This is the land that time—and vendors—forgot. Here, in the last row of the bleachers of Cleveland Stadium, up against the wall of Section 54, as in 1954, sits a fan named John Adams. He bangs his drum slowly, or rapidly, to a tom-tom beat—whatever it takes to wake up the Indians. He has been drumming up support at almost every home game since 1973, which is just one of the four years since '54 in which Cleveland finished last.
It's Friday night, June 29, and the Tribe is playing Texas in a battle for inadequacy. Not a pretty sight. A congregation of 9,459 people and an equal number of enterprising spiders occupy this temple of doom. Back where Adams sits, it looks like blue ants (Texas) versus white ants (Cleveland). In the third, Andre Thornton of the white ants hits a home run to tie the score 2-2, and as the fireworks go off, Adams pounds furiously on his drum. Asked if the constant noise has affected his hearing, Adams says, "Huh?" Then he laughs.
"I came to my first Indians game when I was three, in 1954," says Adams, a systems analyst for Ohio Bell. "We played Boston and won 5-3. I sat in Section 22, lower deck. You don't forget your first game. What a year! One hundred and eleven victories and the pennant. I'm still waiting for my second one."
If patience is a virtue, every baseball fan left in Cleveland is surely headed for canonization. Since '54 the Indians have finished, on the average, 20 games out. They haven't been in a pennant race since 1959.
This year the team is the most distant club in all of baseball, 23 games behind the first-place Tigers at week's end. People are staying away in droves: Projected attendance for the season is 750,000, and already the Tribe has drawn crowds of fewer than 5,000 11 times in 74,208-seat Cleveland Stadium. They began the season as a running team, figuring that if they were going to go nowhere, they might as well go nowhere fast. Indeed, Cleveland scampered into last place—for good, in all likelihood—on May 21.
The Indians are quite simply the sorriest, saddest team in captivity. The Cubs haven't won anything since 1945, but they've always been lovable losers, and now the Cubbies are doing some winning for a change. It's quite fashionable to be a Bleacher Bum at Wrigley Field. There is nothing chic, however, about sitting in the $2 seats at Cleveland Stadium, which are, by the way, the original 1932 redwood benches.
But as former Cleveland owner Bill Veeck said, the baseball knowledge of a fan is inversely proportional to the price of his ticket. So maybe John Adams knows whereof he speaks when he says, "This team may finally be headed in the right direction." Or maybe he's just a cockeyed optimist. Shortly after Adams makes his pronouncement, the Rangers score six runs to take an 8-2 lead.
It started going to hell 30 years ago this season, at the moment Willie Mays turned his back to the plate and outran Vic Wertz's drive in the first game of the '54 Series. He killed a rally, sent the game into extra innings, and the Giants went on to sweep the Indians in four games. As Al Rosen, then the Cleveland third baseman and now the Houston general manager, recalls, "Cleveland died that night. It was like Yom Kippur, everyone was so solemn. The shame of it is, we should've been remembered as one of the greatest teams ever assembled."
By 1958, Indian stalwarts Rosen, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller and Early Wynn were gone, and the Indians settled into mediocrity. In July of that year, general manager Frank Lane fired Bobby Bragan as the manager with the club at 31-36 and replaced him with Joe Gordon. According to legend, Bragan skulked out to second base that night and invoked a curse on the Indians, asking that they never, ever, win another pennant.
"I hate to disappoint anyone," says the 66-year-old Bragan, who now works in a public relations capacity for the Rangers, "but the story's just not true. The only thing I know is that a three-time loser is a baseball manager on his way to Cleveland in an Edsel. The Indians sure haven't done much since I left, so I guess they have to blame it on someone. I don't mind, and it's a good story."
The real curse on the Indians has been brought down by general managers with a lack of foresight and owners with a lack of money. In one 22-month period from '58 to '60, Cleveland sent packing Roger Maris, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash. When Vernon Stouffer owned the team, from '67 to '72, he squeezed the farm system and scouting department so dry that his general manager, Hank Peters, now G.M. of the Orioles, said, "What Vernon Stouffer is doing to this franchise will hurt the Indians for the next 20 years."
