October 28, 2009
You think Mets fans aren't enthused about this Yankees-Phillies World Series? Try walking in the shoes of someone who follows the Cleveland Indians. When tonight's Game 1 goes off in the Bronx, it will feature two starting pitchers who were Tribe members as recently as 2008. Heck, Cliff Lee(notes) started the first game in new Yankee Stadium's history for Cleveland last April. To take the pulse (or what's left of it) of Indians Nation, we've enlisted Jay Levin of Let's Go Tribe. His depressed but insightful report follows below.
As we await the first pitch of the 2009 World Series, you will forgive us Cleveland fans if we're not quite sure how we feel about this Game 1 matchup. At the moment, we're merely dubious, but we'll be feeling a whole range of emotions when C.C. Sabathia(notes) and Cliff Lee take the mound on Wednesday night. There will be an irresistible pinch of excitement, watching the players we've spent years rooting for reach this pinnacle. There will be sadness, watching them achieve it with other teams — and for other teams' fans. Over the course of the game, there will be some fun moments watching "our guys," but in the end, that's going to give way to an all-abiding sense of disappointment.
Oh yes, there's going to be anger. In fact, there already is. Anger at a Cleveland Indians team that was picked to win their division four years in a row, yet managed just one winning record in those four years. Anger that we've made the playoffs just once in nine seasons — I'm already counting 2010 — and almost went to the World Series in that one winning year. Almost. Anger at a general manager who just announced the hiring of a manager who was cast away by the worst organization in the game. Anger at an ownership group perceived as too thrifty to pay top-dollar for a name like Bobby Valentine, just as they were too cheap to keep these two lefty aces on the Cleveland roster.
Perhaps most of all, there is anger at the sports gods who ordered up another kind of special humiliation for Cleveland fans. Two true aces emerge, after dozens of seasons without any aces. Our boys bring home the Cy Young Award in consecutive seasons — which never happens! — only to be traded away in consecutive seasons. Yes, this outrage, it's juicy. Much worse than that 43-0 homecoming drubbing the Steelers gave the Browns in 1999, far more inexplicable than the Indians' three-game collapse to lose the 2007 ALCS. This one, it's special. Just like blowing the World Series with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in 1997's Game 7, it's a screwing that's been saved just for Cleveland fans and nobody else. And don't think we're not pissed about it.
Lots of Indians went to the postseason this year, you see. The Dodgers lineup had three — Manny Ramirez(notes), Casey Blake(notes) and Ron Belliard — not to mention our all-time home run leader, Jim Thome(notes), on the bench. Victor Martinez(notes) went with the Red Sox, while Rafael Betancourt(notes) went with the Rockies. The Cardinals had Mark DeRosa(notes) and Ryan Ludwick(notes). And now, the coup de grace, an all-bartered-away-Indians matchup in Game 1 of the World Series. Two guys who could never put it together for the Indians — or was it the other way around? — battling it out for all the marbles. Yeah, you'd be angry, too.
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One thing Indians fans will see when Sabathia takes the mound is our last first-round draft pick who actually gave the Indians a good season in the majors. Sabathia went 20th overall in 1999, spent just one full season in the minors in 2000, and debuted with the Indians at the start of the 2001 season at the tender age of 20. He was a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy right out of the gate, and while he made the fans wait through four years of fits and starts before finally emerging as a "true ace," even the most skeptical fans — the ones who couldn't stand the crooked cap and copious belly — would have to admit that he did eventually dominate.
Lee came to the Indians organization in 2002 the same way he left in 2009, in a big swap, with the Indians sending an ascendant ace out for an impressive group of prospects. The ace was Bartolo Colon(notes), and Lee came back to the Indians in a package that was so sweet, Grady Sizemore(notes) was thought to be the third-best guy in it. "The Colon Deal" set the standard for getting premium value out of a star player in his walk year; all subsequent deals are compared to it, and never favorably. Teams don't just give away future All-Stars the way they used to. Nobody could have guessed that the Indians would be on the sinking-ship side of two more "Colon Deals" before the decade was out.
Indians fans naturally were livid in 2002, as they are now. They didn't understand the Colon trade then, and the media hadn't really figured out how to portray it. (The crawl at the bottom of the ESPN screen read: "Indians trade P Bartolo Colon to Expos for 1B Lee Stevens and minor leaguers.") I still remember GM Mark Shapiro standing bravely at the podium, really like no GM I can recall before or since, saying something like, "I know I'm going to catch hell for this, but this is the only way we win in the future."
