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Beaten Like A Drum

It is even lonelier at the bottom than at the top, as the hapless Cleveland Indians can attest

Herb score and seven years ago, their forefathers were in first place. Thirty-seven years after they last won a pennant, the Cleveland Indians are not in first, or even in last, but in a crawl space somewhere beneath the cellar of the American League East. On Sept. 12, 1954, however, the Indians were not only in first, but they also drew a record 84,587 fans for a double-header at home against the New York Yankees.

The Yankees returned last Friday night to an eerily unchanged Cleveland Stadium. Sure, the ballpark has aged a bit, and a bit ungracefully at that. It may now be best known for, in the words of Indians president Hank Peters, "all the things that we lack here: cleanliness, concessions, all the things that make the game an enjoyable experience." But who needs fancy newfangled amenities the things that make the game an enjoyable experience?

Oh, and, yes, Cleveland itself hasn't changed much in the last 37 years. But then, civic fatalism runs fairly deep, so deep, in fact, that the city's most venerable building is called Terminal Tower. In front of it stands a statue of General Moses Cleaveland, his left hand gesturing toward his stomach as though he has just ingested a plate of bad clams.

This may have something to do with the changes in the Tribe. The Indians have seen a spot of trouble in the last four decades. In fact, if the 20th century were a single continuous season, Cleveland, through Sunday, would have dropped 780½ games out of first place since 1954—that is, since shortly after the All-Star break. Talk about a second-half swoon. "We hear about it all the time," says Indians pitcher Greg Swindell, "but I tell people that we haven't been here the last 40 years. The last 40 years aren't our fault. Well, the last few are, but...."

But are any of these aforementioned trifles enough to explain the Indians-Yankees attendance of Friday night, which wasn't 84,587, or 44,587, or 4,587, but appeared instead, to the naked eye, to be half a dozen folks huddled under the same tartan blanket? The attendance was announced as 6,163 and the temperature at game time was announced as 54°—there's that inescapable number again—but from the frigid upper deck, both figures appeared to be inflated by at least half.

Then again, the Tribe was 32 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East going into Friday's game. The Indians were seeking their 100th loss of this season, which is likely to end up as their worst. They have taken the L more often than most Chicago commuters; they have been bringing up the rear longer than Phyllis Diller's plastic surgeon; they have, in short, been the butt of these and every other bad joke imaginable, including many uttered by the citizenry of Cleveburg. So perhaps a more appropriate question is, Why did anybody show up at Cleveland Stadium on Friday?

For some, the answer is, Because it is there. Of course, Cleveland Stadium is there not so much like Mount Everest is there, but more like the Grand Canyon is. It is a place where one can be swallowed in the sheer enormity, the vast emptiness, the sweeping silence of the surroundings, year after inglorious year. We asked the first person we saw seated in the ballpark, Cleveland welder Robert Lusk, if perhaps that was the reason why he was there. "I'm here because my daughter won a drawing to be the ballgirl tonight," said Lusk, free ducats in hand. Lose the lottery, win Tribe tickets.

Meanwhile, security guards vigilantly patrolled the empty reserved seats around Lusk, lest some riffraff refugee from the cheap seats tried squatting there illegally during the late innings. As one American League scout observed of the Cleveland ushers earlier this season, "They're afraid 77,000 people are going to show up at midnight."

There has been no reason whatsoever to show up late for an Indians game this season. With a 2-0 deficit after the sixth inning on Friday, the Tribe shuffled on lifelessly and was finally shut out 3-0. (Not incidentally, Cleveland Indians is an anagram for Nine Cadavs Nilled). The loss made the Indians' record 4-73 when they were trailing after six innings and pushed them to triple figures in overall losses on their very first attempt at the mark this season.

"For us to lose a hundred this year was fairly much a given," says manager Mike Hargrove. Hargrove, a.k.a. Grover, a.k.a. Grover Cleveland, has provided the earliest measures of hope since taking over for the fired John McNamara on July 6. He is one of the game's brightest young minds and, fortunately, a patient man, for his roster of largely anonymous 26.1-year-olds is the youngest, on average, in the major leagues.

"They basically threw nine rookies out there at the start of the year and said, 'Go get 'em,' " pitcher Tom Candiotti, who was traded from Cleveland to Toronto on June 27, says of his former team. "Most of the guys are just happy to be in the big leagues. It's hard to win like that."

