I Wish the Cleveland Indians Were The Underdog

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I didn’t grow up in Cleveland, or even Ohio. I’ve only ever been there twice. By all rights I should be a Yankee or Red Sox fan, or the Mets if I had a penchant for self-flagellation. This geographic gap from the wigwam makes me sometimes feel divorced from the expectations and dreads of most Cleveland Indians fans. Many other Tribe fans I know love the team to death, but at the same time seem to expect the other shoe to drop at any moment. When it’s going good, surely there’s going to be a twist. When it’s going bad, that’s the natural norm. But I’ve never felt that. I expect the team to win all the time, despite what “odds” or “reality” might suggest.

I have an undying hope even when down 12-3 in the seventh inning an offensive explosion is in the offing. Why would I not?  Like Earl Weaver said, you’ve gotta give the other guy his chance, that’s the beauty of baseball. But even oozing with optimism it bugs me on a base level that the Indians are somehow the favorite to win the division and do damage in October. Quite a few legitimate and highly regarded writers and prognosticators have either suggested or outright said it. But no matter how many times it’s written and repeated I just can’t be comfortable with it.

I don’t mean to suggest the Indians are a clear, runaway, Nationals-esque favorite to go to the Series.

Oct 28, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler hits a RBI double against the San Francisco Giants in the second inning during game six of the 2014 World Series at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

They’ve built a great team. Coming in third last year isn’t a problem, neither are the moves their division-mates made. I know the Tribe was better than the Royals last year. Looking at Pythagorean records the Royals beat the Indians by a game, 84 to 83, and that’s close enough to grant me disbelief. That team either made a deal with the devil or had a horseshoe surgically inserted inside its collective ass. If they played 1000 times I’m sure Cleveland would come out the winner.

That World Series run was weird, amazing, and one of the most fluky things I’ve seen since 2007.  Whenever the Tribe faced them, the game was as close as a misplayed ball here or there and Cleveland got better while KC got worse or stayed pat. They lost a key piece to their rotation, a great leader and fine hitter in Billy Butler even if he did have a down year (REMEMBER THE STEAL) and their bullpen can’t be that good again. That was legendary and bullpens are fickle in nature. Unless they found another soul to sell. 

The Tigers only got worse. They’re down two starters including their best pitcher, everyone is older, their second best hitter is coming off a knee injury while their best is collapsing under his own beheamothery and their bullpen continues to be trash. Unfortunately and despite an injury or two, they happen to employ three men in the middle of the order who take personal pride in murdering the Indians no matter their physical state. Miguel Cabrera is who he is. Victor Martinez has a 1.024 OPS against Cleveland and that’s underselling the destruction he wrought on the Tribe in 2014. He’s the abusive spouse we can’t stop loving. JD Martinez hit seven of his 23 homers last year against Cleveland and bested Victor in the abuse department to the tune of a 1.164 OPS against the Indians. Those three seem to be unbeatable, but the lineup has holes everywhere. Ian Kinsler is good, Yoenis Cespedes is… hmmmm….. and the rest is just a Riddler suit. At some point the bad will outweigh the good, which is easier now that Prince Fielder left. 

The White Sox don’t scare me with their fancy new closer and quite excellent outfield and big hammer at first and trio of great pitchers. That team needs more than a piece or two. The Twins are continuing to bet he Twins. They had the least roster turnover in the division and won 70 games last year. None of these makeovers the Indian’s rivals have gone through worry me particularly, because there’s little you can do to stop it. In life, change is the only constant. They’ll be there and it’ll work out or it won’t, it makes no difference. I just like being the underdog. 

There’s something about those bright lights, that being the focus of the league and the fans and the media that gets to me. It seems to infect the Tribe too. Time and again throughout 2014 they faced a moment on the precipice, a game or series where if they dominated they’d leap into strong contention or at least make life a little easier, and they wilted. The Tigers series to open September, or the four game decisions in three days they had in the last week against Kansas City. That other Tigers series that ended in a sweep. For as good as the rotation was, the team as a whole really stunk when it mattered in the last month. Runs remained not scored. When it came down to it the team just couldn’t get over the hump. 

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I expect more from this team in 2015. If old and overtired sports clichés are to be believed, the Indians are battle-tested and know how to win and the baseball gods will be good to them for paying their dues or whatever. My own voice has been recorded saying things like that on a fantastic podcast. They have too much talent to not be great though. All this praise is a little unsettling. The last time they were legitimately a powerhouse of a team was 2007 and they effectively went coast to coast as the AL Central champs.Even a midsummer swoon only found them a game back in the division. I’m amazed that just eight years ago the media, whether because social media hadn’t exploded or the ravenousness of fans  for more coverage hadn’t risen to such a fervor because real life is a bore, ignored the Indians and the whole of the AL Central. So much so that it was actually a major moment to have then-MVP candidate Grady Sizemore on the cover of Sports Illustrated even if it made sense. 

It unnerves me to have all this attention. For the city’s other sports of course it makes sense. The Browns play football, America’s religion and they’re also are a comedy of errors, while the Cavs can LeBron all over the place. But people aren’t supposed to be paying attention to the Cleveland Indians. They do nothing marvelously, simply a lot very well. Their best players are either a pitcher who was unfeelingly dazzling, dominating silently while more charismatic types garnered the praise, or a left fielder who’s very good at a lot but stupendous at nothing. There’s nothing extreme about the Indians at all except maybe rotation depth and Terry Francona‘s Dubble Bubble bin. Why should the media, ESPN and the other hype engines, why should they care? There’s no story here, move along. Just some dudes playing baseball.

 If I had my druthers the Tribe would toil in front of 18,000 fans and another couple hundred thousand on local TV, with the only attention from the national boys being about the silly low attendance or whether the mascot is racist. Maybe I just like low expectations. The less is expected of you, the less failure hurts. I like the Indians to be competitive but I don’t want them to break my heart. Which might be a commitment thing like what my girlfriend was saying the other day. I’ve always found arms’ length is the best length though. 

But that’s baseball. It’s fun. It’s supposed to break your heart.

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