Seventy Years Later, Tribe Still Stands Without a Championship

Last Friday marked the anniversary of the last time a championship parade rolled through the streets of Cleveland in honor of the city’s Indians. A week and a half ago, the Tribe’s 70th season since winning its second title came to a crashing and demoralizing halt as the Houston Astros closed Progressive Field for the season with a brutal 11-3 win to complete a three-game American League Division Series sweep of the Indians.

The gut-wrenching dismantling of the Indians on their home field left the visiting clubhouse doused in beer, champagne, and excitement for a road squad for a third straight season.

The Indians have plenty of work to do this offseason, as their tenth American League Central Division crown was wasted on a first round technical knockout by Houston. The Tribe stood pat last offseason after a disheartening ALDS collapse against the New York Yankees after taking a 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 series and paid the price in 2018. Seeing the writing on the wall (as three other teams in the division were in the midst of notable rebuilding efforts and the Minnesota Twins appeared to have peaked earlier than anticipated in 2017), the Indians opted to allow all big name free agents to walk out the door that autumn, knowing full well that the team could easily sleepwalk to another divisional title. In hindsight, the dollars and years given to their former players did not match the production that they returned on those contracts to their new employers, so that decision was not necessarily a bad choice by the front office; however, the brain trust’s inability and/or unwillingness to do anything in the offseason (beyond signing free agent Yonder Alonso to a reasonable deal in a crowded first base market) put a slow-filling hole in the Tribe’s ship, with the vessel finally taking on enough water in October to finally sink without a fight.

While the end results were once again disappointing, the Indians are enjoying one of their better stretches in franchise history. For just the second time in 118 years of American League competition in northeast Ohio, Cleveland has reached the playoffs in three consecutive years. The only better stretch of divisional dominance the Tribe can claim was from 1995 to 1999, when the team won its first five AL Central banners. That period included two of the franchise’s five World Series appearances and two early exits from the postseason (including that of the most productive offense in team history in 1999, when that campaign ended early after the club posted a team record 1,009 runs).

Indians skipper Terry Francona has taken a lot of flak for the team’s inability to perform in the postseason, especially over the last two years. The team lost his first playoff appearance in Cleveland in 2013’s 4-0 home Wild Card loss against Tampa Bay. A club playing with house money gutted its way through the first two rounds with band-aids and duct tape in 2016, only to surrender a 3-1 series lead to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Back-to-back first round departures in the ALDS have left plenty wondering if the team has the ability and/or the funds (despite franchise-record payroll payouts already) to get over the hump to chase down either of Houston or Boston, or even a New York team that is capable of competing for several more years. Those damned Yankees wasted the Indians’ stellar 2017 season, as the Tribe saw a record 22-game winning streak and the second-most wins in club history both go for naught as they collapsed with another lopsided playoff series lead for the second year in a row.

Lemon, Bearden, & Hegan – AP Photo

The Indians’ current playoff losing streak sits at six games and also includes losses in nine of its last eleven games overall, all on Francona’s watch. This year’s failure pushed the Cleveland baseball drought to 70 seasons without a title and a dozen straight playoff appearances without securing a crown.

While there have been plenty of squandered chances over the last few years for Chief Wahoo’s Tribe, the previous two decades had their fair share of disappointments as well during a revival of baseball on the lake shore.

Cleveland had chances to celebrate a World Championship in 2007, but choked away its ALCS lead over Boston before the Red Sox rolled to an easy title sweep (incidentally with Francona at the helm) over the Colorado Rockies. Trips to the Fall Classic in both 1995 and 1997 ended in unpredictable and unfortunate fashion, as the Atlanta Braves (and the curious strike zone) knocked off the Indians’ juggernaut offense in ’95 and the Florida Marlins stole the ’97 title with a dramatic 11th inning Game 7 win (against a Tribe team with the worst record among the 14 postseason participants in Cleveland Indians history). A dominating club with an intimidating lineup year after year was not able to capitalize on other playoff berths in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2001.

The team had far more success in its first two trips to the postseason, even though it took 20 years to get that first championship in town (against a 16-team playing field, as opposed to the current 30-team landscape and more complex playoff structure). That year, Tris Speaker’s club took the eight-team American League’s top spot for the first time at regular season’s end, then knocked off the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) in a best-of-9 contest with a 5-2 series win to claim the 1920 title. Strong pitching from Jim Bagby and Stan Coveleski carried the squad throughout a season that was marred by the tragedy of Ray Chapman‘s death in August.

The city waited another 28 years before the Indians snuck into the 1948 playoffs via the game’s first one-game play-in contest (won over the Red Sox, 8-3, to break a tie atop the American League standings) before winning four of six from the crosstown Braves to win their second title in as many chances. The team had heroes for days, names that have become legendary in the annals of Tribe history. Lou Boudreau was the memorable Hall of Fame player-manager and league’s Most Valuable Player (the second in Indians history). The pitching staff featured three different Cooperstown greats – Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and mid-year addition Satchel Paige. Second baseman Joe Gordon and outfielder Larry Doby also later made their ways to the hallowed halls. Gene Bearden proved to be a remarkable rookie who carried the team when others struggled, earning a complete game win in the play-in game and throwing another complete game (his fifth straight and third shutout in that stretch) in a five-hit Braves blanking in Game 3. He later saved the clinching Game 6 4-3 win for Lemon.

Six years later, the team suffered its first crushing playoff ouster, getting swept by the New York Giants to cap a season that still stands as the Indians’ best all-time, in regards to wins (111) and winning percentage (.721). Forty-one long seasons followed before Cleveland finally found itself enjoying meaningful October baseball once again.

The 2018 season is in the books, at least for the Tribe, and the organization as a whole wrote a frustrating chapter to a story that still has no end. There was no underdog tale to tell or some miracle uprising on the shores of Lake Erie. The newest entry penned concluded in cliff-hanging fashion, leaving plenty of questions and uncertainty about what the future holds for this team, both in 2019 and the years to come.

Photo: Plain Dealer file photo

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