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Early Risers

Aug. 23, 2004
Aug. 23, 2004

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Aug. 23, 2004

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  • By CHARLES P. PIERCE

    Let's go back-back-back through 25 years with ESPN's Chris (Boomer) Berman, whose outsized enthusiasms have stamped his network, sports and television

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Early Risers

The Indians are ahead of schedule in their run at the AL Central leader

Like a Wall Street executive, Indians general manager Mark Shapiro cites Japanese business models to explain his management philosophy and keeps books such as The Mind of the CEO in his office. In 2002, his first year on the job, Shapiro was focused on rebuilding for the long term when he stripped the team of high-priced veterans, most notably free-agent first baseman Jim Thome (whom Shapiro chose not to re-sign) and righthander Bartolo Colon (whom he traded to the Expos), and began loading up on young talent. Realistically, Cleveland wasn't expected to contend again until 2005.

This is an article from the Aug. 23, 2004 issue Original Layout

So much for his three-year plan. With a team built on a shoestring budget--the Indians' $34.3 million payroll is the fourth-lowest in the majors--Cleveland is making a run at the postseason this year. After taking two of three games from the Twins last weekend at Jacobs Field, the Indians (63--56) had won 10 of their last 12 to move within two games of American League Central--leading Minnesota. Last year Cleveland lost 94 games and finished 22 games out of first.

"Nobody was counting on us to be where we are," says 37-year-old shortstop Omar Vizquel, the graybeard in a clubhouse in which the average age of the other starters is 27. "I thought we had a good team, but I wasn't expecting this. I thought [contending] would take a little longer."

Despite losing cleanup hitter Milton Bradley, who clashed with manager Eric Wedge in spring training and was traded to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers, the Indians' offense is the main reason for their rapid rise in the two months. With an aggressive approach at the plate--"Our guys don't go up there to walk," says hitting coach Eddie Murray--Cleveland led the majors in runs scored (663), ranked second in on-base percentage (.357) and fourth in hitting (.282).

"These guys are swinging," says Minnesota centerfielder Torii Hunter. "I'm standing in the outfield wondering where to play these guys. They're hitting the ball all over the park."

The Indians boast a balanced lineup with six regulars hitting above .280, including catcher Victor Martinez, who in his first full season in the majors was hitting .298 with 19 home runs and 89 RBIs. First baseman Travis Hafner, who replaced Thome in 2003, was putting up MVP numbers: .320 batting average, .596 slugging percentage, 23 home runs and 91 RBIs.

The rotation has also been stronger than expected, with lefthanders Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia and righthander Jake Westbrook a combined 30--15. Only the bullpen, which ranked last in the AL with a 5.25 ERA and had blown 25 saves (tied for the most in the majors with the Reds), has been suspect.

The Indians' fratlike clubhouse buzzes with energy before every home game, with players watching a scene from the movie Slap Shot to pump themselves up. And with 10 games remaining between the Indians and the Twins, including three this weekend at Minnesota, the division race is just warming up.

"We're happy to leave here," Minnesota lefthander Terry Mulholland said, after the Twins escaped with a 10-inning, 4--2 victory on Sunday. "There are a lot of games left, and I think both of these teams are going to be playing some fun baseball."

COLOR PHOTORON SCHWANE/APMartinez and Sabathia (inset) are a big part of Cleveland's young nucleus. COLOR PHOTOBRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES (INSET)Martinez and Sabathia (inset) are a big part of Cleveland's young nucleus.