AFTER 22 years of futilely beating on his paint-chipped drum in the bleachers, Cleveland Indians baseball fan John Adams finally has a reason to be upbeat. ''This team finds a way to win,'' he crows. ''This is a championship team,'' he says of the club with the best record in the major leagues.
It is a club that for decades led the majors in frustration. General manager John Hart inherited ''40-plus years of baggage,'' he says, when he arrived here in 1990. Since last winning the American League pennant in 1954, the Indians have had 28 losing seasons. With a lousy club and poor attendance that looked even worse in cavernous Cleveland Stadium, the Indians were the joke of baseball. Hollywood even made a movie, ''Major League,'' that poked fun at them.
Not anymore. On Sept. 8, Cleveland clinched a division championship in its 123rd game, the fastest title-clinching in history. And despite a strike-shortened season (154 games instead of 162), the Indians are on pace to win more games than any Cleveland team since the 1954 club, which set an American League record with 111 victories.
Today's Cleveland team has the best record in baseball (88-39 at press time), a perfect record in extra-innings games (12-0), and a flair for the dramatic, coming from behind to win during their final at-bat in 26 games this season. Seats in brand-new Jacobs Field have been sold out for the rest of the season since early August.
The turnaround, observers agree, began in the late 1980s, after Cleveland real-estate developers Richard and David Jacobs bought the team.
''It was then that we really became committed to a quality farm system and to giving multiyear contracts to young players [in order] to gather some stability,'' Hart says.
The addition of veteran players like first baseman/designated hitter Eddie Murray and pitcher Dennis Martinez has provided depth and experience to back up such younger players as shortstop Omar Vizquel, centerfielder Kenny Lofton, and leftfielder Albert Belle.
In the 1960s, team owners simply didn't want to invest in decent scouting and didn't have a solid player-development system. In the 1970s, money was tight and management cut the farm system by one-third. When former Indians President Hank Peters rejoined the team in 1987, more emphasis was placed on scouting and player development.
IN 1993, the program was tragically set back when Cleveland Indian pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a Florida boating accident. But by investing in free agents like Martinez and Murray, the team had a long-awaited winning season in 1994.
Even with such a strong team this year, some still worry about how Cleveland will fare in the postseason, especially with the addition of wild-card teams this year. (Non-division-winning clubs with the next-best season records will have playoff berths.)
''It's scary ... that you only play a short [five-game] series one time,'' Hart says. ''With a club like a wild-card that's on fire, anything can happen. I'd feel a little more comfortable with the seven-game series [after the wild-card round]. But baseball needs to take chances like these. The five-game playoff does add some excitement.''
Terry Pluto, author of a book on the Indians, ''The Curse of Rocky Colavito'' (Simon & Schuster, 1994), is a sports columnist for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal. A lifelong Indians fan, he says it's almost unreal that the Indians have made it this far.
''There is this panic ... that this great toy is going to break down just at the most inopportune moment because that's what always happens to the Indians,'' he says during a late-season Cleveland-Toronto game. ''The big thing on the Indians is not that they are finally going to win a title, but the fact that they were consistently lousy year after year.... Then last year, they finally put this good team together. Then the strike comes. You start to think, 'Gee, is there some sort of curse here?' ''
Pitcher Paul Assenmacher says Indians fans really came out and supported this team this season. ''The fans put the labor dispute behind them, and they came out and supported us the first day the season started. These fans here are just happy and excited that they have a good team,'' he says.
All of Cleveland is excited, it seems. Lorilynn Valderrama, manager of marketing and communications at the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, says that while the specific economic benefits aren't known yet, the Indians' new-found success has turned a national spotlight on Cleveland - something it hasn't enjoyed in decades. ''There is a new enthusiasm in this city, with the [just-opened] Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Indians,'' Ms. Valderrama says. ''People everywhere are talking about them. Cleveland has come alive again.'' But the surest sign is that Indians merchandise is being snapped up. Two years ago, the Indians were 19th out of 28 major league teams in royalties from licensed items. Now they are No. 4.
Throughout the entire season, the Indians have been so far ahead of the other teams in the central division that back in June, fans were already talking about the playoffs. (The Indians have led their division since May 8.) Now that the team has clinched, third-baseman Jim Thome says that the intensity will still be there, but the team can afford to be more relaxed.
''It just makes it a lot better to prepare for the playoffs,'' Thome says. ''It would be different if we were a half game out [of first place]. We couldn't even look to the playoffs. Now we can concentrate on the things we need to work on.''
Left-handed pitchers, for example. The team's Achilles heel seems to be left-handers. Against right-handed starters this year, the Indians are 65-25; against left-handed starters, they are 23-14 (a slight improvement from earlier in the season).
Top Indians players Thome and Paul Sorrento hit better from the left side. Switch-hitters Eddie Murray and Omar Vizquel hit better from that side as well. But Hart makes the point that the Indians still have the best pitching in the American League.
The smaller, more intimate Jacobs Field is the capstone of this winning team. The 42, 865-seat stadium, which opened last year, is consistently filled every home game. Scalpers are selling tickets to sold-out games for up to $200 apiece (original price: $14) - and that's likely to rise as the Indians enter the postseason next month.
''It's just so different from what I grew up with,'' Pluto says. ''This ballpark is in the center of town. This part of the town used to be a dump. And just as they built this ballpark, the team comes together. It all bloomed at the same time. To me, that's unfathomable that that could happen.''