O.K., O.K., so the Cleveland Indians weren't the best team in the American League in 1987—as a certain magazine boldly proclaimed they would be, only to wind up with egg all over its logo. So they were the worst. Nobody's perfect, right? So instead of tearing up the league, the Tribe lost 101 games to become the first team in major league history to sandwich a winning season between two 100-loss ones. Foreseeing big things for the Tribe was an idea just slightly ahead of its time.
1988. That's what we really meant. This will be the year that the Indians finally contend for something besides the cellar, although after last season's debacle no one in manager Doc Edwards's clubhouse wants to look beyond tomorrow. Heck, when it has been 20 years since you've finished as high as third, you don't start worrying about first place in April.
And yet that's where Cleveland found itself on Sunday after a 4-1 win over the hapless Baltimore Orioles that left the Indians with an 11-2 record and a 1½-game lead over the New York Yankees in the American League East. As second baseman Julio Franco said when the Tribe beat Baltimore 1-0 Saturday to go ahead of the Yankees, "You come back in September and tell me that, and I kiss you."
What's so remarkable about Cleveland's fast start—its best since 1966—is that the Indians have done it with almost the same players they had last year when they won only one of their first 11 games. "There's no pressure on us this year," says centerfielder Joe Carter. "We didn't make a blockbuster deal, but we tried to improve our defense. Three runs will win us a ball game now. Last year we needed eight or nine."
Or more. Cleveland's 1987 home opener before a crowd of 64,540 foreshadowed what was to come. The Indians got 12 hits and 11 runs. And lost.
Here are some other nasty stats from that disastrous season:
•The pitching staff had a 5.28 ERA, the highest in the majors in 31 years, and gave up 957 runs, the most since 1939. They also issued 606 walks, second-most in the league, and allowed a club-record 219 homers.
•The Indians were 14-51 in games in which they scored from three to five runs, by far the worst record in the majors. The St. Louis Cardinals, in contrast, were 45-26 in such games.
•Phil Niekro, the 48-year-old knuckleballer, was leading the team in wins (seven) when he was traded in mid-August. By the time the season ended, only two other Cleveland pitchers managed to equal that total.
•To top it off, the Indians committed a league-leading 153 errors.
So just how was it that at the end of last week the Tribe led the majors with an ERA of 1.75 and had five starting pitchers (average age: 25.6) with a combined record of 10-0? One reason was the emergence of Greg Swindell (3-0, 0.96 ERA), a 23-year-old lefthander who missed the last 14 weeks of the 1987 season with torn ligaments in his left elbow. In his first 28 innings this year, he fanned 19 while giving up only two walks and three runs. During Saturday's win, he threw 82 strikes and only 29 balls. "That's what we're trying to get through to these guys," says Edwards, who replaced Pat Corrales last July. "Pound the strike zone."
Swindell's ascendance as one of the league's dominant pitchers seems to have galvanized the Indians' entire starting rotation, which also includes Scott Bailes (1-0, 1.76 at week's end), Rich Yett (2-0, 3.38), John Farrell (7-1 over the last two seasons, 2.61) and Tom Candiotti (2-0, 1.11). Candiotti, a 16-game winner two years ago, is coming off a season in which he went 7-18 despite throwing two one-hitters. "Pat Corrales wanted me to be exclusively a knuckleball pitcher, and we kind of bumped heads over that," says Candiotti, who prefers to throw his knuckler 50% to 60% of the time. "I had a good spring in '87 just lobbing this slow knuckler that Niekro had taught me, but once the season started I had trouble getting it over the plate. And I had nothing to fall back on. But when Doc took over he sat me down and said, 'I want you to use all your pitches.' "
Candiotti was the starter in Cleveland's opener this year, against the Texas Rangers, a game that brought back memories of 1987. Leading 3-1 with one out in the seventh, Candiotti walked the eighth- and ninth-place hitters and gave up a single to leadoff man Oddibe McDowell. Carter's throw from shallow center beat the runner to the plate, but catcher Andy Allanson dropped the ball making a sweeping tag. Texas scored the tying run when Franco threw the ball away trying to turn a double play. Then Pete O'Brien finished the Indians, 4-3, with a homer in the eighth. "It was the same formula we had used to lose games last year," says Carter. "Everyone got up in the clubhouse and said, 'No way this is going to happen again.' "
Carter and leftfielder Mel Hall are the Indians' cocaptains this season. They have played together on three teams since 1981 and are a self-described odd couple. Carter, 28, who last year became the first Cleveland player to get at least 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in the same season, is quiet and businesslike, a leader by example. The 27-year-old Hall is, well, different. "One of my jobs is to keep everybody as loose as possible," he says. This spring, for instance, that meant making a bizarre bet on the links that allowed a teammate to burn his golf shoes.
