The Now Very Much Alive Cleveland Indians

On August 9th I wrote a column titled “The almost but not quite dead yet Cleveland Indians” after the Tribe had just finished getting four-game swept at home at the hand of the Detroit Tigers. At that point in the season it didn’t look like the Indians had the guns to make a playoff run. They just couldn’t seem beat the good teams, especially the Tigers, and every time they got close to the division lead they’d go on a losing streak and that would be the end of that. I used the following classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to summarize the state of the Indians at that point of the season:

That loss had come on the same night as the Browns first preseason game and it seemed a certainty that in the minds of the fans and the media that for all intents and purposes the Indians were dead for the rest of the season in the collective consciousness of the Cleveland sports fan. However, much like the poor chap in Monty Python, the Indians were trying to tell us they’re “not dead yet!”

I guess I should have listened.

After staggering through the end of August the Indians are now on a tear in September with a record of 11-5 that has brought them to within one half game of being in the driver’s seat for the Wild Card. They have played inspired never-say-die baseball lately and last night’s win of the Royals was symptomatic of the attitude that this team has.

Down 3-0 early and seemingly incapable of doing anything with their bats against the Royals’ young talented pitcher Yorando Ventura they looked lifeless. For the second game in a row it looked like the bats were just dead after they failed to do anything against James Shields on Monday night.

But—to use an over-used metaphor—like a phoenix rising from the ashes the Tribe came back to life in the sixth inning and proceeded to score five unanswered runs over the final four innings en route to the victory. The win was undoubtedly one of the biggest and most memorable wins of the year for a team that’s had its fair share of dramatic games. Tuesday night’s game just came at the right time and had the right confluence of events to seem just a little more important. The team was within spitting distance of the Wild Card leaders, playing a division rival, on the road, struggling from the plate, desperate to turn the corner on the season…and it all came together.

Michael Bourn earned his paycheck last night with a huge triple and homer late and the energy he showed on those two big hits is symptomatic of the energy that this team possesses. When Bourn ripped that triple to the gap in the seventh that drove in Gomes and put the eventual tying run on third the Indians’ center fielder feverishly clapped his hands with intense excitement, as if he already knew at that moment that the game had been won. And when he homered to provide a little insurance in the top of the ninth he sprinted around the bases and off the field with so much energy and joy you could just tell how locked-in he and the whole team were at that moment.

Baseball’s a funny game in that way and I even wrote about this in that previously referenced August 9th column. “It’s a game of ebbs and flows and ups and downs.” I wrote, “This is obviously the down part.” And now, on September 18th, this is starting to look and feel like the up part. I love how when a baseball team comes together that the energy seems infectious and it captures the whole team. Even Chris Perez looked lights out in the ninth inning. Maybe it’s because so much of a baseball game has the entire team sitting in the dugout together that the club seems more of a cohesive “live and die together” unit than in other sports. I don’t know if that’s true necessarily but it certainly feels that way.

And it’s undeniable to anyone who has watched and followed the Indians over the last several years that something is definitely different about this year’s team that wasn’t there in the past…and that’s fight. And I believe they get that attitude from the man in charge: Terry Francona.

I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical of the Francona signing when it first happened. I was worried that he was only coming because he was buddies with the front office guys and that he was just going to hang around and collect a paycheck. Thankfully I was dead wrong and I’m actually mad at myself in hindsight for questioning Tito like that. This is a guy who has a very real drive to win and be great and you sense that with this team much like you could with his 2004 Red Sox team. That team, while they had some huge stars in Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, and Curt Schilling, played with an energy and passion that was becoming of an underdog. They carried the mantel of being “idiots” as a badge of honor and that attitude is what kept them alive even while down 3-0 in the ALCS to the Yankees. Anyone who followed that Red Sox team will tell you that one of the biggest leaders from a player standpoint was Kevin Millar.[1] It was Miller who, on the field during batting practice before Game 4 of the ALCS, with his team facing elimination, brashly told Dan Shaughnessy “Don’t let us win today. Cause after that we’ve got Peaty tomorrow, and we’ve got Schill game six, and Game 7 anything can happen.” And I think that whole Red Sox team truly believed that in large part because their skipper, Francona, had infused that team with that belief.

Being a baseball manager is so different from being a head coach in other sports. It’s less about strategy and pulling strings during a game than it is about managing people over a long and grueling season and getting them all to believe that they can win even when no one else believes it. And when you see a baseball team come together and start playing with that singular passion and energy to where even the scrubs on the team start to hit like top of the lineup guys you can usually point that back to the man in charge. The Manny Acta Indians took on the persona of their leader as they folded up midseason when things got tough and staggered to the end of the season as a team devoid of passion, intensity, and belief. The 2013 Indians are none of that. They believe and are brash in that belief. I think they take the whole home attendance issue as a personal affront and are using that as passion to fuel themselves. Almost saying in a sense “They don’t think we’re legit, huh? Well we’ll show them!” This team believes that they’re going to the playoffs and are certainly playing like it right now.

And they’ve got me as a believer as well. I wrote them off, I’ll admit it. I just didn’t think they had the guns to compete. I thought they were just a .500 team who played scrappy baseball and could go on runs every once in a while. Maybe that’s what they are ultimately I don’t know. But for now they’re playing like a legitimate contender that other teams should watch out for. Because in baseball, unlike in other sports, a team can hot for a stretch and ride that wave of momentum all the way through the playoffs to the World Series. I’m not crazy enough to make any bold predictions like that yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

But let me tell you this…don’t let the Tribe get into the playoffs. Cause once they’re in, they’ve got the pitching to drive them, the bats are coming around and can catch fire at any moment, and in the playoffs anything can happen. Never underestimate a team that believes they can win.

And this is Believeland after all.

[1] Can’t you see Nick Swisher being that guy on this Indians team? He’s got that almost annoying love for the game that exudes from himself all day, every day. The only difference between Millar and Swisher is that, well, Swish is actually kinda good at baseball a little.


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