"There were many nights when I first got here that we had 4,100
in Cleveland Stadium and we were getting our brains beat in, and
I'd wonder why the hell I ever took this job," Cleveland Indian
general manager John Hart says of the 1991 season. "I remember
the times when I'd be out selling the team to a bunch of retired
postal workers when it was 12 degrees below zero in the dead of
winter. The only thing I didn't do was get one of those cars
with the loudspeakers on top and drive around town begging
people to come see us play. It was like a train wreck, but out
of those ashes we hoped to figure a way to win the pennant. We
knew that after 40 years of futility everybody was pissed off.
Believe me, there was nobody offering us free meals at fancy
restaurants, nobody wanting to give us a good table at Swingos."
WELCOME TO THE JAKE
In most major league ballparks this season it's so quiet you can
hear the attendance drop. Then there is Jacobs Field, the
15-month-old home of the Indians. There was a sellout every
night during a recent nine-game home stand at the Jake, pushing
Cleveland over a million in attendance this year. With strong
advance sales during that home stand, the Indians guaranteed
they would break their alltime attendance mark of 2,620,627 fans
set in 1948.
During a game at the Jake on June 18, Indian centerfielder Kenny
Lofton made a running catch on the warning track and received a
standing ovation. In the second inning. You don't wait 40 years
for a winner, as the most loyal Tribe fans have, and then sit on
"They were down 9-5 with two out and nobody on in the bottom of
the ninth, and nobody was leaving the park--that'll tell you
something," New York Yankee manager Buck Showalter said after a
recent game in Cleveland. "These people are starving for success."
"You can put a good team in a bad ballpark, and it's still a
good team," says Tribe manager Mike Hargrove, "and you can put a
bad team in the Taj Mahal and it's still bad. But you put the
Indians in Jacobs Field, and you create something special."
Cleveland's 9-2 win over the Boston Red Sox on June 20 marked
its 162nd game since the opening of Jacobs Field on April 4,
1994: the equivalent of one complete season in the fragmented
world of major league baseball. The Indians won 102 of those
games, more than any other team over that span, including 56 of
78 at home.
This season, with a 42-18 record through Sunday, Cleveland was
the winningest team in baseball and was off to its best start in
its 94-year history. The Tribe swept a three-game series with
the second-place Kansas City Royals and then took two of three
from the hapless Minnesota Twins on the road last week to open a
10-game lead in the American League Central, its largest cushion
Still, the Tribe's success has not been without drama. Of the 20
times through Sunday that Cleveland had come from behind to win,
it had done so an astounding 12 times in its final at bat,
including eight times at Jacobs Field. There, on May 29, the
Indians trailed the Chicago White Sox 6-0 after five innings but
fought back to win 7-6. Then on June 4 at the Jake they fell
behind the Blue Jays and their ace, David Cone, 8-0 through
three innings, only to win 9-8 on a homer in the bottom of the
Cleveland has had four hitters ranked among the top 10 in the
American League most of the season, and at week's end the
Indians' team batting average was .294, by far the highest in
the majors. The Tribe also had hit more home runs (95) than any
other team, and six players already had more than 30 RBIs. Last
Friday night Eddie Murray, the Indians' 39-year-old DH, stroked
his 3,000th career hit in a 4-1 win over the Twins; he finished
the week with a .323 average and 12 home runs, which gave him
470 lifetime. Picking up the victory that night was 40-year-old
righthander Dennis Martinez, who ran his season stats to 7-0 and
a 2.53 ERA.
Baseball's winningest pitcher, Kevin Appier of the Royals, has
been doing a spot-on impression of Bob Gibson against the rest
of the league (11-1, 1.59 ERA), but he has gone 0-2 with a 7.43
ERA in two starts against Cleveland.
The Tribe's power plant is its locker room, which is a pulsating
melting pot of nationalities and personalities. Much like a
college dorm, the clubhouse features a Ping-Pong table that is
in constant use, posters of Janet Jackson hung alongside a list
of pithy slogans titled The Art of Getting Along and a shelf
full of toys, including Mr. Potato Head. Depending on which
player arrives first each day, the locker-room sound track
varies from ear-splitting salsa to wall-rattling rap to country
and western played about 800 decibels above OSHA's recommended
When everyone's healthy, the 25-man Indian roster includes four
African-Americans, four Dominicans, two Puerto Ricans, two
Venezuelans and one Nicaraguan. "Some days it's easy to forget
what country you're in with all the Spanish being spoken and the
salsa music," Hargrove says. "I don't know exactly how the
melting pot keeps from bubbling over, but even when we were
going through the tough times, these guys approached every day
like wide-eyed puppies."
