Pride and passion: Indians' bond unquestioned
Standing up for respect, Swisher fuels Tribe's positive vibes heading into 2014
For a little insight into the pride and passion of this current Cleveland Indians club, consider a scene from the bowels of Progressive Field in January.
It was there, behind the backdrop of the otherwise peaceful setting of Fan Fest, that the Indians' first baseman of the present confronted their center fielder of the past about some disparaging remarks the latter had made about the Tribe's 2013 run. What followed was an intense exchange in which Nick Swisher and Kenny Lofton were, according to one onlooker, almost nose-to-nose at one point, like an umpire and manager arguing a call.
This was a verbal battle, a semantical struggle, all relating to the meaning of the word "playoffs."
On one end, you had Lofton insisting, as he had done in a sitdown with reporters a short time earlier, that the 2013 Indians were not a playoff team, because, in Lofton's eyes, one Wild Card Game dropped at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays does not a traditional postseason entry make.
"A playoff is a series, not one game," Lofton had said. "It's not the Super Bowl."
And on the other end, you had Swisher, living up to the leadership role he signed up for as a free agent a year earlier in a manner that went beyond anything he contributes on the field.
When word spread of Lofton's remarks, reliever Vinnie Pestano took to Twitter to say there was "no need to cheapen" what Cleveland had accomplished, adding the hashtag "SitdownKenny."
Swisher took it a step further. He sought Lofton out at the event, got in the grill of the member of the team Hall of Fame, and told him, in so many words, that the Indians are trying to build something special, and that if Lofton didn't want to be a part of it, he ought to board the first flight back to Los Angeles.
Tellingly, when Lofton arrived to the Tribe's Spring Training camp in Goodyear, Ariz., last month, he was given the cold shoulder by multiple members of the current club. His stay was a particularly short one.
Asked about Lofton's comments now, Swisher was pretty straightforward.
"That was handled," he said. "We handled that."
When asked, via text message, for a response on how his comments were received, Lofton replied that he had said enough on the topic and that "maybe someone else can back me up on how it's not a real playoff series."
"U guys need to put in there on what's the definition of playoffs," Lofton wrote, "and that should answer Swisher's comments."
Lofton and Swisher are both well-versed in October ball, with Lofton having been a part of 11 playoff teams in his 16 full seasons and Swisher having reached the postseason stage in all but two of his nine full years in the bigs. While a World Series ring evaded Lofton, Swisher won one with the Yankees in 2009, a clear career high.
But the zeal with which Swisher discusses the experience of winning the top American League Wild Card spot with the Indians, who won 92 games after winning just 68 a year earlier, is striking, even by Swisher's high-energy standards.
"Hey, regardless of what happened to us in that game, that was something the city of Cleveland hadn't had in a long time," Swisher said. "So to just get that momentum and kind of get over that hump, it gave us a lot of comfort here. We take a lot of pride in that. People know there's a team in Cleveland, Ohio, now, and we're happy to be a part of it. We may not be the best team out there, but there's not a challenge we back down from."
Swisher proved as much when he stood up to Lofton. And frankly, he had every right to do so.
After all, the Indians themselves did not dictate the direction Major League Baseball took with its playoff format in 2013.
"We would have qualified for the postseason under any format," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "We had the fourth-best record [in the AL]."
After entering the month of September encouraged by the assistance the second Wild Card spot provided them in their postseason pursuit, they ended the month knowing the expanded format had actually cost them a guaranteed entry into the Division Series round.
Alex Cobb took care of matters from there, and his performance under the pressure of the one-and-done format was particularly impressive given not only his absence of effective secondary stuff that night but also the electricity in the air at Progressive Field, with a vocal, red-clad crowd making its presence known.
To at least one Indians alumnus in the house that night, it was a postseason game, no doubt.
"The structure of the game now is that they're giving two teams a chance," said Jim Thome, a special assistant with the White Sox. "You can look at that in a lot of different ways, but ultimately it's a playoff game. I had never, as a fan, witnessed or experienced that. The vibe [of the 1990s] is still there. When you get into that atmosphere, the vibe never leaves."
There is a vibe of positivity in the current Indians clubhouse that was set in motion when manager Terry Francona arrived and was strengthened by the experience of winning 10 straight down the stretch to secure a playoff appearance. Swisher, who refers to young teammates as "thundercats" and his manager as "the jam" in casual conversation, expresses that positivity better than anybody.
"Having guys like him who have great heart and energy, it rubs off on everybody," Thome said. "It rubs off on the fans, too."
The Indians enter this season with questions, about how they'll replace the innings left behind by Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir and reliever Joe Smith, about whether the lineup can get improvement out of Swisher and Michael Bourn (who left Sunday's Cactus League game with a mild hamstring injury) and Asdrubal Cabrera after their subpar 2013 seasons, about whether a Tigers team that beat them 15 times in 19 meetings last year is too tough to be tamed.
All legitimate questions, no doubt.
What is unquestioned, though, is the bond that was formed a season ago. It's one reason why Michael Brantley forked over a free-agent year in his contract extension talks with the Tribe and why staff ace Justin Masterson has expressed a willingness to sign a shorter-term contract than he could likely command in free agency at the end of 2014.
In Spring Training camp, the members of the Tribe -- a club that relies heavily on ego-free lineup arrangements in which the bench is of pivotal import -- have worn T-shirts bearing the phrase "Unfinished Business."
That's business they take seriously.
"This winter, I did extra sets at the gym, extra swings, extra sprints," Brantley said. "Anything I could do to push myself a little more, to get the best out of myself and do my best for the team. We know how hard we worked to get where we got, and we know what we have to do to get even further."
For now, the Indians are like 29 other Major League teams, in that their words have yet to be put to the test of the actual action of the 2014 season.
So we'll see.
But there's a certain spunkiness to this squad that was probably best evidenced by that little basement battle between past Tribe legend and current Tribe leader.
"We're trying to build this organization up," Swisher said.
And the Indians clearly don't take kindly to those putting them down.