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Spring Swing: Loss of Feller leaves Indians searching for identity

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — It's hard to miss the banner that hangs at Goodyear Ballpark. It's just past the wall in left-center field and framed by two bendy palm trees. "Feller 19 — Always In Our Hearts," it reads in its entirety, though you can't tell from the cropped photo above. It has been unfurled there this spring, of course, to honor Bob Feller, the Hall of Fame pitcher who passed away last December at age 92.

It's a nice tribute — as is the "19" painted in front of the dugout on the first-base line — but I was struck by how melancholy it made me feel. For the first time in 75 years, the Cleveland Indians will hold an opening day and Rapid Robert won't be around to celebrate it. Gone is the one huge thread that connected the past nine decades — long, slow whistle — of baseball in Northern Ohio.   {YSP:MORE}

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Feller has left us on this mortal coil and that is part of life, of course. People live and then they die, others slide into their space and the world keeps on spinning ... no matter how ferocious their fastball or presence.

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But it strikes me as unnecessarily cruel that this is the season that Indians fans have to start forging on without him. Over the past few years, dedicated Tribe fans have seen the trade of two Cy Young pitchers and an All-Star catcher, a complete disinterest in winning by owner Larry Dolan and the sobering crash of a Jacobs Field scene — yeah, you read that right, The Jake — that used to rank among the best in the league.

Look at this franchise now and you find an outfit that seems completely adrift and in search of a new identity. Grady Sizemore's path to being one of the game's top superstars — a route that was supposed to take the Indians along with him — has been derailed by injury. The returns they've negotiated for CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez haven't panned out in commensurate fashion yet. They have some promising prospects in guys like Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley, but waiting for them to bloom is still quite a comedown for a team that was one win away from a World Series as recently as 2007.

That isn't to say that still having Feller around to sign autographs and tell oft-repeated stories would change this current situation much. The Indians would still be at the bottom of the American League looking up in 2011.

But what they're missing is the one man who tied a great portion of the team's history together and gave it an unchanging and reassuring face. From Cleveland's last World Series title in 1948 to disasters like 10 Cent Beer Night and the 1987 team to the dizzying heights (and depressing Fall Classic low) of those great teams in the '90s, Bob Feller was always there. He was the Cleveland Indians, no matter who or what type of product was being placed on the field.

When I left the press box on Monday night, I noticed that Goodyear Ballpark has a glass-enclosed display box near the main entrance. Among the items inside was the pair of cleats that Feller wore on April 30, 1946 at Yankee Stadium when throwing his second no-hitter. At that moment, they looked even more giant and impossible to fill.

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