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The 30 best Cleveland Indians of the last 30 years

I've now spent three decades living and dying with the Indians, inspiring me to look back at the players who've given me the most to live for...

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It was April of 1986 when I showed up for my first day of t-ball practice wearing shorts and was promptly told by Coach Jerry it would be better to wear long pants. It was a couple weeks after that when our t-shirt jerseys arrived, "Indians" printed across the front, forcing me to cheer for a team hundreds of miles away in a city I wouldn't visit for close to twenty years. That was that spring I bought my first baseball cards, back when you could find in corner stores and supermarkets. That was the summer I went to my first baseball games, one at Comiskey, one at Wrigley. That was the fall I watched the extra innings of what was then the longest postseason game in MLB history. I've now spent three decades as a baseball fan. I've seen 17 teams win 29 World Series. (Damn you, 1994!) I've seen dozens of Hall of Famers and dozens more players who will (or should) be there someday.

Due to humans' attraction to round numbers, 30 years in feels like a good time to look back. At my blog, I recently began counting down the 30 best players from that stretch. I thought it might be fun to do the same thing here, focusing only on Indians. Unlike over at Ground Ball With Eyes, where I'm focusing on one player per post, here I'll push out a few players at a time, which provides a little more fodder for conversation.

This is of course somewhat similar to what was done here at Let's Go Tribe not so long ago when we counted down the top 100 players in franchise history. I wrote a good number of those posts but missed out on being part of the voting for it (which was done prior to the 2012 season). That series did a fantastic job of telling each player's story, and so there's not a whole lot of need for me to try to do that. Here's a link to that full list, and I'll also include a link to the individual entry for every player on my list who was also on that list.

For this list, anything accomplished prior to 1986 is meaningless, which is a bummer for the players whose time with the Indians was already in full swing by then. I feel a little bad for Brett Butler and Joe Carter, both of whom were among the better players on the team when I first became a fan, but who didn't do quite enough from 1986 on to make the cut. I feel worst for leaving off Julio Franco, because in addition to the fact that he'd be on this list if I'd started cheering for the Tribe just a year or two sooner, he was also my first favorite Indian, and so I hate to leave him out. Julio, if you're reading this (and of course you are), know that I love you!

Alright, without further ado...

The top 30 Indians of the last 30 years:

30) Rafael Betancourt (#73 on LGT top 100)

Betancourt arrived not long after what are often referred to as the "glory days" for the Indians, when people were paying less and less attention to the team. A middle reliever on a team like that rarely draws much attention, and I'll confess that Betancourt wasn't someone I thought much about for his first few years on the team, even though he performed pretty well. In 2007 though, that changed. The team had been climbing closer to contention for the couple years before that, and then the 2007 team was tremendous. Betancourt turned in one of the best relief seasons you'll see, going 79.1 innings with a 1.47 ERA. It's the best season an Indians middle reliever I've seen, and by a comfortable margin. I had a lot more confidence during the 8th inning than the 9th that year.

Numbers with Indians (2003-2009): 371 games, 410.0 IP, 23-22, 17 saves, 3.25 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 135 ERA+

29) Sandy Alomar Jr. (#99 on LGT top 100)

I don't remember the trade that sent Joe Carter to San Diego in exchange for Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga. Fourth grade Indians fans who didn't live in Cleveland or know any other Tribe fans weren't up on the team's hot stove moves back then. I do remember Alomar winning the Rookie of the Year award the following season, and of course I remember his fantastic 1997, highlighted by hitting a home run during the All-Star Game (which was at the Jake that summer) and winning MVP honors for the game, and by his tremendous postseason, when he hit an impressive five home runs, most famously a game-tying shot off future "greatest closer in baseball history" Mariano Rivera in the 8th inning of Game 4 of the ALDS. Sandy's career was marked by injury, and his overall numbers aren't as strong as you might think, but he was a part of the team for a long time, and provided some excellent moments.

Numbers with Indians (1990-2000): 985 games, .277/.315/.419, 92 OPS+, 944 H, 194 2B, 92 HR

28) Jake Westbrook (#87 on LGT top 100)

Another player whose rise took place during those years between postseason appearances. Westbrook's best season was 2004, when he made his only All-Star team (but didn't get to pitch in the game). He was the team's starter in Game 7 of the 2007 ALCS, and was nickel-and-dimed for so many hits, but managed to get through six innings having allowed only three runs, giving the team a chance to win. What I remember best about Westbrook is that he pitched the first game I ever went to in Cleveland. I'd seen the Tribe dozens of times in Chicago, and had seen them in Minnesota, Seattle, and Anaheim too, but didn't get to Jacobs Field until early in 2006, when a couple friends and I took a road trip. We'd gone to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Saturday (there was a Jimi Hendrix exhibit with drawings of Pac 10 football players he'd done as a kid) and on Sunday we went to the ballgame. Johan Santana pitched for the Twins, Westbrook for the Indians. Santana would go on to win his second Cy Young that season, but that day Westbrook got the best of him as the Tribe won 3-2.

Numbers with Indians (2001-2010): 218 games, 1191.1 IP, 69-69, 655 K, 4.29 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 101 ERA+

27) Jose Mesa (#78 on LGT top 100)

It's not fair that despite so much excellence for the team, including a 1995 season the likes of which we'll likely never see another Tribe reliever match, Jose Mesa is remembered almost entirely for Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. But then, no one said life would be fair.

Numbers with Indians (1992-1998): 341 games, 647.1 IP, 33-36, 104 saves, 3.88 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 116 ERA+

26) Casey Blake (#85 on LGT top 100)

Blake was a 29-year-old who hadn't been able to win significant playing time with any pf his first three teams by the time the Indians signed him to a minor league deal in December of 2002. The Indians were something of a mess at that point though, and were glad to give him regular playing time. He put up roughly average production at the plate, and a bit better than average in the field, and pretty much kept doing that for the next five-and-a-half seasons. I remember him as a well-liked player who picked up a lot of big hits. I remember that he hit well in the 2007 ALCS, posting a .346/.370/.538 batting line in those seven games against Boston, but that his hits seemed to come when they couldn't help the team much. And I of course remember that his final few weeks were traded away for a prospect named Carlos Santana.

Numbers with Indians (2003-2008): 810 games, .266/.337/.451, 108 OPS+, 794 H, 183 2B, 116 HR