In the span of a few short months, Cleveland has become title town, a city of champions. The Believeland moniker has become that of an Achieveland variety, as the Cavaliers ended a 52-year championship void in June, only to have the older brother Indians now within four games of their own trophy and parade in October.
It’s an incredible time to be a Cleveland fan. What generations before have clamored for has become a reality on the shores of Lake Erie. The Indians will look to end their 68-year championship drought by extending that of the Chicago Cubs beyond its current 108-year void in a battle between the two longest suffering franchises in the sport.
While the June NBA championship hangover still lingers and the images still persist in the collective psyche of the Cleveland populous, those watching the Cleveland Indians with earnest know that the coming World Series feels different than the NBA Finals of four months ago or even those most recent postseason pursuits of the Indians organization 20 years ago.
The Cavaliers brought home a title with brute financial force, beginning with the return home of the King. In reacquiring arguably the best player in the game today and one of the finest players to suit up in the NBA, the Cavs future as a perennial postseason participant was cemented just on the abilities of LeBron James alone. He was not alone, however, as there was a bit of a core in place in the likes of Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, but those pieces were not going to be enough. So owner Dan Gilbert and his front office spared no expense – the team picked up Kevin Love, brought in veteran role players, shelled out a significant chunk of change in luxury tax, and bought the Cavs a better shot at a championship.
It isn’t that easy, and it is not said with the intent of diminishing anything that the Cavs did to end Cleveland’s drought. But what occurred at neighboring Quicken Loans Arena had more of the feel of something the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers or other deep wallet teams would do to drastically improve their title hopes by bringing in the best in the game to push the team over the top. The Cavs still had to knock off an NBA-record setting 73-win Golden State Warriors team that blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals.
It needed to be said. It’s fun to say.
The Cavs were so stacked, so talented, that a championship seemed instantly attainable. It did not feel so much as if one would occur, but when it might happen with that roster.
As for baseball, the 1995 Indians squad ended a 41-year playoff drought. They did it with an incredible 100-44 run through the strike-shortened regular season and did it with a power-packed lineup that many can still recall to this day.
The roster was made up of home grown talent, other young players picked off from other organizations, and the handful of crafty veterans brought on board to give the inexperienced players the leadership it needed. The team was just getting hot in 1994 when the strike killed the season. The fearsome lineup and the underrated pitching staff was so dominant, the team clinched the division on September 8 with 21 games still remaining on the regular season schedule. They were 14 games better than the next closest American League opponent and ten games better than the Atlanta Braves, but fate was not on the Indians’ side that season as the team was defeated by Atlanta in six games in a postseason rematch of Cleveland’s last baseball championship in 1948 when the Braves still called Boston home.
While the Indians were a first round knockout in 1996 despite leading baseball with a 99-62 record in the regular season, they claimed a third straight AL Central crown in 1997 with an 86-75 record and defied the odds some by knocking off a Yankees team with ten more wins in the regular season before defeating the 98-win Baltimore Orioles. In a battle in the World Series that season with the 92-70 NL Wild Card Marlins, Florida edged it out in a dramatic extra inning win in Game 7 to crush the dreams of the Cleveland faithful.
That Indians lineup was different than the one in 1995, built more on borrowed parts from elsewhere than the previous versions of the roster. Marquis Grissom, Tony Fernandez, Matt Williams, David Justice, Julio Franco, Bip Roberts, and Kevin Seitzer brought more of a veteran, proven presence to the lineup, while the mainstays like Vizquel, Thome, Ramirez, and Alomar returned. Three of the big contributors to the rotation in 1995 – Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser, and Chad Ogea – were at the heart of the staff, but young blood injected by the likes of Jaret Wright and Bartolo Colon helped the rotation throughout the year and 32-year-old Mike Jackson stabilized the bullpen around Jose Mesa, Eric Plunk, and Paul Assenmacher.
While that Indians team may not have been a favorite to take the American League pennant, they were playoff tested and nearly took the whole thing.
This year’s lineup had that home grown look of the ‘90s, particularly players who came up in the farm system similar to the 1995 Indians, but while lacking the dramatic flair, an emphasis on the pop, or physically imposing figures. The 2016 club hit the homers it needed, but had no 50-homer, 52-double season like Belle’s. Five players toppled 20 homers and six had 15 or more in 1995, while just four eclipsed the 15-plateau this season. Even the ’97 team, different in its construction, had six players with 17 or more, including 32 from Williams, 33 from Justice, and 40 from Thome.
Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Roberto Perez, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Cody Allen were all drafted or signed by the club and developed entirely within the organization. Carlos Santana, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw, Mike Clevinger, and three guys absent for chunks of the season (Yan Gomes, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Carrasco) all were picked off from elsewhere in beneficial trades while getting a chance to develop some in the farm system.
Veterans were added from outside via free agency or trade, including guys like Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Dan Otero, Brandon Guyer, Coco Crisp, and Andrew Miller. The July 2016 addition of reliever Miller was a game-changer and a move rarely seen by an Indians franchise that has emphasized the importance of drafting and developing from within to curtail risky free agent expenditures. The last time top prospects were dealt, the team got in return a trip to Cedar Point in a roller coaster ride named Ubaldo Jimenez. Miller is no Jimenez, despite the lofty price of two top prospects and two other relievers with some outside potential to be regulars in the Majors at some point in their careers.
Miller represented the shocking move that was out of the Indians’ character. They packaged top prospects and shipped them away, like the Cavs did in 2014 in dealing consecutive first rounders Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to Minnesota to acquire Love.
On paper, the lineup did not instill fear; the rotation did. The bullpen was inconsistent until Miller’s presence allowed manager Terry Francona to defy all conventional bullpen norms. Yet for lengths of the season, the steady and underrated offense performed and helped carry the team through the ebbs and flows of the rotation’s issues, dealt several big injuries and the occasional question mark. Still, when beset by injuries, the team was ruled out, by both the national media and a respected and recognized local writer who stated that the obstacles would all be much too much to overcome for the playoff-inexperienced roster.
No Brantley, no Gomes, no Salazar, and no Carrasco spelled no deep run through the playoffs by all conventional lines of thought when putting sheer fandom and blind loyalties aside. But this 2016 Indians team is no 1995 Indians or 1997 Indians or even the 2016 Cavs. These Indians have faced a different kind of adversity all season long in all shapes and sizes, with no true superstar (yet), no free spending owner, failed PED tests throwing curveballs at the outfield roster construction, starting rotation holes threatening to burst a fissure in the proverbial dam, a freak drone accident, and a family emergency, and yet each time, against all odds, the Tribe has prevailed.
The depleted pitching wasn’t supposed to be able to shut down the league leading Boston Red Sox offense. Instead, the Indians swept the American League Division Series. The potent Toronto Blue Jays bats were supposed to run away with the American League Championship Series after sweeping the AL club with the best record, the Texas Rangers. Cleveland had other thoughts, taking the series in five and winning in the loud Rogers Centre to stun the world again.
The championship run continues for the underdog Indians on Tuesday. Four more wins can bring the magical season to an improbable conclusion and make 2016 a year that no Clevelander could ever forget.
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