Irving’s Return Evokes Memories of Former Indians’ Homecomings

Tuesday night, the National Basketball Association opens its 2017-18 regular season schedule as the Cleveland Cavaliers host the Boston Celtics in a game that has much more meaning than the usual opening night game.

The Cavs and Celtics have become rivals over the course of the last few years, with Cleveland knocking Boston out of the playoffs twice in the last three seasons. The two clubs went toe-to-toe in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, with the Cavs winning that series, four games to one, to send Cleveland to its third straight NBA Finals. As many remember, that trip did not end nearly as well as the previous season, when the Cavs gave the city of Cleveland its first championship since 1964 with the first title in franchise history, leaving the Indians as holders of the longest active championship drought in the city.

While the Cavs will begin their defense of three straight Eastern Conference titles, the game’s real emphasis will be on the return of star guard Kyrie Irving to Quicken Loans Arena, where the former first overall pick in 2011 spent the first six years of his NBA career in Cavs’ wine and gold before demanding a trade in the offseason. The Cavs front office honored that request, sending its second-best player to a rival club, but may have, possibly, become a more well-rounded club in the process. That remains to be seen, as the results will play out over the course of the largely meaningless 82-game NBA schedule over the next six months.

With Kyrie returning to the city that he once called home while suiting up in his first official game in the green and white of the Celtics, it forced me to think back to recent Indians stars who left downtown Cleveland for “greener pastures”, to see how they fared in their returns to the shores of Lake Erie.

Possibly the most recent “big name” in recent memory to leave town was Cliff Lee. Like Irving, Lee had time remaining on his contract when he was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009, but unlike the Cavs trade of Irving (that netted veterans Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, the unproven Ante Zizic, and a pair of draft picks), the Lee trade brought back a slew of prospects. The highlight of the trade was right-hander Carlos Carrasco, who needed a lot of time to develop into the front-of-the-rotation starter that he has turned in to. Other pieces from the trade, Lou Marson and Jason Donald, failed to develop into long time contributors for the Tribe, while young left-hander Jason Knapp was damaged goods upon arrival and saw a quick end to his professional aspirations.

Lee was coming off of a Cy Young award winning season and his first career All-Star trip with the Tribe in 2008, but his results would vary over the course of the rest of his career. He would spend the majority of the time in the National League, but did return to the American League in 2010 with Seattle and Texas. He would not face the Indians that season and would only face them once in his career, when he returned to Progressive Field in 2013 during his fourth and final All-Star season while back with the Phillies for a second stint. Cleveland would play a rude host, as Lee would last six innings in his May 1 start, but was tagged for five runs (four earned) on nine hits with two walks and four strikeouts while taking his second loss of the season.

CC Sabathia had been dealt in similar fashion the year before Lee. A free agent to be after the 2008 season, Sabathia had won the top pitching award in the league in 2007 while helping the Indians go deep into the postseason, ultimately falling short of the World Series in an American League Championship Series collapse to the Boston Red Sox.

The hefty lefty was shipped to Milwaukee in early July of 2008, where he led the Brewers to the playoffs before a massive payday with the New York Yankees. The Indians’ haul for Sabathia, a player who had outpriced himself from consideration in Cleveland’s financially-strapped future, included a top prospect (Matt LaPorta) who did not pan out at the Major League level and a player to be named later (Michael Brantley) who turned into the star of the deal. Pitcher Zach Jackson and minor league hurler Rob Bryson were also part of the deal.

Sabathia would not have to wait years as Lee had to make his debut across the field from the Indians, as his third start of the 2009 season pitted him against his former club in New York. He took a no-decision in his first appearance against the team that made him a first rounder in 1998. He made his first trip back to the mound at Jacobs Field later that season, the first out of an Indians uniform after spending eight big league seasons in Cleveland. He won that outing, winning a 10-5 final with seven innings of work. He allowed three runs on five hits in the quality start.

