Patience has paid off for Indians

May 11, 1995|By BILL TANTON

With the Cleveland Indians coming in tomorrow night to begin a weekend series with the Orioles, we are reminded of one of sport's most important truths:

It all starts at the top.

That's right -- success begins not on the playing field or in the dugout or on the coaching lines; it starts at the ownership level.

The Indians are easily the most glaring example of this in baseball, a conclusion author Terry Pluto develops well in his book "The Curse of Rocky Colavito," subtitled "A Loving Look at a 30-year Slump."

What fascinates me about the book has little to do with Colavito, who was a slugging young outfielder for Cleveland in the late '50s.

What I remember best about Colavito was a ballgame played at Memorial Stadium in 1958, when Rocky hit four home runs -- and had a fan in our right-field bleachers throw a beer on him.

That's hardly basis for a book, but what Pluto, a former Evening Sun baseball writer, tells us about success and failure and how they relate to ownership is significant.

Nobody understands this like a native Clevelander, which is what Pluto is.

The Indians haven't won a pennant since 1954. Pluto was born in '55.

He says he can't even remember the club being in a pennant race, although it was in one in '59.

Of course, he remembers the one the Indians were in last year, when they were one game behind Chicago in the American League Central Division and were in the running for a wild-card spot at the time the strike ended the season on Aug. 12.

Some long-suffering Indians fans, Pluto tells us, believe that even that -- a season-ending strike when Cleveland was finally in a race -- is part of the curse of Rocky Colavito.

The Rock led the league in home runs with 42 and had 111 RBIs in '59 -- only to be traded to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn in 1960.

Without a doubt, the Indians have been miserable ever since, "the worst of the worst," as Pluto puts it -- until the present club came along.

Cleveland today is the American League's rising young team. OK, maybe not all that young any longer with Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield.

But the club we will see at Camden Yards over the weekend is, more than anything, a tribute to good ownership, smart management and continuity.

How could Cleveland have stayed so lousy for so long?

By not having any of the above ingredients. Especially the continuity.

Since 1959, the Indians have had 18 managers and 12 ownership groups.

No wonder things have been a mess. The club never got a chance to settle down. Until, that is, Dick Jacobs and his late brother, Dave, bought the Indians in 1986 and hired Hank Peters as president and general manager to kick-start things.

Yes, this is the same Hank Peters who was twice chosen American League Executive of the Year when he was GM of the Orioles -- only to be fired by impatient owner Edward Bennett Williams.

When Peters was dismissed here, his public statement was a classic:

"I didn't get smart overnight, and I didn't get dumb overnight either."

Peters proved that to be true when he got to Cleveland. The difference was, he had an owner, Dick Jacobs, who respected Hank's experience and intelligence.

"Let's just say he was a good listener," says Peters, who recently returned to his home in Baltimore County after spending the winter in Florida.

As Peters explains in Pluto's book:

"You can look back over 30 years and see the deterioration of what was once a great farm system. When the owners wanted to save money, they looked at cutting back the scouting and farm system because that was something the public or media couldn't immediately see.

"The other thing was that every four or five years, the Indians were sold. None of the owners made a long-term commitment. They just wanted to put a Band-Aid on the bleeding at the major-league level. A number of the owners had enough capital to buy the team, but not enough to truly rebuild it."

That's what Peters convinced Jacobs had to be done -- a rebuilding from the ground up. He told the owner there wouldn't be a pennant for a few years.

So they revamped the scouting, strengthened the farm system, signed their best young players to long-term contracts, and made some good trades.

Two years ago, Peters retired and turned the rest of the job over to his protege, John Hart, who had worked for him in Baltimore, and now the Indians appear to be on the verge of big things.

With Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga, plus the aging sluggers, the Indians have the best offense in the league. One night this week they scored eight runs in the first inning against Kansas City before the Royals got an out.

The Tribe has recovered from the tragic deaths of Tim Crews and Steve Olin in the boating accident in the spring of '93. Cleveland has a great new ballpark, named after the Jacobs brothers. And Mike Hargrove looks like the right manager.

All this took what few owners today have -- patience.

Is the Curse of Rocky Colavito about to end? Let's ask Colavito himself.

"It seems to me the Indians are finally trying to do it right," he says in the closing paragraph of Pluto's book. "Lord, I hope so. The fans deserve it."

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