In the center of the home clubhouse at Cleveland's Jacobs Field, atop the big-screen TV, sit two wobbly stacks of DVDs, a collection of bawdy comedies you'd expect to find in a college dorm room. In the lazy hours preceding home games Indians players slouch on leather sofas watching classics such as Deuce Bigalow and Old School. "Other teams may have fancy mottos to rally the troops," says 25-year-old leftfielder Coco Crisp. "Here we draw inspiration from Will Ferrell."
Last Saturday, however, the lighthearted programming on the big screen was preempted by more serious fare: the latest happenings in the American League wild-card race. Three hours before their game against the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland's players eschewed Anchorman in favor of the final innings of a showdown between the Yankees and the Red Sox. After watching Boston prevail 9-2, the Indians took the field and won their sixth straight, 7-5, to extend their wild-card lead over the Yankees to 1 1/2 games. After a 12-4 win over Minnesota on Sunday, Cleveland maintained its lead over the Yankees and pushed the Oakland A's 2 1/2 back.
"It's nice to be the hot team today," first baseman Ben Broussard said on Saturday of the Indians, who had the league's best record since Aug. 1 (27-10 at week's end). "But we know how quickly things can change in a race like this. Blink, and we could be back looking up at two teams in the standings. That's how things will be until the very end of the season."
With the majors' 26th-highest payroll at $41.5 million ($14 million less than the famously low-budget A's), the Indians have ascended to the wild-card lead so suddenly and unexpectedly that even their own fans, it seems, haven't noticed. Although they are poised to advance to the postseason for the first time in four years, the Indians rank 25th in attendance. "It's been the best sports season in Cleveland that no one saw," one team official groaned last Friday night, when only 26,078 fans (half its capacity) turned out at Jacobs Field to see the Tribe beat 2004 AL Cy Young winner Johan Santana for the first time in 19 tries.
In June 2002, seven months after taking over a team that had won six AL Central titles in the last seven years, general manager Mark Shapiro set about dismantling it, unloading ace righthander Bartolo Colon for a package of prospects that included outfielder Grady Sizemore and lefthander Cliff Lee. Shapiro (pronounced sha-PIE-roe) jettisoned other expensive veterans such as outfielder Kenny Lofton, starting pitcher Chuck Finley and relievers Ricardo Rincon and Terry Mulholland, and declared in a press conference that the Indians wouldn't be contenders again for three years.
"I felt like George Bush saying, 'No new taxes'--there hasn't been a month since then that someone hasn't brought up that I said we wouldn't contend until 2005," says the Princeton-educated Shapiro, 38, a devotee of baseball's new math who had spent three seasons as an assistant G.M. in Cleveland before his promotion. "But even though we were a playoff team in 2001, we knew, privately, going into '02 that we were moving toward a dramatic rebuilding process, given how thin we were in our farm system, combined with the aging of our players and the expiration of contracts. We had to accelerate the rebuilding process, which meant restocking the upper levels of our farm system through trades."
Reporters criticized the rookie G.M. for tearing apart a perennial contender, and fans called radio talk shows comparing Shapiro to reviled former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell.
Fast-forward three years. The rebuilt Indians have risen as contenders again, not only for this year but well beyond. In '02 Shapiro acquired his current starting outfield (Crisp, Sizemore, 23, and Casey Blake, 32), his biggest bat (designated hitter Travis Hafner, 28) and his winningest pitcher (Lee, 27, who was 16-4 with a 3.69 ERA through Sunday). Cleveland has also developed players like 26-year-old catcher Victor Martinez (a major-league-best .378 average since the All-Star break) and 23-year-old Jhonny Peralta, who at week's end ranked second only to Baltimore's Miguel Tejada in slugging percentage (.520) among American League shortstops. "They've got some great young talent, guys who are ready to win now," says injured Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter. "No one around the league is surprised they're in it. What's scary is that they're just going to get better over the next few years."
Scariest of all the Indians' hitters is Hafner (.304, 25 homers, 88 RBIs), whose 1.967 OPS over the last two seasons ranks first in the majors. Hafner reminds many of the first baseman he succeeded in Cleveland, Jim Thome. A fan favorite and the Indians' alltime home run hitter, Thome was a humble, lumbering lefthanded slugger from Peoria, Ill. The 6'3", 240-pound Hafner, who grew up idolizing Thome, is a humble, lumbering lefthanded slugger from Sykeston, N.D., a town of less than 150 that, according to Hafner, has "no stoplights, four stop signs, a post office and one café--and that's pretty much it."
Hafner's graduating class at Sykeston High totaled eight students, and he arrived at Cowley County (Kans.) Community College with little experience playing organized ball; even in American Legion play he had never seen a pitch over 80 mph. How raw was Hafner? "One day my first year [at Cowley] the coach said we were going down to the field to take some fungoes, and I asked, 'What's a fungo?'" Hafner says. "When he talked about getting a runner from first to third by going the other way, I figured that was some real top-secret information. I had no idea what he was talking about."
Despite his rough edges, Hafner dominated at the junior college level--in '97 he was a juco All-America and MVP of the juco World Series--and the Rangers chose him in the 31st round of the '96 amateur draft. He broke in with Texas in 2002, playing in 23 games, but Shapiro acquired him that winter for catcher Einar Diaz and righthander Ryan Drese. In his first season with the Indians, Hafner had the daunting task of replacing Thome at first base, but after a yo-yo rookie season in which he hit .254 in 91 games, he settled in as the team's every-day DH in '04, hitting .311 with 28 homers and a .583 slugging percentage. The Indians' recent hot streak coincided with Hafner's return on Aug. 1, after he'd missed 17 games with a concussion; since then they have ranked third in the majors in runs and second in homers. "Everyone seemed to hit a little better when he came back," says Sizemore, "and that's no coincidence. His presence alone changes the whole dynamic of the lineup."
If the Indians do win the wild card, they could be a tough out in October. Beyond their balanced lineup, which, according to Detroit Tigers lefty Mike Maroth, doesn't really have "a weak link," Cleveland has the best bullpen in baseball (anchored by AL saves leader Bob Wickman) and an underrated trio of starters--Kevin Millwood (3.11 ERA with a league-low 3.23 run support), C.C. Sabathia (7-0, 2.37 ERA in his last seven starts) and Lee (6-0, 3.37 ERA over his last 10 starts)--who are peaking at the right time. "I've said since the start of the season that they were a dangerous team," says White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "I love that lineup and the pitching. Cleveland is one of those teams that can put a lot of runs up on the board, so you have to swing the bats."
A year ago the Indians were one game out of first in the AL Central on Aug. 14, then lost nine straight to drop out of contention. "We were young, we were inexperienced, and we ran out of gas," says Broussard. "Last year we learned how hard it is to get into the playoffs, but now we're ready to go the distance. Everyone says how young we are, how our future is bright, but we don't care about the future. We're here to win this year."