On Wednesday night, the MLB Network took Cleveland Indians fans on a trip down memory lane. The network’s documentary, “The Dynasty That Almost Was,” took an in-depth look at the great 1990s Indians teams that Clevelanders came to love and cherish.
The hour-and-a-half-long program was a roller coaster ride of emotions for the Tribe faithful. It showed how a baseball team that had been stuck in a rut of losing since the 1960s put together an amazingly young and talented team through shrewd trades and smart drafting.
By 1994, the young team was ready to take flight toward becoming a powerhouse just as the Indians beautiful new ballpark, Jacob’s Field, was opening. From 1994-2001, the Cleveland Indians went on a run of success unmatched by any Tribe team before it or since. That run included six American League Central Division crowns and two trips to the World Series.
MLB Network’s mini-film showed a city that embraced its upstart team like none other. After the 1995 World Series, Cleveland’s first Fall Classic in 41 years, the city threw a parade in the Tribe’s honor. It was honoring the team that had just LOST the World Series, 4 games to 2. That never happens. Never do you see a parade for a club that did not win its final game of the season. Parades are usually reserved for champions. Thousands of fans showed up to pay homage to a group of players that had done something special, something that Cleveland had not enjoyed in decades. It was a celebration of a great season, but also a longing for more to come.
That’s where the documentary’s roller coaster ride takes the downhill path as those great Indians never did win the World Series. They, of course, came agonizingly close in 1997, take a 2-1 lead into the ninth before falling in extra innings to the then Florida Marlins. Those great teams, that continued to sell out games at a record pace until 2001, never again sniffed the game’s grandest trophy. Those teams never got back to the Fall Classic.
Despite not getting back to the Series and despite never winning one in those eight great seasons, Tribe fans still speak fondly of those squads and players. Jim Thome has a statue outside of what is now Progressive Field. Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton, and Charles Nagy are among the many who have been honored with a plaque in the Indians Hall of Fame. Fans love appearances by those guys as well as Carlos Baerga, who was gone midway through the 1996 campaign, as his great skills suddenly vanished. Albert Belle, the great Tribe slugger who became a pariah when he left for the White Sox as a free agent after the 1996 season, would even receive a loud ovation if he ever returned to Cleveland. Sandy Alomar, Jr. is now the Tribe’s first base coach. On Opening Day, when coaches and players are announced, Alomar still gets some of the biggest cheers from the home crowd at Progressive Field. Mike Hargrove, who managed the teams from 1991-1999 still lives in the city and is revered by the Wahoo Warrior faithful.
Indeed, Cleveland embraced and loved those 1990s teams. That adoration was earned and deserved. However, at times since then, it has seemed that Indians fans have not been able to let go of those squads. Many seasons and Tribe teams since then have been compared to those past clubs during the glory days. They are unfair comparisons as it will be nearly impossible to get that much talent on one team ever again. That’s not just true for the Indians, but for any team in MLB. The 1990s Indians were an embarrassment of riches and almost spoiled Clevelanders who started to see a division title and playoff appearance as birth rites in that era.
Perhaps the tight grip fans have tried to hold on to the past is finally starting to wane just a little bit. That’s because, for the first time in a long time, Tribe fans have a new group of players and coaches that they can cherish.
Yes, since 2001, there have been other very good Indians teams. There was the 93-win club that just missed the 2005 playoffs. There was the group in 2007 that fell in seven games to the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. Those were one-season journeys towards greatness, rather than a great run.
From 2008-2012, the wheels fell off. The Indians did not have a winning record in those five campaigns and lost more than 90 games three times.
In 2013, the culture began to change. Much like those teams in the mid-90s, these Indians since 2013 have had sustained success. That culture change began when the Indians hired Terry Francona to take over the reigns as manager of the ball club. Francona had won two World Series rings with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007, breaking a rather long Curse of the Bambino with the first title.
Francona has been just as advertised since taking over in Cleveland.
In the Francona Years, the Tribe now has four straight winning seasons, two postseason appearances, and an appearance the 2016 World Series. Much like 1997, the Indians came painfully close to ending their championship drought, one that dates back to its last title in 1948. The Indians are now working on a possible fifth straight winning season and hopeful of a third postseason berth. A second straight division crown is also within reach for the current AL Central Division leaders.
Almost like those 1990s teams, when Francona took over he may have been the squad’s most recognizable name and top personality. That was the case when Hargrove took over an unheralded group in 1991.
Also like those teams of two decades ago, this management team identified young players to build the franchise around and many of them have blossomed into stars. Francona is no longer the face of the Indians franchise. There are stars and All-Stars littering the Tribe roster these days. Corey Kluber is a Cy Young Award winner and annual contender for the top pitching prize. Francisco Lindor has a Platinum Glove to his name. Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis are two-time All-Stars for the Tribe. Jose Ramirez went to his first Midsummer Classic this year.
Those are just the guys the Indians groomed from their early days. Last year’s trade addition and superstar reliever Andrew Miller was an All-Star again this year. Free agent addition Edwin Encarnacion was an All-Star as recently as last year. The Tribe lineup and pitching staff has big names all over it now. Starter Carlos Carrasco and outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall were borderline All-Stars this year, but did not get the nods.
If the Indians can indeed reach the playoffs again this year (presumably with a likely record above .500 record), they would be hitting a run of sustained success seen only three other times in the first 116 years of the franchise. Two of those other long-sustained runs came before 1970, so most fans today do not have a lot to draw on besides the 1990s Tribe.
Those 90s teams were very much loved. However, do not fall asleep on the group playing in the 23-year-old beautiful ballpark these days. They have stars that will be in Cleveland for a good handful of years. They have a chance to keep building on the great success that they have already enjoyed under Francona. Most importantly, they have a chance to do what those teams in the 90s could not do and that is win a World Series.
Ten to 15 years from now, it is conceivable that Clevelanders could look back on this era of good play the way they have on those great 1990s squads. Perhaps someone like Kluber or Ramirez or Lindor will have their likeness in statue form outside the stadium in a couple of decades. Perhaps fans in ten years will compare those future Indians squads to the ones of today. Perhaps these 2010s Indians will be debated as an all-time great Cleveland sports team. Perhaps this current incarnation will even get its own documentary. And, perhaps, that documentary could end with a World Series title win that ended what now stats as the game’s longest run without a title.
The story of the 1990s Indians is written and documented. History cannot change their greatness nor their inability to finish the job. These Indians are in the midst of their story. It may only be half written, for all we know. The ending is not yet finalized and their roller coaster ride could end on a high. Hopefully Tribe fans will be there to enjoy the thrills with the club along the way. While we should embrace the past, it is time to realize that the present Tribe may be just as much fun, entertaining, and successful.
Photo: Crain’s Cleveland Business