It’s an exciting time for fans of the Cleveland Indians. It’s been nearly 20 years since they’ve played in the World Series (1997) and it’s been 68 years since they’ve won the World Series (1948). As an Indians fan that lives in the state of Louisiana, I’m often asked, “Why? Why the Indians?”. It’s a somewhat long story, but thought I would take the time to share it.
Growing up in Louisiana, all we really had as far as professional sports were The New Orleans Saints (Sure, we had the New Orleans Jazz for a few years, but I was too young to really give a flip about basketball). When you take into consideration the product that the Saints were putting on the field during my childhood, one would even argue that we didn’t even really have a football team either.
Baseball first got my real attention during the World Series of 1989. I had just graduated high school, and I had already moved to Baton Rouge (where my mom got transferred). The 1989 World Series featured The San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. I had no connection to either team, but what made this particular series intriguing and in the news was the earthquake that occurred just before Game 3. As a result, Candlestick Park took structural damage and the game had to be postponed because of the fear of people’s lives being in danger. Game 3 was eventually rescheduled (10 days later) and play resumed. The Oakland A’s went on to sweep the Giants in 4 games. I paid attention to Games 3 and 4 because I was curious as to how the earthquake would affect the game play of the two teams. Like I said, I had no connection to either team, it was just fun to watch.
At the time, I was working at the Domino’s Pizza on Old Hammond Hwy in Baton Rouge. I was one of the people that took orders over the phone (as this story predates online ordering or mobile ordering). I continued to work there through my 18th birthday and was asked if I would be interested in becoming an MIT (Manager In Training). I agreed and started along the path of eventually becoming a store manager. Working as an MIT at the store on Old Hammond Hwy allowed me to work different shifts (day/night) and interact with all of the other employees. I found myself typically working the closing shift on Fridays and the morning shift on Sundays. A common thread between those two shifts was a driver that worked with me during those shifts, named Kurt.
Kurt worked at that store for years. He predated my arrival as well as the store manager’s arrival. During many conversations he mentioned “breaking in” several store managers. When the store manager moved on to the Denham Springs store, I went along with her (I didn’t care for the dick that took her place). After about a year at the Denham Springs store, I received a call from the Franchise Area Supervisor informing me that the Old Hammond store needed a manager and asked if I would be willing to take it. I agreed. Upon walking back into that store, the entire staff that was there when I left was gone, aside from Kurt.
Kurt and I picked up right where we left off. During one of our conversations, I asked him about his Braves cap. He said that he began following baseball and wanted to pick a team that no one else really cared for because it’s easy being a fan of a winner. The real passion comes from picking a loser and following the team and watching them build towards something. I thought about that for a second and it made complete sense. When you pick a team that is bad and you notice signs of improvement, you tend to cherish it more. There are already low expectations. So, just winning a game is enough to keep you looking at the box score everyday. He told me that he looked at the standings of the National League teams and picked the Atlanta Braves at the time because there were in last place. He went on to tell me how enjoyable it was to watch the Braves gradually move up in the standings. This was the beginning of the run the Braves went on in the 90’s.
The idea was fascinating. I could pick a team and watch them build and improve. I could become personally invested with a team by simply paying attention to the result of each and every game. So I opened up the newspaper and thought I would follow Kurt’s lead. In the National League, my option would be the Houston Astros, while in the American League, my option would be The Cleveland Indians. That bright orange that was on the Astro’s uniforms was absolutely horrendous. Whereas the Indians uniform was composed of red, white, and blue. That little Indian guy (Chief Wahoo) is a logo that I could get behind. The final kicker was the fact even though these two teams were last in their respective leagues, the Indians were the worse of the two. So, I chose the Cleveland Indians. I went to the mall and purchased my first Cleveland Indians cap. The year was 1991, and the Indians went on to post a 57-105 record. That is absolutely horrible. This means that there is greater room for improvement.