Sabathia has made eleven regular season starts against his former club, posting a 4-3 record with a 3.65 ERA. He also did some things against the Tribe this postseason, but that is something that the city of Cleveland is still trying to forget, but won’t any time soon.

Neither pitcher was necessarily a star in the game, despite winning some big hardware. Nor was Bartolo Colon when he was dealt in 2001 (for a package that included Lee). But a trio of big sluggers who were key parts of the Indians glory years in the 1990s were budding stars on the diamond when they opted to skip town for big money.

Manny Ramirez bolted Cleveland for Boston on his own accord in the offseason after the 2000 season. A homegrown product like Sabathia, he cracked the Major League lineup in 1993 and rose to stardom for the Indians before cashing in on an eight-year, $160 million contract with the Red Sox after a lengthy courtship with several teams. The Indians, who had an exclusive window to conduct business with Ramirez, initially offered a seven-year, $119 million package, well short of what agent Jeff Moorad was looking for, something believed to be in the ten-year, $200 million range.

The Indians would counter with a five-year, $100 million offer that topped the Red Sox’s offer on a per-season rate. Deals would fly, with the Red Sox eventually avoiding some deferred monies and adding a pair of option years on the back end of the deal, giving him the second-largest contract signed that offseason (Alex Rodriguez inked his $252 million deal the day before with the Texas Rangers), all while helping Ramirez choose the unfamiliar New England over the familiar North Coast despite the Red Sox being unable to lure Ramirez’s favorite clubbie to Fenway Park.

The four-time All-Star, after eight seasons in Cleveland, was a member of the Red Sox. He would put up similar numbers over the course of his eight seasons in Boston (.313/.407/.592 with the Indians; .312/.411/.588 with the Red Sox) while becoming a perennial All-Star. He also got the hardware that eluded him in 1995 and 1997, winning the World Series (as its MVP) in 2004, and again in 2007, both times with manager Terry Francona.

Ramirez made his first appearance as an opponent in Cleveland from July 3-5 in the 2001 season. He went 5-for-13 in the series with two doubles.

The very next season, Jim Thome would leave town. Like Ramirez, he grew up in the Indians system, beginning with his selection in the 13th round of the 1989 draft. His departure spelled a rebuilding period for the Tribe, the last of the big holdovers from the club’s run of playoff teams in the ‘90’s. Unlike the others, he would eventually put an Indians jersey back on, rejoining the club nearly a decade later, a shell of the slugger that he was during his Cleveland heyday. His “Thomecoming” would precede his eventual immortalization as the second of five statues at Progressive Field. His number 25 is in a state of semi-retirement, not used since Jason Giambi voluntarily surrendered it in 2014.

The fan favorite Thome spent his first 12 seasons in Cleveland, leaving after a 52-homer season, a mark that remains a franchise record and the high water mark of his professional career. He would hit 612 in his career, eighth on the all-time list. The Indians offered a five-year, $60 million deal and later tacked on a vesting option for a sixth season, but the Phillies countered with $82 million over six years with a vesting option for a seventh season and a buyout if declined.

Thome spent three seasons in Philadelphia, including one with long-time coach and friend Charlie Manuel as the Phillies’ skipper before he returned to the AL Central in a trade to the Chicago White Sox, sending him closer to his home of Peoria, Illinois. It would be in his first season in Chicago and in his fifth and final All-Star campaign that he would return to Jacobs Field for the first time as a visiting player. Prior to that visit, he faced the Indians in Chicago and homered in each of his first two games against his former club in the White Sox’s season opening series against Cleveland. The White Sox would come to Jacobs Field to start May and he played in the first of the two games of the short set, going 1-for-5 with a single, a run batted in, and a run scored.

