Back in 1977, when the New York Yankees won their first World Championship in 15 years, they had a team filled with ex-Cleveland Indians. Or anyway, it felt that way as a kid growing in up Cleveland.
Look: Yankees' First baseman Chris Chambliss had played for the Indians. Superstar third baseman Graig Nettles had played for the Indians. Outfielder Lou Piniella had played briefly for Cleveland AND reliever Dick Tidrow had played for Cleveland AND ... OK, well, really that's about it. The Yankees' tough catcher, Thurman Munson, was from Akron ... well, hey, there were rumors that he wanted to come back to Cleveland. The owner, George Steinbrenner, was from Cleveland.
Funny, looking back on it, there weren't quite as many ex-Indians as I remembered.
Still, it felt like a big deal in Cleveland in 1977. The Indians were terrible then, the Browns were terrible, the Cleveland jokes were a part of America's every day culture, and we were about to enter a winter that was so brutally cold and miserable that the city of Cleveland closed down schools for the entire month of February. Still, through it all, I remember people talked about those ex-Indians who had led the Yankees to the World Series. It felt so wrong. There was something about it that felt like a punch to the gut.
Some of those feelings are back. The Indians are terrible again. The Browns ... yeah. And on Wednesday night, the last two Cleveland Indians to win the Cy Young will be pitching Game 1 of the World Series -- CC Sabathia for the New York Yankees and Cliff Lee for the Philadelphia Phillies. Indians management felt pressured to trade both because of salaries ... the Indians could not afford to keep them. Their No. 1 starter going into 2010 could be one of about 10 different pitchers -- David Huff, Fausto Carmona, Aaron Laffey, Jake Westbrook -- and the only thing connecting them is that none is a No. 1 starter.
This is the other view of the World Series, the flip-view from fans of small-market teams watching the dreams come true for everyone else. Sure, this World Series has the potential to be exciting, maybe even a classic. The Phillies are defending world champs. The Yankees have their mojo back. Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins is guaranteeing victory. New York's Alex Rodriguez is laying waste to the countryside. Philadelphia's Ryan Howard has hit more home runs the last five years than any other player. New York's Mariano Rivera remains utterly invincible ... he's that rare living legend who is as good as ever. The Phillies players seem to believe they are unbeatable this time of year. The Yankees seem to put so much pressure on their opponents that they can't help but make huge mistakes. Yes, this could be a great World Series.
But I can tell you that's not how the World Series looks in those small-market baseball towns where the baseball talk revolves around how soon the good players will be too expensive to keep. I can tell you how baseball fans in Kansas City will view this Series. They will watch Philadelphia's Raul Ibanez and remember how Royals management took him off the scrap heap and gave him a chance to play. Ibanez -- one of the class acts in baseball -- was 29 years old then, and he had never gotten even 250 at-bats in a season. The conventional wisdom was that he simply could not be an every-day player. The Royals made him an every-day player in June of 2001 -- he was hitting .150 at the time. The Royals gave him a full-time job the next season, and again in June he was hitting sub-.200. The Royals stuck with him because, well, in part because they were the Royals and didn't really have any other options. But it was also because they believed Ibanez could hit. And he did hit. He ended up having a good season, and a pretty good season the next year. The Royals decided they couldn't afford him -- and he signed with Seattle and has been a very good player ever since.
Kansas City fans will watch Yankees left fielder Johnny Damon. The Royals drafted Damon when his stock was low -- Damon did not even hit .300 in his senior year of high school -- nurtured him through some dreadful early years when his offensive approach looked more like a tennis backhand than a baseball swing. The Royals were so desperate to inspire loyalty in Damon that they bought him a house in Kansas City. Really. Looking back, it seems quaint, almost sweet. Of course, it was also ridiculous. Damon became a very good player, too good a player for the Royals to afford, and so they traded him away. He has taken his own unique baseball journey, which finally brought him around to wearing pinstripes. It has been almost a decade since that happened, but the fans in Kansas City -- like spurned lovers angry at an old high school flame who got away -- still boo Damon whenever he comes to town.
This is the hard reality of the World Series. It is not a celebration for everyone. Year after year, it is also a time for fans of losing teams to see their old stars, and remember the promise, and think about what might have been, had ownership been a little wiser and had a little more money to work with.
This year, though, the clear winners in the "What could have been" World Series sweepstakes are Cleveland fans. The Indians had Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia in their pitching rotation for about four and a half seasons -- from the start of 2004 until Sabathia was traded mid-season in 2008. During that time, the Indians had two winning records, two losing records and made the playoffs once. Lee and Sabathia never had great seasons at the same time -- they were never quite Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Lee went 18-5 and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2005, but Sabathia had one of his least impressive seasons (15-10, 4.03 ERA). The next year Sabathia was a lot better, and Lee faltered some. In 2007 Sabthia won the Cy Young, but Lee had a miserable season -- he was sent down to the minors that year. In 2008 Lee won the Cy Young, but that was the year Sabathia was traded to Milwaukee.
In other words, the Indians never really got to cash in on having developed two of the best left-handed starters in baseball. Baseball is funny that way: For teams without big payrolls the key is not just developing good players: The timing is also crucial. In the last eight years or so, the Indians have had young versions of Sabathia, Lee, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Phillips, Milton Bradley, Coco Crisp, Fausto Carmona ... all of whom at one point or another looked like future stars.
Some became stars, some did not, but the Indians have an overall losing record over those eight seasons and on Wednesday night Indians fans are left with their noses pressed against the restaurant front window, left standing in the rain while their old heroes Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia try to set the tone for this World Series.