Saturday, April 27, 2013

April 27- Cleveland Indians

Whether you’d like to admit it or not, the Cleveland Indians were once a pretty stellar baseball team. In 2007 then manager Eric Wedge, who now manages the Seattle Mariners, led the Indians to an impressive 96-66 record in his fifth year at the helm. The season unfortunately ended a game way from the World Series despite the fact that the Indians had taken down the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series three games to one, as well as jumping out the same lead against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. I’ve never been too much of an Indians supporter, but I was certainly on the bandwagon during their series against the Red Sox, much to the chagrin of my mother. But alas, the Sox came back and won the series in seven games. For the first time since the mid-to-late 1990s the Indians’ fortune seemed to be on the right track. Outfielder Grady Sizemore fueled the Indians offense and took home a Gold Glove at centerfield while CC Sabathia won the AL Cy Young award becoming the second pitcher in franchise history to do so. Needless to say, spirits in Cleveland were running high as the 2008 season approached.

Since 2003 the Indians have been slowly phasing out the classic smiling Chief Wahoo, first by shrinking its size on the front of their caps and then by bringing back a classic emblem from their early days (1915-1920). Originally brought in as an alternate logo, the navy blue hat with a red “C” took over as the team’s official road cap in 2011, much in the same way the all-red cap with navy blue “C” logo became the team’s official home cap in the same season, but that post will come in the future. While I realize that Native American tribes in the surrounding Cleveland area have protested the Wahoo logo for decades, it’s still a bit weird to not see its presence within the game anymore. But then again, it’s rhetoric like that which reminds me of an old episode of “South Park” when Stan Marsh’s uncle Jimbo protested the changing of the town’s flag, a black man being lynched by white people, on the grounds that one cannot change a logo because it’s a part of history. If I recall correctly, Jimbo used the Indians as an example. Now, I’m all for change, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult to not see Chief Wahoo anymore. I suppose it’s a good thing I have it tattooed to my torso as a constant reminder.

I’ve gotten a little off topic, so let’s bring it back. The 2008 Indians were heavy favorites to repeat as the AL Central champs. Sabathia, Paul Byrd and Roberto Hernandez all won at least 15 games in 2007 and the tam batting average was pushing .272. However, like the Toronto Blue Jays after winning back-to-back World Series, the Indians made a change to their uniform at a poor time. Much like gambling, never change your bet on a hot streak. The Indians finished in their place in the Central and have yet to make the postseason again since 2007. On top of that, the three top pitching performers in 2007 (Byrd, Hernandez and Sabathia) all failed to win more than eight games each. The Indians finished the season with an 81-81 record, seven-and-a-half games behind the Chicago White Sox. What very few realized at the time is that the dark years were upon the Indians.

I don’t want to dabble too much on what happened in the years following the 2008 season; I have plenty of time throughout the season to touch on it with additional posts and hats. So with that, I’ve decided to pay tribute to the brighter side of the 2008 season, which in turn also shows where everything started to go wrong. Sorry. My marks are ones that I feel Indians fans will completely agree with.

#24- It’s really hard to see how far Grady Sizemore has fallen. With the steady grocery list of injuries he’s sustained over the last few years, it’s hard to believe that 2008 was the last year in which he was a staple of the lineup, taking the field in a team-high 157 games that season. Sizemore was a product of the now “defunct in name” Montreal Expos as a 2000 third round draft pick out of Cascade High School in Everett, Washington. Sizemore was originally going to go to college; however, the Expos lured him away with a $2 million signing bonus. Sizemore never saw a second of playing time with the Expos in the Majors as he was traded away… along with Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens to the Indians of June 27, 2002 in exchange for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew; hands down one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history. It didn’t take Sizemore very long to move through the ranks of the Minor Leagues. The kid personified the term five-tool player and he made his MLB debut on September 22, 2004.

In 2004 Sizemore exceeded the amount of at-bats to qualify him as a rookie in 2005, but that really didn’t matter as he went .289/22/81 which gave him the 23rd-most voted for the AL MVP. Over the next three years Sizemore didn’t disappoint. He made the All-Star team every year, not to mention the fact that he finished 12th or better for the AL MVP vote in all three years. He also took home back-to-back Gold Gloves in 2007 and 2008. In 2008 he hit a career-high 33 home runs and career-high 90 RBI, which are made even more impressive with the fact that he was the team’s leadoff hitter that season. Minus the stolen bases, he had the makings of being the next Rickey Henderson from an at-bat perspective; a solid-hitting outfielder in the Majors, but knee injury after knee injury and then back surgery have kept him from taking the field since after the All-Star break in 2009. In 2010 and 2011 he played in a combined 104 games. His batting averaged suffered tremendously, and despite signing a $5 million extension in 2012, he never saw a second of playing time thanks to his back surgery and microfracture surgery on his right knee. As of now he remains a free agent, vowing not to sign with a team until he is back in full-game shape. Who knows when this will be? It’s truly a damn shame.

#31- Cliff Lee went through a series of jersey numbers from 2002-2004 (65, 34) before landing on #31 for the 2005-2009 seasons. As I mentioned above, he was originally a draft pick of the Expos. In fact, he was taken in the same draft as Sizemore, but in the fourth round. Like Sizemore, he never saw a second of playing time with the Expos; however, he did make the jump to the Majors in the same year the trade went down, 2002. A September call-up, he made two starts for the Indians that year going 0-1 with a 1.74 ERA and six strikeouts. 2003 didn’t fair too well for him, but 2004 and 2005 did. He went 14-8 with a 5.43 ERA and 161 strikeouts in ’04, giving him a fourth place finish for the AL Cy Young that season; however, even though he pitched better in ’05, he didn’t receive the same accolades. In fact, with his 18-5 record, 3.79 ERA and 143 strikeouts, he didn’t receive a single vote for the award. I’m still trying to figure that one out. Things kept at a pretty average rate for Lee, until he posted less-than-average marks in 2007 while everyone else in the rotation was dominating. Something needed to change. And it certainly did in 2008.

As I mentioned above, none of the “big three” were able to win more than eight games; however, Lee was able to score a league-high 22 wins along with 170 strikeouts and a league-best 2.54 ERA. He won the AL Cy Young that season without question, and even got his first All-Star Game nod as well. Even when you take his performance with the Philadelphia Phillies the following year, which led to a World Series ring, his performance in 2008 stands as his best achievement, especially considering that he only had three losses on the year to give him a win percentage of 88%, the best for a pitcher since Randy Johnson (Mariners) and Greg Maddux (Atlanta Braves) both posted 90% in 1995.

I realize there’s nothing substantial to prove that a change in uniform can make a difference in the outcome of a team’s future, but then again, there isn’t exactly anything to disprove my theory either. Baseball is a game of superstition, and outside of Turk Wendell, you won’t find my guys more superstitious than me. As much as I like the “C” logo caps, I hate what they’ve done to the franchise. Long live Jobu!

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