My love for this game and this team didn't really start to kick in until a few years into this decade when the down years started to kick in. I've watched the game my whole life, but it wasn't until I was sitting in soaked seats at what was then Jacobs Field, watching the likes of Jody Gerut and Coco Crisp play their asses off. Minor league wonders like Chris Magruder, Tim Laker, Bill Selby and Ryan Ludwick shuffle on through. Veterans like Ricky Gutierrez, Shane Spencer, god knows who else try and find their way into the major leagues again.
It was horrible, yet amazing at the same time to watch something grow from the ground up.
So with that little spiel, let's get into it from the beginning. Today I will post the first part of this series, 2000 to 2005. I haven't decided how I'm breaking up the other years as 2006 and 2007 are both becoming very long. The reason for this is that I remember more vividly details about 2006 and on rather than prior to that. This first part is mainly baseball reference, Google searches and some memory from what I witnessed and read from Terry Pluto's "Dealing," where as the next few parts will be mostly memory aided by baseball-reference and Google searches for specific dates and what not.
In the end, I'll provide a time line of the decade and maybe put together something else special if I'm up to it. I have nothing to do all week, so I figure I'll have this at least done and complete. I don't know if it will all go up this week, but expect something tomorrow and Wednesday at least and we'll probably continue it into next week.
Please feel free to add any vivid memories in the comments section that you have from any of these years or add something that I might have forgotten, which is very possible for these years. As you will see tomorrow, 2006 and 2007 are very in depth as I remember certain details as I'm reliving the moments. 2005 kind of starts that trend as well as its a little bit longer than all the other years.
Let's preface the decade by a quick recap of what the Tribe was coming off of. The Indians were coming off a banner year in 1999. A 97 win season however was doused with a early exit in the ALDS to Boston in 5 games. This capped off, what really was a half-decade of success starting from 1994.
94's strike year aside, Cleveland dominated their new stomping grounds in the AL Central, winning it every year from 95 to 99. They made two trips to the World Series, losing in six and seven games in 95 to the Braves and in 97 to the Marlins.
One big "Argh" out to Jose Mesa.
They also lost to New York in the 1998 ALCS in six games.
After that, the Indians entered the new millennium with a big shakeup in the dugout. General Manager John Hart made the controversial decision to let Mike Hargrove go. 2000 would start with Charlie Manuel at the helm.
The Manuel era started off with division race that ended in them losing out to Chicago by five games, the first time they wouldn't be AL Central Champions in five years. But the playoffs were still in sight as they battled both Seattle and Oakland for a wild card spot. Both Oakland and Seattle finished with the same record, so they would have to fend off Cleveland if they both hoped to make October.
The Indians won five of their last six games to finish of the season, but it wasn't enough as they'd finish one win behind the AL West duo.
One can point to a stretch in June against AL Central teams that crippled the club. Starting on June 12th to July 2nd, the Indians faced nothing but AL Central teams. They lost 14 of 21 games in the stretch, including six of eight to Chicago.
Post-All-Star Break was when the Tribe turned it on. But it wasn't enough and the changes began to take place, big time. The 2000 Indians had issues with pitching as two important parts of the rotation, Charlie Nagy and Jaret Wright, missed time with injuries. It contributed to the Indians setting the Major League record for most pitchers used in a single season.
Dick Jacobs sold the club to Larry Dolan for $323 million dollars, way more than the $35 million he paid for it back in 1986. Richie Sexson was traded to Milwaukee for Bob Wickman, David Justice to New York for Jake Westbrook and two beloved icons in Manny Ramirez and Sandy Alomar Jr. left the team via free agency. Ramirez picked Boston in a bidding war started by his agent, Jeff Moorad that the Indians simply could not keep up with and Alomar Jr. went to division rival Chicago.
Many believe that General Manager John Hart was planning on moving on after 2001 and that he was making aim at one more run.
Cleveland signed a few veteran free agents, including former MVP Juan Gonzalez to a $10 million dollar deal. They also inked DH Ellis Burks to a contract that would pay him over $5 million in 2001 and that price would only go up in the next two seasons. Prior to the 2001 season, those thoughts were proven right when Hart announced it would be his last season as General Manager.
These moves helped the Indians achieve 91 wins, one more than last year, but thanks to Minnesota and Chicago battling it out for second, they finished six games up to win the AL Central for the sixth time in seven years.
