Indians Climb Jacobs Ladder

June 27, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

CLEVELAND — Cleveland--Through the miracle of modern scoreboard technology, a youthful Judy Garland shows up at Jacobs Field before each game and clicks her heels together for the masses.

"There's no place like home," she repeats -- in a well-known clip from the 1939 film classic "The Wizard of Oz" -- and the sellout crowd answers in kind.

Who's to argue? There is, indeed, no place like home for the first-place Cleveland Indians, who are host to the Orioles tonight in the opener of a four-game series at their new ballpark. Their 18-game home winning streak ended over the weekend, but even a difficult, weather-beaten series against the New York Yankees could not dampen the enthusiasm of a city that has waited 40 years for a team like this.

It all must have seemed so impossible just a few years ago, when the struggling Indians were playing nightly before 70,000 empty seats in cavernous Cleveland Stadium and a new ballpark was just a distant dream. Now, the stands are full almost every night and the Indians have taken the American League Central by storm.

They hold a two-game lead over the favored Chicago White Sox and have been playing such impressive baseball that the newly formed AL Central now has a better overall record than the once-dominant East.

Is it the ballpark? The Indians are playing .500 ball on the road (19-19) and are 14 games over .500 at home. They obviously are enjoying all the amenities of their new home, but there is more to their renaissance than real estate.

"First of all, you've got to have a good team," said catcher Sandy Alomar. "If you don't have a good team, you're not going to win. It [Jacobs Field] has helped us, because it was built at just the right time. It came at the right time for our young talent. It came at the right time for us to sign some free agents. It came at a time when we improved our defense. You put all those things together and then add 47,000 fans, it's going to be exciting."

There is no question that the move had a catalytic effect, both on the front office and on a group of solid, young players who managed to develop in spite of the negative environment they were brought up in.

Outfielder Albert Belle has become one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. Second baseman Carlos Baerga has developed into a tremendous all-around player. Kenny Lofton, in only his third season, may be the best leadoff man in the league. They finally have a stage . . . and an audience.

"That makes a big difference," said Baerga. "We used to play in a ballpark that was empty all the time. It was hard to come out and play hard. This new park makes you want to come to work. It makes you want to come out early. It's like a new life."

The home and away records don't lie, but manager Mike Hargrove rather would give credit to the architects of his upgraded roster than to the designers of Cleveland's newest tourist attraction.

"It [a new stadium] can be a boost," Hargrove said, "but talent decides how far you go. If you don't have the talent, you can play in the Taj Mahal and you still have the same team. If you don't have the talent, it's just a nice place to lose."

No doubt, the front office took that into consideration when the club went on the off-season spending spree that brought free agents Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez and Jack Morris to Cleveland.

It was a risky venture -- each is 38 or older -- but the added experience and leadership may be the most important ingredient in the Indians' winning chemistry.

"I don't think there's anything magical about it," Hargrove said. "It comes down to the talent level. Any time you get into a cycle like this, breaks come your way. If you didn't have the talent, you couldn't take advantage. This is the first time in a long time that we've had the kind of talent and maturity to take advantage of it."

The club also upgraded its defense with 1993 Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel and four-time Gold Glove catcher Tony Pena, and signed closer Steve Farr to bolster the bullpen.

The Indians had gone free-agent shopping in the past, but they always seemed to come back with someone such as Keith Hernandez, whose better days were behind him and whose competitive drive had begun to wane.

Murray doesn't appear to have lost a step. He has 10 home runs and is easily on pace to drive in more than 100 runs this year. Martinez (6-4) has been the solid starter everyone expected, and Morris has rebounded from a difficult start to win six of his past seven decisions.

Figure in the big numbers from Lofton (.371, 36 stolen bases) and Belle (.363, 20 home runs, 62 RBIs), and it's no wonder the Indians have won 11 of their past 14 games and 18 of their past 20 at home. Cleveland finally has a quality team.

"I'm not surprised," Martinez said. "That was the reason I signed here, because they had a chance to win. We have that kind of talent. All we needed was to reinforce that . . . to help them believe they can win.

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