Indians go farther with new attitude Team is less explosive, more cohesive than '95, '96

October 08, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

They are missing the angry swagger of Albert Belle, not to mention his 48-home run bat. They are missing the bold strut of Kenny Lofton, not to mention his Gold Glove.

At times this season, the Cleveland Indians seemed to be missing much of what made them one of the best teams in baseball the previous two years.

But now, as they prepare to play the Orioles in tonight's opening game of the American League Championship Series, the Indians believe they have the right combination of talent and attitude.

"The new players are more professional," said catcher Sandy Alomar, whose eight years with the Indians are seven years or longer than 11 of his teammates have. "They just go out and mind their own business.

"In 1995, we had an unbelievably talented team. Even though we hit more home runs this year and last year, I think '95 was a more talented team. The one thing I learned last year is that we can't take anything for granted."

The Indians' overhaul since losing to the Orioles in four games in their 1996 AL Division Series didn't have so much to do with shortcomings as economics.

They couldn't afford Belle, who signed a staggering five-year, $55 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. They figured to lose Lofton, a free agent after this year.

"We wanted to stay as a championship-caliber ballclub," general manager John Hart said yesterday.

So Hart made what amounted to pre-emptive strikes, acquiring third baseman Matt Williams from the San Francisco Giants weeks before Belle signed in Chicago and then trading Lofton to the Atlanta Braves in a deal that brought outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice late in spring training.

After a decent first month, Williams went into a funk that lasted until after the All-Star break before he wound up with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs. Grissom, trying to follow in Lofton's fleet footsteps, also struggled because of early-season injuries before saving his best (a .290 average) for September.

Only Justice, coming off shoulder surgery last season in Atlanta, flourished in his new environment.

"I think it was easier for me coming here with Marquis, coming over with my best friend," said Justice, who hit .329 with 33 home runs and 101 RBIs during the regular season, his best since 1993.

In Hart's estimation, the biggest difference between this year's team and the one that won 100 games in 1995 and '96 was its pitching. The starting pitchers clogged the team's disabled list, and closer Jose Mesa took awhile to get over his much-publicized off-season problems. (Mesa, charged with rape and felonious assault in January, was acquitted in April.)

Jack McDowell was done in May after elbow surgery. Chad Ogea, who'll start Game 1 tonight, was out from late June to early August with elbow and knee problems, leading to the promotion of Jaret Wright. Orel Hershiser went out for a couple of weeks in August with a strained back. It led to the July 31 acquisitions of Jeff Juden and John Smiley, who broke his arm Sept. 20.

"I was constantly trying to shuffle and juggle and get our pitching up to speed with our everyday players," said Hart, who brought Bip Roberts from the Kansas City Royals by the Aug. 31 trading deadline to help at second base and left field.

It has made for one of Mike Hargrove's more challenging jobs in the six years he has managed the Indians, more challenging perhaps than keeping loose cannon Belle in check or the moody Lofton and Eddie Murray in sync.

Hargrove has been asked many times during the past few days about the difference between this year's team and the previous two, and he remains diplomatic.

"This club is less flamboyant," Hargrove said. "I like that club, and I like this club. It's been tough to manage with all the turnover. But we've been able to stay focused. This team has good character and has a way of getting things done."

Said first baseman Jim Thome: "I don't know if we're a better ballclub because those guys [Belle and Lofton] are great, great players. This team has fit closer together than the past because we've had to battle through more adversity all year."

A year after being eliminated by the Orioles in the Division Series, two years after losing to Atlanta in a six-game World Series, Hart likes what he sees. The regular-season record (86-75) might be a significant drop from the past two years, but the Indians have advanced a round farther than they did last season.

"We are still a powerful club," Hart said. "We've got speed at the top of the lineup with Bip and Omar [Vizquel]. Obviously the guys we brought all had productive years. Watching this team all year, I'm a lot more comfortable with the defense. And I like the way these guys comport themselves."

No angry swaggers.

No bold struts.

Maybe even a return trip to the World Series.

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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