Start to Season Could Hold More Weight for Indians Than Most
By Craig Gifford
If the Indians finish April hovering at the .500 mark or even a little below, many Cleveland fans will likely start getting nervous and wonder if all the offseason acquisitions were worth it. The reality is, there is no need for alarm if a team struggles out of the gate. By the same token, a fast start needs to be met with tempered expectations.
Some fans put a lot of unwarranted meaning toward early season success or failure. The only time that should happen is if a team is really doing poorly.
Take a look at recent years when teams got off to good starts and did not keep it up. The Indians of the past two seasons are a prefect example. They seemed poised to compete for, or win, the American League Central Division title midway through 2011 and 2012. Those campaigns ended with disappointing marks of 80-82 and 68-94, respectively. Needless to say, no playoffs for the Tribe either season and manager Manny Acta was fired for consecutive poor ends to the season. In came Terry Francona, with his two managerial World Series rings, and an upgraded roster for 2013.
Also, in 2011, the Red Sox, then under Francona’s watch, and the Atlanta Braves were poised to go to the playoffs when September began. Final month swoons doomed both teams to be postseason spectators. After hot starts, neither team could keep it going all year.
Much as teams start off strong and fade, plenty of teams have begun the season stuck in neutral only to hit a switch and make the playoffs. Teams like the Cardinals and Athletics of 2001 and Astros of both 2004 and 2005 were slogging through .500 records through the halfway point before turning on the jets and finishing strong.
The reality is the success or lack thereof that comes in baseball’s first month can not be used as a great indicator of where a team will be come August and September.
That being said, however, a good start for the Indians this year may actually be more significant and needed than usual. With a new manager and signings of players like Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds there is a new-found hope within the organization and the Tribe fan base.
A poor start to the year could well halt the momentum toward respectability and interest the team has built over the winter. A sluggish April could lead to poor attendance thereafter. It could also dash the good vibe currently in the Cleveland locker room. Right now, the Indians players and their followers are more excited than they’ve been in years. It would be disappointing to crush that with a thud of an opening month.
While a sluggish start would not doom the Indians to a poor season, the backlash among the fans has the potential to be so much worse than before. In the past several years, apathy toward the team was starting to find its way into the city of Cleveland. That apathy has been removed by guarded hope. It would be a shame to see the reverse happen over the course of the late spring and summer.
This is not to say the Tribe needs to start well to make the postseason. Indeed, that is not true. A good start would simply keep the momentum going. Momentum in sports, whether in a game or during a season, is very important. Things do snowball. Just look at last year’s Tribe. The club began losing in August and could not stop until it was too late and terribly bad season was the result.
While early season success does not guarantee a postseason berth, it can not hurt the chances. Take the 2001 Mariners who won 116 games. They were 18-8 in April. If the reverse had been true, Seattle likely would not have had one of the game’s historically great seasons. A good start, while not necessary, allows for small slumps later. It can also create a wave of good emotions that sometimes stick around a while.
A hot start, generally, will be good for putting people in the stadium seats. Of course, that was not true last year as closer Chris Perez lamented. The Indians were winning in front of a more-than-half-empty Progressive Field. The difference between then and now is last year the fans did not see much difference between the squad that collapsed in 2011 and the 2012 version. Few changes were made going into last year and the Tribe faithful was skeptical as to whether last season’s hot start was just another mirage.
This year, a lot has changed. There is real star power and full club of players who should be in Cleveland rather than some years when half the team should still be at Triple-A. If Cleveland can get off to a good start to this season, the heightened preseason hopes and expectations could bubble into increased ticket sales as the summer rolls along. Larger crowds can only give more inspiration to the players wearing a Tribe uniform.
The Indians began the year on a good note, winning their first two in Toronto and fought to the final out last night. The positive vibe is there right now. It will be there for the home opener Monday against the Yankees. Here’s to hoping the exciting atmosphere around the team will still be there when April ends and beyond.
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