Both players emerged as front-of-the-rotation guys by the end of 2005. One-year rental Kevin Millwood(notes) was the de facto staff ace that season, somehow winning the ERA title with a losing record. Lee was in his first full season in the bigs, and he looked ready to fulfill Peter Gammons' chipper observation that he "had All-Star written all over him." Sabathia, now 24, struggled mightily for most of the season, as he often had during the previous three. The Indians were doing their trademark early-season freefall, but the offense seemed to jump to life once batting coach Eddie Murray was dumped. Lee rode the soaring run support to an 18-5 record and a fourth-place Cy Young finish.
Sabathia didn't click until August, but he posted a 1.79 ERA over his final 10 starts, providing a finishing kick as the Indians' completed four solid months of .650 baseball, making them a virtual lock for the postseason. Then, inexplicably, the Indians lost six of their final seven games, losing their playoff berth on the last day of the season. Sabathia delivered the club's lone win in that frustrating week, shutting down the hapless Devil Rays over eight innings, and he's pitched like an ace ever since. Over 141 starts since August 10, 2005, Sabathia has averaged exactly seven innings per start, with a 3.02 ERA and four strikeouts for every walk. (In an utterly unheralded move, Shapiro shrewdly extended Sabathia's contract through the end of 2008, just as the 2005 season was starting.)
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The year 2005 was just the first of many missed opportunities for the Indians and the pitching tandem. Sabathia led another impressively deep rotation in 2006, but Lee faltered into mediocrity, and a historically bad bullpen and sieve-like infield defense took the Indians out of contention in June. The club reloaded for 2007, but Lee missed the start of the season with an injury that, in retrospect, he probably never fully recovered from. After struggling with command for all of May and June, Lee fell completely off the cliff in July, posting an 8.68 ERA over his final five starts. He was, reluctantly and famously, sent to the minors at the end of July 2007.
His team, meanwhile, surged to the best record in the majors and a long-delayed trip to the playoffs. Fausto Carmona became the "second ace" Lee was expected to be, and the Indians somehow had the club's strongest and deepest rotation in recent memory, perhaps in 50 years, even without Lee. Sabathia unquestionably was the club's most valuable pitcher that season, but he faltered badly in the playoffs. He barely managed to scrape together a quality start against the Yankees in the Division Series, and he crapped the bed completely in the ALCS against the Red Sox. It may seem cruel to pin the Indians' failure to win the pennant on Sabathia, but the simple truth is that he was absolutely terrible in that series, while his teammates took three games out of five without his help. He won the Cy Young Award, but his team won only the division title.
The 2008 season was perhaps the most bizarre turn of all for the two lefites. Coming off his injury-plagued nightmare season in 2007, Lee barely made the club out of spring training to start 2008, but once the season started, he dominated opposing hitters completely. Just eight months earlier, he'd forgotten how to pitch, and now, he'd forgotten how to give up runs. As if maintaining some cosmic balance, Sabathia fell hard out of the gate, posting an astonishing 13.50 ERA over his first four starts. For the first five weeks of the season, inexplicably, Cliff Lee was the league's best starting pitcher, and the incumbent Cy Young winner Sabathia was the worst. Sabathia recovered his old form quickly, however, and against all odds, Lee maintained his new form.
Finally, for the first and only time, Cleveland had both Sabathia and Lee pitching like aces at the same time. It lasted all of 10 weeks. Lee posted a 2.73 ERA from late April through the first week in July — this was actually the low-point of his season, if you can believe that — and the club went 9-4 in those games. Sabathia posted a 2.16 ERA over that same period, but the club won only seven of his 14 starts. At one point, the Indians rotation collectively threw 44 scoreless innings in a row. The lineup, however, was a different story, freezing up completely just as the rotation was surging. Throw in yet another awful bullpen, and the Indians' season once again was over and done by the end of June.
Two aces, finally healthy, finally pitching like two aces, for the first and only time, somehow, impossibly, was simply not enough. As a tandem, that's all Indians fans ever got out of Sabathia and Lee — one nice season in 2005, and 10 dazzling but poorly timed weeks in 2008. As individuals, each guy delivered a Cy Young season, plus a couple other really good seasons. Sabathia never delivered anything in the posteason, however, and Lee never even got there. Should we blame the pitchers for not being at their best when we needed them most? Should we blame the team for not better capitalizing on their stellar seasons when they happened?
