The Scoreboard Doesn't Lie: The Indians Are Winning

June 1, 2011

Eric Wellman

Jamie Squire
Asdrubal Cabrera (left) leads the resurgent Cleveland Indians in hitting. Here, he's congratulated by Travis Buck after crossing home plate.

The Cleveland Indians are Major League Baseball's biggest surprise so far this season. They have the best record in the American League, despite having one of the lowest payrolls. And they currently lead their division by a healthy margin.

The team's success is surprising nearly everyone. But where have we heard this story before ... a bunch of no-name baseball players, obliterating the competition? Oddly enough, the answer involves Charlie Sheen.

The 1989 movie Major League told the story of a fictional Cleveland Indians team that — against all odds — was tearing up the league. But the story that's playing out this season is very real. And yet, some fans are slow to believe.

"I'm shocked," says fan Jim Braun, at a recent Indians home game.

Hunching over an outfield railing, Braun says that what makes this team so exciting is that it doesn't have a star-studded lineup.

These Indians, Braun says, are "one of those teams that everyone excels more because everyone's batting twice what he should. It's like catching a cold. The whole team has a cold right now."

At around $49 million, the Indians have one of the lowest payrolls in the league. And fan Debbie Donaldson says she wasn't expecting this year's team to do much of anything.

"I didn't think we would be enjoying this much success at this point in time," she says. "I'm very surprised, because sometimes it's really hard to be a sports fan in northeast Ohio."

It's been hard for a while now. The Indians haven't won a World Series title in more than half a century; the Browns have improved but still struggle; and the Cavs — recently a premier NBA team — lost LeBron James last summer. But what makes this Indians team fun to watch is not just that they're winning; it's how they're doing it.

And the production in their lineup is not always coming from the players you'd expect to contribute.

For instance, in his first game in the majors, Ezequiel Carrera executed a perfect bunt, good for a hit and an RBI. And it's not just hitting. Bob Nightengale, a senior baseball writer for USA Today, says the Indians have a crop of young pitchers — Josh Tomlin, Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco — that no one expected to be this good at the same time.

They've given the Indians "great, great pitching," Nightengale says. "Nobody saw that coming. I think people saw the offense, that they should be able to score some runs. But nobody saw the pitching."

Even the Indians' leadership admits that the success has been something of a surprise.

"Before the season started, I think all of us felt like there was potential, but a lot of uncertainty," says the team's president, Mark Shapiro.

"Being one of the youngest teams in the big leagues is a very volatile situation," he says. "But the upside of volatility is that we could be a lot better than people thought."

So how'd the Indians get here? In the past couple of years, they've been systematically trading away star players on the verge of free agency for young talent. Two Cy Young-Award-winning pitchers, an All-Star catcher — gone. In exchange, the team got no-name players who were still in the minor leagues.

The question on many fans' minds is if the team can continue its early success. There is perhaps no bigger Indians fan that John Adams, who for decades has been a presence at the top of the bleachers, beating on a huge drum at every home game.

"Well I'll tell you, everyone asks, 'Is this team for real?'" Adams says. "The only thing that comes to me is, when I'm sitting down to eat a big juicy steak dinner, I don't think of bologna I'll be eating tomorrow. I enjoy my steak dinner, so I'm staying focused on that."

In a similar sentiment, some Indians fans are hoping that Sports Illustrated doesn't notice the Indians' success. It may be nothing more than superstition, but when Cleveland sports teams make the cover of that magazine, their winning ways are soon over.

Copyright 2011 Cleveland Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wcpn.org.

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