New-look squad offers reminder of Tribe of '90s
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It is the dawning of a new day for the Indians, and no one can sense it more than Sandy Alomar, Jr., who has been through it all in Cleveland as an All-Star catcher, coach and last year even as interim manager.
"All you have to do is look and see how many fans there are for the workouts," he said. "I see plenty of fans now in comparison to the last couple of years. I see people are getting excited about this team."
The Indians and Reds, who opened Cactus League play Friday, share a Spring Training complex about 25 miles west of downtown Phoenix. Goodyear Ballpark is about as remote as it gets among Spring Training sites in Arizona, so the trip is a long haul, even for the most diehard of fans.
But the Tribe has been the feel-good story of the early spring, what with the arrival of Terry Francona as manager and the unaccustomed spending of $117 million on free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers.
Of course, what looks good on paper may not pan out. Chemistry has to develop in the clubhouse and that takes time. It may sound trite, but as managers, such as Francona and San Diego's Bud Black, are always so fond of saying, "That's why you play the games."
Francona, the winner of World Series titles in 2004 and '07 as manager of the Red Sox before resigning in '11, managed his first game in an Indians uniform Friday. Swisher, Bourn and Reynolds all made their debuts. Myers will start Saturday, when the two clubs resume their intrastate rivalry in Arizona.
Francona is an important facet of Cleveland's latest iteration. But even he cautioned not to overemphasize his possible impact.
"I know what you're saying, but I think you're giving me too much credit there," he said.
Still, the changes have others -- like Alomar -- brimming with optimism because they sense a return to the old Indians ethos.
"I think we're heading in the right direction," said Alomar, who was a candidate to manage the club, but opted to return as bench coach under Francona when he didn't get the managing job. "I think our team is going to be pretty good."
Alomar played for the Indians during the 1990s, their most successful era since the Tribe last won the World Series in '48. That point and all the comparisons to this year's team were made this week when former second baseman Carlos Baerga and former general manager John Hart were elected into the Indians Hall of Fame, with the induction ceremony scheduled to take place June 22 before a game against the Twins at Progressive Field.
By then, everyone should know if the changes are already bearing fruit or if the ballclub is still in the throes of growing pains.
"Those guys just did a phenomenal job rebuilding the team," said Hart, who was with the Indians from 1991-2001 and is now primarily an analyst for MLB Network. "I thought the Tito hire was spectacular. He not only is a great leader and a veteran manager, but he's quite a personality. I thought the Swisher sign was outstanding, the Bourn sign was outstanding, the trade for Trevor Bauer was a real coup. The missing piece right now, as I see it, is the starting pitching."
Hart should know. Hart built a championship-caliber team after the Indians moved into what was then known as state-of-the-art Jacobs Field in 1994. That club, with Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome at the core, went to the playoffs five consecutive years and won American League pennants in '95 and '97, losing to the Braves and Marlins in those respective World Series.
Since Hart departed to take over as Rangers GM after the 2001 season, the Indians returned to the playoffs only once. They were 96-66 in '07 under GM Mark Shapiro, and no one can forget the Tribe leading that year's AL Championship Series, 3-1, before Francona's Red Sox came back to win the series and sweep the Rockies in the World Series.
Shapiro is now team president, and Chris Antonetti the general manager. The Indians have averaged 89 losses a year the past five seasons, including 94 this past year, when Manny Acta was dismissed and replaced on an interim basis by Alomar.
Baerga, back in camp and in uniform coaching infielders this spring, thinks there is a similar sense of purpose to the one that existed on those 1990 teams.
"I love it. I love it," said Baerga, who will leave Indians camp to serve as bench coach under manager Edwin Rodriguez for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. "I believe this team right now has the opportunity to play really good baseball. I love Nick Swisher. He's just like me, kind of crazy, yelling all the time. You need a guy like that in the clubhouse."
The Indians know they need to do something big. Home attendance has slipped from 3.45 million as recently as 2000 to 1.6 million last year, 13th among the 14 AL teams. This offseason, they've parlayed about $700 million in new television money into upgrading the big-league roster. As Antonetti recently pointed out, his previous strategy just wasn't working.
He hired Francona to instill a winning attitude that for years has been missing. Can Francona do it?
"I hope so," the skipper said. "I don't know what our record is going to be at the end of year. Nobody does. You can only control what you can control. The best way I know how to do it is show up in the morning, set out your work day and do it right. Then set up for tomorrow and do it right again. If you're as good as you think you are, you'll look up at the end of the year and be right where you supposed to be. And if you're short, it will get exposed."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.