And here are just a few of the people that Gabe Paul and Phil Seghi—"two old men sitting up in the booth playing checkers," according to disgruntled pitcher Bert Blyleven—have traded away in recent years: Pedro Guerrero, Lonnie Smith, George Hendrick, Alfredo Griffin, Jerry Mumphrey, John Denny, Ed Whitson and Bo Diaz. One tradee, White Sox pitcher Jim Kern, has said, "The first thing they do in Cleveland, if you have talent, is trade you for three guys who don't."
At the start of the season, a Cleveland radio announcer, Greg Brinda of WERE, decided to do something about the hex Bragan claims he never cast. In the early morning hours the day before the home opener, he flew a witch in by helicopter. Her name was simply Elizabeth, a sorceress from nearby Lakewood. She went out to second base, built a charcoal fire and burned a little eye of newt, or something, and called upon a supreme goddess to "remove the curse that was put on the Cleveland Indians by a rather misguided individual." Elizabeth then pronounced the curse removed, although she did have this caveat: "There are no guarantees in life...my lawyer told me I have to say that."
We would in no way wish to demean Elizabeth's witchcraft, but her powers clearly were not up to so great a task. Here are some highlights of the Indians' season so far:
Otis Nixon, a speedster acquired in the off-season from the Yankees, becomes the Indians' 13th Opening Day leftfielder in 14 years, Joe Charboneau—now with the Class A Prince William (Wood-bridge, Va.) Pirates—being the only repeater. Batting coach Bobby Bonds predicts that Nixon will break Rickey Henderson's base-stealing records before he's through.
In a tense game Blyleven sneaks up on manager Pat Corrales and tries to give him a hotfoot. "Try that again during a game and I'll put lighter fluid on your locker and light it," snarls Corrales.
In a game against Kansas City, shortstop Julio Franco is thrown out twice on the bases and misplays a grounder in the ninth. After the game pitcher Rick Sutcliffe brings him a slice of pizza in the clubhouse and says, "Here, let me feed you. I'm afraid you'll drop it."
Pitcher Jamie Easterly, who hurt himself just before spring training running backward, refuses to go to the Triple A Maine Guides to pitch himself back into shape.
After Cleveland won 19-inning and 16-inning games in one week, Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, "It's obvious now that if you don't get the Indians in the first five hours, that you can't beat them."
In a game against the Tigers in Cleveland, Bozo the Clown—subbing for a no-show Smoky The Bear—throws out the first ball. Somebody's asking for it.
Sutcliffe has root canal work done, loses 15 pounds, and his pitching suffers.
Blyleven steps on a baseball lurking in the Milwaukee outfield, breaking his left foot, and goes on the disabled list.
Relief pitcher Ernie Camacho is hit on the left wrist by a line drive during extra innings against Detroit. Camacho says he can still throw, but can't catch. So catcher Ron Hassey has to throw the ball back to either the first baseman or third baseman, who then gently hands it over to Camacho.
Camacho tells Boston's Jim Rice to sit his ".210-hitting ass on the bench." Rice, fortunately, doesn't hear him.
Easterly still refuses to go to Maine.
First baseman Mike Hargrove asks for a trade. "I'm tired of guys on other teams asking me why I'm not playing," he says.
Corrales gives up cigarettes and switches to a pipe.
Blyleven suggests he be traded. Paul says, "Bert isn't going anywhere. For two years we paid him a good salary, and he did nothing because he was hurt. Now he owes the Indians and the city of Cleveland something."
Sportswriter Pluto makes out a lineup for Corrales, and, with only a slight revision, the revamped Indians score six runs in the first inning against Seattle and go on to win 8-7.
The Indians trade Sutcliffe, Hassey and pitcher George Frazier to the Cubs for outfielders Mel Hall and Joe Carter and minor league pitchers Don Schulze and Darryl Banks. At the press conference announcing the trade, Blyleven shows up and asks, "Are you sure you didn't leave out a name?" The next day, Blyleven wears Sutcliffe's jersey during batting practice.
The Indians can't use Hall and Carter right away because the Cubs neglected to send them through waivers this year. That leaves Cleveland with only 23 players, which is illegal. Easterly is reinstated. Meanwhile, the Indians are staying at a hotel hosting a Norwegian elkhound convention. Any jokes about dogs are up to your conscience.
