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To live in Cleveland is to be optimistic. Pro football will return. Don King will move away. The Indians will win a World Series again. That's what they believe, those 40,000 folks who show up at Jacobs Field every night. Heck, last year we weren't all that good—and we still made it to Game 7! In losing, Clevelanders found strength. The ballpark is again virtually sold out for the entire year. Faith in Cleveland is thriving.
Especially in the office of the general manager, John Hart. He's a hard-nosed guy. He knows that sentimentality makes for lousy baseball, so nine of the players from last year's World Series team are gone. But the biggest move he made all winter, he made with hope in his heart. He signed Dwight Gooden to a two-year contract for $5,675,000 million. Talk about running on faith.
On its face, that may not sound like much. One pitcher, the No. 3 pitcher in the rotation, accounting for 5% of the team payroll—what's the big deal? But Doc is no ordinary No. 3 pitcher. "He holds the key for us," Hart says.
The Indians hope for 70 starts from their first two guys, righthanders Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright. That leaves 92 games. If Gooden, at 33, can start 30 or so—something he hasn't done since '92—and keep his club in two thirds of those, the Indians will play October baseball again. If he can't, the Indians may well struggle, even with their assembly line of big bats. Gooden is the club's barometer. His whole career, his entire life, is about hope, about faith, about luck.
The Indians have had miserable luck with their pitchers. Jack McDowell (now with the Angels) was sidelined most of last season with an elbow injury. Projected starter John Smiley will miss most of this year with a broken arm. Projected No. 4 starter Ben McDonald was sent back last week to the Brewers, who will have to cope with his season-ending shoulder injury. Chad Ogea is out until mid-May with a left-knee injury. Decent starts from Gooden, one after another, will serve as a sign that Cleveland's luck is changing, that faith is being rewarded.
People root for Gooden. In New York they rooted for him when he was good, when he was awesome, when he was getting shelled. They rooted for him through his drug and alcohol rehabs. And through his arrests, his marital problems, his injuries, his father's illness. He's likable.
Hart knows all this. He knew it when he coached against Gooden when he was a high school pitcher in Tampa. He knew it when he managed against Gooden's team in the minors. He knew it the last two years, when Gooden pitched for the Yankees. Gooden owned Cleveland, won five games against the Indians, never lost, had a 2.88 ERA.
Just as he did in New York, Gooden will receive bountiful run support in Cleveland. All the pitchers should. The '98 team has more bash in it than even the '95 team, which won 100 games, all of them, it seemed, on three-run homers. But when it comes to arms, Hart has a commitment problem, and with the Indians' recent history, his caution is understandable. Now if you have a useful bat, Hart has something he'd like you to sign. Leftfielder David Justice is under contract through 2002, and the club has an option on 2003. Centerfielder Kenny Lofton, Cleveland's prodigal son, has returned from a yearlong sojourn in Atlanta and is signed through 2000. Rightfielder Manny Ramirez, a 25-year-old with 59 homers and 200 RBIs over the past two years, is signed through 1999, with a club option for 2000. A stable and productive outfield.
Hart is moved by productivity. In the off-season, he went shopping for a second baseman. Instead he found a shortstop with a career .274 batting average, Shawon Dunston. Hart talked him into playing second base. "I consider second base to be an offensive position," the G.M. says. Hart considers every position to be an offensive position. As for Dunston, he had no desire to move from short. But what he wants more than anything is to play in a World Series, something he has never done in his 13 years in the game.
Gooden is saying the same thing. He went to the World Series with the Mets in '86. Ten years later, when the Yankees reached the Series, Gooden was left off the roster, out of gas. He knows the end of the line is coming. In the final years of his career, he wants to be lucky and good. He wants to go out a winner. That's his hope. Gooden has a lot of Cleveland in him.