Home opener provides a much-needed distraction

Mark Hazelwood • Apr 1, 2019 at 8:00 AM

The success has rarely been exceeded.

In the previous 118 years of Cleveland Indians baseball, only four stretches — spanning a decade or less each — have been better.

And yet as the Indians wrapped up the opening series in Minnesota on Sunday, there seems to be a negative cloud hovering over a team that by all accounts has a real chance at a fourth straight postseason appearance.

Yes, the Indians have the longest World Series championship drought in Major League Baseball. That November night in 2016 continues to painfully linger as the years pass. Yes, there is a nagging injury to one of the more dynamic players to wear a Cleveland uniform in the last 20 years.

And unfortunately, yes, everyone has an opinion line drawn in the sand on the team’s cost-cutting measures in the offseason during a window of postseason contention.

Last, but certainly not least, the Tribe left Minneapolis with a 1-2 record while being outscored 12-5.

But let’s try and put that all aside for a day — or at least a few hours. OK, maybe even just one hour.

For the 119th time in franchise history, today marks the annual Opening Day in Cleveland when the Tribe entertains the Chicago White Sox at 4:10 p.m. at Progressive Field.

The pregame festivities alone mark a timeless tradition that often brings together many family and friends. Even in some of the darkest years, the home opener marks a sense of excitement, if only for the sake of knowing warmer weather is somewhat near.

One can simply point to today’s starting pitcher, Mike Clevinger, just to get a feel of hope and promise. The argument can be made the 28-year old right-hander would be a top two starter for at least half of the MLB teams. But here, Clevinger — who isn’t a free agent until 2023 — is coming off a 200-strikeout/200-inning season and an ERA barely over three (3.02) as deservedly the No. 4 starter behind Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco.

All Kluber and Bauer did in Minnesota was allow three runs on five hits with 14 strikeouts in 14 innings of work.

Many have been alarmed over the lack of offense by an already injury-riddled lineup in the three games in Minnesota. I still contend hitting a baseball at the professional level is the hardest thing to do in sports — and that’s when it’s 75 degrees outside.

When these games are foolishly played in the Midwest in near-freezing temperatures, the pitcher is almost always going to have the advantage. It always reminds me of the 1996 Indians. You remember them as part of those Tribe teams with a legendary and feared lineup.

We know the names: Lofton, Thome, Belle, Ramirez, Murray and many more. Do you remember their first three games? They scored three runs in 27 innings, played in temperatures that ranged from 29-to-34 degrees.

Now, that’s not to make the comparison or say this season’s team is anything close to that amazing group of talent that went on to win 99 games after a 2-5 start. Clearly, they’re not.

But even the best of the best Indians’ lineups have struggled in the cold to begin a season. So, why are we freaking out now?

Because Francisco Lindor will not be in Cleveland today. He’s in Green Bay getting a second opinion on an ankle sprain — which he suffered while rehabbing his strained calf.

There is always a concern with those types of injuries. And there is no question how badly Lindor is needed at the top of this lineup. In his absence, the strikeout numbers for the offense have been unsightly and cannot be ignored, even in a small sample size.

Concerns over the bullpen and outfield appear warranted, though the bullpen had a solid four innings of work in relieving Kluber and Bauer in the first two games.

But injuries to Lindor and Jason Kipnis while waiting on the arrival of late signee Carlos Gonzalez aside, there seems to be a negative stance toward the owner, Paul Dolan.

I believe it is a little overblown to be frustrated at Cleveland clearing out 12 players from last year. After all, by most accounts it was a team that slept walk and did not perform well against teams with winning records. That came to a crashing halt when the Astros thoroughly embarrassed them in the first postseason sweep of an Indians team in 65 years.

However, the problem most fans have was the lack of replacing those who left. No matter the opinion of revenue spending, record payroll the past two years while coupled with poor attendance — public perception still matters. To say things like “enjoy him” in reference to Lindor’s future contract was simply bad optics.

He’s not wrong, but it was bad public relations to verbalize it three years in advance. The fair contention is ownership should do more to take advantage of Lindor and the pitching staff now while they can.

But enough of that. We know there is plenty to like — and certainly not like — as the 2019 season gains steam.

Today is a day to watch as that giant American flag covers the entire outfield. Both the Indians and White Sox will be introduced and lined up the first and third base lines. The 2018 AL Central championship pennant will be unveiled in right field, and Jose Ramirez and Lindor will be recognized for their Silver Slugger awards from a year ago.

Opening Day in Cleveland is a day where names like Wayne Kirby, who throws out today’s ceremonial first pitch, is forever remembered and endeared. Everyone remembers his walk-off hit to win the first-ever game at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in 1994.

No Opening Day in Cleveland can go by without mention of Frank Robinson’s historic home run in 1975. He was the first African-American manager and also still played. His dramatic homer against the Yankees at Municipal Stadium is an iconic moment in MLB history, not just Cleveland.

That memory certainly will carry a little more meaning today. Robinson died in February, and the players will have patches with his retired No. 20 on their sleeves in the franchise’s first opportunity to publicly honor Robinson, who also has a statue inside the ballpark.

In the Progressive Field era alone, we’ve seen Opening Day walk-off home runs by Jim Thome (1998) and Travis Fryman (1999). There have been memorable grand slams by Fryman (2002), Travis Hafner (2004) and Casey Blake (2006).

And of course Opening Day to the local fan base is a time when names like Vince Colbert, Scott Bailes, Ryan Drese and Josh Outman — among other obscure household names — can claim pitching victories for the Tribe.

So take the day and relax a bit. Focus on the pageantry of what today means as a baseball fan in Northern Ohio. Enjoy the festivities.

What good is a top five stretch in team history with a historic pitching staff if we can’t enjoy some of it? At least for a couple hours.

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