All right, all right, already, the Indians are in last place. And, yes, they're a million games behind, completely out of the running. But don't blame it on us. Sure, we put them—specifically the emerging stars, Joe Carter and Cory Snyder—on the cover of our preseason baseball issue and, under the headline INDIAN UPRISING, wrote, "Cleveland Is the Best Team in the American League." Well, the Indians aren't, and it looks like they're not going to be. At least not this year. But don't blame us. The Indians don't. "Sports Illustrated hasn't been getting my hitters out, and it hasn't been getting hits off my pitching staff," said manager Pat Corrales last week, exercising impeccable logic. Said cover boy Carter, "That cover doesn't have anything to do with our problems. People keep bringing that up to me, but I don't believe in that sort of thing. You've had lots of champions on your covers." So there.
Actually, the Indians' problems are hitting and pitching, not jinxes and hexes. "We knew going in that we wouldn't have the best pitching in the league," says pitching coach Jack Aker. "But we thought our pitchers would be somewhere in the middle of the pack. And we figured we could get by with average pitching because of our offense." This is virtually the same offense that led the major leagues last season with a .284 team batting average and 831 runs scored. But this year, though it has lately exhibited encouraging signs of recovery, the Indian offense is 12th in the American League in both hitting and scoring. So what happened?
"The guys have tried to do too much too soon, as opposed to just relaxing," says hitting instructor Bobby Bonds. "This is still a young team. Joe [Carter] is only playing in his third full season, and Cory is really playing in his first [he came up from Triple A last June]. We don't have that seasoned veteran in the batting order who can keep us on an even keel. Look at the Cubs. The difference between this year's club and last year's, for example, is one man—Andre Dawson. When I was with the Giants, we had Mays and McCovey, and you knew that with people like that around, you could just relax and play your own game. Our guys have been caught up with the idea that each one of them has to do it all. They've gotten away from the idea that hitters complement each other. As a result, we've been swinging at too many bad pitches and not waiting for the good ones."
"Other teams," says Corrales, "are more disciplined than we are. It's that simple."
June 28, 1987
Carter and Snyder, the power hitters who were supposed to lead the league's leading offense, were dismal early disappointments. Carter, who hit .302 last year with 29 homers and a major league-leading 121 runs batted in, was .223 after 44 games this season. Snyder, who hit 24 homers in only 103 games last summer, was down to .211 after 51 games. And in May, Snyder suffered through a horrendous slump, during which he had 6 hits and 26 strikeouts in 67 at bats. His problem, he readily acknowledges, was in trying to pull every ball out of the park. "Cory's one of the few hitters in this game who doesn't have to pull the ball to hit home runs," says Corrales. "He has that God-given talent to hit the ball out effortlessly in any direction. We've been working with him on using the whole field."
And Snyder has been working hard. He takes anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes of early batting practice almost every day, focusing for the most part on hitting to the opposite field. "The pitchers are pitching me differently this year from last," he says. "Almost every pitch has been away, but I was still trying to pull the ball. Now I'm concentrating on hitting the ball where it's pitched. This has been a very frustrating time for me, because this is the first slump of my entire career—high school, college or pro. I'd been told that a player can expect to have about three slumps a year. Now I know what they're all about."
Though Snyder won't admit it, his occasional commutes from rightfield to the infield have probably hurt his concentration at the plate, not to mention the Indians' defense. Six of Snyder's eight errors have been made in the infield, and he has cost his team at least one game, a 6-5 loss to the Angels on June 9, when in the seventh inning, as a replacement for Julio Franco at shortstop, he committed two errors, which led to four unearned runs. Last week's elevation of infielder Junior Noboa from Buffalo should keep Snyder in rightfield, where he belongs.
Meanwhile, Snyder's work ethic has finally started to pay some dividends. On the Indians' last road trip, to the West Coast, he raised his average some 25 points, and by the end of last week he was hitting a somewhat more respectable .230 with 13 homers and 32 RBIs. Snyder drove in three runs, one with a homer, in the team's two wins over the Red Sox last week. Carter had his problems with Boston pitching—Roger Clemens struck him out four straight times—but his power figures remain impressive. Despite a .246 batting average, he has hit 16 home runs, and his confidence is unshaken. "Confidence breeds confidence," he says. "Sure, we've got a lot of games to make up, but I know we'll hit a winning streak soon. People have been shooting at us this year. Because of the season we had in '86 184 wins], we're not being taken lightly this year. They've been coming after us, just like they've been coming after the Mets and the Red Sox. It seems that every time we've come up against a good pitcher, he's been great, not just good."
