How you do bounce back from taking the Chicago Cubs to Game Seven of the World Series in a thrilling classic, leading three games to one at one point, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion?
How do you recover from the unmitigated joy of watching Rajai Davis run the bases, with his hand pointed heavenward, after hitting his game tying home run in the 8th inning of Game 7, with dreams of the first World Series win since the Harry Truman Administration, only to watch it all slip away just two agonizing innings later?
How do you handle the agony of a poorly timed rain delay, broken hands, pesky drone incidents (we’ve all had them) and lingering shoulder issues that last all season?
How do you deal with sixty-eight years of heartbreak turning into year sixty-nine?
For Tribe fans, trying to overcome heartbreak is something we have encountered before. In fact, one might say that enduring and overcoming heart wrenching losses is required to be considered a true Indians fan. We have been here time and time again it would seem. Our parents and grandparents saw the team reach the pinnacle of the sport in 1948, only to have losing become the norm in Cleveland. It got so bad they even made a movie about us!
I never thought I would endure a sports loss more painful than Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. I recall exactly what I was doing as I watched Sandy Alomar Jr. walk off the field in his catchers gear, his head hung low, while the Florida Marlins celebrated at home plate and raised the trophy that should have been ours. 19 years later, it turns out, seeing a 3-1 World Series lead evaporate quicker than an Andrew Miller slider and watching as Progressive Field was transformed into Wrigleyville East with celebrating Cubs fans proved that Jose Mesa’s blown save wasn’t quite so bad, perhaps.
The last time the Indians suffered a painful World Series loss, it took a generation of losing, setbacks, squandered potential, and empty stadiums before they found their way back to the Fall Classic. How do you avoid such a drought again?
For the Cleveland Indians, that was the question in the minds of an entire organization as Bill Murray and the Chicago Cubs partied in the visitors’ clubhouse of Progressive Field in the early hours of November 3, 2016.
You start by breaking the piggy bank in dramatic fashion. I mean, in a way and manner that no Cleveland Indians team has ever done in the 115 year history of the franchise. You find the biggest area of weakness on the team, needing to replace the right handed power bat of Mike Napoli, with his 34 home runs and 101 RBIs, and then you find someone to take those numbers even further. Where does one look for a bat that will cause the bleachers underneath the scoreboard of Progressive Field to clang with sounds of baseballs crashing into them on a regular basis? Perhaps look north of the border, to the team that the Tribe vanquished in the 2016 ALCS. Of all the bats in the Blue Jay lineup, none was more threatening or more dangerous than that of the parrot-toting Edwin Encarnacion.
Edwin wasn’t necessarily in the Tribe’s realistic plans when the offseason began on the morning of November 3. He wasn’t even in the same financial universe as the Indians. But, a bevy of first base sluggers on the market meant that his price dropped and Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff were ready and waiting to seize the opportunity.
Ok, so you found your right handed power bat. You know, the one that Tribe fans have been begging for since the days when Albert Belle was smashing homers and clubhouse thermostats alike. What next? How about shoring up the bullpen with a solid lefty reliever, one to take the pressure off Norse god Andrew Miller and allow him to truly be the relief ace Terry Francona has envisioned. How about Boone Logan from the Colorado Rockies, who didn’t surrender a home run last year while pitching in Coors Field? Done. An incredible bullpen – one that went to Game 7 of the World Series – just got stronger.
What next? Well, you already have one of the strongest teams returning in all of baseball. You have the rising face of the sport as your starting shortstop, the platinum glove winning wunderkind Francisco Lindor. With Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez (signed to a fresh five year extension, no less), and Encarnacion splitting first base with Carlos Santana, I would challenge anyone to find a better infield in baseball. Sure, Kipnis is suffering from an aching shoulder, but young talent in Yandy Diaz should be able to help hold down the fort until Kipnis is back to full strength.
So, think things are looking good enough for 2017 now? How about adding one more ingredient to the mix, one which was used so sparingly in 2016 that he only graced the roster for 11 games? All of the reports coming from Goodyear point to Michael Brantley feeling healthy and ready for action, and Chris Antonetti, the Indians Front Office, and Terry Francona have all indicated that he is likely to be the team’s Opening Day left fielder. This bodes well for the season ahead.
Brantley isn’t the only one returning from an injury. Don’t forget, the Tribe made their magical 2016 postseason run without the help of injured Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, both of whom are now healthy and ready to contribute once again. So, the Indians made Game Seven of the World Series and are adding what could potentially be the best 3-4 combination in the American League to their lineup in Brantley and Encarnacion, as well as two of the finest starters in the league as their number two and three in the rotation? Yep.
While the biggest strength of the Indians coming into the 2016 season was the horses in the rotation up front, all of whom are now healthy (watch out for those drones, Trevor), their lineup ended up being a major reason for the Tribe’s deep push into the postseason. Now, with Edwin (and his parrot) in the mix and returning every other key cog, save for Rajai Davis and the aforementioned Napoli, the Tribe is poised to mash once again, with Baseball Prospectus’s Pecota calling for the Indians to have the best offense in baseball, scoring 796 runs in 2017.
The Indians enter 2017 as the best team to play baseball in Cleveland since the 1995 squad, which was a historically good team, winning 100 out of 144 games in a strike shortened year. In fact, this squad might even give the 1995 group a run for their money. Up and down the roster, including the manager and coaching staff, there are no weaknesses.
In multiple preseason rankings, the starting rotation, bullpen, and lineup are all widely considered to be among the best in the sport. They have one of the best starters in the game in Corey Kluber, the top defender in the American League in Lindor, a superhuman lefty in the bullpen in Miller, and one of the top sluggers of the past five years added into the mix in Encarnacion, not to mention the potential return of a healthy Brantley. And of course, let’s not forget that their manager is a future hall of famer, the man who broke the curse of the Bambino in Boston, who is now seeking to once and for all end nearly seven decades of suffering in Cleveland. After only four seasons in Cleveland, Francona is already among the greatest managers the franchise has ever seen, and he is (hopefully) just getting started.
In baseball, as in life, there are no guarantees. Success is only as secure as a three games to one lead in the World Series. Injuries happen, rain delays come and go, and the game of baseball takes its own strange hops along the way during a 162 game season. However, for the Cleveland Indians and their fans, as we prepare for the 2017 season to officially kick off on Monday in Texas, the future appears as bright as the Arizona sunshine of Goodyear that they are leaving behind. For me, I could see them winning the A.L. Central with around 94 wins once again, or—if the stars align—I could see them breaking the 100 win mark. Either way, this team will be a force to be reckoned with in October as they push to get one more win and bounce back from their heart-wrenching and dramatic defeat. Why am I so confident in this team’s ability to do the unthinkable and finally win it all? Probably because the players are themselves.
In preparing for the 2017, let’s give the last word to Francisco Lindor, who was recently featured in an oral history of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, put together by the talented Zack Meisel for Cleveland.com. Lindor had two of the final quotes of the piece, and they speak volumes as we prepare to kick off the season.
“This year is going to be just as fun. I can’t tell you we’re going to win the World Series. I can’t predict the future. But I can tell you we’re going to have fun and be a family and enjoy the ride. I can promise you that.”
“Anything can happen. It doesn’t matter how good your team is. If you have desire and heart and you’re backing each other up and it’s you against the world, you can do it. You can get it done.”
I can’t think of a better explanation of what it means to be a Tribe fan. How do you overcome heartbreak? Look to the future and enjoy the ride, Cleveland. It will be a great one.