- The Indians are in first place in the American League Central, and they have the attitude (thanks to Mike Napoli) and the pitching (thanks to the AL's best staff) to win their first World Series title since 1948.
This story appeared in the Aug. 8, 2015 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
Throughout the night of Nov. 2, 2013, witnesses reported sightings of an unusual creature roaming the streets of Boston. Blurry snapshots, posted to social media, revealed it to have a thick, bare torso and a hirsute face. It appeared notably friendly, eager to share what seemed to be its central form of subsistence: beer and cinnamon-flavored whisky.
"Yeah, that was when the Fireball kick was in," says the creature, who goes by the name Mike Napoli. "That night probably lasted a month, to tell you the truth."
None of the Red Sox celebrated their '13 championship quite like their first baseman. There were a few reasons for that. One: Napoli loves to party. "Throughout my career, trust me, I've had fun," he says. Two, he had endured quite a bit over the previous few years. He had been a 30-homer man for the 2011 Rangers, who ended up losing a crushing seven-game World Series to the Cardinals. A year later the Red Sox offered him a three-year, $39 million free-agent contract, only to knock it down to one year and $5 million, plus incentives, when a physical revealed that he had avascular necrosis, a degenerative condition, in both hips. But Napoli played 139 games for the Sox, hitting 23 homers and driving in 92 runs, and then he won a title. "I think there was just a lot of built-up stuff," he says, of his shirtless postparade barhop down Boylston Street.
The Indians know about built up stuff. Their championship drought, now at 67 seasons, is baseball's second longest after the Cubs' 107, and they have appeared in one playoff game over the past nine years. Still, Cleveland's front office is among baseball's most respected and stable—president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti has worked for the club since 1999, GM Mike Chernoff since 2003—and it has been systematically planning for an overdue celebration of its own, despite the constraints of a payroll that annually ranks in the game's bottom third. Among other things the club was a quiet early adapter of advanced metrics, creating its proprietary analytical database—DiamondView—in '00, three years before Michael Lewis's Moneyball was published.
By 2013 the Indians had begun to assemble a talented young core, but they also knew they needed a change at the top. It came in the hiring of manager Terry Francona, who had skippered the Red Sox to their own drought-ender in '04 and another title in '07. "As an organization, we were very analytically driven at times," says Chernoff. "We embraced a lot of different perspectives, but we didn't have that person who had won two World Series, who had credibility with the players and an understanding of clubhouse dynamics." Francona, despite a passion for cribbage, is no Luddite, but he pushed his bosses to acquire the type of player who might crash DiamondView and who therefore might be affordable to his new club. "Veterans, with off-the-charts knowledge and who care about people—'cause you're dealing with people," Francona says. Last January that philosophy led to the signing, on a one-year deal worth $7 million, of a 34-year-old slugger who is now known in the Indians' clubhouse as Uncle Nap.
Despite the fact that their most talented hitter—29-year-old Michael Brantley, the third-place finisher in the 2014 American League MVP voting—has appeared in just 11 games this season due to a complicated recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, the Indians lead the AL Central with a 63-48 record. Napoli, the nightly cleanup hitter, surpassed last season's home run total of 18 in mid-July, and now has 28. Advanced metrics don't love him—his WAR stands at just 1.1, in part because of his subpar defense—but traditional ones do, as do his teammates, many of whom are young and have never played for another big league club.
"He calms you down," says Francisco Lindor, who is an All-Star shortstop at 22 but still feels a 22-year-old's jitters, especially when hitting with runners in scoring position. "Sometimes I feel like I need to get the guy in so bad, and it shows—trying to swing at pitches I normally don't swing at. Even in the on-deck circle, he'll tell me: look one zone, and attack. I'll even ask him what zone. He's been there. Something like that, you can't get from everyone."
Tribe fans are hopeful that Napoli will provide something else that only he can, inspired by his legendary night in Boston three years ago. In late April an Indians fan named Nate Crowe (who goes by @HipsterTito on Twitter) coined the phrase PARTY AT NAPOLI'S, which quickly caught on as a rallying cry both in and out of the clubhouse. By last week $88,000 had been raised for the Cleveland Clinic from the sale of T-shirts bearing the slogan.
