Cleveland Wins the Pennant
For once, it wasn’t about yesterday or tomorrow in Cleveland. With another herculean effort, the Indians toppled Toronto in five games to win a most unlikely pennant. Now, the 112th World Series will begin in Ohio on Tuesday 25th October, as a chastised city grows accustomed to winning.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Well, at least that’s what the experts said. Entering the season, few predicted great things from Cleveland. The Kansas City Royals were defending world champions. The Detroit Tigers retooled during the winter, adding prized free agents. The Cleveland Indians? Well, they were the Cleveland Indians, a team that always finds a way to mess things up.
Sure, the additions of Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis looked smart on paper. Yes, Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis provided a great young core to compliment a dominant rotation. But it felt like another case of having all the right pieces but failing to complete the jigsaw. How wrong we were.
In retrospect, we should have known better than to question Terry Francona, the masterful manager. During the regular season, Tito cajoled from his imperfect roster a monumental effort, as Cleveland overcame injuries to star outfielder Michael Brantley and key catcher Yan Gomes to stick around in the division race. Napoli crushed 34 home runs. Lindor hit .301 in 684 plate appearances. The vaunted rotation delivered on its promise. In total, Cleveland won 94 games, good for a first division title since 2007. A certain magic formed in the air.
Along the way, Francona did everything and anything to eke value from his team of retreads and readjusted kids. Carlos Santana, the beefy slugger, hit leadoff 86 times due to his terrific on-base skills. Andrew Miller, the bullpen ace acquired from New York, became a roving fire blanket down the stretch, unconfined to one particular inning or job title. Unheralded guys like Lonnie Chisenhall, Jose Ramirez and Dan Otero enjoyed fine seasons, as a true October series arrived on the Indians agenda for the first time in nine years.
Entering the playoffs, all conceivable odds were stacked against Cleveland once again. Corey Kluber, the ace, had a quad strain that pushed back his first start. Carlos Carrasco, another fine hurler, was out with a broken hand. Danny Salazaar, the final piece of this three-headed monster, battled a forearm issue. Perhaps more pertinently, the $113 million Indians faced the $215 million Red Sox in the first round. Fangraphs gave Cleveland just an 8.8% chance of winning the World Series before a pitch was thrown. Boston’s odds were placed at 18.1%. Most people expected a sweep, and that’s just what we got, except Cleveland dominated, not the fabled Red Sox, as Francona embarrassed his former team.
This group faced adversity from all angles. It was told repeatedly that the season was over, that this squad just wasn’t good enough. Even some Indians beat writers declared them dead. But ploughing on through adversity to happier times is what the Indians have always done. It’s what Cleveland has always done. Hope never dies.
Just consider the hurdles they have faced. For years, their best players were pillaged by wealthier teams. Goodbye, Manny Ramirez. So long, Jim Thome. The same happened with intellectual talent, as Cleveland became a pioneer in the Sabermetric revolution yet never received the ultimate glory as front office masterminds moved on. Howdy, Mark Shapiro. Hello, Ben Cherington and Paul DePodesta, Josh Byrnes and Neal Huntington. People viewed the Cleveland Indians as a stepping stone to greater things. Ownership was derided for its stringent payroll, and there seemed to be a glass ceiling through which the Indians could see but never progress. Attendance dwindled to 1.3 million last year, the lowest since 1991. The glory days seemed so far away, as Cleveland finished 13.5 games out of first place, on average, in the fallow period between division titles. Something had to give.
This gloomy picture was compounded by troubling times for the city as a whole. Most surveys find Cleveland to be one of the poorest cities in America. A collapse in the steel and auto industries hit the city hard, as did suburbanisation. Despite its rich history, Cleveland became the butt of jokes. The city’s infamous championship drought, comprising 147 seasons in four different sports, became a wider metaphor for life. No matter how hard it tried, and no matter how talented it was, Cleveland could never have a moment in the sun.
Then, when all seemed lost, along came LeBron James and his Cavaliers. In 2016, they reached the NBA Finals once again, but few gave them a serious chance against Steph Curry and the mighty Golden State Warriors. Defying history and a certain heap of logic, Cleveland emerged victorious in seven exhilarating games. The hex was lifted. The city exhaled. A parade was arranged, and 1.3 million people turned up. That night, the Indians cut ticket prices and sold out Progressive Field. An exchange of energy occurred, and soon Francona and his men embarked on a 14-game winning streak that all but secured a postseason berth.
Sweeping Boston in the ALDS gave them another jolt of momentum, and Cleveland faced Toronto with nothing to lose. Deep down, people still thought they would blow it. But by embracing adversity, uniting as one, and putting team goals before individual objectives, Cleveland proved once again what we all know to be true: in a certain light, money and even talent doesn’t mean a thing in contemporary baseball. After all, only three American League teams spent less when assembling a roster than did the Indians. Yet it was Cleveland that emerged on top.
Kluber beat Marco Estrada in Game 1, as Lindor accounted for all the scoring with a two-run homer. Miller threw two scoreless innings in Game 2, striking out five, as the speed of Davis manufactured the winning run. And then a heroic bullpen effort covered for Trevor Bauer in Game 3 when the starter was removed due to excessive bleeding from an injured finger. Cleveland relievers secured twenty-five outs and surrendered just two runs. Meanwhile, the offence scored four, headlined by a solo blast from Napoli.
The Blue Jays recovered to win Game 4, sparking feint hopes of a comeback. But as the whole world knows, Terry Francona is the only guy who has ever plotted such a revival, and he knew how to stop such thoughts before they proliferated. Rookie Ryan Merritt got the ball in Game 5, and he combined with the trusty bullpen to shut down a once-potent Toronto attack. Homers from Santana and Coco Crisp stood up, and the Indians won. When Santana caught a lazy popup off the bat of Troy Tulowitzki, Cleveland was an American League champion for just the sixth time in history.
Now, they’ll rest and wait and scheme. The Los Angeles Dodgers or Chicago Cubs will roll into town next week, and these Indians will once again be a resounding underdog. The Fall Classic hasn’t visited Cleveland since 1997. A lot has changed since then, but a lot has remained the same. The dream of thousands, to see their Indians win the world championship, is a constant thread throughout the generations. That dream is one step closer to reality, as a first ring since 1948 is now within touching distance.
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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!