Search

TAG TEAM THE REVAMPED INDIANS ARE GANGING UP ON THE AMERICAN LEAGUE AGAIN IN THEIR TUNE-UP FOR ANOTHER WORLD SERIES BID

Sept. 23, 1996
Sept. 23, 1996

Table of Contents
Sept. 23, 1996

Hockey

TAG TEAM THE REVAMPED INDIANS ARE GANGING UP ON THE AMERICAN LEAGUE AGAIN IN THEIR TUNE-UP FOR ANOTHER WORLD SERIES BID

A familiar chill hung in the air in Cleveland last week. Time
for postseason baseball again at Jacobs Field? Not quite yet.
Welcome to the Indians' clubhouse. This time, though, the frosty
conditions had nothing to do with a notoriously hostile
atmosphere that last winter scared off free agents Paul Molitor
and Mark Grace, but simply with the climatic preferences of
Albert Belle.

This is an article from the Sept. 23, 1996 issue Original Layout

The Cleveland leftfielder, who prefers the room cold enough to
preserve beef, turned down the two clubhouse thermostats during
the early innings of a game against the California Angels on
Wednesday of last week. A teammate or one of the clubhouse hands
turned the thermostat back up. Belle turned it back down.
Someone cranked it back up. This went on for a few innings until
Belle found a solution: He hoisted his bat and smashed both
thermostats, knocking one clear off a pillar and pounding the
other into a wall.

By last Friday, Belle's teammates had hung a homemade nameplate
over his locker, the only one in the Cleveland clubhouse that,
by his choice, remains otherwise unidentified. It read, 8 MR.
FREEZE. Given that at week's end Belle was four dingers short of
joining Babe Ruth as the only player with back-to-back 50-
home-run seasons, that would be Freeze, Deep, on your
alphabetical roster. And with 27 RBIs in his last 24 games,
tying him with Andres Galarraga of the Colorado Rockies for the
major league lead with 140 for the season, Belle could be
excused for asking, "Is it hot in here, or is it just me?"

The fact is, just about the entire club is sizzling. "We're
peaking at the right time," third baseman Jim Thome says. After
many bold and locally unpopular midseason moves by general
manager John Hart--40% of last season's American League
championship team is either gone or injured--the Tribe has shown
that it is better equipped for the postseason than a year ago.
Last week Cleveland won six of seven games, giving it the best
record in baseball (89-59).

"We're very aggressive, and the personalities are starting to
mesh," says ace righthander Charles Nagy, who improved to 16-4
with eight solid innings in a 9-2 win against the Oakland A's in
the first game of a doubleheader sweep last Saturday. "It's fun
to be here."

Cleveland's failure to win the World Series last season--it lost
to the Atlanta Braves in six games--showed Hart weaknesses in
the team that were not so apparent during a 100-44 joyride
through the regular season. He learned how difficult it is to
win in October with an unstable defense (the Indians made 19
errors in their 15 postseason games) and an offense vulnerable
to lefthanded pitching (they were 1-4 when facing a southpaw
starter). "Power doesn't win in the postseason," says Hart,
whose team hit .179 against the Braves.

Hart tweaked the roster to correct both shortcomings and, not
accidentally, improved another dubious area--team chemistry. It
troubled him when Molitor and Grace expressed misgivings about
joining an outfit that was often chilly to outsiders. Now Hart
says proudly, "We've got a good, professional atmosphere."

For instance, the day after lefthander Kent Mercker joined the
team on July 21 in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles for DH
Eddie Murray, one of Mercker's new teammates approached him at
his locker and asked, "Want to join us in a game of hearts?" It
was Belle.

"I was like, Wow, O.K.," Mercker says. "You hear the stories.
You hear about Molitor and Grace being turned off and wonder if
it's really that bad. It's not. It's great. Believe me, with all
these rain delays recently, we've spent a lot of time together.
I've never seen anything like it. It's a good mix."

The reengineering of the Indians began in the off-season when
Hart signed Julio Franco, who replaced Paul Sorrento at first
base, and righthander Jack McDowell, who replaced Ken Hill in
the rotation. By spring training Hart had begun shopping second
baseman Carlos Baerga, unsuccessfully offering him to several
teams, including the New York Yankees, and trying to pry second
baseman Chuck Knoblauch from the Minnesota Twins. Hart was
concerned about Baerga's drop-off in production in the second
half of last year, and when he had asked him in the off-season
about moving to third base so the team could pursue free-agent
second baseman Roberto Alomar, Baerga had balked. Then, after
the club had steered away from Alomar, Baerga showed up at camp
about 20 pounds overweight. His mobility afield, never better
than average, suffered, and his hitting did not pick up in the
first half of the season.

Finally, Hart got the New York Mets to bite. On July 29 they
agreed to trade infielders Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent for
Baerga and infielder Alvaro Espinoza, the kind of prankster who
thought putting a bubble-gum bubble on an unsuspecting
teammate's hat was funny--the 59th time.

By then Hart had already traded for Mark Carreon, a righthanded
bat with pop, and dealt Murray, who carries a chip on his
shoulder toward the press and, more important, who, Cleveland
scouts decided, had a slow bat and couldn't play first base even
on a part-time basis.

