Back in early May, when the Cleveland Indians were visiting Anaheim, designated hitter Travis Hafner walked into a store across the street from the team hotel and purchased several shirts emblazoned with Charlie Sheen's catchphrase from his very public spring meltdown: DUH, WINNING. Hafner handed the T's to his teammates. Ask Hafner why, and you realize: You're an idiot. The reason is ... duh, the Indians are winning.
"I just thought it was fitting," Hafner says.
The purchase is appropriate in so many ways. There is no simple explanation for why Cleveland, picked to finish anywhere from fourth to eighth in the five-team AL Central, was hovering around first place through Sunday. Most of the Indians are young and unproven or old and, alas, proven. They have plenty in common with Sheen's Indians in Major League. As outfielder Shelley Duncan says, "Sometimes I feel like we're that team."
Consider the similarities. Starting third baseman Jack Hannahan was a nonroster invitee to spring training. Manager Manny Acta was 227--345 with the Nationals and the Indians before this season. Starting pitcher Justin Masterson arrived from Boston in 2009 in a widely questioned trade for popular catcher Victor Martinez. Cleveland's big off-season signing was outfielder Austin Kearns, whose legacy will be that he was once plunked an MLB-record three times in one game. Tribe management gave Kearns $1.3 million for one year, which is about what A-Rod tips his barber.
Even the Indians' stars arouse skepticism. Often-injured centerfielder Grady Sizemore has missed 216 games since the beginning of the 2009 season. Hafner has not been healthy for a full season since '07, which was (not coincidentally) the last time the Tribe contended. Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is a five-tool player who has had a lot of four-out games this season. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has emerged as an unlikely MVP candidate.
Acta told his team at the start of spring training that he expected to win this year. But the truth is, nobody was sure. The Indians' slogan is the almost too humble WHAT IF?, which fits nicely in Cleveland alongside the Cavaliers' new motto, WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE? Perhaps the Browns will join in with HOW BAD CAN WE REALLY BE? Now, as in the days when Major League hit theaters, back in 1989, this is a city of low expectations.
"They just seem to be depressed and gloomy people about all of their sports teams, like they're waiting for that next shoe to drop," Indians closer Chris Perez says of the Cleveland fan base. "Like 'Oh, we're in first place, but when is that next injury going to be?' They don't want to buy in because their hearts have been broken before."
That may explain why the club is 26th in the majors in attendance. But this team may not be just a half-season fluke. The Indians' 2011 renaissance actually began in the second half of '10—through last Sunday they were 75--75 in their last 150 games. In that sense they did not come out of nowhere.
Still, the Major League comparison is so obvious that even the Indians make it. Perez calls himself "effectively wild, for sure," like Sheen's Ricky (Wild Thing) Vaughn. His nickname is Pure Rage. He debates teammates about everything, charms the media and banters and bickers with fans on Twitter. Duncan compares Hafner with voodoo-practicing slugger Pedro Cerrano. Hafner objects—not because Cerrano wanted to sacrifice a live chicken before a crucial game but because "[Cerrano] is righthanded." (Hafner, a lefty, said he has probably seen Major League "100 times.") "We're kind of hoping Charlie Sheen gets on the bandwagon," Duncan says.
Guess what, fellas: He already has. "They started the season with a roster that basically looked like a Triple A club," says Sheen. "These guys, they didn't have anything to really live up to, and there was really no book on any of them. Whatever they did was gravy. But man, these guys have been cardiac kids. Wow!"
There is a looseness in the Indians' clubhouse that comes with being counted out before ever being counted in. Acta demands effort and smart play, but he doesn't have many rules. It's common to see the Indians playing cards or watching TV in the clubhouse. For all the advanced stats and video studies that dominate the game today, the Indians make you feel like it's about just ... duh, winning.
WILD AT HEART Perez's big right arm and the blazing bats of Carlos Santana (right center, after a walk-off salami in April) & Co. have the Indians contending.
CHUCK CROW/THE PLAIN DEALER/LANDOV (INDIANS)
[See caption above]