© 2007 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
09/23/07 8:30 PM ET
Indians revel in return to glory
Club leadership sees belief and planning pay off big
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
CLEVELAND -- Mark Shapiro remembers the reaction when he traded ace-in-the-making Bartolo Colon to the Expos in 2002 and officially initiated the Indians' rebuilding plan. Contention in Cleveland had been taken for granted until that point. But Shapiro, in his first season as general manager, knew the changing economic structure wouldn't allow that to be the case any longer. "I looked at a lot of blank stares," he said Sunday afternoon, as champagne, beer and, of course, pies to the face dominated the scene in the Indians' clubhouse. "Very few people believed in what we were going to do and how we were going to do it." The Indians have plenty of believers now. The faces Shapiro looked at on this day were the ones of champions. In the celebratory aftermath of a division-clinching victory over the A's, Shapiro could look around and see all the elements of the Tribe's first title and postseason berth since '01. On one side of him stood team owner Larry Dolan, who had dutifully endured the inevitable public-relations hit that comes with tearing up a team to build for the future. Dolan was around the last time the Indians clinched a crown. But this one, he said, felt much more special. "I think it has to do with the relationship with this team today, as opposed to 2001," he said. "In 2001, I had nothing to do with it. I was just riding along. I'm not going to say I'm responsible for this team, but I was involved with decisions -- the right ones and the wrong ones. This is a product of a lot of people I now know well, and I'm so proud of all they've done." Shapiro made a decision earlier this summer to give manager Eric Wedge a three-year contract extension, even though Wedge had never guided a club to the postseason. On this day, that faith was rewarded. And Wedge, a tightly guarded, even-keeled personality, finally allowed himself the luxury of celebration. This moment, Wedge said, was defined by the smiles on the faces of his close-knit group of ballplayers, who never complained or offered excuses even when this season dealt some bizarre blows. "If you care about a group of people, you want to see them happy," Wedge said. "You want to see them have success. These guys care about each other, and I care about them. It's great to see them in a state of euphoria." Wedge was so caught up in the moment that he didn't mind much when team prankster Trot Nixon nailed him in the face with a chocolate whipped cream pie. "I thought I was going to go all year without that happening," Wedge said with a smile.
Shapiro got pasted with the pastry, too, as the players turned their post-win tradition on the club's higher-ups.
Getting the pie treatment surprised Shapiro, but not as much as a three-game sweep of the Tigers last week that all but sealed the title.
"I went in thinking if we win one we'll be in decent shape and if we win two we'll be in good shape," Shapiro said. "To sweep that, these guys put an exclamation point on how they felt about their own ability and their own talent."
The talent in the Indians' clubhouse spans multiple generations.
The likes of Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Ryan Garko, Jhonny Peralta, Casey Blake, Rafael Betancourt and Jake Westbrook are about to embark on their first postseason experience.
"To do this at the highest level, this is why you play the game right here," Hafner said. "It was just a total team effort, and it's an unbelievable feeling."
The feeling was nothing new for Nixon, Kenny Lofton, Paul Byrd and Joe Borowski, who have reached this level with other clubs in the past. But that didn't make it any less special.
Shapiro brought Lofton back to the Indians' organization at the non-waiver trading deadline, hoping the outfielder's third stint with the team would be the charm that leads to a World Series title. So far, so good.
"The celebration for me is a little different, because I've done it 11 times now," said Lofton, wearing shades to protect his eyes from bubbly and cork. "The scary part is watching these guys pop the cork, and they don't know how to let the cork go the right way. But it's pretty exciting for them. I knew what it was like the first time I did it, and I wanted to keep it going."
Byrd, much like Wedge, harped on the perseverance this team had to show this season.
"Somewhere among the snow, the craziness and the injuries," he said, "this team became a family."
And as the family party erupted, one of its most vocal leaders, C.C. Sabathia, stood proud. Perhaps more than any other player on the team, he knew what it took to get back to this point, having been a fresh-faced rookie on the 2001 club.
"This feels so much better than '01," he said. "I feel much more a part of it. I feel like a big part of what's going on right now."
Shapiro uttered similar sentiments. He was an assistant to GM John Hart in '01. But this club is his baby.
"I've got a greater sense of understanding of the magnitude of the accomplishment and also of the fragility of the accomplishment as well," Shapiro said. "I couldn't believe any more in that group of 25 guys and the manager and the staff. These guys had every reason to find the excuse and give into the challenges. They never did. This is a special, meaningful and collective achievement."
|"To do this at the highest level, this is why you play the game right here. It was just a total team effort, and it's an unbelievable feeling."|
|-- Travis Hafner|
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.