How do you eat an elephant?" Nick Mileti asked at lunch one day last week. "One bite at a time. Right?" Right. Mileti, who is president of, among other things, the Cleveland Indians, was not discussing the fare at his favorite Pewter Mug restaurant (actually, he was munching a deluxe cheeseburger at the time), he was talking about his baseball team, which has been devouring its opponents in the American League East all season. No one expects the Indians to eat the whole thing, but the fact that they have already gotten their teeth into such elephantine foes as Detroit and Baltimore may be the most surprising development in baseball this season. After last year's famine, who could have anticipated that they would have the stomach for it?
The 1971 Indians finished last in their division by losing the most games (102) while drawing the fewest fans (591,361) in the league. There was much serious talk about moving them to New Orleans. And no one in Cleveland—or even New Orleans—seemed to care.
But as Mileti himself might put it, times do change. The 1972 Indians are a new breed, with new ownership, a new manager and a new lineup with a penchant for doing something decidedly new in recent Cleveland baseball history—winning.
The team's three best starting pitchers—Gaylord Perry, Milt Wilcox and Dick Tidrow—were, respectively, in San Francisco, Cincinnati and Wichita a year ago. The first baseman, Tom McCraw, who is playing for the injured 1971 Rookie of the Year, Chris Chambliss, was in Washington, along with the centerfielder, Del Unser. The rightfielder, 20-year-old Buddy Bell, and the second baseman, 22-year-old Jack (The Hammer) Brohamer, were both in Wichita. And the leftfielder, fallen Angel Alex Johnson, was in the baseball equivalent of purgatory.
Altogether, they have given good, drear Cleveland something to cheer about. Mileti, the head of a group that acquired controlling interest in the Indians from Restaurateur Vernon Stouffer, took command one day before the players' strike. The Indians go nicely with the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and the Cleveland Barons hockey team, which Mileti also runs. The whole shebang fits into what the sesquipedalian Mileti chooses to call his "synergistic concept," which simply means the three teams will all work in concert to woo the public. Mileti's busy sales force hustles tickets for all of them.
Mileti is a short, dark, dynamic 41-year-old who is hopelessly addicted to aphorisms such as "Everything you do in life, good or bad, comes back to bite you in the rear" and "The alternative to hard work is unemployment." He is one of the most popular men in Cleveland. But he cannot take credit for what is happening on the field, since most of the new players and the new manager, Ken Aspromonte, were there before he was. The credit here belongs to Aspromonte, a sensitive and philosophical Brooklynite bent on giving his players the advantages he never had. He is convinced that his own relatively undistinguished major league career was frustrated by bad management.
"If somebody would've handled me right," he has said, "I could have been a darn good ballplayer. But I never had the right guy managing me. I just hope I'm the right guy for some of these kids."
Last year Aspromonte managed the Cleveland farm team at Wichita, where he watched many of the forlorn varsity players pass through en route to oblivion and where he envisioned replacing them with his own eager young stars. When he was hired to manage the Indians, he instantly set about changing the mood of the clubhouse.
"I told everyone I was going to hold a competitive spring training. I always liked to be told that when I was a player. But it didn't happen often enough. I'd be ready to go out and win a job in spring training and then I'd find out the lineup was settled long before I left home."
Nothing was settled before the Indian camp this spring. Brohamer, who had to fight for a job even in the minor leagues, emerged from a five-man competition as the starting second baseman. He is an Eddie Stanky type, minus the truculence, who will beat you in many ways. In a game last week against the Yankees he walked with the bases loaded to "drive" in the winning run in the last of the ninth inning. Brohamer was elated, even by this non-act, and afterward he politely answered a memorable locker room question posed by The Cleveland Press" Bob Sudyk: "What kind of pitch didn't you hit?" "Fastball," said Brohamer, "low and away."