On Sunday the Indians placed six players on the American League
All-Star team: second baseman Carlos Baerga and outfielder
Albert Belle were voted to the starting lineup; outfielders
Lofton and Manny Ramirez, and pitchers Martinez and Jose Mesa
were named as reserves.
"Cleveland is the best club in baseball," says Detroit Tiger
manager Sparky Anderson. "The Indians are like UCLA under John
Wooden. They can win even if they're a little off and the other
team plays great. They used to pound you with Lofton, Baerga and
Belle, but now it's all those other guys, too.... What are their
THE BIG, SLOW WHITE GUYS
Cleveland third baseman Jim Thome made a lasting impression on
first baseman Paul Sorrento when they began playing together
regularly last season--a big black-and-blue impression on
Sorrento's sternum. Similar markings appeared on Sorrento's
biceps, shins and forehead, as Thome made 13 errors in the first
65 games of the 1994 season, many of which came on throws in the
dirt to first. "Jimmy used to keep me busy," Sorrento says. "I
felt like a hockey goalie over there, just a big lug trying to
get in the way."
Thome and Sorrento look like the last two guys you'd pick for a
sandlot game. They even refer to themselves as "the big, slow
white guys." At the corners of the Indian infield they look like
the unsightly end tables you've been meaning to replace for
years but can't bring yourself to part with.
Sorrento grew up playing Wiffle ball in his Somerville, Mass.,
backyard, taking batting practice against his neighbor Mike
Andrews, a former Red Sox second baseman. Drafted out of Florida
State by the California Angels, Sorrento spent 2-1/2 years at
Class A Palm Springs, where he often batted ninth. And
platooned. He referred to himself as the mayor of Palm Springs
long before Sonny Bono started doing that.
"I remember managing against Paul, and the book on him was that
he couldn't hit a fastball," Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy says.
"He always had size and strength, so sometimes you wondered,
What happened to that guy? Now he's hitting the fastball a long
It was Sorrento who completed the Indians' amazing comeback
against the Blue Jays and Cone with a gargantuan home run. Many
of his knocks have been epic. Of his 37 hits this season,
through Sunday, 20 had gone for extra bases, including 13 home
runs. "Paul has always had tremendous power, but with some
players there is no formula for success, no e=mc2," Hargrove
says. "Now if I could just coax Paul to hit a single once in a
Thome's expectations of himself have always been as high as his
socks, which he wears conspicuously above the calf. Three years
ago he was an opposite-field hitter, but he learned to pull the
ball and was tied for the team lead with 16 homers at week's
end. Thome is a throwback, the kind of player who is so
unaffected by appearances that a few weeks ago he had the same
crumb in the corner of his mouth for three days straight. (Trust
us, we checked.)
"Jimmy is a workaholic who needed to prove to himself that he
belonged in the big leagues," says Tribe hitting instructor
Charlie Manuel. "The more success he has, the better he gets."
When he was nine, Thome and his father, Chuck, drove from their
home in Peoria, Ill., to Wrigley Field in Chicago, where young
Jimmy hoped to get the autograph of his hero, Cub slugger Dave
Kingman. When Kingman brushed past him after batting practice,
Jimmy hopped the railing and wandered into the Chicago
clubhouse. He was scooped up by Cub catcher Barry Foote, who
carried Jimmy on his shoulders back to his anxious father. "I
never did get the autograph," Thome says. "But at least I don't
need to sneak into major league dugouts anymore."
When the Indians were flying to Arlington, Texas, for a series
against the Rangers last season, Ramirez, then a rookie
outfielder, broke into a cold sweat after his teammates told him
he would need a passport to enter Texas. Although he was born in
the Dominican Republic and grew up in New York City, Ramirez,
23, is to naivete what Brunei is to wealth. He is sophisticated
only with his bat.
