be a particularly welcoming place for Brett Myers to take up starting duties again, and I certainly don’t know that the No. 3 spot of a rotation is the place for him to do it. I feel like watching Ubaldo Jimenez pitch is a better cardio workout than 60 minutes on the elliptical. I don’t know what to expect from Trevor Bauer and, more to the point, I don’t even expect him to be in the big leagues out the gate. I liken the rotation options, at this point, to the rest stop food options on the turnpike when you’re on a long road trip: You know they’re not likely to blow away your expectations, but you do need them, they do serve a purpose, and you just hold out hope they don’t leave you violently ill.
So, yeah, maybe the rotation tanks this entire thing in 2013. Nobody knows. But you can envision a scenario in which this Bourn thing still makes sense, even in absence of a winning or otherwise competitive season.
Think about it: The Indians were in a prime position to sign Bourn because they can’t give up their first-round pick (as it is within the top 10), they had already given up their second-round pick (in the Swisher signing) and they essentially had two third-round picks. When his price tag dropped, he was too good to pass up, as the Draft pick compensation conundrum that scared away so many others simply did not apply to the Indians. So maybe Bourn has a big season and the Indians don’t. Is it completely inconceivable that he could then become trade bait — at the summer deadline or Winter Meetings — to a team that might have had interest if he wasn’t attached to a prominent pick? I don’t think it is.
(UPDATE: Paul Hoynes reports that Bourn will make $7 million in 2013, $13.5 million in 2014 and ’15 and $14 million in 2016. So the backloaded deal plays in perfectly if the Indians do decide to flip him down the line.)
Or perhaps Stubbs or Brantley are viewed as trade bait in the immediate, and the Indians bring back an arm or two through that route.
Too many surprises have unfolded already for any of us to have a clear idea of what comes next. All we know is that the Indians had new revenue sources and they tapped them. They had an obvious need to get creative with their roster, and they did. They just completed easily their most entertaining and interesting offseason in recent history.
And you have to admit, these new numbers look good on them.
Terry Francona held a town hall session at Playhouse Square this afternoon for a special that will air on SportsTime Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 24. A number of topics were addressed with regard to the future of the Indians. Nothing particularly newsworthy, but certainly an entertaining discussion that involved not only Francona but his father, Tito.
There was, however, one old wound that a fan brought up, and it’s worth bringing up here, too.
Francona was asked about Game 7 of the ALCS between the Indians and Red Sox, and, specifically, about third-base coach Joel Skinner’s decision to hold Kenny Lofton up at third with one out in the seventh, with the Indians trailing, 3-2.
I’ve asked our multimedia crew if it’s possible to chase down the video clip of this play. If they’re able to get it, I’ll post it here. (UPDATE: Here’s the video.)
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
In the seventh, Kenny Lofton was on second after a two-base error by shortstop Julio Lugo, and Lofton could have tried to score when Franklin Gutierrez ripped a single off Hideki Okajima down the third-base line. The ball ricocheted off the photographer’s pit and into shallow left field, and Skinner, fearing Manny Ramirez would gun Lofton down at the plate, held the runner up at third.
When Casey Blake hit into a double play to end the inning, that hold-up loomed large.
“It’s tough to read if it’s ricocheting back to the shortstop or to left-center,” manager Eric Wedge said of that play. “I think it was just a tough read for [Skinner].”
In the immediate aftermath and the time since, Skinner has often been vilified for that play. How do you hold up a speedster like Lofton and not test the mercurial Manny? (That such a pivotal play so prominently involved two members of the Tribe’s so-called glory years is the sort of cosmic kick-in-the-gut that Clevelanders know too well.)
Well, here’s what I’ve said any time the topic has come up in the last five years: Skinner was flying blind. He was at an awful angle to make that read, to know if the ball would bounce away from or directly at Ramirez, and so I find it awfully difficult to give him the goat label.
Here’s what Francona said:
“To be really honest about this, being a third-base coach in Boston is probably the most unfair job in the world, because you’re making a split-second decision, and you’re the only one in the ballpark who can’t see the whole field. Because you get that blind spot down the left-field line, and the ball caroms off the wall like it did in that instance. I think what you have to hope for is you have to make that split-second decision and what we used to tell our runners was keep your head up, like on a swivel, so you can be your own coach. Because that happens more often than people realize… If the runner keeps his head up, then he can score on his own and you don’t run into that problem, because the third-base coach is in a real bind there.”
Maybe, when you think of it in that light, this was one of those moments in which the notion of home-field advantage is rather real. Maybe the Indians, as a whole, should have been better prepared for such a scenario. Maybe we ought to consider the possibility that Lofton could have/should have acted on his own and ran right through the stop sign (it’s not the boldest suggestion in the world, given that Lofton played 63 regular-season games at Fenway in his career and was, therefore, well-versed in its quirks… to say nothing of Manny’s quirks). And maybe we shouldn’t forget that Blake grounded into the ensuing double play on the first freaking pitch (not that Indians fans ever had much trouble picking on Blake over the years).
This, then, was a sequence with no shortage of blame to go around. And it undeniably altered the complexion of that game. Teams that advance in the MLB postseason have to have a little bit of luck on their side, and they have to have the talent to capitalize on that luck. The Red Sox did just that, as they went on to stomp the Tribe, 11-2, that night, before sweeping the Rockies in the World Series.
Indians fans, meanwhile, were left to bemoan that seventh-inning sequence, and pointing the finger at Skinner has always been the easiest coping mechanism available to them.
You know, this is as good a time as any to bring up another element in this that I’ve thought about often. Prevailing wisdom in these parts — and I’ve heard it uttered from many a neighboring barstool — is that the Indians would have make short work of the Rockies in the World Series, if only they would have gotten past Boston.
Admit it: You’ve thought or uttered that belief at some point, have you not?
My counter to that contention is simple: Who could be certain of such a thing? Did you watch the way CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona pitched in that LCS? Were you supremely confident in Joe Borowski in the ninth inning? More to the point, are you at all familiar with Cleveland sports? Don’t you think it’s even the slightest bit possible that there might have been some other disaster waiting around the corner?
No, all we know is what we know. We know the Indians lost Game 7, and they haven’t been back to the playoffs since. Maybe Francona will get them there again. But in the meantime, let’s back off the belief that Joel Skinner and his magical stop sign were the only things standing between the Indians and World Series championship glory. It’s never that simple, really.
PS: Just showed this post to my dad. He read it, he liked it. But he still blames Skinner.