In the ancient stadium by Lake Erie, fans were stomping their feet to tribal tom-toms and singing along raucously with the Niekro Polka. Tens of thousands of them had come out, having stood in lengthy ticket lines that Hall of Famer Bob Feller said reminded him "of people enlisting for World War II the day after Pearl Harbor." Welcome to Cleveland, a city unsettled by Indians.
The long-lost and supposedly pitch-poor Tribe delighted all of baseball by streaking last week to its 10th straight win and a brief tour of first place in the American League East before a weekend sweep by the White Sox brought them back to earth. But everybody knew that the Chisox had an unfair advantage—they had just been threatened by the prospect of having Billy Martin as their new manager—so those reversals failed to deflate Cleveland's spirits.
The same bunch of self-proclaimed "misfits" who lost 102 games last season and had the worst team ERA (4.91) since the 1962 Mets finished the week first in the league in hitting (.275) and second in pitching (3.29); their 17-11 record left them just two games behind the division-leading Red Sox. The team that had drawn only 655,181 fans at home last year, the fewest in baseball, brought one-sixth of that total into Cleveland Stadium for the three-game series with the White Sox. "Who could have dreamed we would get here so fast?" asked the team's energetic second-year president, Peter Bavasi. "It's all been so good...I could die happy now."
"People here are so starved for a winner," said third baseman Brook Jacoby, "that they're going totally crazy."
That's putting it mildly. Twice, starting times had to be pushed back because there were so many fans—an estimated 15,000 on May 5—outside buying tickets. "Can you imagine having to wait to buy a Cleveland Indian ticket?" marveled p.r. director Bob DiBiasio. Twice, Indian fans roared the entire team back onto the field after victories. "I've never seen anything like it in all my years in baseball," said 47-year-old Phil Niekro.
During the 4-3 streak-ending loss to Chicago on Friday, the crowd gave the Tribe no fewer than 33 standing ovations. "They're giving us standing ovations when we go out to stretch," said outfielder Joe Carter. Friday's crowd of 48,146, the biggest since the '85 home opener, so amazed former Indian second baseman Duane Kuiper, now a broadcaster, that he excitedly called former teammate Ron Hassey, now of the Yankees, to tell him about it.
"What time is the fireworks show?" asked Hassey.
"There is none," said Kuiper.
"Then what are they giving away?"
The Indians were giving fans nothing more than good baseball—which is plenty from a team that hasn't won a pennant in 31 years or even contended for one since 1959. "In my 10 years here," says Cleveland's big and quiet captain, designated hitter Andre Thornton, "we've never had a team as good as this one."
The young Indians (average age of the starting eight: 26) boast a solid lineup with the likes of first baseman Pat Tabler (.333), Jacoby (.330 with 18 RBIs as of Sunday) and spunky leadoff man Brett Butler. The real surprise has been the team's pitching staff—Bavasi calls it "jerry-rigged"—which was rebuilt over the winter with mostly old or untested parts. Six new pitchers were on the opening day roster, foremost among them Niekro, the 300-game winner, who says he was honored to sign with the Tribe after being released by the Yankees in March. "I grew up with the Indians," says Niekro, recalling his youth in Lansing, Ohio, about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland. "Feller, Wynn, and Lemon—those were the names then."
Niekro has pitched better than his 2-2 record shows (he cut his ERA to 2.98 by giving up one run in 7‚Öì innings on Friday, listening between innings to the polka band that plays in the stands whenever he pitches at home), and has assumed the role of elder statesman and adviser. He has also worked particularly with developing knuckleballer Tom Candiotti, who is 2-3 for the season with a nice 2.95 ERA.
Another reason for the turnaround is new pitching coach Jack Aker, who is not only a fount of encouragement but also a bona fide Indian—he's of Potawatomi descent. Aker refers to his starters as "white-collar workers" and his relievers as "blue-collar workers." The Indians might have been in first place as of Sunday had their relievers not committed blue-collar crime against the White Sox over the weekend.
Both Aker and former catcher Pat Corrales, the team's firm and occasionally explosive manager, divided their big league playing careers among several teams—which makes them apt stewards. "We're 24 nobodies, 24 misfits," says outfielder Mel Hall, who coined the term and calls himself the "proclaimed leader" of the outfit. Only three of 24 Indian players (pitcher Neal Heaton and catchers Andy Allanson and Chris Bando) were developed in the Cleveland organization. The rest came off scrap heaps or in trades or were plucked out of other minor league systems.
The strange mix has been impressing not only fans, but opponents as well. "Offensively, they remind me of Toronto a year or two ago," says the Yankees' Willie Randolph. "Good young players coming into their own. They have a little cockiness now. They're young bucks."
"It's like Camelot, Act 1, Scene 1," says Bavasi. "We'll see later how Act 6 turns out. I like it so far." So what if Camelot has only two acts. Who ever thought the Indians would be in it at all?