"Mel's loudmouthed—you can hear him anywhere," says rightfielder Cory Snyder. "But that's good. We need that on this team. Everyone was so serious last year that no one had any fun."
The 25-year-old Snyder (.333, 4 HRs, 11 RBIs) has been a more selective swinger this season. In 1987 he fanned 166 times and drew only 31 walks, a horrendous 5.35-to-1 ratio. This year, through Sunday, he has had six walks and only six K's. He scored the only run Saturday when he led off the 11th with a walk, went to second on a passed ball and came home on a single by first baseman Willie Upshaw, whose contract was purchased from Toronto in March. It was the kind of close game the Indians wouldn't have dreamed of winning a year ago. "It seems like it's somebody different coming through every day," says Edwards. "We've got the attitude now that if we just hang close, somebody's going to break it open for us."
Edwards doesn't do a lot of tinkering with his lineup, but the few changes he has made have been effective. He has moved Franco from short to second, making room for 22-year-old Jay Bell, who is a solid fielder with a better arm than Franco's. "His job is to defend what our offense gets," says Edwards. "You have three goalies on your baseball club—your shortstop, your centerfielder and your catcher."
At catcher the Indians have Allanson, 26, who Edwards believes is a big improvement over Rick Dempsey. "Dempsey was a good defensive catcher, but he's not the field general that this kid is," says Edwards. "When Bob Boone [of the California Angels] retires, Allanson will be the best."
Edwards has also done a little platooning in leftfield, occasionally resting Hall against lefthanded pitching. His timing, so far, has been pure magic. On April 10 he started Carmen Castillo in left for the first time, and Castillo responded by going 3 for 4 with a double and driving in two in a 6-3 win over the Orioles. The next day Edwards put Dave Clark there, and Clark got the game-winning RBI. On April 13, against the Minnesota Twins, Edwards decided to use righthanded slugger Ron Kittle at DH against righthander Bert Blyleven. It seemed on odd move—unless you knew that Kittle had hit seven homers in his last 19 at bats against Blyleven. So what did Kittle do? He made it 8 for 20 and finished the day 3 for 4 with three RBIs, while leading the Tribe to a 6-3 victory.
Even the bullpen, long the soft underbelly of the Indians, has been solid. Jeff Dedmon, a castoff from the Atlanta Braves, pitched 2⅖ innings of one-hit ball to pick up a win over Minnesota in his first appearance. And Doug Jones, who led Cleveland in saves in 1987 with eight, had two impressive saves last weekend in Baltimore after a horrific '88 debut in which he balked home the winning run and lost 7-6 to the Twins. Lefthander Dan Schatzeder also had two saves, but the Indians still can't be said to have a bona fide closer.
Still, things could be a lot worse. It could be 1987 again. The memories of last season are still fresh enough to keep the Tribe from getting big-headed over a few wins in April. As the players watched the highlights of the Braves' 10th straight loss last Saturday afternoon and listened to Bob Costas intone that these were "dark days for Chuck Tanner, Bobby Cox and the rest of the folks at Atlanta," Carter said to no one in particular, "We've been there."
But believe it. We really mean it this time. They're not going back!