Cleveland fans are just a month removed from their first party in quite some time, as some two million of them flooded in to attend the Cavaliers' victory parade on June 22. LeBron's heroics might have provided the Indians' front office with a few more years of cover as it worked toward its own championship; instead they only sped up the timeline. Over the course of a few hours last weekend the traditionally conservative club surprised the baseball world and delighted its energized fan base by trading its top prospect, outfielder Clint Frazier, for an All-Star, Yankees reliever Andrew Miller. If there was any doubt about their intentions for October, they also agreed on a deal for another All-Star, Brewers catcher, Jonathan Lucroy; he exercised his no-trade clause and ended up with the Rangers.
"There's some hope and optimism in our market we haven't had before," says Chernoff. "We want to capitalize on that." If there is to be another parade in Cleveland in early November, as is now firmly the plan, its bearded master of ceremonies is already in place.
If anyone might be skeptical of the impact of a player with an 0.8 WAR, it is Trevor Bauer. Bauer, a 25-year-old righthander who was the third pick in the 2011 draft, is one of the more rigorously analytical players ever to reach the majors. "On the scale of see-ball-hit-ball to the nerds in the front office, I'm very much shifted towards the nerds," he says.
Bauer has a hacker's mind, which has sometimes put him at odds not just with his catchers but with the power holders in a game that has heavily encrypted codes. For instance, he believes deeply in long-tossing, and in generally throwing much more than most feel is wise for a pitcher. He sometimes makes as many as 500 throws in a day. He has even hacked himself into sleeping better. "I used to lie in bed for a long time," he says, until, on his pillow, he started visualizing a black hole into which all of his racing thoughts were being gradually sucked. "Now it'll take me 10 slow breaths, 20 to 30 seconds each, to fall asleep."
So Bauer's attire, on a recent pregame afternoon, stands out. PARTY AT NAPOLI'S, reads his T-shirt. "There's definitely something to it," he says of the effects of his still new teammate. "A steadying influence, maybe. The confidence of having been through many big league seasons. How to weather ups and downs. It's all stuff that's going to end up being clichés. You can't put your finger on it exactly. This person came in here and did this, and that made the team be more loose and then—winning. It's very blurry, the process."
One element of the Indians' success, though, has been crystalline: a dominant rotation. With a cumulative 3.64 ERA, it has been the AL's best, and that means more than even the most Pattonesque of veteran leaders. "Hell, yeah, it does," says Francona. "Because we can't go get those guys. Those guys, on the open market, are $150 million. We can't do that."
Four of the Indians' five starters rank among the AL's top 25 in ERA among pitchers who have qualified for the ERA title: Corey Kluber (9th, 3.16); Danny Salazar (11th, 3.38); Bauer (19th, 3.88); and Josh Tomlin (24th, 4.18); Carlos Carrasco hasn't met the innings threshold but his ERA (3.17) would be 10th in the league. As a group they will earn a shade under $13.5 million this season, which is what the AL Central rival Twins will pay Ervin Santana (18th, 3.66) alone. At the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Cleveland held tight to every one of its affordable arms, its collection of which is a result of both process and patience.
This is how the front office's ability to grow deep roots has borne fruit. When he was two months out of Princeton in 2003, Chernoff would often find himself arranging the magnetic roster boards in the office of Mark Shapiro, the club's former longtime GM, and then president, who left this past winter for Toronto. Shapiro and Antonetti would ask the new guy his opinion on trade negotiations they were conducting. The club's execs studied the best practices of the world's greatest organizations—the Navy SEALS, the St. Louis Cardinals—and were allowed time to implement their own versions, as well as to develop late bloomers in whose skills they believed. Carrasco, for instance, had an ERA of 6.75 as a 26-year-old in '13, which was already four years after the club had acquired him from the Phillies for Cliff Lee. Kluber didn't become any good until '13, when he was 27; the next year he won the Cy Young Award. "We're allowed to focus on the process," says Chernoff. "We don't have throw everything out the window to get immediate results."
