It is easy to get lost at Jacobs Field, even with all those schematics with the red dots and the YOU ARE HERE advisories posted throughout the new home of the Cleveland Indians. It happened to the Tribe's second baseman upon his first look at the ballpark before an exhibition game last Saturday. Carlos Baerga saw the place filling with people instead of gnats. The infield was level, the outfield had no football hash marks, and the manager wasn't afraid to drink the tap water. Heck, the Cuyahoga River wasn't even on fire. This is Cleveland? Baerga turned to teammate Paul Sorrento and asked, "Are we in our ballpark or on the road? I can't believe this."
The same feeling of displacement overcame most of the 40,523 fans on hand. The ballpark's unofficial grand opening moved them to a collective stupor for the better part of three innings—their open-mouthed silence broken only occasionally by polite applause. "I wondered what was going on," said Indian general manager John Hart. "Our crowds are usually raucous crowds."
Who could blame them? Clevelanders are left with nothing familiar to latch on to. It's all so new to them: the seats close to the playing field, the huge scoreboard with instant replays, the 119 luxury suites, the chicken fajitas served at the concession stands and the unobstructed views of—in the name of Mike de la Hoz, can this be true?—an honest-to-goodness contender. Then on Monday the Indians confounded and amazed a crowd of 41,459, winning on Opening Day for the first time in five years. Cleveland came from behind twice to beat the Seattle Mariners 4-3.
The Indians have been building toward this happy collision of a good team and a modern ballpark throughout the 1990s under a plan called the Blueprint for Success, which included dishing out multi-year contracts like so many caps on Cap Day. The idea was that the team and the ballpark would be ready at the same time.
Truth is, this sort of optimism has been 40 years in the making in the wasteland of baseball hope that is Cleveland. The Indians have not finished first since 1954, the longest drought endured by any major league city this century. And they haven't even bothered to come close since 1959, never having been in first place after July, never having finished within 10 games of first place in any full season and never having placed higher than third in the last 35 years.
Remarkably, Clevelanders have exhibited little angst about this run of horrible baseball. At worst, they are indifferent about it, as they were in 1985, when only 655,181 people showed up at cavernous, 74,208-seat Cleveland Stadium during the season; or in '56, when 356 people dropped by for a September game. "I remember the place was so empty and so quiet," broadcaster Herb Score, the former Indian ace, says of that game, "that from the pitching mound I could here the clacking of the typewriters up in the press box." At best, the fans are warmly sentimental and fatalistic about all the losing, as evidenced by the subtitle of a recently published book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, which traces the Tribe's struggles to the 1960 trade of the slugging outfielder: A Loving Look at a Thirty-Year Slump.
Now signs of change are all around the city, with Jacobs Field bearing the biggest red dot of them all. Revitalization? You are here.
The $169 million, county-owned park is the centerpiece of a sports and entertainment complex that in the fall will also house the NBA's Cavaliers, who had taken the well-worn path out of the city to the suburbs in 1974. So improved is Cleveland's image that President Clinton ventured into town on Monday to do something no sitting president ever dared to do before. No, he didn't drink the water at dreary, 62-year-old Cleveland Stadium, which will still serve as the home of the NFL Browns. Not even manager Mike Hargrove tried that during his last four years there. Clinton's presidential precedent simply was to watch the Indians play in Cleveland.
For the ceremonial first pitch, he donned a politically correct Indian cap—an old model bearing a C rather than the current version with the Chief Wahoo emblem—and pulled the string on a changeup that floated over the plate for a strike. But in order to see his beloved Arkansas play Duke for the NCAA basketball championship in Charlotte on Monday night, Clinton bailed out of Jacobs Field after seven innings, with Randy Johnson of the Mariners still throwing a no-hitter. The Indians showed more staying power.
Sandy Alomar Jr. broke up Johnson's no-hitter with a sharp single to right in the eighth, and Cleveland rallied for two runs in that inning to tie the score. The Indians fell behind again in the 10th, 3-2; forged another tie in the bottom of that inning; and finally won in the 11th, when Wayne Kirby scored Eddie Murray from third base with a two-out single. At that moment Hart's wife popped a bottle of champagne in their luxury box. "It tasted very sweet, very special," said Hart, who had arrived at the ballpark at 6:30 in the morning. "I came here and saw the sun peeking up. We've been working for this day over the last three or four years."
Confidence is high amid the blond wood lockers, plum carpeting, four leather sofas, eight TV sets, hydrotherapy pool and sauna, steam and aerobics rooms in the Indian clubhouse. Says Baerga, "I think we're ready to win. My first four years here I went to spring training thinking we couldn't win, that we didn't have the talent of teams like Toronto, Baltimore and New York. Now I think we can do it."
