Getting ready to Roll with the Tribe for the long haul

I was at high school Legion baseball game on Monday night watching the starting quarterback on the football team I coach play right field. I came to the realization that the game that I loved so much as a child is truly boring. Maybe we’ve been poisoned by our fast-paced lifestyles and by the constant need for things to be happening. I find myself that every moment of freedom I have that I whip out my iPhone and jump on the Twitters. Something always has to be happening to keep us involved.

Baseball isn’t like that. To enjoy the sport of baseball you have to be invested in some way and you must be someone who enjoys the process and the long-term story that develops over 162 games that span the six months leading up to the playoffs in October.

Indians fans know this all too well over the past 20 years. The 1995 team was a wonderful ride all the way to end and even though it didn’t end in a World Series championship there isn’t a Tribe fan who followed the team that season who didn’t totally enjoy the ride. Lately, it’s been quite the other way around. For the past couple years the Indians have gotten off to good starts and found themselves in first place in the division through much of the first half of the season. But after the All-Star break the team crumbled on the way to what ultimately ended up being miserable seasons. Those fans who have stuck with the team throughout are well aware that while the highs in baseball are great, the lows can be so far worse.

I confess that I am not one of those die-hard Indians fans who eats, sleeps, and breathes baseball from spring till fall. As a kid I ate up box scores in the paper every morning. I could tell you verbatim who the league leaders were for all the major statistical categories on any given day. I was as plugged into the game as an 8-year-old could be back in the early 90’s. Lately I have found myself getting really excited about the Tribe as the season starts and the Cavs wind down another season that will find them selecting in the top four of the draft. But the feeling slowly fades as the NBA Playoffs pick up and then roll immediately into the draft, then free agency, then Summer League.[1] About the time that all that winds down there’s about a two or three week window where baseball has a shot to suck me back in before NFL training camp begins at the end of July. But alas, the past several Tribe teams have picked this available time block to completely fall apart leading to an uneventful trading deadline and the slow plummet in the standings over the final two months.

But this year…this year has a chance to be different. This year’s Tribe team is a group that is still on the rise and is ready to compete for the playoffs. This year’s team will not implode in the second half. This year’s team will suck me in for the long haul.

The funny thing is that on this day one year ago the Indians record was 40-38. Today the Indians sit at almost an identical 44-38 record. The biggest difference that you’ll notice in those standings is that on July 1, 2012 the Indians’ run differential was -37 compared to +28 this year. Last year’s team ultimately didn’t have the firepower to make up for their subpar pitching staff. This year the pitching has been better but still not great. The hitting has been streaky, but when they’re on there might not be a better lineup in the majors.

The crazy thing about how well the Tribe has been performing through the first half of the season is the number of injuries that they’ve dealt with. Chris Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera, arguably the two most recognizable “stars” on the team last year, have missed extended time already this year. Big free agent acquisition Nick Swisher has had a couple minor injuries and hasn’t really gotten going yet this year. He’s also dealing with a new-born baby at home. Don’t underestimate the negative effect a baby can have on performance. I know my work suffered after my son was born and I wasn’t trying to hit 90-mile-an-hour fastballs.

The bench has been a huge boost this season compared to last. Instead of bringing Shelly Duncan or Lou Marson off the pine you know have a situation where part-time players Ryan Rayburn and Yan Gomes are the only players on the team who rank below Jason Kipnis in OPS. Mike Aviles has also been a huge boost filling in for Droobs. A great bench is an underrated commodity in baseball. It allows you to keep up production while the starters rest and in turn allows them to stay playing at an optimal level.

And speaking of Kipnis…the kid has turned into a full-blown star. We all loved him immediately when he came up a few summers ago. We fell in love with his old-school “dirt bag” style of play. He is baseball personified. And now he’s a baseball star. He’s leading the Indians with a .917 OPS and is only getting hotter. After a poor April he’s heated up and is now blazing hot posting a 1.216 OPS in June. And for all of his abilities and strong play on the field he also appears to be a guy who can start leading off it. The past year’s teams have lacked leadership and it was apparent as the seasons fell apart. This year you have Kipnis stepping up, Swisher who’s a constant leader, Giambi doing his old man thing, and then of course Terry Francona.

For all of his foibles at managing a game, you can’t deny the strong presence Francona has on the team. The players didn’t respect Manny Acta for an inch. They love Tito and it shows in how they play for him.

This year it’s not the same old Tribe. It’s a different team with a better spirit and more importantly better players. I don’t know if they’ll win the division or the World Series. But I do know that I’m on for the ride.

[1] And yes, I included Summer League amongst a list of exciting things that happens in the NBA after the calendar rolls into June. I love Summer League and I don’t care who knows it.


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