The Indians' commitment to maximizing their players' talents is broadly focused, ranging from their minds—they have four mental skills coaches on staff—to their bladders. "I've never drank so much Pedialyte in my life," says Napoli, of his fourth club's focus on hydration. "They have this device thing—you pee in a cup and pour it on it, and it tells you your levels."
Trevor Bauer has no need to analyze his urine. "I've been focusing on my hydration for years and years and years," he says. But after his first club, the Diamondbacks, quickly wearied of his steadfast individualism—just 18 months and four big league starts after drafting him, Arizona dealt him to Cleveland for pennies on the dollar—he does appreciate Cleveland's tolerance. While adhering to a decorated veteran's individualized and self-directed routine, he had a mediocre 4.42 ERA over his first three seasons with the Indians, before finally approaching his potential this year. "I think the front office has been very patient and been willing to stick with me," Bauer says. "That's a testament to them. Whether it's that they believe in me as a person or as a player, or if it makes business sense, whatever the case may be."
"Don't go too overboard," says Francona, of Bauer. "'Cause there's still some—I don't want to hammer guys—but there's still some hiccups, now. I think there's times where he'll take a step this way, we'll take a step that way, and we'll end up figuring it out. Sometimes we'll have to fight our way through it. You know, it's a long season."
It has, in fact, been a long 67 seasons for the Indians. But except for a few playoff runs in the mid-to-late '90s, there has never been more hope. It has been well earned and assiduously planned. "When I first came here, Chris Antonetti would ask me: 'You came from Boston. Hey, are we doing this right?'" Francona recalls. "I'd say, 'Chris? This is f------ unbelievable.'"
The Indians had a home game against the Rays on the day of the Cavs' victory parade. The celebration proved a commute killer for the players, since more than a million people still packed the streets as they tried to report to Progressive Field, which is adjacent to Quicken Loans Arena. "Listen—I work there!" Lindor insisted to the police officers blocking the exit off I-90, as he pointed to the ballpark. After posing for a photo with Lindor, the cops let the shortstop through. To both Lindor and the club, though, the experience seemed less aggravating than invigorating. They won their sixth game in a row that night, and then they won their next eight, for a 14-game streak that remains this season's longest.
A month later the club would be truly inconvenienced by someone else's party: Donald Trump's. The Q hosted the Republican National Convention between July 18 and 21, and as Progressive Field was located within the event's security zone and was used as a staging area, the Secret Service brought in its sniffer dogs shortly after the Indians concluded their first half schedule on July 10. For the following 15 days, which included the All-Star break and a nine-game road trip, they were locked out of their home ballpark. The front office laid the groundwork for its manic trade deadline during daily meetings around Chernoff's dining table. The clubbies had to pack everything the team might possibly need—including even the uniforms of lower level minor leaguers who could receive an unexpected promotion—into a Penske box truck, which they parked at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Over the All-Star break, Bauer had to conduct his daily long-toss routine in a public park near his home in a Cleveland suburb.
On the day the club's home schedule resumed, July 26, its ballpark still featured taped-up signs of the GOP's takeover. PAGE HOLDING AREA, read one; the hope was that the pages had eventually won their freedom. Even after their exile the Indians seemed buoyant, not just because they were winning but because big things were actually happening in the players' long-beleaguered adopted hometown.
It's easy—and not wrong—to be skeptical about the real impact of something like a political convention or a sports championship on a struggling city which has lost most of its industry and 57% of its population since 1950. "You're happy for a couple of days, and then you have a parade, right?" says Bauer. But even the member of the Indians who most fervently questions orthodoxy admits he's noticed a difference since LeBron took down the Warriors in June. "It's not rainy and cloudy every single day and all the teams suck and it's miserable," Bauer says. "It's like, 'Oh, the sun's out, we just won the NBA championship, our baseball team's doing really well.' People kind of lift their head up a little bit, and things seem a little better. It's definitely there."
"They're thirsty for it," agrees Napoli. It's a specific thirst, one that can't be quenched by Pedialyte but only by beer and Fireball, liberally consumed in mid-autumn. With Miller aboard, a Napoli-led party seems closer than ever to transforming from fun T-shirt slogan to full blown reality. Says Francona, "I hope he gets a chance to go on a bender here for about a month."