Belated Indian Uprising : Can Tribe’s Big Bats Make Up for That Weak Bullpen?

Times Staff Writer

They went from being a team that posed for covers to being a team that reposed in last place in the American League’s Eastern Division. A cover? Try dirt and lilies.

Favored to win their division title by a variety of publications last year, the Cleveland Indians lost 101 games and became the first team in major league history to sandwich a winning season--84-78 in 1986--between two seasons of 100 or more losses.

Were the prognosticators a year ahead of themselves? Will 1988 be the year of the Indian uprising?


Nostradamus is no help. He was too wrapped up in the big quake.

Maybe, as designated hitter Pat Tabler suggests, the Indians just forgot to check their calendar.

A year ago, they started 1-10 and were 8-14 in April. Now they have wrapped up their best April ever at 16-6. A year ago, they did not win their 16th game until May 29. Now they have matched the equally surprising Pittsburgh Pirates in fashioning baseball’s best April.

The irony is that the Indians of 1988 seem to be the same offensive-oriented Indians of 1987. There were no series of trades, free agent signings or both between the end of one season and the start of the next. In fact, the Indians lost center fielder Brett Butler through free agency, and veteran designated hitter Andre Thornton retired.

But the same team? Maybe in name and names only.

The Indians themselves cite significant changes, starting with a switch in attitude and latitude stemming from the July firing of authoritarian manager Pat Corrales, recently portrayed as “up-tight and bullheaded” by Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston, who said he was being nice.

Corrales was replaced by Howard Rodney (Doc) Edwards, the homespun bullpen coach from Red Jacket, W. Va.

Edwards got his nickname in the Navy medical corps. He caught 317 major league games and managed 13 years in the minors. He believes that the players should be in the forefront, saying that a manager without players is like a Clydesdale with Eddie Arcaro aboard.

“You can take it to the Kentucky Derby, but it’s still a Clydesdale,” he said.

Said Joe Carter, the center fielder and co-captain: “Most teams reflect their manager’s personality. Doc has a game plan, but he’s laid-back and easygoing.

“I can’t say that the way Pat went about it was wrong, but we’re having fun now. The pressure is off. The guys are looser. They’re not afraid to make mistakes. They’re going out and playing rather than being told how to play.”

The pressure is off in other ways as well. The lineup has been stabilized, improving the defense, which has improved the pitching.

Said Edwards: “We have good speed and tremendous power. If the pitchers keep the defense alert by throwing strikes, we should be in the race all year.

“I knew leaving spring training last year that we didn’t have enough pitching to compete. Our offense was good enough, but the pitching wasn’t. Now we have the talent. How far we go will depend on how much it develops.”

Said Carter: “What people overlooked when they picked us to win last year was that we finished only fifth in 1986 with six or seven regulars having great years. We just didn’t have the pitching and defense to contend last year. We knew we had to score 10 or 11 runs to win. We had to score 7 or 8 runs just to be in the game. Now we can win with 3 runs. We’re not a one-dimensional team anymore.”

The Indians were 14-51 in games in which they scored 3 to 5 runs last year. The pitching staff had the major leagues’ highest earned-run average in 31 years, 5.28, and allowed more runs, 957, than any team since 1939. The pitchers also allowed a club-record 219 homers and issued 606 walks.

Instead of being on its toes, the defense was constantly on its heels, making more mistakes by the lake--and elsewhere--than any team in the league. The Indians’ 153 errors were exceeded only by the Dodgers’ 155 in the National League.

Now, through 24 games, the Indians have made a comparatively modest 18 errors, the league’s fourth-lowest total. The staff ERA of 3.13 is second in the league, and only two teams have issued fewer walks. The starters were 16-4 and have pitched six innings or more in 22 of the 24 games.

In an attempt to repair the pitching problems of last year, the Indians assembled a variety of retreads and prospects, taking 47 pitchers to camp.

Edwards, however, knew who his starters would be and announced early that Greg Swindell, John Farrell, Tom Candiotti, Scott Bailes and Rich Yett would make up his rotation. They had totaled only 67 major league wins but had youth and promise on their side.

“I felt that if they had to worry about making the club they would press and overthrow and not do what we wanted them to do,” Edwards said.

“I wanted them to settle in and prepare for the season. I wanted them to know that we believed in them.”

