A postcard-perfect spring training morning, and the new face of the Indians emerges into the desert sunshine: Elvis sideburns, a bronze faux-hawk and the big, ruddy cheeks of a circus clown. Nick Swisher is twirling between practice fields, spreading good karma ("Rock it today, rock it!" he yells to no one in particular), bear-hugging groundskeepers and back-slapping fans who have come to see the strangest, most fascinating camp in the Cactus League. Certainly its most bro-ish.
This is an article from the March 4, 2013 issue
"Miss you in pinstripes," one fan says to Swisher. "Longtime Bleacher Creature."
The ex--Yankee outfielder, who will play first base after signing with Cleveland as a free agent in December, stops in his tracks and booms, "So, bro, what the hell are you doing here?"
A Yankees fan in Indians camp: It's far from the strangest sighting on this February day in Goodyear, Ariz. There is also a 29-year-old former first-round pick who has made one major league start since 2010 and spent last season with the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters (a visibly skinnier Scott Kazmir) slinging 80-something mph fastballs next to a 32-year-old former Japanese sensation who cost the Red Sox $103 million and—like Kazmir—is in Cleveland's camp on a minor league contract (Daisuke Matsuzaka). There is a 42-year-old former American League MVP (Jason Giambi) who four months ago was interviewing for the Rockies' managerial job, taking cuts in a batting cage and trying to prove he deserves a roster spot. And on a back field there is a 22-year-old who a year ago was thought to be the future of the Diamondbacks' rotation but now is in a white Indians uniform, launching baseballs from one foul pole to the other, some 350 feet apart, as part of his unorthodox training routine. Earlier in the day, the quirky, baby-faced righthander, Trevor Bauer, was walking around the field with a six-foot plastic black pole, shaking it with his right arm in order to ... well, no one seemed to know precisely why. "I think it's like a more intense body blade, something like that," reliever Vinnie Pestano later tried to explain. "Let's just say, it looks intense." (Bauer was, in fact, loosening his shoulder.)
Between the free agent signees and the reclamation projects, there are so many new players in camp for Cleveland that the holdovers from last year's club feel lost. ("The first day I walked in here, it felt like I'd been traded to a new team," says Pestano.) There is also a new manager, ex--Boston skipper Terry Francona, who has inherited a new band of idiots. Asked, for instance, about Bauer's habits, Francona said, "So he carries around a big black pole. Who cares? I sure don't." The tone of Camp Tito was set in the first week when the team trainer, having found himself on the losing side of a clubhouse bet, walked out to the field to lead the morning stretch dressed only in a red Speedo.
Hollywood, of course, cast this Tribe of eccentrics nearly 25 years ago. How could you not confuse the real-life Indians, losers of 94 games last year, with their fictional counterparts from Major League? Speedster centerfielder Michael Bourn is Willie Mays Hayes! Free-swinging third baseman Mark Reynolds is Pedro Cerrano! Righthander Brett Myers is crotchety, washed-up vet Eddie Harris! But this club isn't exactly a ragtag group of misfits. The $144 million that Cleveland committed this off-season to such free agents as Swisher (at four years, $56 million, he's the highest-paid free agent in team history) and Bourn (he signed three weeks ago for four years and $48 million) was more than 10 times north of the figure the Yankees invested in new players.
Nearly everyone expects the Tigers to own the AL Central the way Daniel Day-Lewis did Oscar night, but Cleveland—"the boldest team in the American League this winter," says a rival executive—has positioned itself for a run. Depending whom you ask, the Tribe is either shrewdly collecting undervalued assets or foolishly chasing wins in an unwinnable division. Either way, watching the Indians' wild off-season unfold, you couldn't help but recall an exchange between the team owner and general manager in Major League:
"I think he'll fit right in with our team concept," the ex-showgirl owner says of a new acquisition as she scans the team's remade roster.
Says the G.M., "That reminds me, I've been wanting to ask you: What exactly is our team concept?"
There's no argument, really: Cleveland is the most tortured sports city in America (Not listening, Buffalo. You too, San Diego). The Browns have never reached the Super Bowl, the Cavaliers have never won an NBA championship. The Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948—only the Cubs have a longer drought going.
"It's a cynical group of fans, and look, they have reason to be," says Indians closer Chris Perez. "It takes a while to get them to back a team." And yet, there was an undeniable buzz in Cleveland when the Indians signed Francona to a four-year deal in October. The momentum grew with a run of free-agent signings that began with Swisher and ended with arguably the heist of the winter, the addition of Bourn, an All-Star who has stolen at least 40 bases in five straight years and plays as beautiful a centerfield as anyone. When Bourn signed, the Indians sold more season tickets that day than they had in any single month in the last year. "We planned for thousands of different scenarios to happen—organizationally, we could have gone in many different directions," says general manager Chris Antonetti. "There weren't many scenarios where we thought we would get both [Swisher and Bourn]. But we saw an opportunity that we had to take."
The Indians, enamored of Swisher's power (eight straight 20-homer seasons) and ability to get on base (he's ranked eighth or better in the AL in walks in six of the last seven years), had long targeted him as a player to build around, and they went all out to land the 32-year-old Ohio State alum. When Swisher stepped onto the field at Progressive Field during a December visit, the scoreboard flashed with personalized pitches from Buckeyes basketball coach Thad Matta ("Through all the ups and the downs, there isn't a city that's more yearning for a winner") and football coach Urban Meyer ("I know that it would mean everything to this city for you to come back to Ohio. It's time for you to come home, Nick"). During lunch, Swisher leaned over to his wife, the actress JoAnna Garcia, and joked that the Indians didn't have the pull to get former OSU football coach Jim Tressel to tape a message. "Right then, I swear, Coach Tressel walks up and joins us for lunch!" says Swisher. "I mean, the timing was ridiculous!" The clincher came when team brass, at Francona's suggestion, presented the Swishers—who are expecting a baby girl in May—with an Indians baby onesie stitched with the swisher name and the number 33. "When they pulled that out, my wife and I looked at each other and were about to cry," says Swisher. "We were sold."
Swisher adds punch to a lineup that ranked second to last in the league in runs and OPS, and the addition of Bourn adds elite speed and drastically improves the outfield defense. And yet, years from now, it may be the trade for Bauer that's regarded as Cleveland's most significant acquisition this winter. A year ago Bauer was one of the most highly regarded young arms in the game, the third pick in the 2011 draft, a righthander with a range of pitches—low 90s fastball, plus curveball and a reverse slider—as eccentric as his personality. In Arizona, however, his perceived stubbornness didn't sit well with teammates, most notably catcher Miguel Montero and old school manager Kirk Gibson. Bauer is unpolished—"Boy, he looked like Nuke LaLoosh out there today," said one Indians official after a wild bullpen session last week—but, as Antonetti says, "he's the kind of talent that could anchor our rotation for years."
Bauer misfits well on a pitching staff full of players looking for a second chance. "This is the kind of clubhouse that's going to let you be who you need to be," says Pestano. "Whether that means going out there an hour and a half before the game and throwing the ball 350 feet to loosen your arm, or walking backwards through the clubhouse in your underwear."
Of course, a winning off-season means very little. Last year the Marlins were the darlings of the winter, and by summertime owner Jeffrey Loria was selling off stars like they were art knockoffs. Two years ago—Francona's final as Boston's manager—the Red Sox made a splash with more than $300 million in big-ticket signings, then flopped so horribly in September that the organization is still digging out of the rubble.
Francona, who spent 2012 in the ESPN booth, was widely expected to return to managing—just not for a small-market team like the Indians, who have lost more games over the last three seasons than every team in the AL except for the Royals and the Mariners. But Francona has ties to Cleveland; his father, Tito, had his most successful major league run as an Indian in the late 1950s and early '60s. When he called his father, who still lives in New Brighton, Pa.—"Just a 100-mile drive up I-76," says Francona, "so he'll be at the ballpark plenty"—to tell him he was taking the Cleveland job, both the father and son wept. "I don't have any real memories of growing up in the city, but I do feel like this is like coming home for me," says Francona, who played for the Tribe in '88. "People thought I was crazy. Others asked me if I made demands about payroll, about players we were going to bring in. I didn't do any of that. Chris [Antonetti] called me, and all I said was, 'I'm in.'
"I have no idea how many games we're going to win this year. But I do know that I like this clubhouse. A lot."
It was just the early days of spring training, but already Francona was talking about modeling his club after the fast and athletic Rays teams that have succeeded in recent years with defense and aggressive baserunning. (Like Tampa Bay, this version of the Tribe will also strike out a lot: Reynolds, Bourn, Swisher and new rightfielder Drew Stubbs, acquired from the Reds for Shin-Soo Choo, all whiffed at least 140 times last year.) Still, Francona is the perfect manager for this melting-pot clubhouse, and even if the Indians don't live up to their highest hopes, they at least won't be boring. "I tell the guys here that Jacobs Field was always one of the toughest places to play," says the old warrior and aspiring DH, Giambi. "I feel like the grandpa telling old stories, but it's true, that ballpark was sometimes magical. I tell these guys, Let's start winning and bring the magic back. The city is so hungry for this."
It's easy to be cynical if you're a suffering Cleveland fan, but then again, it's also hard not to be optimistic when the sun is shining, the music in the clubhouse is pumped up, and Nick Swisher is ready to rock. "This is just the beginning," he says, "of another great made-for-Hollywood story, bro."
For more on strikeout-happy teams—a club the Indians could join—download the SI digital edition, available free to subscribers at SI.com/activate
Feel The Breeze
The rebuilt Indians will be fun to watch this season—especially if your idea of fun is swinging (and missing) from the heels. The four major off-season additions to the lineup—Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs—each had an at-bat-per-strikeout ratio of 4.0 or lower last year. Only one lineup in major league history (the 2010 Diamondbacks, which featured the all-or-nothing Reynolds in the heart of the order) has had four players who qualified for the batting title and whiffed that often.
2012 K's 141
Rank T13th in AL
Career K rate 21.3%
Active Rank* 32nd
2012 K's 155
Rank 7th in NL
Career K rate 20.2%
Active Rank* 44th
2012 K's 159
Rank 7th in AL
Career K rate 32.6%
Active Rank* 1st
2012 K's 166
Rank 5th in NL
Career K rate 29.3%
Active Rank* 2nd
*Min. 2,000 plate appearances