Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Cleveland Curse

I was fully expecting to watch baseball all the way through the month of October, maybe even into early November, and so now I'm a little lost.  I probably read thirty articles yesterday about the ALDS that my Cleveland Indians lost to the New York Yankees, and while some of them offered interesting insights, they mostly just bummed me out.  Especially the articles about the guys who are potentially free agents, each and every one of them very emotional about wanting to stay with the Cleveland baseball organization.  "Indians Not Ready to Tackle Uncertain Future" was the most heartbreaking, especially this section:

First of all, Santana sat alone at his locker while everyone crowded around Jay Bruce is just such a sad image...  Carlos Santana got his Major League start with the Indians and has been part of this team for eight seasons.  He's been one of the most dedicated, driven guys on the team, playing every day, playing through minor injuries, turning into a really good defensive first baseman -- and, oh yeah, he can hit.  They don't call him "Slamtana" for nothing.  It's hard to imagine this team without him.  He's part of the brotherhood that makes watching this team so fun.  It's no wonder Santana -- and Bruce and Brantley and Tomlin and Shaw and the rest of them -- want to remain part of this squad.  The bond is real in that clubhouse -- the leadership is respected -- and these guys know they're winners.

So what the hell happened?

Obviously, what happened is they played sloppy baseball, especially in Game 4 but also in Game 5.  There seemed to be a lot of questions about roster decisions and starting pitching decisions in the articles I read -- a few of the questions I had as well, the main one being why start Trevor Bauer on short rest when you've got Josh Tomlin (the predicated starter for Game 4) or even Danny Salazar (the only pitcher not used in that epic Game 2)?  Tomlin did pitch for two innings in the Friday night game, so I'm not entirely sure if that left him not able to start, but at least one article I read said he was available.  We had a bullpen half full of starters -- so maybe starting Bauer was a tactical error.  But at the time, I am certain that Terry Francona wanted to go with the guy he thought could finish off the Yankees and so he gave the ball to Trevor.  Trevor got beat, but he wasn't helped by third baseman Gionvanny Urshela's throwing errors, either.  Other articles questioned Tito's call to put Urshela on the postseason roster in the first place when Yandy Diaz had played third base most regularly all season and was a little more dependable offensively (one article called Urshela an "easy out" -- ouch).  But I am one fan who was thrilled to see Gio make the roster and get that start at third.  Have you seen the defensive show this kid puts on?  It's thrilling!  If I were in Tito's shoes, I would have done the same exact thing.  You never know how a really green player will respond to the postseason spotlight -- look at Yankee rookie sensation Aaron Judge and his whopping sixteen strikeouts during the series, setting a new postseason record.  It's not just Indians players who cracked under the pressure -- it's just that an organization like the Yankees is better equipped to deal with it.

If you think about the 2016 postseason, the Indians came in as the underdogs.  Sure, they won the Central, but, well, how competitive is the Central?  ((I mean, it can be pretty competitive, but I'm just standing in as a snobby 'Wait-there-are-other-teams-besides-the-Yankees-and-the-Red-Sox???' baseball 'fan'))  In the ALDS, my guys were pitted against the winners of the East, the almighty Red Sox, winner of three World Series Championships in the last twelve seasons.  It was David Ortiz' last season as a player -- everyone was rooting for Big Papi to add another ring to his jewelry box.  But the Indians, plagued with last minute injuries to key starting players (especially pitchers), weren't even considered to get out of that first round.  But the Indians swept the Red Sox in three straight games, turning the heads of everyone in Major League Baseball.

Then it was on to the ALCS against the Blue Jays.  Honestly, this was the least interesting part of the playoffs for me because I have no interest in the Toronto Blue Jays.  There are some teams I find unexciting -- probably there are people who feel that way about my team, so hold your fire, I'm just expressing an opinion -- so it was just a matter of, "OK, let's beat these guys."  The Blue Jays got into the postseason as the Wild Card and I forgot who they even beat to move on to the ALCS (it was the Texas Rangers, just looked it up)....and actually, as I'm writing this, I'm realizing it worked out exactly the same this year:

2016:  ALCS was #2 Seed Cleveland Indians vs Wild Card Winner Toronto Blue Jays.

2017:  ALCS is #2 Seed Houston Astros vs Wild Card Winner New York Yankees.

Well, that gave me chills.


Anyway...  The Indians cleared out the Blue Jays, winning the series 4-1.  So if we think about this... the Indians weren't favored in Round 1 and Round 2 was against a team that isn't exactly polarizing.  Again, the pressure was off.  And then when it came to the World Series, it was just a cake moment.  Whodathunkit that this was even possible?  While the Indians came out strong with an early 3-1 lead in that series, we all remember how they eventually lost in that incredible Game 7.  Even though they lost, it was such a treat for Indians fans to have our guys there in this crazy-historic event featuring the two teams in baseball with the longest World Series Championship droughts.  It was exciting and captured the attention of the entire country.  Suddenly, all eyes were on the Cleveland Indians.  Is that what lead to their collapse right at the finish line?  Could be.  Who knows?  That Game 7 was one of the best baseball games I have ever witnessed, so it's hard for me to feel bad about that missed opportunity.  For me, it's the effort and the passion that matters -- that if the "W" isn't possible, at least the team did its best to be successful.

