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 months.
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 big help.
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 3½ 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," deadpans Corrales.
"Yeah," says Carter, "but it's still going, and I'm still running." And with that he jogs into the clubhouse.
At 6'3", 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, replacing Tabler.
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 promising team.
"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 about 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 around to us. I think our time has come."
O.K., you win.
No, but the Indians just might.