Just like in 1999 however, the season would end in the ALDS in five games. This time, it was to Seattle, led by Rookie of the Year and MVP Ichiro Suzuki.
Suzuki cleaned up, taking home the ROY, MVP, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. He beat out young flame thrower CC Sabathia for the AL honors. Sabathia was a bright spot for the Tribe as their old young phenom, Jaret Wright, had yet another injury riddled season at just the age of 25.
Sabathia won 17 games as the youngest player in all of the Majors and was fourth in the AL in strikeouts. A star was born and and a future ace was in the making.
As 2001 ended in yet another disappointment, John Hart stayed true to his word. He stepped down as manager of the Cleveland Indians and handed over the reigns to Assistant General Manger Mark Shapiro, who he had been grooming for the position.
Hart turned around and bolted to Texas to take over that team's GM post shortly after. Hart would last a few years with Texas, make some trades with his former protege and eventually move on after the 2005 season.
With Hart out of the picture and most likely under pressure from new management to cut payroll, the young hot-shot executive started a rebuilding process that would shake the ground Cleveland fans walked on.
The kick-off for this was Shapiro's trade of Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets for prospects Alex Escobar and Billy Traber. They also acquired outfielder Matt Lawton. Kenny Lofton also left town for division rival Chicago.
The 2002 season wasn't really anything to talk about on the field. The Indians finished with 74 wins, good enough for third place (the first time they didn't finish first or second and below .500 for the first time in nine years) in the AL Central.
What was the subject of the Tribe discussions was the firing of Charlie Manuel and the mega-trade of Bartolo Colon. Manuel was let go in July and many believed that he and Shapiro were never a match made to last. Manuel would go onto Philadelphia and eventually become their manager in 2004. And as we know, Manuel has taken the Phillies to back to back World Series, including a win in 2008.
Joel Skinner took over as the youngest manager in the MLB and his big debut was against the Yankees after the All-Star Break where he pulled a split of a four game series including a 2-1 win in 10 innings after Omar Vizquel hit a walk-off Triple to score Einar Diaz.
Skinner did a worthy job of an interim manager and his name would come up in discussions for the permanent replacement later in the offseason, but the big talk was the latest Mark Shapiro trade.
Bartolo Colon was shockingly dealt to Montreal on June 27th. I remember I was on vacation in North Carolina at the time when I heard the news. As Shapiro accurately recounts many times when he talks about trades dealing with star players, I too remember when ESPN flashed the news on their bottom ticker.
"Cleveland Indians trade Bartolo Colon to Montreal Expos for Lee Stevens and three minor leaguers."
Those three minor leaguers, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore.
Shapiro made another deal a month later where he traded Chuck Finley to St. Louis. It was later announced on August 7th that Coco Crisp was the player that would join Luis Alfonso Garcia in Cleveland. He also dealt reliever Ricardo Rincon to Oakland a day before the trading deadline for Marshall McDougall
2002 was a year of shake-up. The team saw 59 different players touch the roster. Following the 2002 season, much shake-up would continue as more Indians from the glory days would depart.
Ravaged by injuries, Cleveland let Jaret Wright go. Fan favorite Jim Thome would not be retained as he would join Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia with a big new contract. Travis Fryman retired due to injury.
The Tribe would also be introducing a new manager into the fold. Eric Wedge was the surprise hire of Mark Shapiro as he introduced Wedge as more than just the manager for the club. Wedge was rather his "partner" in what would be a rebuilding process that would aim to land Cleveland in a state of what Shapiro would term "sustainable championship baseball."
Defined with a mission statement, a new era of Cleveland Indians baseball began. However a harsh reality of rebuilding was losing a lot more games than the fans were used to and for the first time, Cleveland finished 4th in the AL Central.
There was some hope though. CC Sabathia wasn't putting up the numbers he did his rookie year, but he was growing as a pitcher. There was hope in a rotation though in youngsters like hard throwing Jason Davis, sinkerballer Jake Westbrook and part of the centerpiece in the Bartolo Colon trade, Cliff Lee.
Offensively there wasn't much more to boast. Brandon Phillips struggled at second base offensively and Cleveland was attempting to ease young Jhonny Peralta into the shortstop role as they prepared for life after Omar Vizquel.
The biggest year was had by rookie outfielder Jody Gerut, who finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind the likes of KC's Angel Berrora and NY's Hideki Matsui. Another bright young spot was the late emergence of speedy outfielder Coco Crisp. Coming on strong was offseason acquisition Travis Hafner as he belted 14 home runs and knocked in 40 RBI.
