Indians general manager Mark Shapiro counts New England Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli as a close friend. The two regularly talk and exchange e-mails about team building, a skill for which the Patriots have achieved renown beyond the NFL. At the heart of the New England philosophy is an all-for-one ethos that places a premium on smart spending and signing athletes with small egos over self-indulgent stars. It is an approach that Shapiro has instilled throughout the Cleveland organization as he rebuilds the Tribe, the dominant AL Central team from 1995 through 2001, into a contender again with a modest payroll of $42 million. Now it's time for the next step in the process. "We can preach all we want about selflessness and being a great teammate," says Shapiro, "but the players have to take ownership of it at some point, and I believe our players are doing that."
The players' willingness to make sacrifices was put to the test last summer after the signing of free-agent third baseman Aaron Boone. Still rehabbing an injured knee that had prompted the Yankees to cut him in the winter, Boone signed a two-year, $3.6 million deal for 2004 and '05. One potential problem: The incumbent third baseman, Casey Blake, was in the midst of a breakout season (28 home runs, 88 RBIs). While it seemed unlikely that Boone could match that production, Shapiro thought the 32-year-old Boone's character and spirit would be a good fit for his young team. "I'll tell you exactly what Casey told me after we told him we wanted to sign Aaron," manager Eric Wedge says. "'I'll do whatever's best for the team.'"
During the off-season the Indians were unsure they could re-sign second baseman Ronnie Belliard, so they asked Blake to work out at second for a few days in the Florida Instructional League. He went. After Cleveland did re-sign Belliard, the club asked Blake to report this spring ready to play rightfield. He agreed. Then the Indians signed free agent Juan Gonzalez, who, if he displays any hint of his old two-time AL MVP form, will be the regular rightfielder. So they asked Blake to work in left and right. He obliged.
The 6'2", 210-pound Blake, 31, is an unassuming Iowan whom you could easily picture working on a farm or selling tractors. Cleveland is his fourth organization in six years, and he is as humble as Barry Bonds is arrogant. "Mentally," Blake says, "I've gone from being a third baseman to a second baseman to a rightfielder to, I guess now, a leftfielder, in less than a year. But I don't care. I just want the Indians to be good. I'm from a small town, and kids in small towns dream of being where I am right now. I did. So I'm privileged to be playing this game and starting. The Indians gave me an opportunity I'd been waiting for my whole career."
Blake pauses for a moment before adding, "Honestly, I'm afraid what it would say about me as a person and player if I wouldn't move."
Blake wouldn't have had to move if not for the unlikely acquisition of Boone. You know his story: dealt from the Reds to the Yankees at the 2003 trading deadline, turned in a shaky performance over the last few months of the regular season, hit a Game 7 walkoff homer to beat the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series, tore the ACL in his left knee while playing basketball three months later and was cut by the Yankees shortly thereafter. When he began his search for a new team last summer, he says, the Midwest was the last area on his mind. "I'm thinking West Coast, National League, spring training in Arizona," says Boone, a native of Southern California. "But then I sat down with Mark and Eric, and they really sold me on their vision. I got out of that meeting and called my agent. I said, 'Get me to Cleveland.'"
Shapiro was impressed that Boone was up front about his injury with the Yankees--his contract stipulated that New York could terminate the deal for a fraction of the $5.75 million owed him in '04 if he was injured playing basketball--and wanted that kind of integrity to rub off in his clubhouse. "I don't resent what happened, and I'm not mad at the Yankees," says Boone. "The most fluky thing happened, and it led me here. I'm happy." P.K.
Victor Martinez drove in 101 runs as a catcher last season, breaking the franchise record for RBIs by a backstop (83), set by Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1997.
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Indians
THE INDIANS feel as if they can win the division, but they won't hit enough to do that.... Early on Aaron Boone was a little tentative when he moved laterally. He's chasing a lot of pitches and isn't quite caught up with the bat yet.... Filling the shoes of Omar Vizquel at shortstop is going to be a tall order for Jhonny Peralta. He showed power at the minor league level, but he might physically outgrow the position. If he puts on another 10 to 15 pounds, it may be time for a position change.... They resorted to Plan C in signing Kevin Millwood, a No. 3 or 4 starter, not a No. 2 like Matt Clement and Jon Lieber, who have difference-making stuff [and signed with other teams].... Their closer, Bob Wickman, has a history of elbow problems and has to be watched carefully.... C.C. Sabathia, the staff ace, will start the season on the DL with a strained abdominal muscle. That's a huge blow.... I don't know why they signed Juan Gonzalez. He doesn't fit the chemistry and the direction of this club. He's in the back nine of his career, and most of these guys are up-and-comers.
projected roster with 2004 statistics
3rd in AL Central
third season with Cleveland
JUAN GONZALEZ [New acquisition]
ALEX CORA [New acquisition]
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Triple A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)