And the Indians' pitching, far from achieving the hoped-for level of mediocrity, has been nothing short of atrocious. Ernie Camacho, who had 20 saves last year, didn't survive the first two months of this season. He had an earned run average of 9.22 in 15 appearances before he was summarily shuffled off to Buffalo. His departure left an already underpopulated bullpen without a seasoned stopper. In desperation Corrales moved Scott Bailes there from the starting rotation, and Bailes has responded with some comparatively effective outings. He leads the team with a 3.04 ERA and has five saves. But Bailes, an almost frail-looking 6'2", 175-pounder, is not constructed in the classic mold of the Goose Gossage-style stopper. He is not durable enough to pitch every day, as a stopper should, so Corrales has had to fill in for him with the unlikely likes of Mike Armstrong, Ed Vande Berg, Rich Yett and Mark Huismann. Of these, Huismann, acquired from Seattle on May 12, has been a pleasant surprise. In the seven days from June 12 to June 18, he had two wins and a save. And Armstrong, in three days last week, got a win and a save.
The bullpen is now in the best shape it has been in all season—and it will get better, Corrales believes, when Sammy Stewart is ready to pitch. Unfortunately, that is more than can be said for the starting rotation. If Indian pitching this year was to find its way, as planned, to the "middle of the pack," Corrales and Aker knew they would have to get another good season out of righthander Tom Candiotti, who, after seven years of mostly minor league employment, found success at last in '86 with, for him, a new pitch, the knuckleball. He led the Indians with 16 wins and the league with 17 complete games. As of last week, though, he was 2-7 with a 5.55 ERA, the lamentable result of a knuckleball gone awry. For the life of him, Candiotti can't get the pitch over the plate, and he's beginning to lose faith in it. In a June 10 start against the Angels, he walked four of the first seven batters he faced and was gone in the first inning. He was considerably better in his next appearance, a 4-0 loss to the Red Sox last Wednesday, but he still walked six, threw three wild pitches and hit a batter in his eight innings. His teammates haven't helped much by averaging only three-plus runs a game in his 13 starts, but Candiotti has become his own worst enemy. He is so flustered by the erratic flight of his knuckler that he is considering a return to the stuff that threatened to make him a career minor leaguer. "I feel I can be more successful if I mix up my pitches, use my fastball and curve more," he said after the loss to the Red Sox. "I know the team would like me to throw all knuckleballs, but I don't think I have to."
His elderly teammate, the high priest of the knuckleball, Phil Niekro, disagrees strongly. "Throwing the knuckler is a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week," he says. "You've got to go out there with the idea that the knuckleball is my pitch. I think Tom's future is with the pitch. He should be thinking about nothing else. I think he'll find that knuckleballers over the years have been pretty successful. I know it's kept guys like Charlie Hough and me around."
Niekro is 48, and the pitching staffs other ancient campaigner, Steve Carlton, is 42. They have a combined 644 wins. Together this year they are 10-10, but they are still considered the aces of the Cleveland staff, which says a lot about the state of pitching on the shores of Lake Erie. The graybeards at least know how "to keep us in a game for seven innings," says Corrales. "And they can pitch their way out of jams." And into them, right along with all the other Indian pitchers. Niekro is 5-6 with a 5.42 ERA, and Carlton, who has been released four times in the last year, is 5-4 with a 4.25 ERA.
The team had hoped Greg Swindell would fireball his way to stardom this season. At 22, he is young enough to be the son of either of his two venerable mound mates, and he has gotten his strikeouts—93 in 92‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. But he's 3-6 with a 4.68 ERA, which is lower than the team average but hardly of Mike Scott caliber. Swindell has also given up 17 homers, 5 more than Candiotti.
The pitching has been so miserable that vice-president Joe Klein feels obliged to explain at virtually every public gathering he attends just why his team did not trade for help in the off-season. At the luncheon meeting of the Wahoo Club last Wednesday, Klein recited his by now familiar litany. "We didn't feel the time was right for a trade," he told the sparse but critical audience of boosters. "We felt the replacements we had available for our regulars—players like Eddie Williams, Jay Bell and Dave Clark—were a year away from being ready. And the pitchers who were available this year were usually some other team's problem players. When our young players are ready in a year or two, we will be able to keep our best and trade others who can bring us good pitching. That is our future."
The future was never going to be now, anyway, Klein insists; it was always going to be wait until next year. "In '85 we set up our four-year plan," he told the Wahoos. "We expected this year's club to be on the verge of contending, and from now on we thought we'd be in contention." Last year's surprising success may have advanced that timetable prematurely. "The surprise element is gone now," says Klein. "It's no accident that we are always seeing the Roger Clemenses and the Jimmy Keys. Other teams are ready for us this year. But believe me, our turn is coming."
Bobby Bonds, ever the optimist, hasn't abandoned hope that their turn can be this season. "If we can just be in single digits out of first place by the All-Star break, then, as potent as we are offensively, I'll take my chances on us."
An "Indian Uprising" after all? Remember, you read it here first.