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The five best Cleveland Indians of the last thirty years

And now, the greatest Tribe players I've had the good fortune of watching...

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This post is the conclusion of my countdown of the 30 best Indians of the last 30 years, a list I'm doing because that's how long I've been a fan. This series is a companion to a more involved countdown I'm doing at my own blog, Ground Ball With Eyes, counting down the 30 best MLB players of the last 30 years.

Other entries in this series:

Alright, on to the five best Indians of the last three decades... (I've also included a link to each applicable player's post in LGT's fantastic Top 100 Indians series, which was created prior to the 2012 season.)

5) Grady Sizemore (#30 in LGT top 100)

Too soon?

Sizemore's first full season in the Majors came when he was 22 years old, and he was already a fantastic player. If he'd been called up a few weeks later the year before, he'd have been the American League Rookie of the Year in 2005. Instead he had to settle for being listed on some MVP ballots. During the next three seasons it was more of the same; there's a decent argument he deserved to win the MVP in 2006 and 2008, the latter of which being the season he posted a .374 on-base percentage and .504 slugging percentage, along with 33 home runs, 38 stolen bases, and a Gold Glove. From 2005 through 2008, Sizemore was one of the five best players in baseball, and those had been only his age-22 through -25 seasons. The last Indians player to accomplish so much at such a young age was Bob Feller. As you know, injuries then began to break Sizemore apart. During the next five years he appeared in only 210 games. A good defensive center fielder who drew walks, hit for power, and ran the bases well, Sizemore was on track for Cooperstown. His downfall is a modern baseball tragedy, and my memories of his excellence will always be tinged with sadness.

4) Albert Belle (#21 in LGT top 100)

What stands out about Belle is his ferocity. His offensive numbers during his prime were fantastic, and gave off an aura of menace that made me glad he played for my team, and not an opponent. During his final three years with the Tribe, Belle hit .325/.414/.671. He hit 134 home runs and 125 doubles during those years, including famously becoming the first player in MLB history with 50 of each in 1995, an especially impressive accomplishment in the light of the fact that the season was shortened that year. The dominant image of Belle is of him standing in the dugout, flexing his muscles at the Boston Red Sox during the 1995 ALDS. The image is entirely fitting.

3) Manny Ramirez (#20 in LGT top 100)

With Manny you got a bit of everything. I remember child-like misplays in the outfield, and doubles lined to every field. I remember him getting picked off in pivotal moments, and I remember him smashing a walk-off home run off Dennis Eckersley, to which Eck could only respond, "Wow!" During the World Series years, Ramirez was still in the process of becoming the hitter he would be, and he's the one player in this top five who probably accomplished even more for another team. Ramirez was one of the greatest hitters of his generation, and one of the greatest postseason players in baseball history.

2) Kenny Lofton (#13 in LGT top 100)

Not growing up near Cleveland, watching the Tribe on television wasn't an option for me in the early years of my fandom. I had to live things out through baseball cards, newspaper box scores, and my imagination. Major League was a huge deal to me, because while I understood those weren't the actual Indians, watching the movie was more like watching the Indians than anything available to me for another couple years. My favorite character in the movie was Willie "Mays" Hayes, the base-stealing, home run-stealing center fielder. When Kenny Lofton arrived, he felt like my favorite character come to life. If the 1994 season hasn't been ended early by the labor stoppage, Lofton might have won the AL MVP. He was batting .349/.412/.536 and leading the league with 60 stolen bases. His defense won him a Gold Glove. If that had happened, Lofton would likely be remembered outside Cleveland as the great he was, instead of something of a journeyman. Kenny, I know how awesome you were.

1) Jim Thome (#7 in LGT top 100)

Thome batted .287/414/.566 over 13 seasons with the Indians. He is the franchise's all-time leader in home runs, with 337 of them. He was one of the greatest power hitters in baseball history, and while Lofton's fate leaves me unsettled about any Indians' Hall of Fame case, I believe Thome will be voted into the Hall of Fame within a few years of his arrival on the ballot two winters from now. I'll always remember Thome's greatness, but I'll also remember meeting him at a dinner three years ago, getting to talk one-on-one with him for 15 minutes, and baseball not even coming up, as he asked me about my own life, and we talked about his children. It's seems unlikely anyone will replace Thome as the best Indians player of my lifetime, and seems impossible that anyone will replace him as my favorite.