CLEVELAND - There's a new vibe on the shores of Lake Erie. The familiar Cleveland Indians refrain - "Wait 'til next year" - has given way to "Enjoy it while you can." As feel-good phrases go, it needs a lot of work. Heavy on skepticism and light on faith, especially given the Tribe's hot streak. Still, it beats "We're not terrible - yet."
CLEVELAND - There's a new vibe on the shores of Lake Erie. The familiar Cleveland Indians refrain - "Wait 'til next year" - has given way to "Enjoy it while you can."
As feel-good phrases go, it needs a lot of work. Heavy on skepticism and light on faith, especially given the Tribe's hot streak. Still, it beats "We're not terrible - yet."
Plus, it's fair. Fun has returned to Progressive Field, where the Indians cooled off last night in losing to the Detroit Tigers 5-1. But giving Cleveland the benefit of the doubt remains a definite no-no in these parts. Indians fans remain in wait-and-see mode, as evidenced by last night's smallish crowd of 17,374 - and that included a healthy number of Tigers fans - to watch a Tribe team that leads the American League Central.
Should not more fans show up for a first-place team? Ah, but they are wary of being duped. Each of the past two seasons, the Indians toyed with first place through June before collapsing after the All-Star break. Last season, they led the division on June 23, trailed Chicago by three games at the break and then went 24-53 the second half to finish 68-94. In 2011, the Tribe was right there with Detroit in early July before finishing 33-40 and ending up 15 games behind the Tigers.
Why should this season be any different?
Here's why: The past two seasons were fool's gold. This year's roster is legitimate 14 carat, if not yet 18. Detroit is more like 24 carat, but Cleveland has the best record in baseball since April 20 (21-8). Not a fluke. Unlike last year.
Consider: The Indians got off to a fast start last season, using two players - Johnny Damon and Jose Lopez - no longer in the majors. The offense was smoke and mirrors in May and June, then vapor and dim reflection through most of the summer and fall. Cleveland averaged 4.12 runs per game, second lowest in the American League.
The pitching never was great, but it became putrid by midsummer. The staff's 4.78 ERA was highest in the league.
Then, Indians owners Larry and Paul Dolan sold SportsTime Ohio to Fox Sports for an estimated $230 million, and it was like the front office found money under the mattress. The pricey talent infusion included veterans Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher. Upgrade. Upgrade. Upgrade. Not to be overlooked, Terry Francona replaced Manny Acta as manager. Upgrade.
"Different faces, different players, different year," is how Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis expressed it, succinctly, adding that players have no control over whether the fans will come to believe in this team.
Then Kipnis warmed up. How could he not? The Tribe entered last night having won five straight, including walk-off victories against Seattle on Friday, Saturday and Monday.
The hitting is almost laughingly good, entering last night leading the majors in home runs (60), extra-base hits (161) and slugging percentage (.462)
The pitching has been borderline exceptional, especially starter Justin Masterson, who is 7-2, including two shutouts, with a 2.83 ERA.
Cleveland's statistics, impressive as they are, represent the sterile side of this resurgence. More exciting is how the Indians are winning, and the semi-big names - like Swisher - who dot the lineup.
Energy is escalating.
"The last game against Philly (on Wednesday), we were really dragging," Francona said. "The clubhouse was quiet that morning, then we get inside 10 minutes before the game and it was like a football game. I was thrilled with (the energy)."
Cleveland isn't Believeland yet, but it's getting closer.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.