I love the Cleveland Indians with every bone in my body. There are very few things in this world I would put above the Indians, in terms of things from which I derive joy. However, as any Indians fan (or sports fan, for that matter) would know, it isn’t all joy. In Cleveland, it’s now been more than 70 years since the last World Series victory. Now, it hasn’t been all bad, and the Indians have certainly had some very competitive teams. The teams of the ’90s were arguably some of the best teams to not win the World Series. Only a few years ago, the Indians were one win away from the Commissioner’s Trophy. This makes it all the more disappointing that the Indians’ most recent championship is older than the Korean War. Disappointment, I would say, is the most prevalent feeling of being an Indians fan. There is no way to tell the story of the Cleveland Indians without disappointment, and so I plan to tell it with an emphasis on disappointment. What follows is every Indians team that showed us the potential to bring home a title, but instead let us all down.
With a regular season record of 111-43, the team set a win percentage record that still stands today. The total wins record was eventually broken by the 1998 Yankees, and then the 2001 Mariners. At the time, however, this looked liked it could very well be one of the best teams of all time. With no intermediate postseason play, the team couldn’t have had more momentum going into the World Series. Unfortunately, this series is not remembered as the Indians’ most recent title, as it could have been. Instead, this series is remembered for “The Catch”. I find this play poetic from the Indians’ perspective, because it would come to epitomize the franchise from that point forward. Vic Wertz‘ 425 foot bomb (which is a home run in any park not named the Polo Grounds) is symbolic for the hope this team provides with a competitive team. Willie Mays makes one of the greatest catches of all time, snatching it out of the air, just to make the disappointment as heart-wrenching as possible. What could have been the greatest team of all time was swept 4-0 in that series by the Giants, and what followed was a playoff drought lasting more than 40 years.
In the strike-shortened season, the Indians still found themselves with a 100 win season, at 100-44. The team led baseball in virtually every offensive category, thus was probably the most entertaining Indians team of all time. There was little doubt that going into the Postseason, the Indians were the best team in the league. They had no problem with Boston in their opening round series, sweeping them in 3 games. In the ALCS, they seemed like the exact opposite of the Indians team we were used to. After being down 2-1 to the Mariners, the tribe railed off 3 straight to punch their ticket to the World Series. In the team’s first World Series appearance since 1954, they looked very unprepared. Falling behind 2-0 early, and later 3-1, it never really seemed as if they had a chance. Tom Glavine‘s brilliant Game 6 gave the Braves a 1-0
Falling in between two World Series years for the Indians, 1996 is somewhat of a forgotten year. It is a year that probably should be forgotten by fans, given the massive postseason letdown. The Indians won 99 games, which was a step back from the year before, but still gave them the best record in baseball. It appeared we might have been heading for a rematch of the previous year’s World Series, as Atlanta owned the best record in the National League. One of the two teams lived up to that, with the Braves winning the NL Pennant and eventually losing to the Yankees, not the Indians, in the World Series. The most disappointing part is that the Yankees didn’t even have to beat the AL’s best team in order to get to the World Series. The 88 win Baltimore Orioles had very little issue disposing the defending AL champs, beating the Indians 3-1. In a season with monumental hopes, Cleveland was eliminated before anyone could blink. It was by no means a bad Orioles team that won that Division Series, but that Orioles team was subsequently steamrolled by the Yankees on their way to their 23rd title. Did the same fate await the Indians in the ALCS had they won? It’s possible, but it’s also hard to believe a 99 win team following an AL Pennant would not have at least put up a better fight. ’95 was one thing, we knew we’d be back, but it was at this point where there was serious doubt whether or not what was looking to be the golden age of Indians baseball would actually bring the team a championship.
