BELIEVE IT OR NOT, SOMETHING IS happening in Cleveland.
Cleveland? You mean the river's on fire again? It stopped snowing?
You got a new joke? C'mon, what do you mean, something is happening
in Cleveland? The football season's been over for almost three
So it is, but baseball is just beginning, and this could be the
year that. . . .
What? Baseball in Cleveland? You gotta be kidding. Let me tell you
something about baseball in Cleveland. Why, last year's team was the
first in 10 years to finish higher than sixth, and it finished fifth.
No team in that town has finished as high as third since 1968, and
the last one to finish second was in 1959. The Indians haven't won a
pennant in 33 years. Nobody plays for them anymore. They haven't had
an MVP since Al Rosen in 1953. Their last batting champion was Bobby
Avila in 1954. Their last home run champ was Rocky Colavito in 1959.
The youngest guy on their alltime All-Star team is Bob Feller, and
he retired in 1956. They've got the biggest stadium in baseball
(74,208), but it's a dump and nobody goes there. They went 14 years,
1960 to '74, without drawing a million, and until last year they'd
gone three straight years without even drawing 800,000. Look at '85
-- last-place team, 102 losses. Drew 655,181, lowest in the big
leagues. In their first 33 home dates that year they had 16 crowds
under 6,000. Don't talk to me about baseball in Cleveland.
True enough, but last season the Indians won more games (84) than
they had in any year since 1968, and they passed 1985's attendance in
their 38th home date. The fans are excited. It's like 1948 all over
again. There's a feeling that this is the year. People, baseball
people, are starting to talk.
So tell me about this year.
Sure. The Indians have quality players at every position, so many
good ones, in fact, that first baseman Pat Tabler, a .326 hitter in
130 games last season, will not start against righthanded pitching;
and leftfielder Mel Hall, a .296 hitter in 140 games, will not play
against lefties. The regular infield averages 27 years of age and 87
RBIs. It's a team that is just approaching its peak.
Yeah, but how about pitching? Understand they've got some
48-year-old geezer starting for them.
Not just any 48-year-old. He's Phil Niekro. Knucksie. And they
have some young guys, including a phenom, Greg Swindell, who throws
hard. They also picked up Rick Dempsey, a smart catcher. He'll be a
Sure, but. . . .
Something else they've got is star quality. They may have been
short on superstars lately, but now they have got Joe Carter, who's
27, and Cory Snyder, who's only 24. Carter was kicked around in the
Cubs organization for 3 1/2 years, then was traded with Hall in June
'84 to Cleveland for Rick Sutcliffe. The Cubs got a quick fix, but
they've had nothing but heartbreak since. Carter and Hall are around
for the long haul.
Carter needed a year and a half to get going, then whamo! Just
look at his '86 stats: .302 average, played all 162 games, 200 hits,
108 runs scored, 36 doubles, 9 triples, 29 homers, 29 stolen bases
and a major league-leading 121 RBIs. And he played in the outfield,
mostly in left, and first base, which he'll do again this year. Team
captain Andre Thornton says Carter is ''the complete player.''
And Snyder? The Indians drafted him in '84 out of Brigham Young,
where he set an NCAA record with a career slugging average of .844.
That's .844! He played on the '84 Olympic team, and with only a
little more than a year in pro ball, Cleveland called him up last
June from Triple A. In just 103 games with the Indians he hit 24
homers. He can play any position in the infield or outfield, and
Cleveland manager Pat Corrales says he has a Clemente-type arm.
There's no higher compliment than that. This year Snyder will play
Clemente's position, rightfield. Heard enough?
Enough. I'll shut up.
So will I.
It's a few minutes before 11 a.m. at Hi Corbett Field, the
Indians' spring headquarters in Tucson, and Carter is taking batting
practice. He's also taking a considerable ribbing from Corrales and
hitting instructor Bobby Bonds, who are watching him from behind the
cage. ''Where'd that one go?'' Corrales asks Bonds as Carter lofts a
soft fly to right.
''Rightfield. Easy out,'' says Bonds.
Carter drives a ball to the base of the centerfield fence.
''How about that?'' Corrales inquires.
''Out,'' says Bonds contemptuously.
''Hey,'' says Carter, protesting, ''that was at least a maybe.''
''Only if I'm playing centerfield,'' says Corrales.
Carter hits the next pitch on a line to left centerfield. The ball
leaves the park above the 410-foot marker, sailing past the left
shoulder of the giant Marlboro Man who towers over the fence. Carter
smiles. ''If the ball hits that Marlboro sign, it's in play,''
''Yeah,'' says Carter, ''but it's still going, and I'm still
running.'' And with that he jogs into the clubhouse.
At 6 ft. 3 in., 215 pounds, Carter is a large man, but he has the
rangy build of a born ballplayer, not the thick-muscled physique that
is so much in vogue these days. As he changes in the clubhouse he is
joined by Snyder, who has been shagging balls in rightfield. Snyder
is Carter's height but leaner, a whipcord of a man, with thick
forearms. He is blond, with a thin blond mustache, but his young face
has a leathery look.
