A dozen years ago, the Indians were just starting a new era of Tribe baseball. Long gone were Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga and Manny Ramirez, but it was just prior to the 2002 season that Cleveland said goodbye to Roberto Alomar, Kenny Lofton, Dave Burba, Marty Cordova and Juan Gonzalez. The long-dominant Indians were a team in transition and were picked by most to finish in third place in the American League Central Division.
“I wish everybody would have picked us to finish last,” newcomer Matt Lawton said in a Plain Dealer article by Dennis Manoloff. “It’s fun when nobody expects anything out of you and you go out and prove people wrong.”
Just about two weeks into the season, the Indians were doing just that. After ace pitcher Bartolo Colon fired a complete game shutout at Edison Field in Anaheim on Opening Day, the Tribe dropped their first game of the season two days later. After that, the new-look team went on a tear, winning their next 10 ballgames to run their record to an outstanding 11-1. The Tribe was in first place after Saturday April 13; four games up on both of the division favorites in the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins. Like the surprised fans, the Indians clubhouse was all smiles after their amazing start—a start that equaled the greatest through 12 games in franchise history.
“In the past, I’ve come here after we’ve won and people weren’t happy,” 2002 Manager and longtime coach Charlie Manuel said in an article by Paul Hoynes. “They’d be worried about their own stats. Or maybe they were unhappy with my decision on how to use them or about something else that happened in the game.
“We’ve got a better mind-set this year, a better understanding of what we’re trying to do. We’ve got new players. It’s a better blend.”
The hot start in 2002 was only bettered by the 1966 Indians that fired out of the gates with a record of 14-1. The makeup of the clubhouse had some of the veterans gaining some lofty expectations.
“I’ve compared this team to our 1997 team,” first baseman Jim Thome said, fresh off of winning the American League Player of the Week Award. “We’ve had other great teams, but this is a little closer-knit. No one cares about individual things. That comes from Charlie. His message is that whenever you do something that helps the club win, you should be happy.”
The Indians were just finishing up a homestand on Sunday the 14th, with lefty Chuck Finley scheduled to face the struggling, 4-6 Kansas City Royals. Starting centerfielder Milton Bradley was ready to come back from a quadriceps injury and the Tribe was looking to win their 11th straight game for the first time since 1982.
“Winning is very important for us right now,” Thome said. “I don’t think people expected us to start the way we have. We’ve got enough veterans here that know you don’t win a division in April. There are going to be peaks and valleys. How we handle them will determine how we finish.”
Unfortunately, the scheduled 1:05 start at Jacobs Field on Sunday did not occur that day, and the Indians had a scheduled off-day on Monday. The last thing that the hottest team in baseball needed was a break and a trip to the rival Chicago White Sox loomed on Tuesday, April 16.
“This is going to be a very nice test, even though it’s early, because Chicago’s a good team and everybody picked them to win the division,” shortstop Omar Vizquel said. “Both teams are playing well, so it should be interesting.”
The White Sox were 7-5 going into the series and were winners of five of six. The expectations in the Windy City were high mainly due to the return-to-health of their future Hall of Fame slugger, Frank Thomas.
Manuel and Pitching Coach Mike Brown felt it best to not alter the starting rotation that had a perfect 10-0 record, even with the two days off.
“We’re not going to let one rainout disturb what we do and how we go about our business,” Brown said. “We’re not going to juggle things around and try to outsmart ourselves. We’re here to play the season.”
Finley didn’t make it out of the second frame that Tuesday evening, allowing nine runs in just 1.2 innings of work. Given a 1-0 lead on a Russell Branyan homerun in the top of the second, Finley gave up seven hits including a homerun to Royce Clayton and a grand slam to Magglio Ordonez before getting pulled.
Finley’s poor effort that evening led to a 10-5 blowout that the Indians never really contended in. It dropped the Tribe’s record to 11-2 and the freefall began from there.
The Indians were swept in three games by the Sox by getting outscored 24-8 and then traveled to Minneapolis to get swept in another three games by the Twins. The Twins continued the White Sox pummeling of the Tribe as well, outscoring the 11-7 team 22-7. After finally taking a game against the Sox at home the following Monday, the Tribe lost three more consecutively and six of the last seven for the month of April. Despite an 10-1 start to the month (Opening Day was in March), the Indians finished April with a 12-13 record on their way to a yawner of a season.
The team that people expected to be mediocre from the start fell short of expectations, as the team finished with a 74-88 record, 20.5 games behind the eventual champion Twins. The Tribe had eight losing streaks of at least four games during the season and 14 of three games or longer. Bright spots were provided by DH Ellis Burks who batted over .300, Karim Garcia who slugged a surprising 16 homeruns down the stretch, and Jim Thome who smashed a club record 52 homeruns. Nearly every other player on the Tribe’s roster disappointed in some way.
Regulars Einar Diaz, Travis Fryman, Branyan and Lawton all batted under .240, while starters Ryan Drese, Ricardo Rodriguez and Jaret Wright all had ERA’s over 5.00. The underperformance was highlighted that summer by the firing of Manuel—who would eventually win a World Series as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies—and the June trade of Colon to the Montreal Expos.
When Colon was dealt, it put the Indians in full rebuilding mode that put any ideas of contention out of the picture until the 2005 season. The haul for Colon included future All-Stars Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips as well as future Cy Young winner Cliff Lee. It opened the next phase of Indians baseball that culminated in the 2007 run to the ALCS and it all started when the Indians took their nose dive in April of 2002.
Photo: USA Today’s Baseball Weekly