How do you eat an elephant?" Nick Mileti asked at lunch one day last week. "One bite at a time. Right?" Right. Mileti, who is president of, among other things, the Cleveland Indians, was not discussing the fare at his favorite Pewter Mug restaurant (actually, he was munching a deluxe cheeseburger at the time), he was talking about his baseball team, which has been devouring its opponents in the American League East all season. No one expects the Indians to eat the whole thing, but the fact that they have already gotten their teeth into such elephantine foes as Detroit and Baltimore may be the most surprising development in baseball this season. After last year's famine, who could have anticipated that they would have the stomach for it?
The 1971 Indians finished last in their division by losing the most games (102) while drawing the fewest fans (591,361) in the league. There was much serious talk about moving them to New Orleans. And no one in Cleveland—or even New Orleans—seemed to care.
But as Mileti himself might put it, times do change. The 1972 Indians are a new breed, with new ownership, a new manager and a new lineup with a penchant for doing something decidedly new in recent Cleveland baseball history—winning.
The team's three best starting pitchers—Gaylord Perry, Milt Wilcox and Dick Tidrow—were, respectively, in San Francisco, Cincinnati and Wichita a year ago. The first baseman, Tom McCraw, who is playing for the injured 1971 Rookie of the Year, Chris Chambliss, was in Washington, along with the centerfielder, Del Unser. The rightfielder, 20-year-old Buddy Bell, and the second baseman, 22-year-old Jack (The Hammer) Brohamer, were both in Wichita. And the leftfielder, fallen Angel Alex Johnson, was in the baseball equivalent of purgatory.
Altogether, they have given good, drear Cleveland something to cheer about. Mileti, the head of a group that acquired controlling interest in the Indians from Restaurateur Vernon Stouffer, took command one day before the players' strike. The Indians go nicely with the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and the Cleveland Barons hockey team, which Mileti also runs. The whole shebang fits into what the sesquipedalian Mileti chooses to call his "synergistic concept," which simply means the three teams will all work in concert to woo the public. Mileti's busy sales force hustles tickets for all of them.
Mileti is a short, dark, dynamic 41-year-old who is hopelessly addicted to aphorisms such as "Everything you do in life, good or bad, comes back to bite you in the rear" and "The alternative to hard work is unemployment." He is one of the most popular men in Cleveland. But he cannot take credit for what is happening on the field, since most of the new players and the new manager, Ken Aspromonte, were there before he was. The credit here belongs to Aspromonte, a sensitive and philosophical Brooklynite bent on giving his players the advantages he never had. He is convinced that his own relatively undistinguished major league career was frustrated by bad management.
"If somebody would've handled me right," he has said, "I could have been a darn good ballplayer. But I never had the right guy managing me. I just hope I'm the right guy for some of these kids."
Last year Aspromonte managed the Cleveland farm team at Wichita, where he watched many of the forlorn varsity players pass through en route to oblivion and where he envisioned replacing them with his own eager young stars. When he was hired to manage the Indians, he instantly set about changing the mood of the clubhouse.
"I told everyone I was going to hold a competitive spring training. I always liked to be told that when I was a player. But it didn't happen often enough. I'd be ready to go out and win a job in spring training and then I'd find out the lineup was settled long before I left home."
Nothing was settled before the Indian camp this spring. Brohamer, who had to fight for a job even in the minor leagues, emerged from a five-man competition as the starting second baseman. He is an Eddie Stanky type, minus the truculence, who will beat you in many ways. In a game last week against the Yankees he walked with the bases loaded to "drive" in the winning run in the last of the ninth inning. Brohamer was elated, even by this non-act, and afterward he politely answered a memorable locker room question posed by The Cleveland Press" Bob Sudyk: "What kind of pitch didn't you hit?" "Fastball," said Brohamer, "low and away."
Tidrow and Wilcox were also spring bloomers. Tidrow started last year in Reno, then was promoted to Wichita, where he had a so-so 8-6 year. Now, at 25, he has come of age. He is also one of those rare pitchers who becomes more effective when he is fatigued. "I throw a sinker," he says, "and for some reason the more tired I get the more the ball seems to sink."
The secret of Wilcox' success is not exhaustion but anger. He has been pitching "mad" all season because his former manager, Sparky Anderson, spoke slightingly of his "velocity" when he traded him to the Indians. If there is anything a pitcher is sensitive about it is his velocity. So the madder Wilcox gets, the harder he throws. He has now established quite a ferocity-velocity ratio.
In Perry, for whom they traded Sam McDowell, the Indians have a canny veteran who already has won seven games. Perry is also arousing the sleuthing instincts of American League umpires, for it has long been suspected that he puts more on the baseball than his fingers—hair oil, perhaps, or Vaseline. Perry accepts periodic investigations with equanimity. "Every four days," he says, "I expect to be visited out there."
The happiest newcomer of all may be young Bell, who is the son of Gus Bell, the fine outfielder for Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the '50s and early '60s. Bell had been an infielder all his baseball life until this spring, when Aspromonte moved him to right field to make certain he had a place in the lineup. Aspromonte believes he has superstar potential. At least he looks like one.
"Every now and then you see somebody who just looks like a ballplayer," says Aspromonte. "Mantle was one. This kid is another. Tall, blond, well built. He just puts a shine in your eyes. Put that kid on the screen and the girls would go wild."
Bell, who was the American Association's Rookie of the Year in 1971, has not lost his rookie enthusiasm. When he hit a grand-slam home run off Baltimore's Eddie Watt last month, he gleefully applauded himself as he rounded the bases. "I thought I did a helluva job," he said later.
Alex Johnson does not applaud himself when he hits a homer, nor will he suffer the congratulations of his teammates on such occasions, but he is giving the Indians something to shout about. He leads the team in home runs and runs batted in, and he is chasing fly balls and running the bases, facets of the game he chose not to recognize a year ago in California. The hostile brooder of that time has become, relatively speaking, the soul of affability. Not that Johnson glad-hands his teammates or snaps towels in the shower; he simply keeps his distance. "They leave him alone here," says Catcher Jerry Moses, who went to Cleveland with Johnson from the Angels. "That's what he wants." Johnson is not likely to be suspended this season for failing to give his best. He is, in fact, one good reason why the Indians are riding a tide of goodwill in a town that would not have cared much if they had been washed into Lake Erie a year ago.
The fans have not exactly been breaking down the barricades to see the new Indians—so far attendance has exceeded 10,000 only four times in 14 home dates—but Cleveland has had unusually bad weather this spring and it will take time for the people to accustom themselves to a winner. Mileti, ever the aphorist, recognizes that much remains to be done.
"Between every dream and every reality," he says, "there are 2,000 nuts and bolts."
And please hold the mustard on that elephant.
The new Alex Johnson, once a noted dawdler, hustles down to first for the new Indians.