Ramirez was the American League Player of the Month in May, when
he batted .394 with 11 homers, 27 RBIs and an awesome .808
slugging percentage. At week's end, he was hitting .337 with 16
homers and 45 RBIs, which means he has Triple Crown potential.
If the three categories were shyness, reticence and
reclusiveness, Ramirez would already have wrapped up that
distinction. "Manny still hides behind people," Hart says. "It's
at the plate where he expresses himself best."
The Ramirez family had a sixth-floor walk-up with no telephone
in a largely Dominican neighborhood in the Washington Heights
section of Manhattan. Manny was babied by his parents and four
older sisters. When the Tribe signed him, he had no particular
use for a high school diploma or a firm grasp of the English
language, and he still has neither one.
After Ramirez was arrested on a DUI charge in his old
neighborhood last summer--he later pleaded guilty to disorderly
conduct--the Indians convinced him that to avoid the pitfalls of
the Big Apple it behooved him to move to Cleveland. Various
relatives have followed him there to keep him company. "It is
good to have my family with me," Ramirez says. "It lets me think
only of hitting."
"He used to be like a little kid sometimes, the way he would
sulk when he was in a slump," Cleveland catcher Tony Pena says.
"He acts like a man now. He walks like a man. Hits like a man."
He is more manny all the time.
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
Albert Belle was passing out Albert Belle Bars, a knockoff of
the Baby Ruth, in the Cleveland clubhouse recently, which
brought to mind the story about the press conference held in May
to unveil the crispy chocolate confection. Everybody showed up
for the big event, it seemed, except one person: Albert Belle,
who said there was a miscommunication with the company. Belle,
like a lot of the other unpredictable Indians, can be counted on
to keep only one appointment: batting practice. "This bunch
simply loves to hit," Manuel says. "They'd put two guys in the
cage at once if it weren't so dangerous."
When Thome was asked recently who would win a home run derby
between the Indians' 3-4-5 hitters (Baerga, Belle and Murray)
and their 6-7-8 hitters (Thome, Ramirez and Sorrento), he smiled
and said only half-jokingly, "Six-seven-eight. No question about
it. Case closed."
When Baerga was asked to respond on behalf of his troika, he
conceded, "All those guys can hit 30 or more homers, and I
probably can't do that. When you add it up, I guess they beat
us. That's what makes our lineup so scary; 6-7-8 can beat you
just as quickly as 3-4-5."
He'll get no argument from Yankee righthander Jack McDowell, who
after giving up five runs in six innings on June 18, said,
"Facing a lineup where the 1 through 9 hitters can all go deep,
I had about as close to a quality start as you're going to get.
It's hard to tell where the meat of the order is. It's all meat."
In fact, Cleveland's 6-7-8 hitters, who had combined for 47 home
runs and 127 RBIs at week's end, had not only hit more homers
than the supposed meat of their own order, but they had
outhomered all the other 3-4-5 hitters except one-Oakland's-in
the majors as well. "You have to pitch every Indian hitter as if
he is the best on the team, because at any given time he might
be," says White Sox righthander Alex Fernandez. "The guys at the
bottom of the order can all end a game with one swing."
With two outs, a man on first and Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn at
the plate in the bottom of the ninth in a game on May 20, Pena
walked to the mound to discuss the situation with reliever Mesa.
"They're going to bring in the lefty," Pena said teasingly, with
a nod to the Cleveland bullpen where lefthander Paul Assenmacher
"I said, 'Nope, not the way I'm throwing the ball,'" Mesa
recalls. "No way, Jose."
In the Indian dugout Hargrove was huddling with pitching coach
Mark Wiley. "After some deliberation we decided that if Jose was
ever going to be the closer, the guy we go to in any crisis, he
had to get Mo Vaughn out eventually," Hargrove says. "I felt if
he was successful in that spot, it could springboard him forward."
Mesa struck out Vaughn on three pitches for his fourth save of
the year, and since then he has eliminated the Tribe's biggest
concern entering the season: Who was going to be the main man in
the bullpen? At week's end, Mesa had a league-high 20 saves, in
20 tries. Ten times he had faced the minimum number of batters.
"I want to get them out 1-2-3," Mesa says, "because I know the
hitters are dying to get me."