Baerga is the Cleveland cornerstone, partly because of a radical step he took in the winter of 1992. He actually wanted to stay put. For years the Indians had lost star players, like Joe Carter, Brett Butler, Julio Franco, Tom Candiotti, Bud Black and Greg Swindell, either to free agency or to trades forced by their impending free agency. Butler was so eager to flee as a free agent after a 101-loss season in '87 that he refused to give the club his home telephone number. "In the past, after the last game of the season, guys couldn't wait to get out of Cleveland," Hart says. "On Oct. 3, it was like the Indianapolis 500."
Several months after inheriting the general manager duties from former club president Hank Peters in September 1991, Hart unveiled his plan to keep a core of talented young players in Cleveland. Peters had obtained Baerga, catcher Alomar and outfielder Kenny Lofton in trades. Albert Belle, a second-round pick for Cleveland in the 1987 draft, looked like he would be an impact player after a 28-home run season in '91.
Hart and his staff had decided they needed to avoid taking players to arbitration, a process that often alienates them. They also had to build a bond between the players and the community. They needed to do all of that within the constraints of a low-revenue team. The plan that Hart eventually presented to owner Richard Jacobs centered around offers of multi-year contracts to the Indians' best young players. Every deal would include two provisions: that the last year be at the club's option and that the player participate in local charities. Hart told Jacobs, "This is also a way to fix your costs. Who knows what you'll have to pay them in arbitration." Jacobs liked the idea.
Baerga was one of the first of Hart's long-term signees, accepting a four-year deal, including the club's option year, on March 10, 1992. Baerga has since signed an extension that binds him to the Indians through 1999, and he now maintains a year-round home in the Cleveland area, as do seven of his teammates. Hart signed a number of others to multiyear contracts, including marginal players like pitchers Jack Armstrong, Dave Otto and Scott Scudder—all of whom are now playing elsewhere—and third baseman Carlos Martinez, whose contract the club bought out this spring. "We've made some mistakes," he admits, "but they were not big money mistakes, and, in most cases, other clubs have picked up those contracts."
Twelve current Indians have multiyear contracts, including Alomar, who is guaranteed $7.65 million through 1997 despite missing 282 games with injuries over the past three years. Third baseman Jim Thome, 23, will make $5.2 million during the next four seasons, though he has hit .244 in 114 major league games. Still, the comfort for Hart is knowing that six of his regulars are bound to the team through at least 1996 at fixed costs: Alomar, Baerga, Belle, Lofton, Sorrento and Thome. Another starter, rookie rightfielder Manny Ramirez, also is tied to the club for at least that long by reserve rights, though he is signed only through this season.
"I will not allow to happen in Cleveland what happened in Pittsburgh," Hart says, referring to the free-agent losses of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek, which dismantled a Pirate team that won three National League East titles to open the 1990s. "This year looks like a breakthrough year for us. As it shapes up, I think we should be a very competitive team. But this is not just about this year. It's about having the same kind of feeling in '95, '96 and on down the line."
However, as if to underscore the importance of this season, Hart last winter signed five free agents with postseason experience—Murray, catcher Tony Pena and pitchers Martinez, Jack Morris and Steve Farr—all of whom are so old that they were born before the Indians' last pennant race, in 1959, which ended in a second-place finish. Those reinforcements still leave Cleveland with a pitching staff only slightly better than the one that finished 11th in the league last year and a defense that could be just as troublesome as the one that was the worst in the league. "We'll put a lot of runs on the board," Morris says, "but everything depends on whether we catch the ball."
Should this turn out to be a typical Indian summer, at least Cleveland fans can watch it in comfort and wash it down with 14 varieties of beer. Jacobs Field is an urban ballpark that does not honor the past so much as it winks at it, with an asymmetrical outfield configuration and a 19-foot "little green monster" in left that has a bleacher section above it. The exposed tubular steel, the rough golden limestone of the facade, the greenish-black granite along the foundation, the sheaths of glass and the 19 vertical light standards that resemble giant toothbrushes are the kind of modern twists requested by Jacobs, a building and mall developer who paid $13.8 million to have the stadium named for his family (though he has no ownership interest in the facility).
"He didn't want something that looked old," said Jim Chibnall, senior designer of the project. "He wanted something new and exciting, a ballpark that would parallel his baseball team."
After cutting the ribbon to open the stadium Saturday morning, Jacobs spent the middle innings of the exhibition hanging out in the leftfield bleachers, where gleeful fans constantly snapped his picture, slapped him on the back, shook his hand, thanked him profusely and asked for so many autographs that his pen began to run dry. This is Cleveland? Well, yes, though it takes some getting used to. Even Jacobs found himself lost in the newness for a moment. He looked up from signing an autograph, scanned the length of the bleachers and blurted out, "Where can you get a beer around here?"