Albert Belle did not go far when he left the Indians following their first-round defeat in the 1996 postseason to the Baltimore Orioles in the Tribe’s defense of the 1995 AL pennant. After being selected in the second round of the 1987 draft, he reached the Majors in 1989, but it was just the start of a tumultuous career that involved some rocky relationships with the media and photographers, fans near his home, and personal off-the-field difficulties.

Belle spent eight seasons in Cleveland, growing into a feared power-hitter first at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium before turning Jacobs Field into his own personal launching pad. He led baseball with 129 RBI in his first of five straight All-Star seasons in 1993, had 35 doubles and 36 homers with a .357 average when the strike hit in 1994, and put up MLB-bests in doubles (52) and homers (50) in the strike-shortened 1995 season. He led the AL with 148 RBI in 1996 and cashed in to become the game’s highest paid player at the time, signing a five-year, $55 million deal to stay in the division with the White Sox.

“I’m not going to change my personality because someone wants me to change,” Belle was quoted by the Associated Press on November 20, 1996. “My number one priority is to produce.

“It’s not about the most money. I’m sure I could have shopped around and got more money.”

Belle was said to be courted by both the Indians and the infant Florida Marlins.

Playing in the division, it would not take long for Belle to see the familiar Indians again. He treated them like a team he knew as well as the back of his hand, putting a hurt on the Tribe quickly. He singled in his last at bat in his first game against them at Comiskey Park on May 26, 1997, but broke open the game the next night, hitting a grand slam in the fourth inning off of Albie Lopez to double the White Sox’s lead to 8-0 at the time.

A week later, his return to Jacobs Field was a spectacle. He was greeted with signs and showered with boos and all sorts of flying debris, including fake money, batteries, ice, cups, and even a pair of binoculars that were recovered by shortstop and future White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Belle had three hits in that first game back in town on June 3, including two doubles and a three-run homer. The game was twice delayed because of the fans’ antics towards their former slugger, who at times egged on the behavior. Belle saluted the fans who were on him all night in his first game back with a one-fingered salute after the final out was made.

He drove in three more runs and doubled the next day, and went 1-for-6 in the series finale, striking out three times.

“Look at how much good this guy brought to this town,” Guillen shared in a June 4, 1997, story in the Associated Press following Belle’s first game back, “and the people forget that because he wants to make his living. That’s ignorant.”

Belle would later return to Cleveland for the All-Star Game the next month, the final honor of his 12-year career. In typical Belle fashion, he took a jab at the local fans, calling them the “village idiots” and he skipped the AL All-Stars’ team picture and asked manager Joe Torre to include him in the game only in the event of an emergency.

John Hart, general manager of the Indians, defended his decision to let Belle leave later in the season, sharing his thoughts in a September 5, 1997, story in the Chicago Tribune.

“I’d have loved to keep this team together for a long time, but that’s the nature of all professional sports,” Hart said. “We’ve made some statements that we’re not going to pay guys $11 million a year. We can’t put enough good players around some of the stars.

“Albert got that kind of money from another ball club, and that’s fine. That’s what free agency is there for. I certainly don’t begrudge him that, but we’re not going to do it here. We don’t have an unlimited vault that we can go to.”

Irving’s return may be well-received by some on Tuesday night at the neighboring Quicken Loans Arena, due in large part to his All-Star caliber play for years and his efforts in the seventh game of the 2015-16 NBA Finals that helped secure the city’s first title in 52 years. It will be the Celtics’ only trip to Cleveland this season (the two teams will meet in January and February in Boston), but the two organizations are expected by many to meet once again in the NBA playoffs, sometime after the regular season schedule concludes on April 11, 2018.

Others will view Irving as Indians fans did Ramirez, Thome, and Belle for quite some time – as a player who abandoned his teammates for self-serving goals in a team sport.

Regardless of the opinion of the Cleveland fan, here’s hoping Irving’s return is free of controversy and is marked by no more than boos and none of the dramatics that made Belle’s first trip back a bit of a black eye for the city.

Photo: Focus on Sport (Getty Images)

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