I think we all can agree that the 2017 Postseason had a different feel to it.  The Indians came into October with the second best record in all of baseball (the Los Angeles Dodgers ended their season with 104 wins compared to the Indians' 102) and were widely considered to be the best all-around team in the majors.  Best starting rotation, best bullpen, best defense, strong, patient offense...  We've gone over many of these stats already.  We were also almost exactly the same team as 2016, so postseason experience was on our side, too.  But when you get into a scenario when the national media is saying things like, "The Cleveland Indians are heavily favored to defeat the New York Yankees in this first round..."  Well...  That does a thing to a person.  True, the Yankees are in something of a "rebuild" year, just barely squeaking into the postseason at all.  But they're still the Yankees.  That name drives fear, dread, and loathing to all baseball fans outside of the Bronx.  Even though, on paper, the 2017 Cleveland Indians were superior in almost every way to the 2017 New York Yankees, you still have to play the games in real time and maybe those pinstripes worked their psychological impact on our hitters, especially.  Starting pitching sort of is what it is in the postseason -- and that is to say it is outstanding -- so the real challenge is who can get the offense going against these elite pitchers?  The Indians choked in the batting box.  Our big guys, especially, barely turned on the faucet.  If I had to listen to Tom Hamilton woefully call "strike three" or "it's a dribbler to first base" one more time, I was going to scream.  Where was our offense?  I think we left it back in September, back in the safety of the regular season where we closed out the year against teams not having great years, like the Chicago White Sox and the Seattle Mariners.  Had we faced the Red Sox that last week -- or the Yankees, even, or the Astros, maybe we would have been sharper come October.  But that's how the schedule shakes out -- you don't know on Opening Day which teams are going to be in it come the end of the season.

I think most people assumed the Indians would be in exactly the position they were in on the last day of the regular season.  I think most people thought the Indians would make it back to the World Series.  I don't think anyone -- except for Joe Girardi and his team -- thought the Indians would fail to advance beyond the ALDS.

And I'm starting to wonder if that is exactly why the Indians imploded like they did.

As good of a manager as Terry Francona is (and he is undeniably the best in the business -- thank you, baseball gods, for bringing Tito to Cleveland -- we've got him for three more years and I hope many more after that), he can't erase the "small market mentality" that is part of the Cleveland tradition.  He can try to impart his wisdom and give his team tools to cope with the big stage, but he can't get up there and swing the bat for them or field those balls or make those pitches.  The players have to do that themselves.  I keep thinking about something Jay Bruce said a lot when he first came to the Cleveland dugout in August -- how "Cleveland was more his speed" than the super high pressure of the Mets.  That he liked things a little tamped down.  And while I can appreciate how desirable it might be to have a chiller clubhouse and fan-base and media presence...  Isn't having a ferocious setting what elevates some of these teams and keeps them ready to win every day, no matter the pressures or criticisms?  Of all of these things, I think it's likely the media that gets to these guys the most.  Having cameras shoved in your face demanding you explain yourself or people tweeting about you or whatever it might be.  Maybe it was lack of preparedness for this national attention that got to the Tribe this postseason.  Maybe it was the expectation that they'd easily beat the Yankees, piddly Wild Card winners that they are, that did mean things to the insides of our players' minds.  I honestly don't know.  But now I've got a lot of time to wonder and suppose, so this is where I'm at right now.

Cleveland "niceness" may be just the thing that curses us.

Chew on that for a hot second.

Chew on that for an additional hot second because how can we ever "fix" this?

Maybe what we should all hope for in 2018 is a solid but unremarkable Indians season that lands us once again on top of the Central, slipping quietly into the postseason without any fuss or fanfare.  If we can make it easily through the ALDS then we can hope to be facing a hum-drum team like, say, the Rays or the Rangers or even a fun-for-us showdown with the Twins.  Oooohhh, tantalizing! ...said no one ever.  And once we cruise through that series, we'll be back where we want to be, facing a team who will undoubtably be favored to win since the Indians have such a history of coming unglued in these situations and we can prove it by having the longest championship drought in the majors, giving us our favorite "underdog" status and maybe then...maybe then...we can finally win it all.

Sneak in through the back door, 2018 Cleveland Indians. That's my advice for you.

One thing's for sure:  I'll be there, cheering for you all the way, sucker that I am for this team and this city and this chance to see a "nice guy" win.

Originally posted in the Inspired in 2017 blog on October 13, 2017.

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