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Most Indians fans will tell you, I think, that they do blame Sabathia, but Lee gets a pass. While their Cleveland careers ended with the same kind of transaction, the two men actually left Cleveland on very different terms. Sabathia was in his walk year in 2008, and he'd rebuffed contract extension talks at the start of 2007, then rebuffed them more loudly at the start of 2008. Contrary to what the cynics will tell you, most players do not, in fact, go for top dollar. In free agency, perhaps that is the rule, but most star players re-up with their hometown club before they ever reach free agency. Sabathia was offered extensions commensurate with those signed by other elite starters — Oswalt, Peavy, Zambrano, Halladay, Carpenter — and he wasn't interested.
Sabathia claimed he loved playing in Cleveland, for the Cleveland fans, within the Indians organization, with his Cleveland teammates. His friends speculated that he wanted to go back home to California. Everybody knew he liked to swing the bat, which suggested an NL destination, and he clearly relished his brief stint in Milwaukee. He made noises more than once about wanting to play with other African-Americans.
But in the end, he went to the Yankees — far from his home in California, not in the National League. And for all his ample bellyaching, he isn't exactly surrounded by African-American teammates in the Bronx, either.
Sabathia and his four infielders are paid more than the entire rosters of 22 major league clubs, and Sabathia personally is guaranteed more than twice as much money in his contract than everyone in the entire Indians organization combined. In the end, for all his talk, it wasn't about anything but money. And now, just to rub salt in our wounds, Sabathia has produced for New York where he totally fell flat for Cleveland. In the 2007 postseason with the Indians, Sabathia posted an 8.80 ERA over three starts in the first two rounds. In 2009 for the Yankees, he's posted a 1.19 ERA in three starts.
Lee's exit was different. He was not in his walk year, and judging from his rebuffed requests to talk extension with the club just a few months ago, he was not determined to reach free agency. We'll never know what kind of deal Lee was truly willing to take, of course, but he wanted to talk — and he wanted to do it not just before reaching free agency, but two full years before. That generally means a guy wants to stick around, not hold out for top-dollar. That's why, while Sabathia's brilliant run in these playoff games is seen as a knife in the back, Lee's equally dominant run is more bittersweet.
This doesn't seem to happen to any other city, and it doesn't happen in any other major sport. Rank-and-file Indians fans rail at the owner for being "too cheap" to field a competitive team. They beg for Dolan to sell the team — as though some other guy with more money to blow might actually buy it. They fantasize about an owner who would pour hundreds of millions of his own dollars into the salaries of star players. They think Dick Jacobs used to spend money like that, but he didn't — in the go-go 90's, with a new taxpayer-funded stadium, Dick Jacobs always made a profit. They think the Steinbrenners and other owners spend their own money like that, but they don't — those richer clubs aren't spending down the wealth of their owners, they're just spending money from richer TV deals.
That basic imbalance in the game's economics is the reason Sabathia and Lee are starting Game 1 of the World Series for the Yankees and Phillies, rather than starting Games 1 and 2 for the Indians. It is the only reason. Yes, the Indians have made a number of other missteps over the past several years, but on a basic level, Lee and Sabathia are gone because the Indians had no reasonable hope of bidding for them. The Phillies (who lured away Thome in 2003) and the Yankees (who are the Yankees) can bid on players of this caliber once they reach free agency. Other clubs cannot.
That's why these teams have these players, and in fact, it's the only reason the Yankees made it to the World Series this year, or in any year since 1998. They've got Sabathia from the Indians, A.J. Burnett from the Marlins, Johnny Damon from the Royals, Alex Rodriguez from the Mariners, Mark Teixeira from the Rangers, even Hideki Matsui from the Yomiuri Giants. And while the Yankees cherry picked stars from other rosters, no other club ever got a crack at Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Yet Bud Selig wants to tell us that parity is alive and well in major league baseball. I can't imagine how he says this with a straight face. This ain't parity, this is prima nocta.
But even for those of us who understand the Indians' bind, this is ugly. They did what they had to do, that much is clear. Sabathia was determined to walk away at the end of 2008, and there was no point not cashing him in. As for Lee, the team wasn't going anywhere this season or next, with him or without him, so they sold high, eliminating the risk that he'd suffer another injury before they had another chance. You'd have trouble finding an executive anywhere in baseball to tell you that Shapiro didn't do the right thing, and may would say he's among the very best GMs in the game.
Even so, this Game 1 matchup is a uniquely awful thing for Indians fans to swallow, in the wake of two massively failed seasons in a row. It's still ugly. And yes, we're still pissed.
To read more of Jay Levin's work, visit Let's Go Tribe