Swindell, 23, was a No. 1 draft pick in 1986, an All-American at Texas who went 5-2 in 9 starts with the Indians that summer, missed 14 weeks of the 1987 season with torn elbow ligaments and has a 6-0 record and 2.11 ERA after beating the Angels, 3-0, with a 2-hitter Monday night.

Swindell has been cast in the stopper’s role. He said he accepted it gladly, that he was known as his team’s ace throughout high school and college and considered it a thrill to be known as the ace of the team with the best record in its division.

“The injury is behind me,” he said. “I’m 100% confident I can go out and do good every game. I’ve been that type pitcher throughout my career. I expect to continue.”

Farrell, 25, and Candiotti, 30, the only members of the rotation 25 and over, have helped share the stopper burden, easing the pressure on all five.

Farrell, a No. 2 draft choice from Oklahoma State in 1984, was 5-1 with the Indians over the second half of last year and is now 3-1 with a 2.39 ERA.

Candiotti was 7-18 last year but has regained his 16-win form of 1986. He left Sunday’s game against the Oakland Athletics with a 4-2 lead and watched the bullpen blow what would have been his fifth victory without a defeat.

Still 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA, Candiotti is having a last laugh on Corrales, who insisted that Candiotti throw only knuckleballs last year. Now, as he did in ’86, he is using his fastball and slider as well. He throws the knuckler only about 50% of the time.

“Pat believed in staying with your best pitch,” Swindell said. “Doc doesn’t pressure us. He lets us be the pitchers we want to be. We’re relaxed out there, which is why we’re throwing strikes.”

The problem now, many believe, is an unreliable bullpen.

Doug Jones, who had a career-high eight saves last year, is the closer in a recycled bullpen otherwise chosen from that spring enrollment of 47.

Jones, 30, had converted four of his five save chances before the A’s rallied for six runs in the ninth inning Sunday on a variety of bloop hits.

Before that failure, the bullpen had contributed seven saves and been used sparingly because of the effectiveness of the starters. In fact, the Cleveland relievers have adopted the slogan of the Maytag repairmen: The loneliest men in town.

Edwards, of course, would like to keep it that way but takes solace in knowing he has the type of offense that can generally slug it out when the pitching falters.

“I think our lineup compares to any in baseball,” Carter said.

From top to bottom it includes:

--Julio Franco, who hit .319 and stole 32 bases last year.

--Willie Upshaw, who hit 15 homers, drove in 58 runs and is the oldest regular at 31.

--Tabler, who hit .307, drove in 86 runs and is the only other regular at 30.

--Carter, who totaled 61 homers and 227 RBIs in the last two years.

--Mel Hall, who totaled 36 homers and 153 RBIs in that same period.

--Cory Snyder, who totaled 57 homers and 151 RBIs in his first two seasons.

--Brook Jacoby, who hit 32 homers and batted .300 last year.

Upshaw, the first baseman purchased from Toronto in late March, represented the final step in the stabilization of the lineup.

His acquisition permitted Carter and Tabler, who made 24 errors while platooning at the position last year, to become the full-time center fielder and designated hitter, respectively.

The Indians had previously decided to move shortstop Franco to second base, leaving touted rookie Jay Bell, a former Olympian and defensive standout, to play short.

“No one is out of position now,” Carter said. “We come out each day knowing where we’re going to play and what we have to do to improve at that position. It’s made a big difference.”

There is new stability in the front office as well. A long search for local ownership ended in December when brothers Richard and David Jacobs bought the team for a reported $35 million.

The Jacobs brothers made their money in land development and have indicated that they hope to give the downtown area a new baseball stadium through private financing within three or four years.

They are also said to be satisfied in the background--out of sight and out of the headlines--and have left the club’s operation to Hank Peters, who was hired after being fired in November as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.

That twist of fate freed Peters from the meddling of Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams and a team that is 2-23 and gave him control of a team that was built by predecessors Phil Seghi and Joe Klein and now leads its division with a 17-7 record.

Will it last?

The locals remain skeptical. The Indians are averaging only 8,450 in attendance. Who could expect more? They haven’t finished higher than fourth since the start of division play in 1969 and haven’t finished within 10 games of the lead in a full season since 1959.

Said Carter, reflecting on the fans’ wariness: “We need them out here. we need the place jumping. But we’re talking about 40 years of losing.

“We believe in ourselves, but we’re going to have to convince the fans. In the meantime, we can’t let it affect us. We have a job to do, no matter how many people are here.

“We have to tell ourselves that it’s probably going to be this way until it’s Oct. 3 and we’re still first.”