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Indians: A kinder, gentler Tribe

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Posted: Wednesday March 10, 1999 04:26 PM

 

By Jeff Pearlman, Sports Illustrated

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- I am in lovely downtown Winter Haven, sucking the toxic fumes that some cigarette lovers from Planet Idiot left in the last room in town -- a $79 king-bedder at the Days Inn. Must confess: When the gig at SI opened up, I pictured a little more glamour. The Hilton. A spa. Me, some babes and a couple o' rich folks suckin' stogies and chewin' fat at the bar. "Yeah, Trump Boy, I really do think Jason Kendall can catch 162."

Snap! Wake up. Winter Haven is an odd place. Other towns I've been to -- Viera for the Marlins, Sarasota for the Reds, Dodgertown in Vero Beach -- acknowledge the team, embrace the team and sometimes support the team. Here, Winter Haven is the team. Down the hall in Room 240, somebody hung a Go Tribe! poster in the window. (Logic: You never know when Kenny Lofton, perhaps staying at the Days Inn, will walk by.) When I checked in, another guest practically blew out my eardrums. "Are you in town ... FOR THE INDIANS?!?!" No, Sports Illustrated is interested in Winter Haven's blossoming relationship with Denny's.

At least these people are supporting a solid group of citizens. Think back four years ago, to the Indians your mother was afraid of. Albert Belle. Carlos Baerga. Lofton (pre- the realization that he's not that good). It wasn't baseball's Portland Trail Blazers, but things were bad. Now, the Tribe's O.K. Jim Thome embraces the fans like family. Richie Sexson, the kid DH from Oregon, speaks in "what-ups" and "dudes." Doc Gooden and Mike Jackson are class. I'm not saying I'd spend a night in the Days Inn for 'em, but ... well, here I am.

  • A hazard of the job: Conducted a lengthy interview with Sexson, an extremely nice guy with the extremely nasty tendency to scratch his cojones during conversation. This was right after a long, hot, sweaty workout. Interview ends. Sexson reaches out his right hand -- the scratchin' hand -- to shake. What's a reporter to do?

  • Was in the Marlins clubhouse Tuesday morning, as a couple of reporters gathered around Mark Kotsay and Craig Counsell, just shootin' the shoot. Conversation turned to athlete-media violence. A local writer told the two players about an incident in 1995 when Miami Dolphins safety Gene Atkins slammed a reporter to the ground before a preseason practice. To which Counsell quipped: "Gosh, that sounds fun ..."

  • Also visited the Tigers in Lakeland, where Detroit was hosting Kansas City. Kevin Appier, the soon-to-be-traded Royals ace, was sitting on the grass when I approached.

    "So, Kevin, any idea where you'll end up?"

    Appier, 100% serious: "God, I wish I knew. Do you?"

    Sports Illustrated staff writer Jeff Pearlman will check in with periodic Postcards from his tour of spring camps.

     
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