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This Isn’t a Joke: Indians Are Best Team in Baseball : Major leagues: They’ve got the most players going to the All-Star game and plenty of fans in the seats of brand-new ballpark.

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THE WASHINGTON POST

Just when baseball so desperately needs some good news, its longtime biggest joke has become its best success story.

For nearly 40 years, Cleveland was America’s punch line of a city, and the Indians were laughingstock of the major leagues. They played in a decrepit stadium with the stands one-tenth full, in a town no one but a local could love. The once-proud franchise fielded teams that inspired movies based on the far-fetched notion that such a dreadful outfit somehow went to the World Series. Pure Hollywood, huh?

Meet the 1995 Cleveland Indians--the best team in baseball, and residents of a gorgeous second-year ballpark that has become the centerpiece of a wondrous downtown revitalization.

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In Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome they have some of the game’s best young players. They have some of its most widely respected veterans in Dave Winfield, Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez--and Eddie Murray, who became the 19th major league player to reach 3,000 hits. They have one of the sport’s most innovative front offices. And, through Sunday, they have the best record.

Yes, the Cleveland Indians suddenly, magically have become a model franchise.

John Hart, a former exercise equipment salesman who fast-talked his way into baseball, has overseen this turnaround since being named general manager in September 1991. Last month, Hart--an Indians scout and fill-in manager for 19 games in 1989, and director of baseball operations in ’90 and ‘91--thought back to the dismal days as he looked over idyllic Jacobs Field.

“My first two years here were miserable,” Hart said. “Everything we did was to dismantle the club. But we felt we had to move backward first to eventually move forward. Everything was done with the idea that we were going to pool young players, and if we ever got a new stadium, maybe we’d have enough revenues to finish off the club.

“It seemed a long way off, playing in front of 4,000 people on a rainy April night when you’re already 11 games out. It was ugly.”

In 1954, the Indians set baseball’s all-time record with 111 victories (in a 154-game regular season) but lost the World Series in four games to the New York Giants.

But between 1957 and 1993, the Indians had eight winning records. They finished better than fourth place twice. They struggled to draw 1 million at home most seasons, and fewer than 10,000 were the norm in cavernous, 74,000-seat Cleveland Stadium.

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In spring training 1993, pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews died in a boating accident. Hart and Manager Mike Hargrove handled that tragedy with dignity, and the team began to recover on and off the field.

Hart and assistant GM Dan O’Dowd took the novel approach of signing young players to multiyear contracts. Normally, players have one-year deals until becoming eligible for free agency after six major league seasons. Under the Indians’ plan, players have added security. In return, the Indians get a salary bargain in the contract’s latter stages and avoid arbitration hearings.

Stability has “been the most important thing in building the club,” Hart said. “We’ve never had to sit in front of an arbitrator with 20 non-baseball people in the room and fight over chump change. I look around in baseball right now and its problems, and I think some of the problem is that people are making very short-term decisions.”

The Indians have second baseman Baerga signed through 1998, center fielder Lofton through ‘96, left fielder Belle through this season, third baseman Thome and catcher Sandy Alomar through ‘97--and in each case the team has an option for an additional year.

“They just sold you on making a good, secure deal for yourself, and on being a part of what they were building here,” Alomar said. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

With the opening of Jacobs Field, the Indians turned from small-market financial also-ran to large-market spender. They spent wisely.

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“When we had a chance to break through,” Hart said, “we went after some specific guys--guys who were proven winners, guys with character, guys willing to sign short-term contracts.”

Last year the Indians were 66-47. When the strike began Aug. 12, they were one game behind the first-place Chicago White Sox in the AL Central.

But this season has been even better. Cleveland has been atop the AL Central since May 10. The Indians are 21-7 at home, with flashy comebacks a regular occurrence, winning 12 games in their final at-bat.

“This team has done whatever it takes to win,” Hargrove said. “There’s a dedication to winning here that you find in all teams that are very good and go on to achieve something. It’s not just talent. It’s commitment and hard work, too.”

But Hargrove has had some worries. Hershiser and Winfield are on the disabled list, with Murray joining them after breaking two ribs Sunday. Alomar, after knee surgery in April, returned last week.

Cleveland leads the league in most major offensive categories, including batting average, hits, home runs and total bases.

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Opponents say leadoff man Lofton might have the most raw ability in the game. Belle made a run at the Triple Crown last season. Baerga is a consistent at .300 hitting, 20 homers, 100 RBI. Murray is 30 home runs from joining Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as the only players with 3,000 hits and 500 homers.

Ramirez is a feared young slugger. Thome and part-time first baseman Paul Sorrento have cleanup-hitter’s numbers, yet bat near the bottom of the order.

“I think we have the best team in the big leagues,” Baerga said. “Now we have to prove it, (and) you do that by winning the World Series.”

Hart is looking even beyond that.

“I’m trying to enjoy this year,” Hart said. “There’s a euphoria around here. But to me, it’s just a start. We want to be able to compete every year. . . . Our goal is to keep the core of this club together through the turn of the century. Can we? I don’t know. But we’re going to make every effort to do that.”

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