LAST YEAR THE INDIANS CAME THIS CLOSE TO WINNING GAME 7 OF THE WORLD SERIES. THE LOSS COULD HAVE BEEN CRUSHING. INSTEAD, IT BECAME FUEL
ONE DAY this summer, preparing to play the Yankees, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor sat at a clubhouse monitor to watch a video loop of his at bats against New York pitchers. Suddenly Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees' closer, popped up on the screen—but the footage was from Game 7 of last year's World Series, when Chapman pitched for the Cubs.
"No!" shouted Lindor, who quickly switched the video to another pitcher—from any other day of his life. "I can't look. I don't want to see it!"
Lindor is a self-described television fanatic. "I fall asleep every night with the TV on," the 23-year-old All-Star says. But for 2½ weeks after the Indians' 8--7 loss last Nov. 2—one of the most meaningful and dramatic baseball games ever, and the most-watched in a generation—Lindor refused to turn on the tube, fearing he could not escape Game 7 highlights or reminders as he channel-surfed. Then he packed up for a vacation to Israel.
Cody Allen, Cleveland's closer, chose a similar media exile. He departed immediately for a vacation in Big Sur, Calif., where he turned his back on Game 7 for 10 days by driving the Pacific Coast Highway, reading five books—and never once firing up the TV.
"I just flushed it," he says of Game 7.
Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, asked last week if he has watched the game again, said, "Nope. I've seen the last out and Rajai [Davis's] home run, and that's about it. There may come a day, but not now."
Manager Terry Francona has yet to even replay Game 7 in his head, let alone watch it. "I went in three days later and got my hip [surgery] done," Francona says. "I woke up and thought we won. With all the pain meds, I was like, When's the parade?"
No number is more hallowed. The seas we sail on, the continents we walk on, the deadly sins we fear, the colors we see in the rainbow, the days of the week we count—all are famed and familiar as bundles of seven. Religions also exalt seven, whether in blessings, heavens or sacraments. Ancient Egyptians equated seven with wholeness or perfection.
And so it is in baseball. Seven, as in the seventh game of the last series in the seventh month of the season, is as far as a club can venture to win a championship—or lose it. Even seven runs in the seventh game weren't enough last year for the Indians—for just the third time in 37 decisive Game 7s (after the 1925 Senators and the '60 Yankees). Cleveland became the first team ever to lose Game 7 in extra innings on its home field. Coupled with a 3--2 loss to the Cubs in Game 5, a 9--3 loss in Game 6 and another Game 7 extra-inning loss in 1997 (3--2 to the Marlins), the Indians have played four games to win their first championship since 1948 and lost all of them—three by one run. No other ringless franchise of the last 69 years has been so heartbreakingly close so often.
It has been so long since the Indians won the World Series that the pitcher who closed their last championship was a World War II veteran who survived a torpedo attack in the South Pacific. Gene Bearden was a machinist on the USS Helena when it went down on July 6, 1943; 168 of his fellow crew members were lost. Five years later, floating the knuckleball he learned in the minors under Casey Stengel after the war, and pitching with metal plates in his head and knee, Bearden secured the last five outs of a 4--3 win over the Braves in Boston.
So many years have passed that a timeworn Indians fan might be forgiven for wailing, like a woozy post-op Francona, "When's the parade?" But Cleveland has played so sublimely that now even the most sober-minded Tribe faithful might be asking the same question. Beginning on Aug. 24, Cleveland went on a 27--1 run that included a never-before-seen 22 wins in a row. (MLB recognizes a 26-game streak by the 1916 New York Giants as the record, but that included a tie game, which was not official, smack in the middle of it.) Down to the last strike in the ninth inning against the Royals, Lindor made the 22nd straight win possible with an RBI double. A sellout crowd, on its feet throughout the ninth, went home giddy when outfielder Jay Bruce delivered the wining double the next inning. The streets around Progressive Field clogged with celebrants, car horns honking, shouting and cheering in decibels beyond even the level of the World Series games there, when Cubs fans had bought up hordes of tickets.
Says Allen, the winner that night, "What was I thinking? I was thinking, We're going to walk 'em off. That's what it's been like around here."
It turns out seven begets strength even to the defeated. Among Game 7 losers, the past seven (what else?) all made the playoffs, including the 2012 Rangers, who lost another World Series, and the '15 Royals, Cleveland's role models, who returned and won it. Six of those seven had more victories in the season after their Game 7 loss.
Count the Indians, with 98 wins at week's end, among that group. They'll enter the postseason with the most prolific strikeout pitching staff in baseball history: 1,543 K's through Sunday and a 3.9 strikeout-to-walk rate, both records. They have the leading bullpen in baseball (2.84 ERA), while working with the best run differential (+241) and the top record on the road (53--28)—all key indicators for postseason success.
