Yeah I said it, the 2004 Indians were honestly sorta good! At times they were really good! There was a stretch midway through the year where they were the hottest team in the game and much of that was due to the fact that they could flat out hit. They scored more runs than the 1998 Indians that were absolutely loaded with Hall of Fame caliber hitters (idc what you say, Manny and Kenny should be in) and all stars. They did so, primarily, through their absurd on base ability. Outside of Coco Crisp, every starter drew more than 50 walks. Only Coco and Jody Gerut had on base percentages below .350, and only ever so slightly (.344 and .334). Travis Hafner had emerged as the heir apparent to Jim Thome’s legacy as an absolute mountain of a human being who could hit baseballs to the moon but also was incredibly patient and disciplined at the plate with a .311/.410/.583 line. Casey Blake had one of the best seasons that you totally forgot about slashing .271/.354/.486 with 28 long balls. As a fun fact, my wife and I named our Australian Shepherd “Casey” after him. I wanted to name her something Indians related and getting a female we had to pick one that fit. I also remember that there was a woman in our section that would always wear a homemade shirt that said something to the effect of “The girls love Grady, but the WOMEN love Casey.”
Jake Westbrook flirted with the league lead in ERA through mid June, and Lou Merloni was sort of a dynamite plug and play bench guy who always seemed to go off whenever I was at a game. In fact, there was a game on June 14th against Baltimore that I remember very clearly. It was a rare day game on a Monday after being rescheduled from a previous rainout. I had gone up to stay with my grandparents that weekend and I got to stay an extra day so that we could go to the game on Monday. Merloni hit two doubles and got hit by a pitch, John McDonald went 4-4, and Jake Westbrook threw a complete game 4-hit shutout as the Indians won 14-0 despite not hitting a single home run.
Another memory I have from that season was against the White Sox. It took me like an hour of researching to find what game it was. I remembered things about the game, and that it was against Chicago, but none of the games I was clicking on were the right one. In fact, what you’re reading now is actually a rewrite of this paragraph, because I was midway through explaining how I couldn’t remember exactly but I was fairly sure x, y, and z, happened and was going to just describe it and ask if any of you knew what I was talking about when suddenly my brain made a connection from the depths of my subconscious and I found it. What I remembered was that it was a night game against the White Sox. The part that was tripping me up was that I was convinced it was a close game, but we got beat 14-0 (interesting that the two games I remember clearly from that year were 14-0). What stood out about the game was Mark Buerhle. He carried a perfect game into the 7th inning before Omar Vizquel slapped a line drive to centerfield, but Matt Lawton immediately grounded into a double play the next at-bat. Tim Laker got a hit in the bottom of the 8th, and got wiped out by a double play as well, and that was it! Buerhle faced the minimum, and that’s what popped into my head to make me suddenly know how to find this one. July 21, 2004.
The reason that game is so stuck in my brain isn’t the fact that Buerhle nearly threw a perfect game, it’s that everyone in the stands, on the broadcast, and on the field was noticing the same thing. Buerhle was scuffing the ball with the nail on his thumb, even Tom Hamilton pointed it out. I was outraged, he’d cheated (allegedly), and we couldn’t get hits because of it! Surely that was the difference between us losing 14-0 and winning 15-14! How could they have let that game continue! When Omar slapped that single up the middle I roared with delight with all the strength I could muster as a 9 year old who should’ve been in bed an hour before but was all hopped up on cotton candy and those lemon ice things the vendors walked around with that I’d always beg my grandpa for. We showed that cheater Buerhle that he wasn’t going to get away with it, and that was better than any win! To this day I can’t find any evidence that he was actually scuffing the ball, but I swear it happened!
That season also saw the debut of a player who would become the new hero of a generation of Cleveland fans, Grady Sizemore. While Brandon Phillips was the prized prospect in the Bartolo Colon trade, it was Grady that became the superstar that the Indians desperately needed to fill out their new look team after the 90’s era. Grady’s combination of absurd athleticism, hustle, and raw charisma quickly endeared him to everyone in Cleveland. I remember watching his first home run on tv. It was in the 6th or 7th inning of a game against KC that we had already been winning, but the homer removed all doubt. The part that stuck out was that by winning that game we went over the .500 mark for the first time since early 2002 after that 11-1 start.
From there the Indians got hot, really hot. Starting on August 4th they ripped off a 10-1 stretch with their only loss being on a walk off to Chicago, the 10th win came in the second game of a series against first place Minnesota, pulling them to within a game of first place. They were facing Terry Mulholland the next day, I’d seen him pitch plenty of times in Cleveland the previous two years, we had this one in the bag. We were going to tie Minnesota for the division lead late in the year! Mulholland decided that would be a good day to pitch 8 innings of 2 run baseball, and the 63-56 Indians lost a 4-2 heartbreaker in 10 innings. That game kicked off a 1-10 stretch. They had just gone 10-1, then followed it up immediately with a 1-10 skid. The only other game I remember that year was the 22-0 drubbing of the Yankees in New York behind Omar Vizquel’s 6 hit day. Which if I had a nickel for every time the mid-to-late 2000’s Indians scored 22 runs in Yankee stadium I’d have two nickels, which isn’t a lot but it’s weird that it’s happened twice, right? (2009 in the inaugural series at new Yankee Stadium).
2004 was a fun year, without the burden of expectations it was just fun to watch this team of young hitters start to come into their own. They finished a game below .500, but they really created a sense that they were close, really close. If they could just get the pitching to take that next step they could really make noise in the division.
And that’s just what they did in 2005, more on that tomorrow.