A Familiar chill hung in the air in Cleveland last week. Time for postseason baseball again at Jacobs Field? Not quite yet. Welcome to the Indians' clubhouse. This time, though, the frosty conditions had nothing to do with a notoriously hostile atmosphere that last winter scared off free agents Paul Molitor and Mark Grace, but simply with the climatic preferences of Albert Belle.
The Cleveland leftfielder, who prefers the room cold enough to preserve beef, turned down the two clubhouse thermostats during the early innings of a game against the California Angels on Wednesday of last week. A teammate or one of the clubhouse hands turned the thermostat back up. Belle turned it back down. Someone cranked it back up. This went on for a few innings until Belle found a solution: He hoisted his bat and smashed both thermostats, knocking one clear off a pillar and pounding the other into a wall.
By last Friday, Belle's teammates had hung a homemade nameplate over his locker, the only one in the Cleveland clubhouse that, by his choice, remains otherwise unidentified. It read, 8 MR. FREEZE. Given that at week's end Belle was four dingers short of joining Babe Ruth as the only player with back-to-back 50-home-run seasons, that would be Freeze, Deep, on your alphabetical roster. And with 27 RBIs in his last 24 games, tying him with Andres Galarraga of the Colorado Rockies for the major league lead with 140 for the season, Belle could be excused for asking, "Is it hot in here, or is it just me?"
The fact is, just about the entire club is sizzling. "We're peaking at the right time," third baseman Jim Thome says. After many bold and locally unpopular midseason moves by general manager John Hart—40% of last season's American League championship team is either gone or injured—the Tribe has shown that it is better equipped for the postseason than a year ago. Last week Cleveland won six of seven games, giving it the best record in baseball (89-59).
"We're very aggressive, and the personalities are starting to mesh," says ace righthander Charles Nagy, who improved to 16-4 with eight solid innings in a 9-2 win against the Oakland A's in the first game of a doubleheader sweep last Saturday. "It's fun to be here."
Cleveland's failure to win the World Series last season—it lost to the Atlanta Braves in six games—showed Hart weaknesses in the team that were not so apparent during a 100-44 joyride through the regular season. He learned how difficult it is to win in October with an unstable defense (the Indians made 19 errors in their 15 postseason games) and an offense vulnerable to lefthanded pitching (they were 1-4 when facing a southpaw starter). "Power doesn't win in the postseason," says Hart, whose team hit .179 against the Braves.
Hart tweaked the roster to correct both shortcomings and, not accidentally, improved another dubious area—team chemistry. It troubled him when Molitor and Grace expressed misgivings about joining an outfit that was often chilly to outsiders. Now Hart says proudly, "We've got a good, professional atmosphere."
For instance, the day after lefthander Kent Mercker joined the team on July 21 in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles for DH Eddie Murray, one of Mercker's new teammates approached him at his locker and asked, "Want to join us in a game of hearts?" It was Belle.
"I was like, Wow, O.K.," Mercker says. "You hear the stories. You hear about Molitor and Grace being turned off and wonder if it's really that bad. It's not. It's great. Believe me, with all these rain delays recently, we've spent a lot of time together. I've never seen anything like it. It's a good mix."
The reengineering of the Indians began in the off-season when Hart signed Julio Franco, who replaced Paul Sorrento at first base, and righthander Jack McDowell, who replaced Ken Hill in the rotation. By spring training Hart had begun shopping second baseman Carlos Baerga, unsuccessfully offering him to several teams, including the New York Yankees, and trying to pry second baseman Chuck Knoblauch from the Minnesota Twins. Hart was concerned about Baerga's drop-off in production in the second half of last year, and when he had asked him in the off-season about moving to third base so the team could pursue free-agent second baseman Roberto Alomar, Baerga had balked. Then, after the club had steered away from Alomar, Baerga showed up at camp about 20 pounds overweight. His mobility afield, never better than average, suffered, and his hitting did not pick up in the first half of the season.