Those who know me are aware of my sports obsession. It probably borders on unhealthy at times, especially considering my loyalty to Cleveland. I love football and basketball, but for better or worse, baseball will always be my favorite. It has a special place in my heart. I started playing little league when I was four years old, and it sparked a life-long love affair.
Without giving you my life story, I was born in Cincinnati, but spent the first half of my childhood living in cities without a professional baseball team. I moved to Cleveland when I was 12, and the Tribe swept me off my feet. This was in 2004, but it was the 2005 Indians that stole my heart.
Against all odds, they won 93 games that year. Looking at that roster from a 2005 perspective, that’s absurd. This was in the post-Thome era. This was after Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, and Kenny Lofton had skipped town in one way or another. This team wasn’t supposed to be special.
The 2007 Indians that fell heartbreakingly short of reaching the World Series were incredible. They were good enough to win the whole thing. The 2013 Indians were a thrill ride, crawling back from the brink on multiple occasions to squeak their way into a playoff appearance. However, the 2005 team was something different. This was just a group of unproven prospects mixed with mediocre players and a handful of budget veterans. This team winning 93 games was borderline accidental. They hadn’t had a winning record since 2001, when Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, and Kenny Lofton were tentpoles of the organization.
Nobody told these guys they weren’t supposed to win.
A 31st round draft pick out of Texas named Travis Hafner would unload 33 HR and 108 RBI in his second full season. A magician of a 2nd baseman named Ronnie Belliard would compile a seemingly endless highlight reel of defensive plays, while unexpectedly becoming an All-Star. A baby-faced 22-year-old named Grady Sizemore would take the MLB by storm while anchoring the leadoff spot in the lineup. Homegrown prospect Jhonny Peralta would manage 24 homers in his first full season. A speedy, gritty center fielder named Coco Crisp would hit .300 while becoming a household name in Cleveland. Everybody loved Coco.
The pitching was just as scrappy. A budding superstar named CC Sabathia peeled off 15 wins. An unassuming 26-year-old named Cliff Lee would nail down 18 of his own. A chubby, 36-year-old closer named Bob Wickman would turn in the best season of his 15-year career, notching an incredible 45 saves.
Aside from pure numbers, the team was just plain fun to watch. They could do it all. They had six players with 19 or more home runs. Grady and Coco were stealing bases. It was one of the most impressive defensive teams I’ve ever seen. The fact that nobody won a Gold Glove Award that year is a sham. The Chicago White Sox had been dominating the division, but they weren’t quite sure how to handle the group of kids that the Indians had put together. Nobody in the majors was.
I attended a handful of games that year, but the one that sticks out was on the Fourth of July. The Indians played a double-header against the Detroit Tigers. I went to the second game, in which Jason Davis faced off against a young pitcher in his major league debut. Some kid named Justin Verlander. Coco hit an inside-the-park home run in the 8th inning. Hafner was the next batter up, and hit what had to be a 470ft blast. It cleared the trees in center field. To this day, it’s probably the most impressive home run I’ve seen in person. The Tribe rolled to a 6–0 win, but they were still in third place in the division, nearly ten games back on the White Sox.
On September 5th, the Tribe were coming off a loss and were looking at a 9.5 game deficit in the AL Central. They needed wins, and they needed lots of them. They responded by winning 17 out of their next 19, going 15–1 against Central Division opponents in that stretch. After a win on September 24th, they were just a game and a half back in the division with a game and a half lead over the defending champion Red Sox in the wild-card race.
With just seven games left in the season, they controlled their own destiny. The Tribe was scorching hot, and a final week of baseball stood between them and an unlikely playoff berth.
On Sunday, September 25th, Grady Sizemore lost a 9th inning fly ball in the Kansas City sun, allowing the game winning run to score. It was a tiny mistake, but it sent the team into a tailspin.
In true Cleveland fashion, they lost six of those final seven games. Five of those losses came by a single run. They finished two games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race, missing the playoffs. It was a heartbreaking collapse, ending in a sweep at the hands of the hated White Sox, who would go on to sweep the World Series 24 days later. It was trademark Cleveland, and it hurt. The following year they finished 18 games out of first place, winning just 78 and finishing fourth in the division.
In the midst of my research/trip down memory lane, I stumbled across this New York Times article by Joe Lapointe that was published after that final game. It reads like a eulogy:
In the clubhouse, the Indians walked among their lockers, slapping each other on the back while hugging. Outside, for more than an hour afterward, the fans — mostly children — lined up to run the bases in the late-afternoon shadows while music played.
But there were so many of them that their pace was slow, walking like mourners filing by the casket of the departed at a celebrity funeral. One of the songs playing on the speaker was an old one called “Kind of a Drag.”
That team dissolved in incredible fashion. #1 minor league prospect Brandon Phillips would be traded down I-71 to the Cincinnati Reds after failing to get along with the Indians management. Belliard was traded to the Cardinals. Victor Martinez and Peralta would eventually land in Detroit together. Sizemore would string together a few more impressive seasons before falling victim to a slew of injuries, ending his tenure in Cleveland. Hafner had a career season in 2006, leading to a hefty contract, but would never crack 17 homers in his final five seasons in Cleveland. Sabathia would go on to win a Cy Young in 2007, only to be traded in 2008. Lee got his Cy Young in 2008, but was traded in 2009. Coco was traded to the Red Sox in 2006, and would record the final out against the Indians in the 2007 ALCS, ending their run at the World Series.
The pains of a small-market team are never more apparent than when looking at these Indians. If the Tribe could have afforded to keep most of these guys, I’m willing to bet we would’ve seen a World Series Trophy at some point.
The 2005 Cleveland Indians were iconic. They were the scrappy underdog that didn’t quite make it. Cleveland has seen a few incredible baseball teams in the past decade, but this version of the Tribe is still the best. Baseball seems to have a certain magic and mystique that other sports lack, and the ’05 Indians are a shining example. I’ll never forget that summer.
Originally published at fromloveland.com, April 17 2014.