On the last day of last season—the first year since 1959 that the Cleveland Indians had won more games than they had lost—Manager Birdie Tebbetts called a clubhouse meeting. He told his players: "Next season will be our year. There are no ifs or maybes about it. We're going to win the whole thing."
Birdie Tebbetts has refrained from such drumbeating in public but, as usual in the spring, his Indians once again have the shine and luster of a team that should be right in the middle of the American League pennant race until it's all over. The only trouble is, they've had that look before in the spring, and it has palled, come fall.
"We can win the pennant, and we can do it with only a normal performance," argues Cleveland President Gabe Paul. "We don't need a superseason from any of our players to win, just a normal effort. Our pitching is such that we're not depending heavily on anyone except Sam McDowell and Sonny Siebert. We've got enough pitching depth to get the job done even if a couple of our veterans don't come through."
Of course, this year, hope for success is built on something more than hope. The Indians have pitching plus in McDowell and Siebert, power plus in Rocky Colavito and Leon Wagner, speed plus in Vic Davilillo and Max Alvis, and a bench that may be the strongest in the American League. "We have the starting pitchers, we can run, we have power," says Tebbetts. "I even think we can afford to lose a very good player without its being a disaster. We'd still remain in contention all the way."
Among Tebbetts' problems (the most annoying are inconsistent catching and inadequate left-handed relief pitching) is the fact that with so many good players he has trouble getting the best ones in the lineup at the right time. Take the outfield. "They say it's a pleasant problem," complains Wagner. "Well, it's not so pleasant for us outfielders. We all want to play, but there is only right, center and left field. You can't take out Rocky—the people love him and, besides, he never quits. Vic is a .300 hitter and covers ground. Chuck Hinton, why he carried Washington before he came to us. But what you going to do with me? I hit .294 last year, and I got power, man—stone power."
Finding a place for Hinton to play bothered Tebbetts last year and still does. A solid .275 hitter at Washington, he seems capable of batting .300 if he plays regularly, and he hit 18 home runs as a part-timer in 1965. Unhappily, he is an unimpressive fielder. "If I'd left him at second base last season like I should have," says Tebbetts, "I wouldn't be trying to find him a position this year."
Early in 1965 Paul acquired Pedro Gonzalez from the Yankees to tighten the Indians' defense up the middle. Pedro, at second, teamed nicely with Shortstop Larry Brown who, in Tebbetts' eyes, won a clean-cut decision over former regular Dick Howser. This year Cleveland expects even more improvement around second base.
At first base is Fred Whitfield, 28, who last year beat out five others for the job and, in his first full season as a regular, hit .293 with 26 homers and 90 runs batted in. "Another like it, and he could be the most valuable player in the league," says Tebbetts. At third base, 28-year-old Max Alvis is still trying to live up to the potential he flashed as a rookie three years ago. Off to his best start last year, he made the All-Star team but then managed only seven home runs and 21 RBIs throughout the second half. Not by coincidence, the club skidded with him. To protect against a recurrence of that slump Alvis is hitting the outside pitch into right field and, on occasion, bleeding hits from surprise bunts up the baselines. "I know I'm no .350 hitter," he says, "but I know I've yet to come near my peak." "Max can help a team so many ways," Tebbetts says. "He can run and steal a base. He is a fine third baseman. I'd be satisfied if he hit .260 with 25 homers."
The Indians, however, will look to right field for their power. Colavito, back in Cleveland last year after an absence of five seasons, hit .287, drove in 108 runs and had 26 homers. Gabe Paul wishes he could measure precisely how much the presence of Colavito meant to a franchise that for a time seemed outward bound to Oakland or Seattle, but in the meantime he has to go by the attendance figures—which went up almost 300,000 in 1965. "It was good to have him back again," says Paul with sincerity.
If the Indians really hope to compete on even terms with the other contending teams in the American League, their pitching will have to attain a much greater degree of dependability than it had last season. Tebbetts' only reliable starters were left-hander McDowell and right-hander Siebert, who, in combining for 33 wins, finished one-three in AL earned run averages. "They really arrived," says Tebbetts, pointing out that both had had good years for the second season in a row. "That proved they weren't just flashes in the pan. They showed me they're mature enough to handle themselves no matter how tight it gets." At 23, McDowell, according to California Angel Shortstop Jim Fregosi, "is as good as Koufax is. He has it all." Siebert, blossoming late at 29, is still having fun finding out how hard he can throw a baseball.
Behind these two, however, is abundant potential but not much cash on hand—so little, in fact, that Gary Bell, four years a relief pitcher, will probably be the Indians' No. 3 starter. Behind him may be Lee Stange, rookie Tom Kelley, Jack Kralick, who was hampered by a sore arm in 1965, and Ralph Terry, a holdout. Hopefully, Luis Tiant (11-11) has lost enough weight to return to the form he displayed in winning 10 starts as a rookie in 1964.
Don McMahon, now 36, will be used in long relief instead of short, leaving those duties to 23-year-old Steve Hargan, a lanky right-hander who was 4-3 as a rookie. Another possible reliever is right-hander Bob Heffner, plucked from the Boston system.
An assist to Cleveland's pitching may come from behind the plate in the person of Del Crandall. At 36, Crandall is still expert at channeling young and inexperienced throwers into the strike zone, and most of the Indian staff feels better when he is catching. "You don't know how much he's helped us already," says McDowell. But Crandall doesn't hit very often anymore, which means that Joe Azcue is still No. 1.
Plenty of players, plenty of talent, plenty of potential. But the pitching is not as good as it looks, and pitching wins pennants.