The final bill on the Indians’ face-lift last winter was more than $130 million. After further review, it was worth every penny.
For the first time in six years, the Indians are back in the playoffs.
A remarkable, unexpected journey will continue for at least one more game when the Indians, the winners of 10 in a row, host the American League wild-card game at 8:07 p.m. Wednesday at Progressive Field. Their opponent will be determined Monday in a playoff game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, at 8 p.m. Under baseball’s postseason format, which includes two wild-card teams, the winner of a one-game playoff will advance to play the Boston Red Sox in a five-game divisional series that begins Friday.
Despite the millions team chairman Paul Dolan spent last winter, primarily on guys like Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and manager Terry Francona, the Indians have exceeded most everyone’s expectations — including those in the owner’s suite.
“Heading into this year, I knew unequivocally that we were a better team, exactly how good we could become would ultimately be decided by the team’s resiliency in the challenges faced over the course of the season,” Dolan said through an Indians spokesman. “To be in the postseason right now has exceeded my expectations and has me excited not only about the present, but the future outlook of the team as well.”
It has been a painful three-year drought for Cleveland sports fans, who haven’t cheered a winning team since LeBron James left the Cavaliers. Before this Tribe season, the Browns, Indians and Cavs combined for a .386 winning percentage (295-469) since the summer of 2010.
It has gotten so bad, GQ magazine tethered the three franchises together in the October issue and declared them collectively as No. 1 in a list of the 20 worst sports franchises of all time.
“For a long time, this city hasn’t had something they can really wrap their arms around,” Swisher said. “For me being back here, back in the home state where it all started for me, I take a lot of pride in that. To be that team to break that playoff drought … once you get in, you never know what’s going to happen.”
The Indians last reached the postseason in 2007, when they came within a game of reaching the World Series. A miserable five-year stretch following that included second-half collapses, crushing trades of star players and an angry fan base that revolted against ownership for a refusal to spend money.
“The last two years that I’ve been here, you knew we had a tall mountain to climb with the people we had on our roster,” Jason Kipnis said. “But this year, the guys we brought in weren’t just random guys, those were pieces to the puzzle to be a winning formula.”
Francona, who owns two World Series rings, immediately overhauled the team’s culture. Spring training became a more relaxed environment, players’ personalities quickly clicked and a team expected to finish around .500 just kept winning all the way through September.
“Tito ran a big-league spring training like you would normally get in New York or Boston — really laid back,” said Jason Giambi, who had his best years playing in the Bronx with the Yankees. “He put it on us, the veteran players like myself and Swish to show how we were going to play the game and everybody jumped on the bandwagon.”
Before Giambi won a championship with the Yankees, he played six seasons with the small-market Oakland Athletics who made the playoffs in consecutive seasons and won 102 games in 2001.
This Indians roster isn’t loaded with stars or power arms and bats, but it is reminiscent of those Oakland teams.
“When you look at our numbers, our numbers may not add up to the amount of wins that we have,” Francona said. “We don't have a 100-RBI guy, we don't have a 20-game winner. But when you take our collection of 25 guys, we can be a pretty good ballclub.
“We find a way to win. It's a fun group to be around because through thick and thin they keep playing. That's what you fight for, when you're a manager on a coaching staff, you want guys to not quit and to play, because there’s going to be ups and downs. That's part of baseball. And they keep playing.”
All the way into October.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.