The weather in northeast Ohio this winter has given baseball fans the feeling that spring will never come.
The Cleveland Indians’ organization and several of its minor league affiliates have done plenty to give fans hope that warmer weather and baseball are closer than they appear.
After very trying and difficult to digest fall and winter sports efforts from the Cleveland Browns and the Cleveland Cavaliers, many Cleveland fans could benefit from a fresh start with a team that concluded its 2013 campaign with a ten-game regular season winning streak culminating in an American League Wild Card game at home.
Last weekend, the Cleveland Indians hosted their second annual “Tribe Fest” at Progressive Field. The event gives personal access to fans in attendance to a behind-the-scenes look at the stadium that the Indians call home.
The activities grant fans an opportunity to meet some of their favorite members of the Indians – past, present, and future.
Current Indians, like fan favorite Nick Swisher, All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis, outfielders Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, and David Murphy, “Goon Squad” members Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes, and pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Danny Salazar, and Bryan Shaw, were in attendance, signing autographs, taking pictures, and interacting with the fans.
Legends of the Indians’ glory days of the 1990’s, including outfielder Kenny Lofton, starting pitcher Charles Nagy, future Hall of Fame slugger Jim Thome, and shortstop Omar Vizquel, were also present despite the adverse weather that affected the region.
Several prospects, including Triple-A starter Trevor Bauer, Double-A outfielder Tyler Naquin, and last season’s first round draft pick Clint Frazier, had their first opportunities to meet their future fans in downtown Cleveland.
Other representatives of the Indians’ organization also took part, including manager Terry Francona, radio voices of the Tribe Tom Hamilton and Jim Rosenhaus, superfan drummer John Adams, and team president Mark Shapiro.
Fans had the opportunity to purchase tickets to receive autographs from select groups of players and to tour portions of the clubhouse and training areas. Additional activities and games for younger fans were also scattered throughout the underbelly of the stadium.
On Thursday, a pair of Cleveland’s minor league affiliates hosted events of their own, again allowing fans the opportunity to engage players who could become bigger parts of the Indians’ organization in the future, if their career paths so allow.
The Lake County Captains had eight minor league ball players accessible to fans at Classic Park for their Hot Stove Dinner, in addition to new Captains manager Mark Budzinski and current Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who was a center of attention during the question and answer portion of the evening’s events.
The players present, representing many levels of the Indians’ farm system, met with fans for pictures and autographs prior to the event as well as after the conclusion of the Q&A. New Indians pitcher Tyler Cloyd, reliever Bryan Price (Columbus), infielders Jesus Aguilar and Giovanny Urshela (Akron), catcher Jake Lowery (Akron), and pitchers Cody Anderson (Akron), Joseph Colon (Carolina), and Will Roberts (Akron), all took time to chat with fans and sign autographs throughout the night.
The Mahoning Valley Scrappers held an event of their own in Niles, Ohio, on the same evening that the Indians announced an extension of the Player Development contract with the club through 2016, extending a relationship between the two that started in 1999.
Former Indians pitcher Jason Stanford was the lead speaker at the Mahoning Valley Scrappers Backers Hot Stove Dinner. Prospects present included Naquin (Akron), outfielder Bryson Myles (Carolina), second baseman Joe Wendle (Carolina), shortstop Erik Gonzalez (Carolina), 2013 fourth round pitcher Kyle Crockett (Akron), offseason relief acquisition Colt Hynes, and infielder Jose Ramirez, who jumped from Akron to Cleveland for the final month of the 2013 season.
A pair of common themes discussed amongst all of the players present were their offseason preparations and their excitement for the coming 2014 season.
Aguilar was relaxed and joked with many of the players around him, playfully introducing his teammates to the fans in attendance.
“I’ve enjoyed my time over there [in the Venezuelan Winter League],” said Aguilar on Thursday when asked about his 2013 offseason, when he hit .327 with 18 home runs and 50 RBI in 58 games for Leones del Caracas in his native Venezuela. “I’ve tried to make more contact and not do too much. I saw some results last year. I don’t have control about [where I play this season]. I try to stay focused on baseball and what I can do good. I am heading to Arizona after this to get ready for Spring Training.”
Urshela, a teammate of Aguilar’s in Akron in 2013 and in town for the Winter Development Program, enjoyed the opportunity to learn from the speakers while in town, but was focused ahead on the 2014 season.
“I’m excited for the season to start,” said Urshela on Thursday. “I’ve been doing work outs and I’m heading back to Arizona after this. It feels great to work to reach my dreams. I’m playing the game that I love.”
Price, who was acquired with Justin Masterson and Nick Hagadone in the 2009 trade with Boston for Victor Martinez, reached Columbus last season after starting the year in Akron and is on the team’s 40-man roster.
“My goal is to help the Indians win at the Major League level. As far as big league Spring Training, I’m going in there to compete and that’s what they’ve asked of me,” said Price at the Lake County Hot Stove Dinner. “They’ve asked me to come out there and show them what I have. Hopefully that can lead to something, but that’s not for me to say. Worst case scenario, I start the year in Columbus and from there hopefully help out [in Cleveland] later on in the season.”
Cloyd, who was selected off of waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of last season and has a couple of years of big league experience, was re-signed in December to a minor league contract and invited to spring training.
“The biggest thing I’ve worked on this offseason is working on my pitches. Every year that is the thing I want to work on,” said Cloyd on Thursday. “I’ve changed little things mechanically that I thought would help me out to do that.
“I’ve been keeping in contact with some of the guys. I think I’ve talked with 15 different people from the time I signed with them until the time I came up here. They really haven’t said what they wanted from me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just preparing myself to make a team, whatever team that is, to help win.”
While the players present were chomping at the bit to get their baseball seasons under way, they were not the only members of the organization to have the same urge. Several coaches and players from the Major League club have already headed to Arizona to begin their preparations.
Reliever Vinnie Pestano and Kipnis have already set up shop. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall shared on his Twitter account that he was heading to Arizona for an early start to his spring on Saturday. Pitching coach Callaway indicated on his Twitter account that he was following suit.
If that was not a sign enough that Spring Training was closing in, the Indians’ equipment trucks were loaded and on the road on Friday, complete with players’ equipment, clothes, workout gear, and personal effects, as well as Francona’s famed scooter.
Pitchers and catchers will report by February 11th. Their first work out is scheduled for February 13th. Position players are scheduled to report by February 15th with a full team workout planned for the 17th.
The Indians will open their spring schedule within the Cactus League at Goodyear Ballpark on February 26th against the Cincinnati Reds. The regular season opens in Oakland on March 31st and the home portion of the schedule begins on April 4th against the Minnesota Twins.
It may still feel far away, but the baseball season is upon us. After the city has reeled with disappointment after disappointment, starting with the AL Wild Card loss to Tampa Bay on October 2nd, all hope will once again return to the Indians to end 50 years of championship droughts in Cleveland.
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan