Pennant fever not sweeping the ’Land of Cavaliers

Alan Truex

When Terry Francona, manager of the Cleveland Indians, was asked if he saw any connection to the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA championship and his team immediately embarking on its longest-ever win streak, he could cite only “coincidence.”

But I prefer to think that winning can be contagious.  A city can be so swept up in communal joy from a long-denied championship that the confidence and steel-eyed focus transfer from one sport to the other.

That sort of thing happened in 1989, for example.  The San Francisco Giants went to the World Series, and the 49ers would go to the Super Bowl.   Not that the combo was entirely a wonderful thing, as that Series was interrupted and dislocated by a deadly earthquake.

It’s better to think about Boston, with the Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series, sandwiched around Super Bowls won by the New England Patriots.

Students of probability will tell you that the Indians going 52 years without a World Series championship does not make it any more likely this will be their lucky year.

But they seem to have something otherworldly going for them.  When they won their 14th game in a row, 2-1 Friday in Toronto, it took 19 innings and several Houdini-caliber escapes.  

Trevor Bauer, who was scheduled to start the following day, pitched the final five innings – all scoreless.   “I guess if you’re going to set a record,” he said, “you might as well do it the hard way.”

Baseball Prospectus lists Cleveland as the American League favorite to win the World Series (20%, to 7.5% for the Rangers, 6.2% for the Red Sox).  However, Las Vegas odds-makers still have the Rangers as the AL’s top choice.

At any rate, there’s not much pennant fever in the ’Land.  Despite an attractive ballyard — Progressive Field, in the heart of downtown – Cleveland is 29th among the 30 MLB teams in attendance, 17,140 per game.  That’s about 3,000 fewer than the Cavs this year were drawing at the nearby Quicken Loans Arena.

I would not be surprised if the baseball attendance picks up in the second half, with the Cavaliers parade being over and the Trump circus soon to be in and out of town.   This city has been baseball-crazed before, and not so long ago, the Indians losing in the World Series in 1995, to the Braves, and ’97, to the Marlins.

The affable Francona, who managed the Red Sox to two world championships, has this ballclub finely tuned, yet relaxed.   He has a couple of wise and clutchy veterans, Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis, to counsel the young players when pennant pressures mount.  As they will in the clubhouse and dugout, if not necessarily in the mostly empty stands.

The Indians, like the Cavaliers, can play small or large.  This a team with power: 103 home runs in 82 games.  And speed: 64 stolen bases, 20 triples. 

Their best outfielder, high-contact Michael Brantley, has been out since early May but could be back in the lineup within a week.  They have a rookie outfielder, Tyler Naquin, who’s a hit-for-the-cycle threat: six home runs, seven doubles, five triples.

Last year’s rookie star, shortstop Francisco Lindor, has developed into an even better sophomore, .300/.356/.450, and playing as well defensively as offensively.

But the strength of the Indians is pitching.  Danny Salazar is 10-3 and leads the AL in ERA (2.36).  He’s consensus midseason pick for the Cy Young.  Yet he may not be as intimidating as the Tribe’s Corey Kluber, who’s fifth in the league in strikeouts, with 114 for the half-season.

Then there’s Carlos Carrasco, who missed several starts with a tight hamstring, has a 2.56 ERA and 63 strikeouts in as many innings.  He struck out 14 Blue Jays in his last outing.

No. 4 in the rotation, Bauer is sixth in the league’s ERA rankings (3.03) and slings his 97s as effortlessly as I toss horseshoes.  For what it’s worth, he has the best WHIP on the team.

Josh Tomlin at No. 5 is the perfect disruptor, slowing everything down, and walking one batter every 9.5 innings.  He’s 9-1, with 11 “quality starts” out of 15.  He’s as consistent as the NRA’s position on the Second Amendment.

I don’t know if general manager Mike Chernoff had this in mind, but his team is built for 19-inning games. 

The Indians have four relief pitchers with ERA’s under 3.10: Dan Otero, Jeff Manship, Austin Adams and closer Cody Allen.

If there’s a weakness on the roster – besides .180-hitting catchers — it’s that there are no reliable left-handed pitchers.

That creates matchup problems against the world champs and division mates, Kansas City Royals, loaded with lefty bats.  The Indians were swept in a 3-game series in KC just before their franchise-record win streak began.  So there’s a deficiency Chernoff may address as the Aug. 1 trade deadline nears.

Chernoff is 34, of the Moneyballing generation, analytics providing him a road map to a roster that has produced the second-best record in the league (less than a percentage point behind Texas), with the 23rd-largest payroll in the sport.

The budget is going to be limited as long as Cleveland continues to treat the Indians as second-class citizens.

It hasn’t always been this way.  The baseball team drew more than 3.4 million to its park for four consecutive seasons – leading up to its first losing season in nine years – 74-88 in 2002.

Suddenly everything changed.  Baseball was no longer fun.  And it wasn’t just a Cleveland problem.  The game was losing fans in other cities.  Its heroes were unsavory – Rose, Bonds, Clemens, Canseco, A-Rod, now Dykstra.

So Cleveland got caught up in baseball malaise.  Not even a division championship in 2007 could make baseball popular, the way it was in the Nineties.

Perhaps it will never be that way again.  But the Tribe did draw 34,000 for Fourth of July.  And the Yankees will be playing before SRO crowds at Progressive Field this weekend.

Even if his budget remains limited, Chernoff will keep finding bargains.   He may look like a novice, but he learned sound business principles from his father, Marv Chernoff, vice-president of programming for WFAN, New York’s sports radio beast.

The Indians are a young team with young management.  They have a dynastic look, though it may be too soon to say that.   It’s definitely not too soon to say they should be the hottest ticket in town.

Comments will post after a short period for review