Only 2016 can challenge 1997 as the worst year of Indians heartbreak. However, unlike the previous years, expectations were not nearly as high going into the postseason. Cleveland won only 86 games, which is very rarely good enough to make the postseason. However, in the dismal central division, the Indians finished as the only team with a winning record and won the division by six games. In the division series, we saw what might have been the year prior, as the tribe squeezed out a 3-2 series win against the 96 win Yankees. In the championship series, the Indians again met the Orioles, with the scripts essentially flipped now. Baltimore was the AL’s best team in 1997, and Cleveland was the worst AL team to make the postseason. Oddly enough, the result flipped as well. The Indians rode a 4-2 series win to their second World Series appearance in three years. While in the years prior they had proved their supporters wrong, in ’97 they appeared to be proving the doubters wrong. The series was as back and forth as it gets, with neither team winning consecutive games. After flopping in ’95, the Indians came ready to play in ’97, and this series went the distance. Cleveland had a 2-1 lead in the bottom
After an unsurprising ALCS defeat in 1998 to one of the best teams of all time, the New York Yankees, Cleveland won 97 games in ’99. This record came short of the AL best by one game, only being edged out by New York. A consecutive ALCS showdown between the two seemed imminent, but as you can probably guess, it wasn’t. New York lived up to their end of it, easily ending the Rangers’ season in a 3-0 sweep. The Indians had a date with Boston, the 94 win wild card team. Excellent starts by Bartolo Colón and Charles Nagy held the Red Sox to just 3 runs in Games 1 and 2 combined, both ending in Indians wins. When the series went to Boston, however, the pitching flipped on its head. The Sox got the better of Jaret Wright in Game 3, winning comfortably 9-3. The flood gates really blew open the next day, as Boston hung 23 runs on the tribe in Colón’s second start of the series. The Indians asserted themselves in the first two games of a series that appeared would be an easy Cleveland advancement and date with the Yankees in the championship series. Now, they were facing a win-or-go-home Game 5 with all the momentum on Boston’s side. There was reason to be optimistic as an Indians fan. The game would be a home game for Cleveland, and the home team had won every game of the series up to that point. Nagy was also on the bump for the second time, after only allowing 1 run in 7 innings in his first start. However, in reality, the Indians had given us no real reason to be optimistic based on their past play. Predictably, Nagy only lasted 3 innings after allowing 7, and Cleveland lost 12-8 to finish choking away their 2-0 lead.
In the first year of a new century, we, unfortunately, saw the same Indians team once October came around. The 2001 team only won 91 games, but still managed to win the division. For the divisional series, they were matched up with the Seattle Mariners, who had just broken the single-season total wins record with a record of 116-46. It wasn’t that the Indians were expected to win this series, but if there was ever a sense of urgency for this team to win a championship, there was one now. The disappointment of 1995 left hope for a young team to contend perennially, and they did. There was a sense that we’d certainly be in the Fall Classic again, and we were. 2001 was a completely different animal. This was the last Indians team to make the postseason with this main core, so it was now or never for this bunch. At least for Game 1, that sense of urgency was there, as Cleveland won 5-0 in Seattle. The Mariners would subsequently win Game 2, but it was clear that this team, looking to contend for the title of best team of all time, would not have a cakewalk first round against the Indians. In Game 3, CC Sabathia allowed only 2 runs through 6 innings and the Cleveland bats came alive to win 17-2. 116 win Seattle now had their backs against the wall, and needed to win in Cleveland and then again at home to prevent a complete postseason collapse on their part. Luckily for them, the team on the other side was better at
After 5 consecutive years of missing the postseason, the 2007 club broke out for 96 wins and a division title. This team was centered around a new core, including Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, and Travis Hafner. Sabathia was now the team’s ace, and they looked prime for a playoff run. Cleveland met New York in the division series, and surprisingly had no issue disposing of them to advance. The tribe won the first two games of the series, and a Game 3 loss indicated that they may be headed down the usual path. Instead, this team proved the doubters wrong for once, and advanced to the ALCS where they met the AL East champion Boston Red Sox. The series featured two 96 win teams playing to go to the World Series, which ended up meaning playing a Colorado Rockies team that had to win a Game 163 just to make it into the postseason. Boston easily won Game 1 on their home field, but what followed was uncharacteristic of the tribe. They won the next 3 games by scores of 13-6, 4-2, and 7-3. The Indians were now just one win away from making their first World Series appearance in a decade. There was hope, and at this point, justified hope, that the postseason disappointment gene was with the team of the 90’s, and this new core did not inherit it. As it turns out, the gene runs in the family. It was after a 7-3 Game 4 win on October 16 that the 2007 Cleveland Indians fell off the face of the Earth. They didn’t just blow a 3-1 lead, they blew it in the most embarrassing way possible. Somehow, the team that was winning the series suddenly seemed to have no chance. The Indians lost Games 5, 6, and 7 by a combined score of 30-5, and never lost a game by less than 6 runs. To add insult to injury, the team with this young core never made another playoff appearance after being one game away from the World Series.
