Cleveland Turns Into 'Believeland'

Erie Grit

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With the exception of shortstop Omar Vizquel, the handsome kid from Venezuela who drives a canary yellow Porsche and intercepts would-be base hits with his bare hand, there's nothing flashy about the Cleveland Indians.

This is a ball club whose general manager parks his motorcycle on the field during batting practice, whose skipper volunteers to reporters that "nobody ever accused me of being brilliant," whose most valuable player was named after a car, and whose star pitcher looks like a math professor.

Even Jacobs Field, the team's glittery new city-financed ballpark, becomes a 45,000-seat shop of horrors on game days. Fans here, who rarely take their seats, believe in a two-step method of team support: Yell, and then yell even louder.

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The Indians arrived at the World Series despite winning only 86 games in the regular season, being outscored in the playoffs, and cheating disaster when their charter plane nearly took off from the wrong runway at Hopkins Airport here.

Pretty it wasn't.

But despite these rough edges, the Cleveland Indians are deep in the hunt for their first World Series championship in almost half a century. Here in this smokestack and lunch-bucket town on the shores of Lake Erie, this team isn't just a bunch of gutsy ballplayers, it's a metaphor for a long-suffering community that's finally coming into its own.

"I don't think you can draw a line between the Indians and the city of Cleveland," says Sally Schiller, a lifetime resident who's leaving the souvenir shop at Jacobs Field with a bagful of Tribe paraphernalia. "We all know what it's like to come back from the brink."

She's got a point. Just as Cleveland scrambled from near-bankruptcy two decades ago to foster an economic revival, the Indians overcame the deaths of two pitchers in a 1993 boating accident to advance to the World Series two years later.

Just as Cleveland struggled to build the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its once-stagnant lakefront, the Tribe came from behind to beat the wildcard New York Yankees in this year's divisional playoff, then outlasted the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series (ALCS) with no shortage of extra-inning heroics.

For years, the Indians dwelled in the American League cellar while playing at Memorial Stadium - a drafty ballpark described by its many critics as "the mistake by the lake." Some unkind observers even extended this moniker to the city itself.

Sold on the team

Today, Jacobs Field and the Indians are the toast of baseball. Fans bought every available seat for the 1997 season on the first day of ticket sales, and more than 3 million people have passed through the turnstiles since April.

The revenue has allowed John Hart, the Indians' Harley-riding general manager, to disburse one of the highest team payrolls in the history of major league baseball.

And the concrete debris that was once Memorial Stadium is being used to construct two new fishing piers on Lake Erie.

Cleveland, it seems, is becoming "Believeland."

Skeptics argue that the Indians aren't the best team in the American League. They say the Indians erred by trading franchise player Albert Belle before the season. They contend that the Orioles beat themselves in Game 3 of the ALCS by botching a 12th-inning squeeze play. And they dismiss Tony Fernandez's game-six home run (his first in 37 post-season games) as a statistical anomaly.

The proof is in the Series

But Indians' players, like most people in Cleveland, have grown accustomed to being dissed. And now that the World Series has come to town, they're not exactly listening.

"We had a rough season," says Marquis Grissom, the Indians' clutch-hitting centerfielder, whose mother named him after a Mercury sedan. "Now that we're in the World Series, I'm not putting any pressure on myself. I try to reflect back to when I was a kid in little league, just playing the game."

Even Orel Hershiser, the team's bespectacled ace pitcher who was shelled by the Florida Marlins in Game 1, says coming home to Cleveland is the only measure of redemption he needs.

"The intensity of the fans here is not normal," says the veteran hurler, "and this ballpark is so state-of-the-art and picturesque. I think the combination of the people's energy and the ballpark and this group of players is the best of all worlds."

So the series rolls on, and with it, the singular strangeness of this Indians' season.

Grissom, who boasts the highest batting average in the history of the World Series, will continue to hit at the bottom of the order. Hershiser will continue to dunk water on his head between innings, Vizquel will babysit his infant son at batting practices, and Manager Mike Hargrove will find more creative ways to downplay his role in the team's success.

Perhaps the Indians' spirit, and that of the hardy town it calls home, are best captured by the motto utility player Bip Roberts has written on the brim of his baseball cap.

It says: "Never give up."

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