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Original Issue

Good Home Cookin'

By eating up foes before raucous crowds at new Jacobs Field, the Indians streaked into first place

Three hours before the start of the franchise's biggest series in 35 years, the Cleveland Indians already were deep into their preparation for the New York Yankees amid the spacious splendor of their new clubhouse. That meant that outfielder Wayne Kirby was wearing a white doctor's smock over his uniform and checking teammates' heartbeats with a stethoscope. Outfielder Albert Belle was passing around a cardboard box containing numbered slips of paper for the blind draw in his clubhouse Ping-Pong tournament. Trailed by a camera crew as he taped a humorous segment for a local sports show, outfielder Kenny Lofton was quizzing pitcher Dennis Martinez about his shaggy hairstyle as depicted on one of the 39-year-old Martinez's old baseball cards. All of this commotion last Friday evening was accompanied by the wall-rattling sound of salsa cranked out by the CD player of second baseman Carlos Baerga, who was dancing in front of his locker.

In short, the Indians were making themselves right at home again at swank Jacobs Field, where, in the first three months of the park's operation, Cleveland had the fourth-longest home winning streak in baseball history, and where it seemed that everyone—except, to Lofton's great regret, Janet Jackson—was gobbling up tickets.

Last Saturday comedian Jerry Seinfeld dented the plush cushions of one of the swivel chairs in a luxury box behind home plate. Seinfeld donned a Cleveland cap to watch the Indians try to extend their club-record streak of 18 straight wins at home. (Talk about masters of your domain.) Alas, Cleveland lost 11-6 in the completion of a game that had been suspended because of a 1 a.m. curfew the previous rainy night. Then the game scheduled for Saturday was rained out.

And what would all this home cooking be without some comfort food? Sure enough. Meat Loaf was in the house the following afternoon to sing the national anthem. That game, too, ended in defeat for the Tribe, though not without a comeback nearly as large as the Loaf himself. Trailing by eight runs with five outs left, the Indians scored seven times in the eighth inning and put the tying run on base in the ninth before falling 12-11.

Jacobs Field has become such a happening place that the Indians already have sold more tickets—nearly 2.7 million—than in any other season in their history. As the Cleveland players exhibited before taking on the Yankees, it's a fun place to be. At week's end the Indians held a two-game lead over the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central, marking the first time Cleveland has been in first place this late in a season since 1974.

Says Bob DiBiasio, Cleveland's vice president of public relations, "This is the perfect case study of an environment improving employee production."

The park, the team and the city have created a synergistic explosion of goodwill. The ground-floor windows of the Blue Cross Blue Shield building downtown are festooned with three-foot-high letters that spell GO INDIANS. Ever mindful of the fact that the Tribe hasn't won a pennant since 1954, the Cleveland Plain Dealer advanced the Yankee series with a Page One story in which, under the head-line INDIANS FEVER, the players were overzealously referred to as "our conquering heroes." After pitcher Matt Clark ran his record to 8-1 with a 7-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on June 13, three Cleveland-area dealerships offered him complimentary use of one of their cars for the season. One chap even said he could keep the Bonneville—as long as he threw a no-hitter in his next start.

A local television affiliate, recognizing the great public appetite for a series long since sold out, added the Friday and Sunday games to its broadcast schedule. That came after the Tuesday-night telecast of an Indian-Tiger game from Detroit drew an impressive 31 share in the Cleveland area—nearly a third of the TV sets in use that night were tuned to the Tribe. The big audience watched the Indians' bullpen turn a 5-1 ninth-inning lead into a 7-5 defeat.

Amazingly, Cleveland came within one reliable relief pitcher of a 25-game winning streak. That's because, in the 20-5 run that ended on June 22, the Indians suffered all five defeats in the opponents' last at bat.

However, the Indians usually bounce back from such disasters with a good laugh and another victory. The morning after that late-night loss to Detroit, they were back in their clubhouse having a grand time. Kirby stuck a towel under his shirt and strutted around the room with the unmistakable swagger of beefy teammate Candy Maldonado. When pitcher Jack Morris made a crack about Kirby's prominent lips, Kirby laughed and shot back, "I'd hate to have been your mirror the past 38 years."

Oh, yes. Cleveland won that afternoon 9-6, after which catcher Sandy Alomar said, "Last year a loss like that one last night would have crushed this team. It would have stayed with us for days. This year, with all the veterans we have, we come right back."