"Because of last year, now we know what it takes to get all the way to the last game," Lindor says. "It's not just an idea. That's what we prepare for. And the way that happens is, every day everyone just thinks about ways to get better."
WHEN FRANCONA REASSEMBLED his team for spring training this year in the appropriately named Arizona town of Goodyear (given its ending, 2016 wasn't quite a great year), the manager did his best to put last season behind his players. He said, "I don't want the new guys [on the team] to always be thinking, God, they're always talking about 2016. They're good memories, but they're memories."
Francona already knew what it was like to lose a Game 7, though in 2008 it was one game for the AL pennant, against a Rays team managed by Joe Maddon, now the Cubs' manager. Francona's Red Sox led Tampa Bay 1--0 heading to the fourth inning but lost 3--1, leaving a boatload of runners on base.
"It absolutely devastated me," Francona says. "It took me the longest time to get over it. Last year I think pride won out. You're disappointed, but I was so damn proud."
Game 7 was the banyan of managerial decision trees. Francona, for instance, put the eventual go-ahead run on base with an intentional walk in the 10th inning (Anthony Rizzo), one of two intentional passes that were immediately followed by unusual run-scoring hits. Ben Zobrist, batting lefthanded, slashed an opposite-field ground-ball double—he had done so just four times in the previous three years—and Miguel Montero sliced an opposite-field ground-ball single, which he had not done in more than four months.
The Indians' last at bat, with the tying run on base, fell to bench player Michael Martínez, who had not had a hit in 48 days. Francona had replaced a better hitter but weaker defender, Coco Crisp, with Martínez in the ninth, with the potential tie-breaking run on third with one out. Martínez grounded out.
The late manager Gene Mauch once told Maddon that a manager manages a game three times: before it's played, while it's played and after it's played. "I don't really feel like that," Francona says. "I understand the before and during. But I feel like once I'm ready for the game, I'm ready. Then I just do what I think is right, have confidence enough in what I'm doing, answer the questions and move on."
In Game 7, Indians ace Corey Kluber failed to strike out a batter for the first time as a major league starter. After pitching just four innings, he watched the rest of the game on a television in a small room behind the Indians' dugout, where he saw Davis homer off Chapman to tie the game in the eighth. (The lockers in the Cubs' clubhouse had just been covered with protective plastic in anticipation of the postgame celebration. After Davis's two-run shot, attendants scrambled to tear down the sheeting.) Allen joined Kluber in the room the next inning, after Francona replaced Allen with Bryan Shaw with one out and a runner at first.
"It was a helpless feeling," Allen says. "I had finished every playoff game for us except Game 4, when we had a big lead. Now all I could do was watch. We didn't bother icing because this was it. The last game.
"People say Corey Kluber doesn't show emotion, but you should have seen us in that room. When Frankie [Lindor] made that play on [Dexter] Fowler to end the ninth, we were acting like a couple of morons, throwing chairs around and cheering and hollering. And then in the bottom of the inning, [Jason] Kipnis hit that foul and we just went crazy.... We're talking about a fraction of an inch off the bat. That's how small the difference is between winning and losing."
Kipnis—a tried-and-true Chicagoan who attended the 2003 NLCS at Wrigley Field, lived on the same block as Steve Bartman and went to the same high school as Ferris Bueller—smashed a hanging slider from Chapman, but well foul down the rightfield line. He eventually struck out. After Lindor flied out on the next pitch, with the last game of the year tied after nine innings, rain fell hard enough that umpire Joe West ordered the field covered.
When the Indians retreated to their clubhouse, they were greeted by a visual reminder of just how close they stood to winning the World Series: Now their lockers were covered in plastic sheeting, most of which was pinned up.
Lindor repaired to the team's weight room, where he unrolled a cushioned mat on the floor, plopped down and took a nap. It already had been a long, emotional day. Driving to the ballpark that afternoon, he got a call from his older sister, Legna. She had been diagnosed with cervical cancer during the summer.
"I've got some good news," she said.
"I am now cancer-free."
Lindor, 23, was thrilled. He is close to Legna, 35, whom he regards as a role model. "I watched what she did, how she acted, and followed her," he says. He thanked God for the news, then realized the biggest game of his baseball life suddenly seemed a bit smaller.
"Legna," he told his big sister, "no matter what happens tonight, we've got our win."
THE RAIN DELAY lasted only 17 minutes. Shaw returned to the mound. Including spring training and the postseason, it was his 95th game of the year.
"I'm so proud of all our guys," pitching coach Mickey Callaway says. "But if you ask me if one pitch stands out, it's the one to Zobrist. We had a lot of success going in with Shaw, with his cutter. But Zobrist handles that ball well. The last two were away. Had the ball been in, who knows? That's the one pitch if I had to pick out one, the one where I go, What if... ?"