Hall and Carter clear waivers, but Carter runs into a wall and bangs up his knee in his second game as an Indian.
Nixon is finally sent down, having hit 154 in 91 at bats. He stole 12 bases.
Pitcher Dan Spillner, an Indian since 1978, which is saying something, is traded to the White Sox. The next day Blyleven wears Spillner's jersey in practice.
The Indians are sold—maybe. A New York lawyer, David LeFevre, who grew up in Cleveland, pays $16.5 million for the controlling interest in the team held by the estate of the late Steve O'Neill. LeFevre, who had to pledge to keep the Indians in Cleveland for at least 15 years, cannot be approved by the league owners until August, but the real snag is a suit filed by some of the Indians' minority owners, who thought LeFevre was given preferential treatment.
Maybe Elizabeth's witchcraft works on a delayed basis, because July has been unusually quiet in Cleveland. The other day Thornton hit his 200th career homer, and the fan who caught the ball wanted to ransom it for season tickets, but public relations director Bob DiBiasio managed to pry the ball loose with a Thornton bat, an autographed ball and four tickets to any four remaining home games.
In the meantime, the team is playing better, although it's still in last place, three games behind the Yankees. And they're changing the guard. Paul has said he'll retire once the transition in ownership is complete, and it's a shame he'll be leaving on a sour note, the villain of the fans, because he is a good and decent fellow. Through five different ownerships, Paul was the anchor that kept the Indians in Cleveland. Says Paul, "I think I had a lot to do with the club staying here. As to the record, well, the fellow in charge has to be responsible for the record. The only regret I have is that we didn't do what we're doing now." Still, the public perception of Paul is expressed by baseball statistician Bill James's line, "If Gabe was running a hospital, I'd invest in a mortuary."
"Gabe is a knowledgeable and hardworking man," says LeFevre. "It's unfortunate he was made the scapegoat. He says one thing that I firmly believe—Cleveland is a sleeping giant." LeFevre is the grandson of Cleveland industrialist Cyrus Eaton, and he remembers going to the third game of the '54 Series. "I was saddened," he says, "but, like everybody else, I thought, we'll win next time. I didn't think next time would take so long." LeFevre will bring in his friend Tal Smith, the former Houston general manager, to help reorganize the front office, although Smith won't have a title, or even an office.
The Indians are in capable hands on the field, and for that Paul should be thanked. Corrales might not be a brilliant strategist, but he's the kind of sergeant you'd want to go to war with. In spring training he said, "You used to see trainers go out on the field when the slightest thing happened. My trainers aren't going out there unless I see blood or a bone sticking out."
He also instituted a dress code and insists that all players be at attention in the dugout for the national anthem. Beyond that, he made a stopper of the hitherto unreliable Camacho. Whenever Camacho gets too cute on the mound, Corrales will go out and pound him on the chest to get him to throw fastballs.
Thornton is the oldest Indian in terms of service, having come over from the Expos for pitcher Jackie Brown (score one for the Indians) before the '77 season, and the best DH in the league, but his contract runs out at the end of the season, and Cleveland doesn't seem prepared to pay him what he can make on the open market. And it's likely both Hargrove and Blyleven will get their wishes to be traded.
"I like this team and I think a few years down the road they'll win," says Blyleven. "But I'm 33 and I'm not sure I want to wait that long. It would be nice to see some people in the stands for a change. But you can't expect them to come out now. Losers don't have friends, and the Indians don't have fans."
But the Tribe does have a few diehard fans, sitting side by side with the ghosts of '48 and '54. And while Adams pounded his drum to wake the dead, the Indians came back against the Rangers, thanks to back-to-back-to-back homers by Thornton, Hall and Jerry Willard. Then, trailing 10-8 in the eighth, Hargrove came through with a three-run homer. The Rangers tied it back up in the ninth, then took a 12-11 lead in the 12th, only to have the Indians knot it again in the bottom of the inning. Finally, in the bottom of the 13th, Brook Jacoby singled in the winning run.
Cleveland's heart, not to mention John Adams, is still beating.