90s Indians Were Built to Contend
Vince Guerrieri | On 10, Sep 2013
Eighteen years ago today, Northern Ohio was probably still shaking off a hangover – but it was for a good cause.
Because eighteen years and two days ago, the Indians had clinched their first postseason berth in more than 40 years. The 3-2 win made the Indians the first American League Central Champions since Major League Baseball divided into three divisions.
The Tribe would go on to win the next four, and one more in 2001. It was the most successful run in Indians history – but not the best. From 1950-1954, the Indians won 90 games
That Indians team was assembled shrewdly, through drafts in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Hank Peters that brought the team talent like hitting savant Manny Ramirez, feared slugger Albert Belle, and cornfed farmboy Jim Thome.
But the Indians had also wheeled and dealed and hit on some trades. Dealing slugger Joe Carter to the Padres brought starter Carlos Baerga and Rookie of the Year Sandy Alomar Jr., and Alomar made catcher Eddie Taubensee expendable, so he was dealt for a speedy college basketball player named Kenny Lofton. And the year before, the Indians dealt Reggie Jefferson and Felix Fermin for a good-field, no-hit shortstop, Omar Vizquel. And the Tribe was able to pick up some key free agents, like Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser and Eddie Murray.
It was a team built to win the World Series – and the fans knew it, and came out to support it. In June of that year, the Indians started a sellout streak that at the time was unprecedented in Major League Baseball. The streak reached 455 games, and its end, on April 4, 2001, coincided with the Indians’ decline.
Since then, the Indians have made one postseason appearance – in 2007, winning the Central Division, beating the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series and running out to a 3-1 lead against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series before losing the next three. The Red Sox advanced to the World Series and swept the Colorado Rockies to win their second World Series in four years.
The Indians have come agonizingly close on other occasions, winning 93 games but falling short of a playoff berth by losing six of their last seven. The 2011 team was in first in late July, and remained competitive in the division until a Labor Day four-game sweep by the Detroit Tigers, but faded. No Indians team has finished with a winning record since 2007.
Dick Jacobs, the man who owned the Indians in the 1990s, sold the team to Larry Dolan in 2000. The farm system had to recover from the early 2000s and a series of poor drafts. The Indians hit on some deals (Bartolo Colon for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips), but whiffed on more (Cliff Lee). And the Indians have not been big spenders in free agency.
Fans came out to see the Indians in the 1990s as a result of a confluence of factors, but chief among them is the fact that they recognized that the team was built for contention. Today, the media seems to take some delight in shaming fans for not supporting a team that’s fun to watch, but hasn’t demonstrated any real success. If the Indians do finish above .500, and remain in the thick of the postseason hunt if not making the playoffs, fans will probably take that as a sign of a team that’s moving in the right direction, instead of seeing a team that’s wandered through the desert since Joel Skinner gave Kenny Lofton the stop sign. Same with a team that might falter, but makes strong deals in the offseason.
But if the team doesn’t appear to be moving forward, then we’ll be having this same circular argument next year.