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Oh, so familiar
July 29, 2012 - Zach Baker
It's happening again.
And it's oh, so familiar.
Back in the 1980s, when the Indians were still playing in Municipal Stadium, fast starts were somewhat common. The year that sticks out, though, is 1989.
In that season, Cleveland was oddly competitive. The team was never much over .500, yet managed to stay in the race until late August. I remember being nine-years-old, at an airport in Cincinnati with my Chief Wahoo baseball cap on. The baggage-handler told me "You better catch those Orioles."
It was a season where Pete O'Brien started his only season on the northcoast red-hot. A season where Jerry Browne somehow almost hit .300. And a season where the Indians actually sent two pitchers — Greg Swindell and Doug Jones — to the All-Star Game. It was the first time that had happened since Dennis Eckersley was pitching there.
Two other moments stand out about that season. Even at 9, I devoured The Plain Dealer's sports section, and I remember reading how Hank Peters had gotten a call from the Astros GM, who offered him Mike Scott — a somewhat big name in 1989.
The other was an episode of "Up Close With Roy Firestone." I don't remember who the guest was, but I know it was August. Maybe it was a writer. Maybe it was Bill James. I remember he had a beard. But he picked the Indians to win the American League East.
Of course, things fell apart. O'Brien slumped, and the only hitter anyone really feared in the Tribe's lineup was Joe Carter. So they pitched around him, and although Joe put up monster numbers (35 homers, 105 RBIs) his average slipped to .243. My favorite player, Cory Snyder, suffered his worst offensive season (to that point), hitting just .215. Brook Jacoby, or Casey Blake 1989, had his usual steady year, but although hit for a decent average, he wasn't a run producer.
The Indians started sliding. Doc Edwards was fired and John Hart — yes, THAT John Hart — took over as manager.
The Tribe finished 73-89, in sixth place. But the Indians DID win the American League East in 1989.
It was in the movie "Major League."
As I write this, the Indians are a game under .500. I see plenty of similarities between this club and the one in 1989. Stud closers (Jones/Chris Perez), a star outfielder with one more year on his deal (Carter/Shin-Soo Choo), average veteran first basemen (O'Brien, Casey Kotchman), and bad attendance. The Indians were 13th out of 14 teams in the American League — outdrawing only the White Sox. I suspect the Indians will finish 13th in the AL in drawing again this year. They HAVE to pass Tampa Bay at some point.
But even more so, there's the record. On July 28, 1989, the Indians beat Boston, 2-1 and improved to 51-50. ("Toy Soldiers" by Martika was the No. 1 song in the country. Poetic, no?) They were 3 1/2 games out of first.
On July 28, 2012, the Indians sit at 50-51. They are 5 1/2 games behind the front-running White Sox.
"But Zach," you say, "What about the extra Wild Card? They didn't even HAVE Wild Cards in 1989."
No, they didn't, and the world was a much better place. But, OK, let's look. The Indians are 5 games behind the Angels for the second Wild Card spot. If the 1989 Indians were playing now (which would mean kids would be walking around with Dion James and Rich Yett jerseys on. Shudder), they'd be 4 games out.
My guess is the Indians of this year will finish better than the 1989 version, if only because I have faith in Manny Acta to coax a better finish out of his squad. But I think it'll be a struggle to finish .500 The big question is, do the Indians have the ability to improve the team enough to compete next year. Let's hope so. Because if this really IS like 1989, things may have to get worse before they get better.
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