The Indians won six times on their last at bat during the 18-game home winning streak, including three times courtesy of Belle's dangerous bat. That Belle has worked hard to become a complete hitter—he was batting .363 at week's end with 20 homers, including one in each game against the Yankees—goes without saying. Characteristically, he refused to talk to reporters after each winning hit.

No player, though, is more important to Cleveland than Lofton. He has supplanted Rickey Henderson as the premier leadoff hitter in the league. Lofton had been kept off base in only four of the 69 games he had played in through Sunday, while leading the league in hits (106) and running second in steals (36). He has continued a remarkably rapid development alter appearing in just five games at Arizona, where he was better known for playing guard on the Wildcats' 1988 Final Four basketball team. "I only saw him take one at bat in a college game," says Boston Red Sox scout Clark Crist, then a scout for the Houston Astros. "And he walked."

Crist did see Lofton play in a scrimmage game. "He was a very crude-looking player," Crist says. "He was lost on fly balls in the gaps, and he had this humongous hitch in his swing. He looked like a basketball player in the batter's box." Nonetheless, Crist recommended that the Astros draft Lofton because he was so impressed with his speed, athletic ability and determination. Houston look him in the 17th round in June 1988.

Lofton spent four years in the Astro organization, declining requests to attend instructional league after his first two seasons. Instead, in the fall of 1988 he returned to Arizona for his senior season of basketball, and the next year he went back to finish his degree in radio and television. "I made a promise to my grandmother that when I went to college, I would finish," he says. "The Astros didn't like it. But when I have my mind made up, I don't let too many things stand in my way. That's what I did with baseball, too."

Houston traded Lofton to Cleveland following the 1991 season because it believed his path to centerfield in the Astrodome was blocked by incumbent Steve Finley. In addition Houston wanted to spare the legs of Craig Biggio by moving him from catcher to second base, so they sent Lofton and outfielder Dave Rohde to the Indians for catcher Eddie Taubensee and pitcher Willie Blair. "I knew nothing about Cleveland," Lofton says, "except the Indians were in last place, like Houston. I was going from one last-place team to another."

He started immediately for Cleveland and continued his accelerated development. He hit .285 in 1992, .325 last year and was hitting a lofty .371 at week's end. Lofton cranked out two more hits on Sunday, giving him 24 in a 14-game hitting streak. He has quieted his hitch to a slight trigger mechanism while turning on inside fastballs that pitchers once routinely blew past him. He even had tagged seven home runs, one more than his career total entering the season. Moreover, he is a fabulous outfielder who stands out in an otherwise unstable defense. "He is," Crist says, "an incredible success story."

That's true, except when it comes to his desire to meet Janet Jackson, whose poster-sized, half-clad likeness adorns his locker. Teammates are well aware of this fascination. They routinely leave tickets for Jackson at will-call windows around the league. Their sightings of limousines usually are followed with shouts of "Hey, Kenny, it's Janet!"

When Lofton heard that Jackson would bring her tour to Cleveland for a show on July 19, the first thing he did was check the Indians' schedule. Cleveland plays the Texas Rangers that night at home. So the next thing he did was ask manager Mike Hargrove, "If I play every day until then, can I get that whole day off?" Said the manager, "I'll think about it."

"I've got no shot. I know it," Lofton concedes.

But while Lofton is bringing the first pennant race to Cleveland since 1959, a players' strike threatens to wipe out all the fun, not to mention the tremendous revenue every time Jacobs Field's gates swing open. "I may be dumb," Indian owner Dick Jacobs told the Plain Dealer last week, "but I'm not stupid. I don't want a strike."

In the meantime the Indians hope their home field advantage can override their deficiencies on the mound and on defense. (Cleveland walked 19 batters and committed six errors in the two defeats to New York.) They've already succeeded in giving their fans more hope than they've had in a generation. Or, as one rooter in the standing-room area put it on a banner on Sunday: THE TRIBE IN FIRST PLACE. JUNE 26, 1994. NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE.

Late last Saturday afternoon Seinfeld took a guided tour of the ballpark. By the time he had seen the three indoor batting cages, the video room, the four whirlpools, the hydrotherapy pool, the weight room and the aerobics room, he had figured out what the amenities of Jacobs Field were all about. "This," he said to his escort, "is all done to make it easier for the players to win, isn't it?"



With pennant fever sweeping Jacobs, even home plate miscues by the Tribe are indulged.



Leadoff man deluxe, Lofton sets off an offense that has kept the likes of Alomar rolling home.



[See caption above.]



Cleveland's erratic pitching has Belle climbing the walls, but his late heroics often save the day.