The reason Mesa is so edgy is that, with the exception of a 3-2
record in 1990, he didn't have a winning season in five years as
a major league starter. But he has found success since moving to
the bullpen before the '94 season. It turned out he had all the
tools necessary to be a closer: a 98-mph fastball, an elastic
arm, a Fu Manchu mustache and Pena to pump him up.
During a game in New York on May 16, Mesa was pitching with a
big lead when he gave up a hit, a walk and a wild pitch to lead
off the ninth. Pena walked to the mound and slapped Mesa across
the face with his mitt. Mesa promptly worked his way out of the
jam. "I thought he was crazy, but it woke me up," Mesa says.
"Later in the clubhouse, I told him if he ever did that to me
again in front of all those people, I'd kick his ass."
During the last four decades of misery in Cleveland, the toothy
grin on the Tribe logo, Chief Wahoo, came to look more and more
forced, as if he were masking some hidden pain. This season,
with the Indians hotter than Pocahontas, the smile appears
natural again. Ask 25 Cleveland players about the secret of
their success, and they'll give you 25 different answers.
Sorrento will say it's the Indians' league-leading 5.75 runs per
game. Mesa will mention the overall improvement of the bullpen.
Belle will tell you it has a direct correlation to the team's
consumption of Albert Belle Bars. None of them mention
Yet each afternoon before a home game, as if from some mystical
galaxy, Jobu appears on a post beside the Indian dugout. Jobu is
a combination coconut and Chia pet, with grass growing
splendidly from his cranium, the spiritual aura of which once so
freaked the Detroit Tigers' Cecil Fielder that he mockingly took
a swing at the icon with his bat, because he feared it put a hex
on his team.
Doubtless, the Indians have been blessed with ample good karma
this season. Until Murray broke two ribs sliding home against
the Twins on Sunday, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. was the only
Cleveland regular who had lost any significant time because of
injury this year. Alomar's 1995 debut last week made the Tribe
lineup even more devastating. "We have a great feeling on this
club right now," says Indian shortstop Omar Vizquel. "You don't
want to get overconfident, but I don't think there's one guy who
doesn't believe we're going all the way."
Jeff Sipos will tell you he has heard that noise before. Sipos,
better known as Horse, for no decipherable reason, is
Cleveland's equipment manager and one of the Tribe's
longest-running employees. In 1971, when he was 16, Horse
entered an essay contest: Why Do You Want to Be the Indians'
Batboy?, which was a logical question in those days. He won the
contest and has been with the club in some capacity ever since.
"It only seems like a lifetime," Horse recalls. "I was here for
some of the darkest, lousiest, most miserable times. There was
absolutely no hope. For all of us who endured those struggles,
this season has a never-never-land feeling. You grow older, but
you never seem to age. I don't want to see midnight. I don't
want all this to turn into a pumpkin."
During a recent game Hart paced back and forth--as he once did
when he was a minor league manager--his sleeves rolled up and tie
loosened, spitting tobacco at regular intervals. The Monkees'
1967 hit I'm a Believer was playing over the Jacobs Field p.a.
"I feel like we've awakened a sleeping giant here, but in my job
I can't ever look too far down the road," Hart said after yet
another Indian victory. "Still, I love listening to the car
horns honking on the highway when we win. We have people in this
town who are in their 60's and have never experienced a winner.
Neither have their kids, or their kids. I want all of them to
have a chance to dream about the World Series."
Then Hart was off to Swingos, where a prime table was waiting.
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Murderers' Row Manny Ramirez and Paul Sorrento usually hit seventh and eighth in a potent Indian lineup that is more fearsome at the bottom than it is higher up (page 24). [Manny Ramirez and Paul Sorrento waiting to hit - T of C]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER Slugger Thome's high hose add to the traditional ambience at the Jake. [Jim Thome batting]
COLOR PHOTO:TOM LYNNVizquel and the other Tribesmen have eluded the reach of the rest of the American League Central. [Omar Vizquel sliding head-first into base]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER Baerga has taken the high road, with a .336 average through Sunday and heady play at second. [Carlos Baerga turning double play]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER From his 98-mph fastball to his Fu Manchu, Mesa displays all the attributes of a standout closer. [Jose Mesa pitching]
COLOR PHOTO:TOM LYNN The unsophisticated Ramirez is in another world at the plate, where he has shown Triple Crown ability. [Manny Ramirez batting]