Cleveland also got a late look at much talked about catching prospect Victor Martinez.
Progress was made in 2004 as the Indians improved on their record and started to show signs of a potent offense. They didn't make many offseason moves as they were a team heading for an continued infusion of youth and all the main pieces had already been dealt.
However they did make a move before the year started.
After not running out a ball in spring training, problem child Milton Bradley and manager Eric Wedge didn't really see eye to eye. It was the final straw for an organization trying to build a group filled with character individuals.
So on April 3rd, Cleveland dealt Milton Bradley to a team that wanted to take him on, the Los Angeles Dodgers. They received reliever Andrew Brown and outfielder Franklin Gutierrez in return. Bradley would later go on to call Cleveland a sinking ship.
2003's bright spot Jody Gerut would begin his downward spiral thanks to injuries, but Coco Crisp's prospects brightened with continued play.
The team boasted eight hitters with at least 10 home runs and four players that hit at least 20. Among them included Victor Martinez, who made the All-Star team in his first full season and won the AL Silver Slugger for the catching position.
Travis Hafner showed MVP Caliber numbers with 28 home runs and 109 RBI as he shared the team lead in homers with journeyman Casey Blake, who found a home in Cleveland at third base.
Other players like Ben Broussard and Matt Lawton found consistent playing time and while the Indians didn't win a ton of games, they scored a lot of runs and had a consistent lineup to put out on the field. Cleveland finished fifth in the AL in runs scored, not far behind offenses like Boston, New York, Chicago and Texas. A drastic improvement in second to last in 2003.
Pitching was still a work in progress, but Jake Westbrook took over a spot in the rotation after the relief appearance of his life. Starting the year in the pen, Westbrook took over for Jeff D'Amico in the first inning after D'Amico was pounded for four runs befor he even record an out. Westbrook would go on to retire the next 21 straight hitters. Seven innings in which he struck out seven and did not allow a walk or hit.
He followed that up with his first start of 2004 a week later against the same Tiger team. It was a complete game masterpiece in which he gave up just two runs off two hits and three walks. His first win of the season. Westbrook would team up with Sabathia and Lee to give the Indians a dangerous young trio of starters. 14 game winner Cliff Lee led the club with 161 strikeouts.
The issue with this club was blown saves. Bob Wickman saved just 13 games and the club couldn't finish the job on more than enough occasions. Bright spots in the pen were visible however in Rafael Betancourt, David Riske and junk heap pick up Bobby Howry.
One move that the Indians made during the season was the signing of third baseman Aaron Boone. It came mid-season but was clearly one meant for 2005. Boone tore up his knee in the offseason and was released from New York and had signed on with the Indians in attempt to rehab his knee and make a comeback in 2005.
Adding onto Boone, the Indians made an economical signing that was low-risk and would prove to be high reward. They signed Kevin Millwood to a one year that was incentive laden. He'd reach those incentives, but in the process also lead the league in ERA, despite carrying a below .500 record thanks to bullpen issues.
Cleveland re-signed Bob Wickman to be their closer in November of 2004 and also made the addition of Scott Elarton, who wasn't expected to do much if anything. The Tribe also traded Matt Lawton to Oakland for left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes.
However, the biggest news of the 2004 offseason was that 2005 would be the first year in a long time that Omar Vizquel wouldn't be patrolling the infield at Jacobs Field. Jhonny Peralta would be taking over shortstop and attempting to fill small shoes that were in fact, very very large.
He couldn't hold a candle to Little O's defense with a team leading 19 errors, but Peralta clocked 24 home runs and hit .292 in his coming out party. The outcry for Omar was massive as everyone was sad to see him go, but the reality was that the Indians were moving on and after 2005's season ended, it looked as if it was the right move for the Tribe as they saved money and got good production from Peralta.
The big story of the 2005 season however was the pitching that had finally started to come together. Anchored by a big three of Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Jake Westbrook, the rotation came together with the veteran addition of Kevin Millwood. Sabathia didn't have his best year, but Cliff Lee won 18 games, Millwood led the AL in ERA and Scott Elarton provided stability in the fifth spot. The Tribe had five starters that had started at least 30 games that year.