Snyder, the Brigham Young man, and Carter, who attended Wichita
State before he disappeared into the Cubs system, represent the
coming breed of player, whose rough spots have been smoothed over on
campus rather than in the minor leagues. Both are thoughtful and
analytical, and their conversation on this day covers, as they do, a
lot of ground. They have much in common. Both, for example, are
playing positions that are new to them. Carter came to the majors as
strictly an outfielder, and when he arrived in Cleveland, he was
platooned in left with Hall. When Corrales realized that Carter was a
big league hitter, he moved him to first base so he could play every
day. Now Carter plays both positions -- leftfield against
lefthanders, replacing Hall; first base against righthanders,
Snyder played mostly third and shortstop in college and the
minors, but Corrales pegged him from the start as an outfielder. ''We
knew what we were getting with him -- a great arm,'' says Corrales.
Last year Snyder played 74 games in the outfield, 34 at short and 11
at third. This season he will play the infield only in an emergency.
''I never thought I'd be playing first base in the major
leagues,'' says Carter, relaxing on the bench in front of his locker.
Snyder is sprawled on a trunk opposite him. ''But I go where they
tell me. Everybody thinks first base is easy, but it's not. The
reaction time is much different when compared with the outfield. An
outfielder can relax a little, but when I'm playing first, I have to
mind my P's and Q's on every pitch. I have to worry about bunts,
pickoffs, relays. I'm in on almost every play. But I like it.''
Snyder laughs. ''And I never thought I'd be playing the outfield
in the majors,'' he says. ''But I'm having a good time out there. I
don't think you can completely kick back, though. I've got to keep
thinking of the situations. If I boot one, for example, I've got to
know where to throw afterward, and I like using my arm on long
throws. I think because I've got a strong arm and an infielder's
quicker release, I've got an advantage. The fact is, I'm just happy
to be here. I'd play anywhere.''
''That's the thing,'' says Carter. ''Just being here is important.
I think my timing was all wrong in Chicago. They kept changing
managers on me, and when a manager is worried about losing his job
he's not going to take too many chances with a rookie. When they sent
me down in '84, I was hitting the ball well and hard all the time.
Then they traded for ((Bob)) Dernier and ((Gary)) Matthews. I got the
feeling I had no future with that team. Coming to Cleveland was the
best thing that could've happened to me. The team was young, and it
wasn't going anywhere, so there was no pressure on me. I could relax
and play every day. Relaxation is 50 percent of baseball. I know now
that there will be days when I'll go oh for 4 or oh for 5. You
don't have to accept that kind of failure, but you have to realize
it's going to happen.''
''You're right,'' says Snyder. ''You have to separate your hitting
from your defense. You can't take an error to the plate with you.
Once I'm in the on-deck circle, I shut everything else out.''
''You can't dwell on things,'' says Carter. ''You can't let one
aspect of your game influence the other two or three. When I hit,
nothing affects me.''
Carter insists that he is also unaffected by the contract dispute
he had with the Cleveland management. He originally requested
$437,000 for this season. He then lowered his price to $387,000,
approximately double his 1986 salary. Carter is not yet eligible for
arbitration, so the Indians were able to renew his contract at their
price of $250,000. Carter left camp in protest, but he returned six
days later, on March 8, still angry but vowing to put the
unpleasantness behind him.
Snyder and the other young Indians were much more than casual
observers of the Carter ordeal. They are concerned, as is Carter,
that front-office penuriousness might bankrupt the future of this
''We've got such a good thing going,'' says Snyder, ''why not pay
a little more to keep the players happy? We're just talking about
fairness, not millions. We can keep a good team here for years. Why
create a situation where as soon as a player gets the chance, he'll
move out? That's not fair to the fans who've waited so long. I know I
don't want to leave Cleveland. I love it.''
''That's it,'' says Carter. ''We've got a new breed of player now
who actually wants to be in Cleveland. It may have started with
Bernie Kosar of the Browns, for all I know. He wanted to play here.
Other players are impressed with the way we've turned things around.
We have a lot of players who were considered suspect as major
leaguers on other teams -- guys like Hall, Tabler, Brook Jacoby. We
all took our bumps and bruises together, knowing we had nowhere to go
but up. Now we're to restore the history of the Cleveland Indians.''
''I missed the terrible part, the 102 losses,'' says Snyder. ''But
I want to stay here. I want to say that I was a part of this team.''
''We can draw two, three million if we do well,'' says Carter.
''We just have to remember where we came from and not fall back on
the press clippings we're starting to get. I know the fans are behind
us. You should see the letters I get. I like Cleveland. I like the
down-to-earth atmosphere. Chicago was too fast for me. I didn't like
all that hustle and bustle.''
''It's the people,'' says Snyder. ''The people make the town. Any
city in the world has its bad sections. I remember when I came
through Cleveland with the Olympic team, my first impression was that
it was an ugly place, too industrial-looking. Since I've been here,
I've seen what they've done to rebuild downtown, to make things
better. I think all the Cleveland jokes come from people who've
never been there. ''
The two players pull on fresh uniform shirts and grab their
gloves. They are eager to get back out to the field. Carter pauses at
the doorway to the dugout. ''I think we've got the kind of ball club
anyone would want to play for,'' he says. ''We're all in our prime.
This is not just a one-year thing. We've got nothing to look forward
to but the future. They say everything that goes around comes
around.Well, I think it's finally come aroundto us. I think our time
O.K., you win.
No, but the Indians just might.