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Indians Indians Archive Party Like It's 1991
Written by Jonathan Knight

Jonathan Knight

Albert Belle 1991Even if our 2012 Indians manage to avoid the dubious 100-loss mark as they continue to awkwardly fall toward death like when Alan Rickman whoopsed out of the 32nd floor of the Nakatomi building at the end of the original Die Hard, they’ve established a notably icky place for themselves in franchise history.

Hard as this may be to believe considering they were over .500 and within a couple of games of first place in mid-July (which now feels as distant as the mid-’70s), this has become the worst Indians’ season in more than 20 years. And that’s truly saying something, considering this club has lost more than 90 games three times in the last 10 years alone.

What’s more, even if the Tribe rights the ship somewhat in September and manages to avoid triple digits in the loss column and/or finishes with a better mark than either the 2010 (69-93), 2009 (65-97), or 2002 (68-94) editions, this year is still dramatically worse than any of those three. 

Primarily because those three were all understood to be “stepping-stone” seasons in which not-ready-for-primetime prospects were thrown onto the field to develop in the hope of a payoff two or three years down the line.

But 2012 was supposed to be a payoff year, not a stepping stone.

Thus, when the dust settles, 2012 is going to be remembered as the worst Indians team since...drumroll, please...the infamous 1991 club that managed to lose more games than any other team in franchise history. Both that year and this one embody a we've-hit-rock-bottom status that requires nothing less than a control-alt-delete, Etch-a-Sketch solution.

So knowing this, we naturally feel (or will soon feel) a compelling need to compare this year’s team to that one.

Top to bottom, the 2012 team almost certainly had more overall talent. The 1991 team also never reached a point where it could fall victim to anything resembling a collapse - unless the collapse began on opening day. Around the 100-game mark, when this year’s team started to spit the bit, the ’91 Tribe was 33-67. (On the other hand, you could argue that the 1991 team showed more fortitude by actually improving slightly in the last third of the season when it had every reason in the world to fold up their tents like this year’s team is doing.)

Plus, that season had even more off-field turbulence than this one. Our best hitter’s finest throw was aimed at a fan’s torso. A few weeks after that, that same player got sent down to the minors for a week for not running out a grounder. A month later, we changed managers - and virtually nothing improved.

And while the 1991 team was almost certainly worse top to bottom, believe it or not, the franchise was in dramatically better shape that September than this one.

But we’ll come back to that. For the moment, let’s look at the tale of the tape.

The 1991 Indians were dead last in the American League in home runs, runs scored, total bases, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. This year’s team is also pathetic but marginally better in all of those categories.

Their team batting average of .254 was 11th in the league in 1991 - and actually better than this year’s current .249 (thought that’s good for ninth in the AL, currently). And while the 2012 Tribe has shown a smidgen of prowess in getting on base, the only offensive category in which the 1991 Indians were in the top half of the league was hit by pitch and caught stealing.

Things were only slightly better in terms of pitching in 1991: second-worst in hits allowed, third-worst in strikeouts, and dead last in walks. We had one pitcher who won 10 games - a 24-year-old prospect named Charlie Nagy. This year we’ll likely have two 10-plus game-winners: Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez. And neither of them is anywhere near as dependable as Charlie Nagy. Quite the opposite, actually.

So looking at these numbers, there’s clearly some nauseating symmetry between 1991 and 2012. Even the attendance was woeful - dead last in the AL in 1991 just as they’ve been for much of this season. Though remember, in 1991 the Indians were still playing in a sump pump.

It didn’t bring much solace at the time that the ’91 Tribe marked the first season of John Hart’s legendary long con, highlighted by the emergence of the first batch of players that would play key roles in the championship era later in the decade. Not all, mind you, but some.

Most notably, in 1991, Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle both experienced their first full seasons and did surprisingly well under the circumstances:

Baerga .288 11 HR 69 RBI (.744 OPS) 

Belle .282 28 HR 95 RBI (.863 OPS)

Just based on those two lines alone, there was more optimism about the Indians’ offense than there is today. Can you imagine ANYBODY on this team putting up numbers like that right now?

Sandy Alomar, rookie of the year the previous season, missed most of ’91 to injury, but was still the top young catcher in baseball. We also enjoyed a way-too premature cameo from Jim Thome, and that June, drafted a kid out of Washington Heights named Manny Ramirez. And two months after the season ended, they shafted the Astros out of a speedy outfielder named Kenny Lofton.

By my count, that’s two potential Hall of Famers and six perennial all-stars who were all a part of the franchise during its most miserable year. Talk about a silver lining.

True, when examining the 1991 team, we have the advantage of seeing what would happen to all the pieces of that particular train wreck. When we look at our current train wreck, we don’t have that perspective.

But it’s safe to say that knowing nothing else other than Baerga and Belle had emerged as bona fide players makes our feelings at the end of 1991 better than our current optimism level.

‘Cause there’s just no nice way to put this, gang - right now the cupboard is ridiculously bare.

Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Michael Brantley are really the only current offensive pieces you can put in the “solid emerging prospect” category. And - I feel quite secure in saying - ain’t none of them Belle or Baerga.

There’s still hope for turning this around, I suppose. Most of the pieces of the 1994-1999 run were acquired after 1991. And back then it had been almost 40 years since the Indians had backed up any of their promises. Now it’s been only five.

But here’s the bottom line for the here and now. There’s no Belle. There’s no Baerga. By all appearances, there's no Thome, no Ramirez, no Nagy, and no Lofton waiting in the wings. And most importantly, we’re not currently knocking down buildings to make room for a new ballpark that was suddenly going to suddenly solve all of our meager attendance and revenue problems.

And there’s the triple cheeseburger of difference. In 1991, there was at least a glimmer of hope - a promise, however vague and unbelievable, that things were going to get better. And a precise target date of three years down the line.

Now there’s no promise and certainly no target date. In this moment, to imagine the Indians contending for the playoffs in 2015 and then steamrolling to the 2016 World Series is a sign of incurable mental illness.

On the other hand, so was imagining the Indians winning the pennant in ’95 way back in 1991.

We’re just going to have to do it a little differently this time.

Make that a lot differently.

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