ANAHEIM, Calif. – Given the events of a few October nights, and then a few winter weeks, it was so easy – cathartic even – to release the Cleveland Indians from their 2008 obligations.
They'd been to big games in big ballparks, where they'd beaten back Yankees Universe before getting started on Red Sox Nation. They'd spread their modest payroll across an eager and willing roster of gamers. They'd played to the brink of the World Series, grinding at-bat after at-bat in the face of more decorated lineups, winning in the unkempt moments of pivotal pitches and late-game do-or-dies.
They lost their breath a heartbeat from the pennant, three games to win one, all gone in a smear of Beckett, Schilling and Matsuzaka.
We'd remember them in the Fenway Park clubhouse, clinging to what remained of their composure, holding their slingshots but out of stones.
"If you think that guys up here are only playing for the money," Indians pitcher Paul Byrd said Monday night, "there were a lot of grown men walking around and crying in pain because they wanted to win the World Series. And that's a beautiful thing. So many people on this team cared so much."
They'd come from 78 wins the season before to win 96, a wayward and promising team redirected and all grown up. They'd held to C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona and made a rotation out of it, to Rafael Betancourt and Joe Borowski and made a bullpen out of it, to Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez and made an American League Central champion out of it, then more.
Then they lost those three games in a row – by 30-5, no less – with late October and the Colorado Rockies waiting, an outcome that concluded their season and opened the Detroit Tigers'. So, while Indians general manager Mark Shapiro was pushing around his budget to fit his same players onto his same roster, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski was fanning his, bringing in Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Dontrelle Willis, outspending the Indians by some $60 million.
And that, supposedly, was all for the Indians. Already overrun by the largest markets, places such as New York and Boston and Anaheim and Chicago and Seattle, where big payrolls provide organizational depth and cover errors in evaluation and hide momentary insanity, the Indians had their shot, and couldn't win one in three.
It would be a Red Sox world again. Or, if not, surely the Tigers had taken the division in December.
"I kind of like it actually," Sabathia said, "because we do have a pretty good squad. We know what we can do in here. I don't think we need all the fanfare. It's perfect. Keep picking other people."
That's sort of the way it is around the Indians, happy to have all the old faces back, undaunted by all the new ones in Detroit.
"I don't think that anyone gave a second thought to that," Sizemore said. "This is a team that doesn't focus on outside distractions. We're about what we're doing today. What matters is what you do on the field."
They proved something to themselves on a few cool, damp nights against the Yankees, and took what they could from the rest. And now, after a very odd opening to the season, they've watched the Tigers whiff the first week entirely, played imperfectly themselves, and still offered the subtle reminder the division might very well go through Cleveland first.
"You're aware of everything going on," Sizemore said, "but the focus has to be in here."
Travis Hafner isn't hitting yet, and neither is Jhonny Peralta or Casey Blake or Franklin Gutierrez, and Sabathia has turned his imprecise October starts into something of a trend – he's winless in two starts (10 2/3 innings, seven walks), but they stand out there and remind you of who they were for an entire season, and what they could be again. They're not hitting, and pitching in spurts (Jake Westbrook has been terrific, as has Carmona again), but they're still catching the ball, which was the major improvement last season, and that's a very good sign.
It is nice to have Cliff Lee look like Cliff Lee again, and manager Eric Wedge already has had to remind his hitters that quality, patient at-bats come before production, which he believed his lineup took to in a Sunday win in Oakland. They'll find it again, they're sure of it, and maybe the potential structural flaws in the Tigers, the same ones that became first-week structural flaws in the Tigers, are just real enough for the Indians.
"That's good though," Byrd said of the Indians' supposed place in the baseball world. "That's the way it was last year. To be honest with you, the Tigers made some really nice offseason moves and they deserve to be talked about. They've been to a World Series. They have guys that have done it. I just know I like our team. I like the way we play."