Thursday, October 11, 2007

Don't Knock the Rock

So your team is no longer playing and the league championship series are starting tonight – who should you root for? I mean, you don’t have to have a rooting interest, but face it, all sports are a lot more fun if you care. I am here today to make a suggestion. Join the longest suffering fans in the American League and root for the Cleveland Indians.
We all knew about the curse that was on the Red Sox – now gone. And every baseball fan knows the pain of the Cubs, heck, there’s a big sign across the street from Wrigley reminding you how many years it’s been since their last World Series win. But is there really a big difference between 99 years and 59 years to a baseball fan? Look, there may be a few 70 year-old Indian fans who remember 1948 fondly, but seriously, 98% of them have never tasted the ultimate victory.
Cleveland sports fans have never had the best of luck. The Cavs have been a joke, the Browns won a championship in 1964, then, decades later, left town just before they were about to win again. They gave them a new team named the Browns, but they are somewhere between bad and pathetic. There was a time the Indians were good. When the Black Sox were kicked out of baseball, the Indians were the beneficiaries, winning the AL pennant, their first, and the World Series. Yet even that team is known more for a tragedy – the in-game death of Ray Chapman, than their victory.
It was after World War II that the Indians had their first revival, with Bill Veeck owning them. They were the first AL team to sign a black ballplayer, Larry Doby, and he was a key part of the 1948 championship team, led by player-manager Lou Boudreau. The Tribe ran into a Yankee dynasty, finishing second in 1951, 1952, and 1953, Then in 1954 they had a monster season, winning 111 games behind one of the great pitching staffs of all time. Big favorites in the Series, they got swept by the New York Giants, led by Willie Mays. They finished second three times in the next five years. In that stretch a new young star emerged – Rocky Colavito. Good-looking, strong, a monster HR hitting right fielder, with one of the greatest arms ever seen, Rocky was a hero to the fans in Cleveland. They could overlook his strikeouts, even though old-timers would grouse about them. They adopted the saying from the new musical form to express their attitudes – Don’t Knock the Rock. Rocky led the league in HR and RBI in 1958, then led in HR again in 1959, finishing one off the RBI lead for a team that finished second.
Two years earlier, the Indians had hired a new general manager, Frank “Trader” Lane, one of the worst GM’s ever. He loved making trades. When he had the job in St. Louis, he actually had worked out a trade for Stan Musial, before the owner stopped him. In his first two years in Cleveland he made an incredible 59 trades involving 120 players. Late in the 1960 season, he actually traded his manager for another team’s manager. Before that though, he had done the unthinkable, on the last day of spring training in 1960, Lane traded Rocky Colavito. He didn’t like Rocky, Lane felt he should hit fewer HR and get more hits. He actually put a clause in his contract giving him a bonus if he hit less than 30 HR. He traded this 26 year-old star, the most popular player on his team, for Harvey Kuenn, his kind of player, who had led the AL in batting in 1959.
Some say the franchise was cursed because of that trade. Others say Bobby Bragan, the manager whom Lane fired in 1958 actually cursed them. Whoever or whatever was responsible, the Indians entered one of the longest stretches of futility in baseball history. For the next 34 years, the Indians would not only fail to win a pennant, they never finished within ten games of first place. Finally, in the 1990’s with a new ballpark, and an exciting core of young players, the Indians were revived, twice getting to the World Series and twice losing it. A few years later, the team had been broken up, the nightly sellouts at Jacobs Field were no more, and a new regime came in to rebuild – again.
And now they are back, having defeated the Yankees. To my friends in Red Sox Nation – I have to part ways with you on this series, you had your turn, now the Indians fans need theirs. Jacobs Field won’t be Jacobs Field much longer, the name will be sold to some bank, or telco, or meat packing company. It would be great if The Jake could have a World Champion. So for all the legends, for Speaker and Coveleski, for Rapid Robert Feller and Sudden Sam McDowell, for Al Rosen and Larry Doby, for Ray Chapman and Herb Score and most of all for the long-suffering fans of Cleveland – Go Tribe!
(And if you want a political note, along with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and a prayer card, the one thing Dennis Kucinich has with him at all times is a Topps Rocky Colavito card.)

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