"The easy thing to do is to do nothing," Hart says. "But my
responsibility is not only to improve the club on a short-term
basis but to look at the long-term picture."

Hart wasn't done shaking up the club. With righthanders McDowell
and Dennis Martinez nursing arm injuries, he tried getting
lefthander Denny Neagle from the Pittsburgh Pirates in
mid-August. Hart offered Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay
packages involving several of Cleveland's top prospects. Bonifay
turned them down. Finally, on Aug. 28, a frustrated Hart opened
the vault. He told Bonifay to pick any three prospects in the
system. "You put the deal together," Hart said to Bonifay. "Make
me say no."

Bonifay declined. "You don't have enough," he said, then
accepted an offer of three prospects from Atlanta. Hart, who has
such gems as righthanders Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright rising
through the minor leagues, was stunned. Now, though, he admits,
"Down the road [not trading those prospects] may be the best
thing that happened for us."

Three days after the Neagle deal collapsed, Hart got DH Kevin
Seitzer from the Milwaukee Brewers for reserve outfielder Jeromy
Burnitz. "What Seitzer did," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove
says, "is set our lineup." Seitzer gives the Indians another
righthanded bat and a perfect fit in the number 2 hole between
lefthanded hitters Kenny Lofton and Thome. Like the
righthanded-hitting Franco, Seitzer gives the club another solid
citizen who is hungry to win. Franco has played the most career
games among active players without getting to the postseason
(1,759); Seitzer ranks sixth on the list (1,365).

"Our scouting report was pretty clear about how to beat them
last year," says Mercker, who played for the Braves in '95.
"Pitch a lefthander. Just about any lefthander, but especially
one who can change speeds. They had a lot of free swingers. We
respected their lineup, but it wasn't like we were in awe of
them."

The Indians can still pound the ball. At week's end they were
hitting .292--one point better than last season. For the first
time in franchise history they had three players with at least
30 home runs and 100 RBIs: Belle, Thome and outfielder Manny
Ramirez. They had seven regulars batting better than .300, and
Vizcaino was at .298, including his work with the Mets. Still, a
perception of vulnerability has grown around them.

"Last year," says Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin,
"they steamrolled everybody. You'd go into a series against
Cleveland just hoping to come out in one piece. You knew going
in that after a three-game series with Cleveland, you'd have to
make some roster move with your pitching. Somebody would have to
be sent down or you'd have to get some fresh arms. They pummeled
people. Now I think they've sacrificed a bit of that power for
defense."

Says Hargrove, "I just think people's expectations of this ball
club coming off last year were unreasonable. This club has had a
very good year. We've just had more rough spots than we did last
season."

Some danger signs remain. The Indians are a combined 12-22
against the Yankees, the Rangers and the Chicago White Sox, all
possible postseason opponents. Although the Indians have the
best bullpen in the league (3.73 ERA through Sunday), closer
Jose Mesa (34 saves) has not been nearly as dominant as he was
last year, when he led the majors with 46 saves. Also, Julian
Tavarez, who was so valuable as a setup man in '95 that he made
12 appearances in the playoffs, has been ineffective this year
(4-6, 5.47) and might be left off the postseason roster.

More troubling for Cleveland is a rotation that appears to be
shallow beyond Nagy and Orel Hershiser (14-8, 4.13). Martinez is
out for the season because of an elbow injury, and Chad Ogea,
who the Indians hope can be their third starter, has struggled
(8-5, 5.08) at times. More likely, Cleveland will turn to
McDowell, who threw seven shutout innings on Sept. 11, to end a
streak of four horrible starts. Still, through Sunday, McDowell
was 11-9 and had a career-worst 5.11 ERA. His lifetime
postseason record is 0-4 with a 9.56 ERA in four games.

"The key for us," Hart says, "is Jack. Once the postseason
starts, all I can do is sit back, watch and hope for the best,
like a fan. Anything can happen once you get there, especially
in the five-game [divisional] series."

The Indians would have home field advantage in all three playoff
series this fall, giving them 11 of a possible 19 games at
Jacobs Field. Since the park opened in 1994, they are 140-64
(.686) at home, including a staggering 113-37 (.753) when the
opponent dares start a righthander.

Meanwhile, signs of the Indians' reconstruction abound at the
Jake, especially in the clubhouse. Two sheets of plywood cover
the damage done by Mr. Freeze's heat-seeking bat. On one of them
is a crude trompe l'oeil of a thermostat with icicles hanging
from the bottom. Set perpetually at 32[degrees], it stands as an
accurate measurement of the atmosphere, if not the actual air
temperature, in the Cleveland clubhouse these days. Cool. Very
cool.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE Brian Lesher slid home safely on Sunday, when the A's snapped the Tribe's six-game winning streak. [Brian Lesher sliding into home plate]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE After Hershiser (above) and Nagy, the Indians' rotation is not as sound as their fans like to think. [Orel Hershiser pitching; Cleveland Indians fans holding up sign reading "ARMED AND READY FOR THE PLAYOFFS"]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID LIAM KYLE Nagy helped himself last Saturday with the kind of D that will make Cleveland a better playoff team. [Charles Nagy]