Magical run of 1990s Tribe teams brought back to life
New book chronicles the birth of Jacobs Field and the building of a contender
You could feel it again, in that fleeting moment when a red-clad crowd went crazy during lineup introductions, celebrating a Wild Card-winning Indians club that unexpectedly brought playoff baseball back to Cleveland.
And then Delmon Young homered off Danny Salazar and Alex Cobb did his rope-a-dope routine and Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and, well, that was that. The 2013 Indians, it turned out, were not bound for the glory of some of their 1990s predecessors, who themselves were not bound for the ultimate glory of that ever-elusive World Series title.
But there is, nonetheless, something undeniably magical about a packed-to-the-gills Progressive Field, and the Indians have been chasing that feeling ever since the famed 455-game sellout streak met its inevitable end 13 years ago. In fact, they're not the only ones.
That unrepeatable era, ushered in by the birth of what was then known as Jacobs Field, had an aura that other MLB clubs have certainly tried to emulate, with varying degrees of success, and it's an era first-time author George Christian Pappas attempts to capture in his new book, "A Tribe Reborn: How the Cleveland Indians of the '90s Went from Cellar Dwellers to Playoff Contenders" ($24.95, Sports Publishing).
Pappas' 225-page work serves as both an academic and a narrative examination of how a long-suffering franchise reversed its fate.
Certainly, the book hits all the high points of the Tribe's six division titles and ensuing postseason appearances from 1995-2001, and the reader comes away with the expected incredulity that the '95 club, with arguably the most lethal lineup in the game's long history, did not go the distance and the '97 club, two outs away from Cleveland's first major sports championship of any sort since 1964, didn't finish the job.
But that's nothing Cleveland sports fans haven't rehashed countless times before, even if Pappas' sabermetrically inclined lineup analysis does shed new light on how those 1990s lineups compare with the likes of Mickey Mantle's Yankees and the Big Red Machine, among others.
Where the book truly entertains and informs, though, is in its attention to detail about all the twists and transactions that led to that point.
The major plot point there, of course, is the sale of the ballclub from the estate of Steve O'Neill (that the Indians were owned by a dead man was all too fitting) to Dick Jacobs, whose strengths were a shrewd and opportunistic business acumen combined with the good sense to let baseball people make the baseball decisions (and if the book has a lesson for other franchises, this is probably it).
Hank Peters was the first such baseball man brought aboard by the Jacobs regime, and Peters himself writes the foreword to this book, providing a rare first-hand account from a man whose importance to the Indians' uprising is often overlooked.
"I told [Jacobs] if I took the job, it would be for only four years," Peters writes. "And then I gave him the bad news -- we would not be a winner during those four years."
Indeed, Peters and his associates -- fellow Baltimore Orioles import Tom Giordano, scouting director Chet Montgomery, area scout Tom Couston (the man who discovered Jim Thome), to name a few -- were important bridges in Indians history. They connected the abyss of the 1980s, when the Indians were rumored to be moving anywhere from St. Petersburg, to New Orleans to Dallas to Oakland, to the hope of the early 1990s, when Cuyahoga County voters narrowly passed a sin tax for the construction of the Gateway Project just as Peters' handpicked successor John Hart, another Oriole import, was orchestrating the construction of a championship-caliber ballclub to make the new stadium shine.
Hart is generally credited with popularizing the notion of locking up young talent to contract extensions that clubs like the Atlanta Braves (for whom Hart now serves as an advisor) still employ to this day. The book does well to point out that Hart didn't strike gold with all those contracts. Some of them were stinkers, in fact. But he was right more often than he was wrong, and the Indians, as a result, created quite a core, with the ballpark's arrival in 1994 allowing them to spend the money it took to fill out the roster with proven veterans.
Thankfully, Pappas makes it a point to investigate not just Hart's thought process but also the importance of guys like Rick Wolff, a roving instructor who helped improve the psychological focus of the Tribe's young talent, and John McNamara, the man who preceded Mike Hargrove in the dugout and demanded hustle and fundamentals.
Of course, that doesn't mean proper reverence isn't bestowed upon the likes of Albert Belle and Thome and Omar Vizquel and the trade that truly started it all -- Joe Carter to the Padres for Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga. Belle, unexpectedly, did not grant Pappas an interview for this book, and that's our loss, because his story could fill several hundred pages on its own. In fact, there are many colorful stories involving the characters on those 1990s teams that probably deserve their own in-depth treatment.
But in terms of providing a thoughtful examination of the many special factors that aligned to usher in an era unlike any other in Cleveland sports history, Pappas' book achieves its mission.
And it arrives just in time for a new season in which the Indians hope to bring that magic feeling back again.