TANNED, FOCUSED AND LOADED/AL CENTRAL
This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue
To live in Cleveland is to be optimistic. Pro football will
return. Don King will move away. The Indians will win a World
Series again. That's what they believe, those 40,000 folks who
show up at Jacobs Field every night. Heck, last year we weren't
all that good--and we still made it to Game 7! In losing,
Clevelanders found strength. The ballpark is again virtually
sold out for the entire year. Faith in Cleveland is thriving.
Especially in the office of the general manager, John Hart. He's
a hard-nosed guy. He knows that sentimentality makes for lousy
baseball, so nine of the players from last year's World Series
team are gone. But the biggest move he made all winter, he made
with hope in his heart. He signed Dwight Gooden to a two-year
contract for $5,675,000 million. Talk about running on faith.
On its face, that may not sound like much. One pitcher, the No.
3 pitcher in the rotation, accounting for 5% of the team
payroll--what's the big deal? But Doc is no ordinary No. 3
pitcher. "He holds the key for us," Hart says.
The Indians hope for 70 starts from their first two guys,
righthanders Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright. That leaves 92
games. If Gooden, at 33, can start 30 or so--something he hasn't
done since '92--and keep his club in two thirds of those, the
Indians will play October baseball again. If he can't, the
Indians may well struggle, even with their assembly line of big
bats. Gooden is the club's barometer. His whole career, his
entire life, is about hope, about faith, about luck.
The Indians have had miserable luck with their pitchers. Jack
McDowell (now with the Angels) was sidelined most of last season
with an elbow injury. Projected starter John Smiley will miss
most of this year with a broken arm. Projected No. 4 starter Ben
McDonald was sent back last week to the Brewers, who will have
to cope with his season-ending shoulder injury. Chad Ogea is out
until mid-May with a left-knee injury. Decent starts from
Gooden, one after another, will serve as a sign that Cleveland's
luck is changing, that faith is being rewarded.
People root for Gooden. In New York they rooted for him when he
was good, when he was awesome, when he was getting shelled. They
rooted for him through his drug and alcohol rehabs. And through
his arrests, his marital problems, his injuries, his father's
illness. He's likable.
Hart knows all this. He knew it when he coached against Gooden
when he was a high school pitcher in Tampa. He knew it when he
managed against Gooden's team in the minors. He knew it the last
two years, when Gooden pitched for the Yankees. Gooden owned
Cleveland, won five games against the Indians, never lost, had a
Just as he did in New York, Gooden will receive bountiful run
support in Cleveland. All the pitchers should. The '98 team has
more bash in it than even the '95 team, which won 100 games, all
of them, it seemed, on three-run homers. But when it comes to
arms, Hart has a commitment problem, and with the Indians'
recent history, his caution is understandable. Now if you have a
useful bat, Hart has something he'd like you to sign.
Leftfielder David Justice is under contract through 2002, and
the club has an option on 2003. Centerfielder Kenny Lofton,
Cleveland's prodigal son, has returned from a yearlong sojourn
in Atlanta and is signed through 2000. Rightfielder Manny
Ramirez, a 25-year-old with 59 homers and 200 RBIs over the past
two years, is signed through 1999, with a club option for 2000.
A stable and productive outfield.
Hart is moved by productivity. In the off-season, he went
shopping for a second baseman. Instead he found a shortstop with
a career .274 batting average, Shawon Dunston. Hart talked him
into playing second base. "I consider second base to be an
offensive position," the G.M. says. Hart considers every
position to be an offensive position. As for Dunston, he had no
desire to move from short. But what he wants more than anything
is to play in a World Series, something he has never done in his
13 years in the game.
Gooden is saying the same thing. He went to the World Series
with the Mets in '86. Ten years later, when the Yankees reached
the Series, Gooden was left off the roster, out of gas. He knows
the end of the line is coming. In the final years of his career,
he wants to be lucky and good. He wants to go out a winner.
That's his hope. Gooden has a lot of Cleveland in him.