The young Indians (average age of the starting eight: 26) boast a solid lineup with the likes of first baseman Pat Tabler (.333), Jacoby (.330 with 18 RBIs as of Sunday) and spunky leadoff man Brett Butler. The real surprise has been the team's pitching staff—Bavasi calls it "jerry-rigged"—which was rebuilt over the winter with mostly old or untested parts. Six new pitchers were on the opening day roster, foremost among them Niekro, the 300-game winner, who says he was honored to sign with the Tribe after being released by the Yankees in March. "I grew up with the Indians," says Niekro, recalling his youth in Lansing, Ohio, about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland. "Feller, Wynn, and Lemon—those were the names then."
Niekro has pitched better than his 2-2 record shows (he cut his ERA to 2.98 by giving up one run in 7? innings on Friday, listening between innings to the polka band that plays in the stands whenever he pitches at home), and has assumed the role of elder statesman and adviser. He has also worked particularly with developing knuckleballer Tom Candiotti, who is 2-3 for the season with a nice 2.95 ERA.
Another reason for the turnaround is new pitching coach Jack Aker, who is not only a fount of encouragement but also a bona fide Indian—he's of Potawatomi descent. Aker refers to his starters as "white-collar workers" and his relievers as "blue-collar workers." The Indians might have been in first place as of Sunday had their relievers not committed blue-collar crime against the White Sox over the weekend.
Both Aker and former catcher Pat Corrales, the team's firm and occasionally explosive manager, divided their big league playing careers among several teams—which makes them apt stewards. "We're 24 nobodies, 24 misfits," says outfielder Mel Hall, who coined the term and calls himself the "proclaimed leader" of the outfit. Only three of 24 Indian players (pitcher Neal Heaton and catchers Andy Allanson and Chris Bando) were developed in the Cleveland organization. The rest came off scrap heaps or in trades or were plucked out of other minor league systems.
The strange mix has been impressing not only fans, but opponents as well. "Offensively, they remind me of Toronto a year or two ago," says the Yankees' Willie Randolph. "Good young players coming into their own. They have a little cockiness now. They're young bucks."
"It's like Camelot, Act 1, Scene 1," says Bavasi. "We'll see later how Act 6 turns out. I like it so far." So what if Camelot has only two acts. Who ever thought the Indians would be in it at all?