Jason Davis was the only other pitcher to start another game for the Indians other than the five in the rotation (four games). The bullpen even came together in a big way behind the 45 saves of Bob Wickman. The reclaimation of Bobby Howry continued as well as he logged 73 innings of work and carried a 2.47 ERA. Arthur Rhodes was dominant from the left-side of the mound, David Riske had a good year and even Rafael Betancourt had himself a career year.
Things were coming together for Cleveland in many ways. Offensively they had an MVP candidate in Travis Hafner, who hit 33 home runs and knocked in 108 runs in 2005 and finished fifth in final MVP voting.
August was a magical month as the Indians cut what was viewed as a nearly impossible lead to overcome down to just 1.5 games. Chicago had bolted out to a huge lead in the division but that hot August by the Tribe cut their 14 game lead and the Tribe was on the brink of returning to the playoffs in SEPTEMBER?!
On the 22nd of the month, Cleveland was just 1.5 games back of Chicago. But the White Sox held serve after Cleveland won three games off the Royals in a 4 game series. All Cleveland had to do was win a few games against Tampa Bay before Chicago would come to the Jake for a three game season finale. It was all set up for Cleveland to make their mark. With Boston and New York battling it out for the East, Cleveland still had a chance at the Wild Card as well.
But then disaster hit.
Including the last loss to KC, the Tribe lost three games in a row by one run. Buddy Bell's Royals got a Paul Phillips walk off double in the bottom of the ninth for the first one. Returning home, Cleveland would then surrender a 5-4 loss to Tampa after young Scott Kazmir dazzled the Tribe for six innings. A late comeback happened, but former Indian Dannys Baez was able to notch his 40th save of the year.
A day later Cliff Lee put the Tribe on his back. Eight innings, one run, three strikeouts, one final case for the Cy Young if he were to have a shot. The problem was that Seth McClung, yeah THAT Seth McClung had the game of his life. Eight innings to match Lee and one less run to better him. Baez notched save 41 and Cleveland dropped their third straight.
A day later, Sabathia hulked up for a eight inning performance that gave the Indians a punchers chance against Chicago going into the final series. They still had a chance at the wild card even if they couldn't win the division head to head with Chicago. Sabathia went eight shutout and Travis Hafner hit 33 on the year.
Chicago determined to go into the playoffs on a high note swept Cleveland won the first two by one run. Cleveland could not breakthrough with the one run games and the first one was the worst.
In 13 innings, Cleveland fell after Ross Gload hit a two run double off Fernando Cabrera, who had come on strong in 2005. They would add one run in the bottom of the inning, but it wasn't enough as Bobby Jenks continued his warpath of destruction.
A day later, Jon Garland would notch win number 18 by out-dueling Jake Westbrook in another one run game. It came unglued for Cleveland in the seventh when Tad Iguchi hit a three run shot off Westbrook to power a four run inning.
The miserable ending to the season would be even more miserable as Cleveland lost again to Chicago on the final day of the regular season. Cleveland would finish six games back of Chicago and two games back of both New York and Boston who would make the playoffs as AL East Winners and the Wild Card.
While it was a disappointing ending, it was the start of something that could be very bright. Mark Shapiro's "blueprint" didn't call for contention in 2005, but the Indians had contended and that made many fans happy about the progress and direction the club was going.
It was also good to see that the Bartolo Colon trade was coming together. Cliff Lee had a Cy Young contending year and the unknown piece to the deal, Grady Sizemore, had established himself as the leadoff hitter for this dynamic club. He was a Juan Gonzalez hamstring injury away from not even making the club as the Tribe signed him to a small deal hoping to get one last run out of the former MVP.
But what they got was MVP-like effort from the young Sizemore in center. Gonzalez played in one game for the Tribe, got hurt and was eventually never heard from again. Sizemore stole 22 bases and hit 22 home runs in his first full year and played in 158 games.
As for Aaron Boone, he hit 16 home runs and knocked in 60 runs. The problem was he committed a lot of errors and almost stole at-bats away from Casey Blake. The positive was he was a positive influence in the clubhouse.
Blake was a story in itself as he was moved to the outfield with Boone's arrival. Blake took to it and he hit 23 home runs as the Indians right fielder. Speaking of, Cleveland traded the man they thought would be their right fielder of the future in Jody Gerut to the Cubs. Gerut's injuries had been too much to overcome.
2005 set up an offseason in which Mark Shapiro saw what was possible, but he wasn't set on the club remaining complacent. He moved quickly to capitalize on some of the talent he had and it would set up for one of the more interesting offseason this decade.