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"They basically threw nine rookies out there at the start of the year and said, 'Go get 'em,' " pitcher Tom Candiotti, who was traded from Cleveland to Toronto on June 27, says of his former team. "Most of the guys are just happy to be in the big leagues. It's hard to win like that."
Still, it is difficult to distribute blame for the Indians' ineptitude and by now all but irrelevant to do so. The franchise has been a railroad handcart pumping toward hell for so long that its current passengers can do nothing more than try to slow the runaway momentum. Peters, who helped build the World Champion Oakland A's of the early 1970s and whose Oriole teams went to two World Series while he was general manager in Baltimore, is retiring from a lifetime in baseball after this season. Cleveland fans may not buy it, but he deserves a better exit than this. "I've been married for 41 years," says Peters, who met his wife, Dottie, while both were working for the St. Louis Browns. "My wife said the other day, 'We're not exactly going out in a blaze of glory, are we?' "
Since 1960 the Tribe has had as many ownership groups (six) as winning seasons, and the '91 Indians are in large part the legacy of that never-ending, never-spending stream of empty suits passing through the front office. It is a legacy left to those few fans who were in the stands last weekend. Their motives for attending—complimentary tickets pulled from a sweepstakes drum at a Sherwin-Williams paint store notwithstanding—remain unclear, though we can speculate. "Many are escapees from local institutions," offers Sheldon Ocker, who has now chronicled three of the Tribe's five 100-loss seasons for the Akron Beacon Journal.
Still other fans had stolen across international borders, seeking a high old time in Cleveland, which bills itself in a sign at the airport as being "on America's North Coast." This may account for the four hosers from New Liskeard, Ont., who drove 12 hours to Cleveland for a wedding. The foursome had been planning for days to attend Friday's game. "We thought about getting tickets in advance, but we decided to take our chances," Mike Corbin said from his seat 10 rows behind the Yankee dugout.
Corbin & Co. all wore Indians caps bearing the doubly embarrassing likeness of Chief Wahoo. Each quickly confessed, however, to being a Blue Jay booster. The two passions are compatible, for many of Cleveland's former stars—Candiotti, Joe Carter and Cory Snyder—are now members of the first-place Jays. "The Toronto Indians are doing very well this year," noted Noel Egensperger, a Cleveland shipping foreman. "Just like the New York Indians did very well in the '70s."
The Tribe has a long history of ripening its young talent before distributing the fruit, almost free of charge, to teams around both leagues. Candiotti calls this year's dispersal of himself and others "a garage sale." But the Indians are finally beginning to hold on to players developed in their system. Some hot prospects, of course, never realize their potential. Witness the Hall-of-Fame-to-waiver-wire story that is charted in graffiti in a Cleveland Stadium men's room. The first line of ballpoint-pen ink, all but weathered away on the wall, reads SHOELESS BEAU ALLRED. The next line, somewhat newer, reads CLUELESS BEAU ALLRED. And the final line, in the freshest ink of all, reads simply CLUBLESS BEAU ALLRED.
Other prospects are panning out. Mike Tucker of Cleveland sat with his three boys in the upper deck, not far from the rightfield foul pole, on Friday night. They accounted for four of the seven people sitting that evening in the second deck between right centerfield and the first base dugout, a distance of about eight miles. "We've come to see Albert Belle do something," said Tucker. "Not to see him throw a ball at a fan or anything like that. We come to see him play. We like him."
Leftfielder Belle will likely reach 100 RBI this season, in spite of missing 30 games because of such faux pas as drilling a Cleveland Stadium heckler in the chest with a baseball and, more heinously, failing to run out a grounder. After the latter incident, then manager McNamara described what is perhaps Belle's greatest accomplishment: "He not only embarrassed himself, he embarrassed the club. He embarrassed everybody." Embarrassing himself? Embarrassing the Tribe? Embarrassing everybody? That is a cycle not easily achieved, especially in the Land of Cleve, where people have gotten beyond embarrassment.
Yankee general manager Gene Michael, who grew up in nearby Kent, Ohio, recalls watching his first major league game in Cleveland Stadium from a jam-packed upper deck in leftfield. "When the Yankees came to town, they would draw 60,000 to 70,000 every time out," Michael said on Saturday. On Sunday the Indians held Fan Appreciation Day. Each player gave a fan the shirt off his back. Sadly, there were almost enough shirts to go around.