The following season, I started collecting baseball cards, and at that point, I was all in. I got to put faces to the names I would see in the newspaper. This was also the time when I managed to catch ‘Major League’ for the first time. I don’t think I would have even bothered to watch it at all if I hadn’t noticed the Chief Wahoo logo during the movie trailer on HBO. So, I set my VCR to record it and it solidified my love for the team. The Indians still weren’t that good in 1992, but they were certainly better than they were in 1991. I paid attention to the broadcast schedule of ESPN because catching an Indians game on TV would prove to be difficult. I even made a trip to Arlington, Texas to watch the Indians play the Rangers. That trip became an instant memory because I got to watch them win. I also got to meet Kenny Lofton outside the stadium and got his autograph. Win-win. They had a marked improvement from the previous year and finished at 76-86.
In 1993, it was determined that the Indians would be moving into their new stadium for the 1994 season. There was a lot of hype about the new stadium and as the 1993 season went on the talk began about the final season in Municipal Stadium. I made a trip to Cleveland in September of ’93 just to have an opportunity to watch the Indians play in their stadium before it was torn down. The problem I ran into was that a lot of fans had the same idea. I approached the ticket window in hopes of buying tickets for me and my friends and was told that they were sold out. I couldn’t believe that I made the trip there, only to be shut down by not having tickets. As I began the walk back towards my friends to break the news, a guy came up to me and gave me 3 tickets to get into the game (no charge!). Win-win! The Indians finished at 76-86 again that year, but there were putting a team together that could prove to lethal in years to come.
In the months leading up to the 1994 season, the front office of the Indians decided to open up the check book and start paying some decent salaries. The Indians started playing in their new stadium, Jacob’s Field (named after the owner). The Indians started winning and they started becoming relevant. The only potential road block to success that I could see that year was the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring. Unfortunately, the agreement expired before both sides could agree, which led the Major League Baseball Players Association to go on strike, this cancelling the remainder of the 1994 season. The hardest pill to swallow that year was the fact that when the season was cancelled, the Indians were 66-47 (that’s a winning season) and were only 1 game out of first place in the AL Central.
The strike eventually ended, but it ran into the 1995 season. In fact, the 1995 season was shortened by 18 games. This was the year when the Indians really turned it on. Despite a shortened season, the Indians went on to post a record of 100-44. Albert Belle went on to hit 50 home runs that year. Watching the Indians play postseason baseball was just unbelievable. I watched the team grow from a 57-105 record to a 100-44 record in just 4-5 years. Kurt was right, when expectations are low, you tend to get really excited when those expectations are exceeded. The Indians went on to reach the World Series that year. Unfortunately, the Indians lost to Kurt’s Braves 4 games to 2.
The Indians would continue having success for the rest of the 90’s and early 2000’s. They reached the World Series again in 1997. The Indians were 2 outs away from winning the World Series when Jose Mesa blew the save and allowed the Florida Marlins to take game 7 and win it 4 games to 3.
I could go on and on and give a year by year recap of how I followed the Indians, but after losing pivotal playoff series in the early 2000s, players began to depart, new players came in, and the team began to change. Like every sports franchise, the window of opportunity closed for the Indians and they were forced to rebuild. It would be 2007 before the Indians would reach the postseason again, only to be eliminated by the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox went on to win their second World Series in 4 years under the guidance of their manager Terry Francona.
In 2012, the Cleveland Indians hired Terry Francona to be the new manager of the team. In just his first season as manager, Francona took the Indians back to the playoffs, but lost the wild card game to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2013.
It’s now 2016, and I find myself having followed the Indians now for 25 years. It certainly doesn’t feel that long, but it’s been a fun ride, especially after seeing this team for what it once was. Francona has the Indians in the World Series against the Chicago Cubs (who has an even longer championship drought than the Indians). One of these teams droughts will end, while the other will continue. Win or lose (hopefully win though), I’m proud of what the Cleveland Indians have accomplished this year. Go Tribe!