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Long time coming

Indians' playoff run began three seasons ago

Posted: Friday September 16, 2005 1:54PM; Updated: Saturday September 17, 2005 5:12PM
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Grady Sizemore
Grady Sizemore leads the Indians in hits, runs and total bases this season.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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They've lost 10 1/2 games off what once was a 15-game lead in the AL Central, but the White Sox are still in the early chapters of what has the makings of an epic collapse. (Judging by the panicky rants manager Ozzie Guillen and ace Mark Buerhle delivered after Thursday's 7-5 loss to the Royals, they're at the second of the five stages of grief: Anger.) They have a 4 1/2-game lead with 17 games to play. It might comfort -- if not horrify -- the White Sox to know the race for the AL Central crown has just begun.

On the other hand the Indians, the team that has the White Sox so worried, started their playoff push 39 months ago -- on June 27, 2002, to be exact. That's the day general manager Mark Shapiro traded ace Bartolo Colon to the Expos for veteran outfielder Lee Stevens, shortstop prospect Brandon Phillips and two under-the-radar minor leaguers named Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee. At the time, the only ones lauding the deal were the handful of Montrealers who were still aware baseball was being played in town. Getting Colon was a sign the team was serious about making the playoffs and might avoid the contraction axe Bud Selig was wielding over the franchise.

Meanwhile Shapiro came under heavy fire. The rookie G.M. had just made it official: The Indians' late-1990s championship run was over. Fans squawked -- and stopped coming to Jacobs Field. (Attendance fell from 3.1 million in 2001 to 2.6 million in '02, and the Indians haven't cracked 2 million since.) Veterans such as Ellis Burks, Paul Shuey and Matt Lawton announced that they wanted out of town, or at least would consider lifting no-trade clauses if they could be sent to a contender. Said the besieged Shapiro, "We are clearly moving to a total rebuilding process aimed at 2004 and 2005."

Baseball people know it takes two or three years to accurately judge a trade, but to Clevelanders the year 2005 must have sounded the way 1984 once did, like a futuristic, far-away time that might never really arrive. But Shapiro's timetable was on the recent money, and the trade turned out to be one of the shrewdest, most one-sided swaps in memory. Stevens' impact in Cleveland was minimal and Phillips has been a flameout, but the Indians ended up with a Cy Young candidate (Lee) and the game's best young outfielder (Sizemore). (Think the Nationals would like to see those guys in the RFK clubhouse?) Without either one of them Cleveland wouldn't be leading the wild-card race by a half-game with 16 to play.

For their part, the Expos ultimately got nothing out of the deal. They missed the playoffs in 2002, and a year later Colon was sent to the White Sox for Rocky Biddle, Orlando Hernandez and Jeff Liefer, none of whom exactly became franchise bedrock.

Colon is a Cy Young contender himself in Anaheim, but the deal Shapiro made is similar to the Red Sox' pilfering of Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe from Seattle for Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997: It delivered two key pieces for Shapiro to build around and set the tone for a new personality. In his first full season Sizemore, 23, is already the Indians' best player. He's energetic, leads the team in hits and runs, is an excellent center fielder and is on his way to being one of the game's elite leadoff hitters. Lee, 27, is 16-4, and over the last two seasons (30 wins) he has quietly developed into one of the majors' top lefthanders. Since the beginning of 2004 Johan Santana (37), Mark Mulder (32), Kenny Rogers (31) and Dontrelle Willis (31) are the only southpaws with more victories.

Sizemore (he's making $318,000 this year) and Lee ($345,000) come cheap, too. Those numbers are as important to Shapiro as batting averages and ERAs. The Colon trade -- he is making $10 million this season -- was Shapiro's way of announcing the Indian's new business model: Expensive free agents were out, hunting for prospects and bargains was in. It's a little easier to sell that small-market approach when trades work out as well as that one did. "The Colon trade was the start of everything," Shapiro said earlier this month. "It started the change."

Cleveland fans still haven't completely embraced that plan. Even during the Indians' second half surge, sellouts at the Jake have been rare. A playoff spot might change that. It might not. Either way, Shapiro gets credit for making one of the most significant deals of the decade.