Welp, it went as quickly as it came, the 94-01 run of brilliance in Cleveland is officially over at this point and a rebuild is in full swing. That offseason a trade was made that sent Robbie Alomar to the New York Mets for a package that netted Cleveland Matt Lawton and a prospect named Alex Escobar. While Lawton was the only Major League ready piece Cleveland got, Escobar was the key return in the deal, a consensus top 10 prospect in baseball. Escobar never quite panned out in Cleveland while Alomar fell off a cliff in New York, Lawton one time hit a pop up foul that bounced off my brother’s face in our seats in section 158, so I like to think we came out on top in the trade.
Yet despite the Alomar trade and the rapidly aging offensive core, the Indians raced off to an 11-1 start and Shapiro was being mentioned as a potential executive of the year, before they dropped 15 of their next 17 to eliminate any delusions of contention that year.
2002 was a frustrating season that saw the Indians waste the finest season of Jim Thome’s career. He set a franchise record with 52 home runs (despite missing 2 weeks to injury) and drew an absurd 122 walks, leading the league, and a .677 slugging percentage, which also led the league.
2002 is the first season that I truly remember from start to finish. I remember the very end of the ‘01 season, I remember leaving the park via the bridge above the home run portch as they ran the banner up the flagpole in center while Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” played over the P.A. I remember Bob Wickman coming in to close it out despite the game never being in any doubt, and I remember driving home listening to Tom Hamilton interviewing everyone he could. But I remember a lot about 2002. I remember Charlie Manuel getting fired, my grandpa’s utter disdain for Ricky Guttierez, the man he crowned “The King of Double Plays.” I remember learning how to keep score, asking my grandpa every question that popped into my head about the game. I remember thinking it was funny that Einar Diaz wore #2, played position #2, and only had 2 home runs. I remember Bob Wickman dominating in the 9th inning of seemingly every game I went to (he didn’t actually have that good of a year) and asking my grandpa “why don’t they just have him pitch every day.” I remember him handing me a gigantic stack of all star ballots and saying “fill these out for all the Cleveland guys” and sitting in the seats for hours and hours that summer at nearly every game meticulously filling out all star ballots. I remember him calling Lee Stevens “big enough to eat hay, and dumb enough to do it” and telling me that Karim Garcia “couldn’t hit a curveball.” Most of all, I remember thinking Jim Thome was about the closest thing I’d ever seen to a superhero to that point in my life, and I remember watching him hit home run #50 and #51 with my grandpa from the Terrace Club while eating one of their baseball sundaes wondering if life could possibly get any better than this.
I was too young to care that we’d traded Bartolo Colon for guys that weren’t even in AA yet, or Chuck Finley for some guy named Coco Crisp. All I knew was that we had Thome and that was all that mattered. I got Danys Baez’ autograph at “Field Day” and got to run the bases every Sunday at “Kids Fun Day”
How would I know that an extra $20 million from Philadelphia would be enough to tear my hero away from Cleveland. As an adult, I get it, you can’t turn down that kind of money when it was offered to you. But as a kid I was crushed, I cried, I was so depressed that my Mom told me to write all my feelings down in a letter that she would “mail to the Indians” for me and I begged them to keep Thome. I didn’t know what free agency was, as far as I knew it was a binary choice between “keep him” and “don’t keep him” and they chose to let him go to Philadelphia. While new players would come along and new memories would be forged, there never quite was another player that I latched onto quite like Thome, he was my first hero. I cried real tears of joy and talked my Grandpa, who had since given up his season tickets, into buying tickets to the game the day they announced the trade to bring him back in 2011.
This one was a little more personal and less abut the nuts and bolts of the seasons like the past few entries, but this season was also so personal to me that I felt like it was the only way I could “remember” it properly.
Join us tomorrow as we break down the 2003 season, and the second coming of Joe Charboneau.