Still, it is difficult to distribute blame for the Indians' ineptitude and by now all but irrelevant to do so. The franchise has been a railroad handcart pumping toward hell for so long that its current passengers can do nothing more than try to slow the runaway momentum. Peters, who helped build the World Champion Oakland A's of the early 1970s and whose Oriole teams went to two World Series while he was general manager in Baltimore, is retiring from a lifetime in baseball after this season. Cleveland fans may not buy it, but he deserves a better exit than this. "I've been married for 41 years," says Peters, who met his wife, Dottie, while both were working for the St. Louis Browns. "My wife said the other day, 'We're not exactly going out in a blaze of glory, are we?' "

Since 1960 the Tribe has had as many ownership groups (six) as winning seasons, and the '91 Indians are in large part the legacy of that never-ending, never-spending stream of empty suits passing through the front office. It is a legacy left to those few fans who were in the stands last weekend. Their motives for attending—complimentary tickets pulled from a sweepstakes drum at a Sherwin-Williams paint store notwithstanding—remain unclear, though we can speculate. "Many are escapees from local institutions," offers Sheldon Ocker, who has now chronicled three of the Tribe's five 100-loss seasons for the Akron Beacon Journal.

Still other fans had stolen across international borders, seeking a high old time in Cleveland, which bills itself in a sign at the airport as being "on America's North Coast." This may account for the four hosers from New Liskeard, Ont., who drove 12 hours to Cleveland for a wedding. The foursome had been planning for days to attend Friday's game. "We thought about getting tickets in advance, but we decided to take our chances," Mike Corbin said from his seat 10 rows behind the Yankee dugout.

Corbin & Co. all wore Indians caps bearing the doubly embarrassing likeness of Chief Wahoo. Each quickly confessed, however, to being a Blue Jay booster. The two passions are compatible, for many of Cleveland's former stars—Candiotti, Joe Carter and Cory Snyder—are now members of the first-place Jays. "The Toronto Indians are doing very well this year," noted Noel Egensperger, a Cleveland shipping foreman. "Just like the New York Indians did very well in the '70s."

The Tribe has a long history of ripening its young talent before distributing the fruit, almost free of charge, to teams around both leagues. Candiotti calls this year's dispersal of himself and others "a garage sale." But the Indians are finally beginning to hold on to players developed in their system. Some hot prospects, of course, never realize their potential. Witness the Hall-of-Fame-to-waiver-wire story that is charted in graffiti in a Cleveland Stadium men's room. The first line of ballpoint-pen ink, all but weathered away on the wall, reads SHOELESS BEAU ALLRED. The next line, somewhat newer, reads CLUELESS BEAU ALLRED. And the final line, in the freshest ink of all, reads simply CLUBLESS BEAU ALLRED.

Other prospects are panning out. Mike Tucker of Cleveland sat with his three boys in the upper deck, not far from the rightfield foul pole, on Friday night. They accounted for four of the seven people sitting that evening in the second deck between right centerfield and the first base dugout, a distance of about eight miles. "We've come to see Albert Belle do something," said Tucker. "Not to see him throw a ball at a fan or anything like that. We come to see him play. We like him."

Leftfielder Belle will likely reach 100 RBI this season, in spite of missing 30 games because of such faux pas as drilling a Cleveland Stadium heckler in the chest with a baseball and, more heinously, failing to run out a grounder. After the latter incident, then manager McNamara described what is perhaps Belle's greatest accomplishment: "He not only embarrassed himself, he embarrassed the club. He embarrassed everybody." Embarrassing himself? Embarrassing the Tribe? Embarrassing everybody? That is a cycle not easily achieved, especially in the Land of Cleve, where people have gotten beyond embarrassment.

Yankee general manager Gene Michael, who grew up in nearby Kent, Ohio, recalls watching his first major league game in Cleveland Stadium from a jam-packed upper deck in leftfield. "When the Yankees came to town, they would draw 60,000 to 70,000 every time out," Michael said on Saturday. On Sunday the Indians held Fan Appreciation Day. Each player gave a fan the shirt off his back. Sadly, there were almost enough shirts to go around.


This rare Indians fan might have been inspired by the thumpings administered to the wild-swinging Jerry Browne and his teammates.



[See caption above.]



There are no paying customers in this photo. Kim Lusk and her dad were there on freebies.