After the 2007 team didn’t pan out in the following years, we had to wait nine years to see a real Cleveland contender again. With again a new core, mainly consisting of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, the team defied expectations to win 94 games and end Detroit’s dominance of the AL Central. The team also had a starting rotation that was arguably best in baseball, highlighted by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer. Despite the regular season success, nobody expected this team to win their opening round series against Boston, and certainly not to make a serious playoff run. Surprisingly, it was the Red Sox who really had no chance in the division series, as the Indians swept them 3-0 and ended David Ortiz‘s career. Following a Game 2 Cleveland win, Boston’s Hanley Ramirez swore the series would come back to Cleveland (suggesting the Sox would win the next two in Boston). To be honest, I believed him. Every sign of this franchise’s history pointed to them coughing up the lead and losing three straight, but somehow they didn’t. Little did I know what was in store for me, and all of Cleveland, down the road. Next, the Tribe met the wild card team Toronto Blue Jays, who had also been in the championship series the year before. While the Indians had momentum going into this series, the Blue Jays had just as much after their series win over the Rangers. However, the better team prevailed, and Cleveland easily took care of Toronto in 5 games. In the World Series, they met probably the only franchise that could say they had it worse than the Indians, the Chicago Cubs. As the saying goes, something’s got to give. The American League had won the All-Star Game, so the Indians saw themselves hosting their first World Series game in nearly two decades on the same day the Cavaliers raised their championship banner. Things were looking up in Cleveland, and the Indians thus had to make it their job to remind the city who we were. The series started in a back and forth, with both teams exchanging lob-sided wins in the first two games. The Cubs were heading home with the series tied
After an all-time flop on the biggest stage, Cleveland still came back the next year as the clear favorite to win the AL Central, and in some eyes the favorite to win the American League. The 2017 regular season for this team was truly magical. The team rode an American League record 22 game win streak on their way to 102 wins and the AL’s best record. In the regular season, this team looked unbeatable, and it was really the first time as a fan where I felt almost certain the tribe was going to win every time they step foot on the field. It was no surprise that many were picking them to get over the hump and bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy, and almost everyone was picking them to run the table in the American League. In the divisional series, they met the 91 win New York Yankees, following their Wild Card Game win over Minnesota. This Yankees team would soon have very high expectations, but for 2017 virtually nobody saw them making any serious run. In reality, this was a rebuilding team who’s rebuild was accelerated due to the tremendous success of their young players. Many eyes in Cleveland weren’t looking at New York but at a championship series match up with Houston. In 2016, the expectations were not very high, so in order to disappoint the Indians had to raise expectations before shattering them. In 2017, the expectations were already high, so that step of the process was unnecessary. Regardless, this team decided to raise our hopes before putting us down. Game 1 was no contest, as Trevor Bauer blanked the Yankees in a 4-0 win. Game 2, however, saw some fireworks. After being down 8-3 early, the Indians rode a Francisco Lindor grand slam to an eventual 9-8 win in 13 innings. Cleveland now had all the momentum, and were one win away from proving everyone right. Game 3 in New York is what turned the tide of the series. Carlos Carrasco pitched an absolute gem for the Indians, but the Tribe could get absolutely nothing going off of Masahiro Tanaka. A late solo home run by Greg Bird lifted the Yankees to a 1-0 win, and prolonged the series. After this game, the Yankees somewhat dominated the series, winning the last two games 7-3 and 5-2. This was the last year where the Indians were really believed to have a chance at winning the whole thing.
The Cleveland Indians have two championships, and I do not mean to discount that. However, very few people living today were even alive for either of those World Series titles. Through their recent play, the games that people can actually remember, they have been given a reputation of choking when it matters. They can blame nobody but themselves for this reputation, because they have earned every bit of it. The city of Cleveland will always love this team no matter how well they do. It’s just unfortunate that, just as strong as the city’s love for this team, is the team’s ability to let the city down.
Feature Image: Flickr