Before LeBron owned the city, before the Browns arrived and left and returned again, Cleveland was a baseball city — a great baseball city.
In 1948, the last time the Indians won the World Series, the club drew a then-major league record 2.6 million fans. The post-War boom that initially hit America and Cleveland didn’t last, however, and when the fortunes of the franchise on the field eventually plummeted in the 1960s — along with Cleveland’s population — so did attendance. Cleveland Municipal Stadium was big and cavernous, and when the wind blew in from Lake Erie, it was a cold, miserable place to watch a baseball game.
Then came the renaissance of Cleveland baseball. The Indians moved into Jacobs Field in 1994, and led by a star-studded lineup that included Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton, they made the playoffs six times in seven seasons from 1995 to 2001. From June 12, 1995, through April 4, 2001, the Indians sold out the Jake 455 consecutive games. The 1995 team was one of the best ever assembled, going 100-44, only to lose in the World Series to the Braves. The 1997 team was three outs from victory in Game 7 of the World Series, and then Jose Mesa blew the save and Tony Fernandez booted a routine grounder and the Marlins somehow ended up as champs. The 1998 team ran into the buzzsaw that was the 114-win Yankees, and the 2001 team lost to the 116-win Mariners.
Dick Jacobs sold the Indians to Larry Dolan in 2000, and after that 2001 playoff defeat, the team disbanded, as Dolan was unwilling to maintain the same high payrolls. Attendance declined. In just three years, the Indians dropped from first in the AL in attendance to 12th. The Browns returned, LeBron came and went and came back again, and the Indians, despite some bursts of good baseball — they reached the ALCS in 2007 and made the wild-card game in 2013 — haven’t been able to reclaim the enthusiasm the city had for the team in the 1990s.
It’s time to get enthusiastic again. The Indians have agreed to at least one deal that lines them up as the best team in the American League, acquiring Andrew Miller from the Yankees. The Jonathan Lucroy deal with the Brewers is currently dead after the Lucroy exercised his no-trade clause; reports say the teams have broken off talks about a revised deal. Still, a franchise that has been reluctant to deal prospects finally dealt from its reserves, with highly regarded outfielder Clint Frazier and left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield going to the Yankees.
Those are high-upside prospects, but the Indians have rebuilt their farm system in recent seasons, giving them the depth to make these trades while still retaining the minor league talent any small-market team needs to survive. It wasn’t too long ago that the Indians had one of the weakest systems in the game, but under John Mirabelli and Brad Grant, long-time members of the front office, the system began a big turnaround beginning with the selection of Francisco Lindor with the eighth overall pick in 2011, giving them a star foundation piece to go with a strong rotation. That rotation, the best in the AL, includes Danny Salazar, originally signed way back in 2006, along with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, who were all acquired in trades.
In that 2011 draft, the Indians also picked up closer Cody Allen in the 23rd round. Tyler Naquin was the team’s first-round pick in 2012 out of Texas AM, and he’s finally helping the big league club this year. Frazier was the fifth overall pick in 2013 and Sheffield was the 31st overall pick in 2014. Outfielder Bradley Zimmer, their first-round pick in 2014, is still here and close to reaching the majors. Class A catcher Francisco Mejia, who would have been the key part of the Lucroy trade, was signed out of the Dominican in 2012.
The Indians gave up a lot of talent, but the upside is that Miller is signed through 2018. It was absolutely the right time for the Indians to make this move, to hopefully cash in when the rotation is so good and Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana are producing big years at the plate. Miller gives them one of the best three or four relievers in baseball — maybe the best — and a much-needed lefty in the bullpen (the Indians have received the fewest innings from left-handers in the majors). Terry Francona can keep Cody Allen as the closer or use Miller there. If he wants to maximize the matchups, he can flip their roles as necessary.
It’s been 68 years since the Indians have won a World Series. Maybe that’s not as long a drought as the Cubs, but it’s not like any of us were actually alive in 1908. Indians fans have arguably suffered more than Cubs fans in recent decades — after all, the Cubs mostly have been irrelevant since their last World Series appearance in 1945. That’s what makes the Miller trade so intriguing. It increases the likelihood for one of the most epic World Series matchups ever seen: Indians versus Cubs, with 176 combined years without a title on the line.