Says Allen, "It was a hollow feeling. You start beating yourself up. I'm thinking, Well, what if I didn't walk [David] Ross to start the [ninth] inning? Then Shaw can come in the game clean rather than have to come in and get two outs, wait out a delay and then go back out for another inning. What if... ?"
Left in the on-deck circle when Game 7 ended was Yan Gomes, who wears number 7.
Antonetti turned to his daughters, Mya, 11, who had been a beacon of optimism all postseason, and Ella, 8. Mya was crying.
"What are you going to do now, Daddy?" she asked.
"I'm going to go downstairs and look for Mr. Epstein and Mr. Hoyer and congratulate them on a job well done," he replied, referring to Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.
Says Antonetti, "It gave me a chance to share a life lesson with my daughters. The lesson was about losing, that even though we were so disappointed we didn't win, there's a right way of handling it."
Despite Francona's spring warning, and despite avoiding anything to do with Game 7, the Indians would need months to find their groove again. They fell to 29--28 on June 7, after an 8--1 loss in Colorado. Francona, simmering all week, finally blew a gasket, airing out his team in what he called his biggest outburst since managing the Phillies in the late '90s. He sensed a lack of attention to detail and a lack of urgency.
"The feeling the first couple of months was, 'Oh, we'll be O.K. It's a long season,'" Lindor says. "I think he said what needed to be said."
Since Francona's blowup the Indians are 69--30. One week after that, during a game against the Dodgers, Francona felt his heart racing and grew dizzy. He rushed out of the game and went to a hospital, where doctors told him they would monitor the situation. Thirteen days later he experienced the same symptoms. He started meeting with reporters in the clubhouse rather than the dugout before road games, just to save himself some steps. But eight days after his second episode, in the fifth inning of a game against the Padres, his heart started pounding 200 beats per minute. He grew so light-headed, he thought he was going to pass out.
Back to the hospital he went, this time for several days of more intensive tests. The diagnosis was an irregular heartbeat; he needed cardiac ablation surgery. It took 10 hours. By Francona's count it was about the 20th operation he has endured, for ailments including blood clots in his lungs, a staph infection, two knee replacements and the hip replacement.
"I've had health issues for years," says the 58-year-old master of self-deprecation. "If you're asking if I've gained perspective? No. Never had it. Never will."
Doctors told him he would have to make concessions. He has to wear a heart monitor in the dugout occasionally. He has to stay off his feet more. When the Indians take batting practice, Francona no longer commands his post near the batting cage but instead heads inside to his office, leaving bench coach Brad Mills to oversee BP.
Says Antonetti, "He cares so much, it takes a toll on him, regardless of what's going on, good or bad."
"I didn't come here to go to pasture," Francona says. "Some of the job is harder physically than it used to be, with age and health. That's just reality. Someday, if I get to the point where I feel like I'm shortchanging the organization, I'd probably get out. But I don't want to. I love what I'm doing."
WHAT'S NOT to love? Francona has a team inspired and informed by losing Game 7 that now is playing even better baseball, in a town where the club is a civic treasure. When Francona was born, his father, Tito, was an Indians outfielder. It was just Year 11 of the Great Drought. There have been 1,211 men who played for Cleveland during this epochal wait. The senior Francona ranks 30th among them in games played in vain. Tito will turn 84 on Nov. 4, three days after Game 7 of the next World Series is scheduled.
In Terry's lifetime he has seen the four longest title droughts end: the Cubs' (108 years, in 2016), the Phillies' (97 years, 1980), the White Sox' (88 years, 2005) and the Red Sox' (86 years, 2004, with Francona as manager). He has played or managed in all four organizations. The next-longest drought, and the longest active one, belongs to his current employer.
On the night Cleveland lost Game 7, Francona gathered his team in the clubhouse and told them how proud he was of them. It was 2 a.m. before most of his players began to head home. Lindor, as he walked a long corridor under Progressive Field, ran into Cubs infielder Javy Báez, his good friend and fellow Puerto Rican. Lindor hugged Báez and told him how happy he was for him. He continued outside to the players' parking lot, which is surrounded by a tall fence.
"I remember being mentally exhausted," Lindor says. "Just exhausted. There were people singing that Cubs song, 'Go, Cubs, Go!' I got in my car. My mom and two older sisters were with me. They were crying. I asked them, 'Why are you crying?' They said, 'We lost the World Series.'
"I said, 'No, we didn't. Well, yes we did ... and it's the World Series and it's important. But we went for it. We never stopped playing. And we will be better for it.'"
The headlights made the road home wink and glisten because of the rain that had fallen just hard and long enough to pause Game 7. With every revolution of the wheels, Game 7 fell further behind, and the opportunity of this next postseason drew nearer.
"IF YOU'RE ASKING IF I'VE GAINED PERSPECTIVE? NO," SAYS FRANCONA. "NEVER HAD IT. NEVER WILL."