Francisco Lindor can already imagine the heckling. “Woo!” he would yell at teammates, opponents, unsuspecting passersby. “I’m a champion! I’m a winner! We’ve got the best team in the world!”
The Indians’ 24-year-old shortstop grins. “Do you know how much I would talk?” he says. “If I win the World Series, people are going to hear me.”
He can close his eyes and feel the ring on his finger, see the fans stacked a dozen deep as the parade rolls down East 9th Street, hear the echo of the “Let’s Go Tribe” chant as he sprays champagne in a cold October ballpark. But then he opens them and remembers: He has been planning this celebration for two years. His injury-decimated Cleveland team limped all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, only to lose in 10 innings. He trudged off the field as the chorus of “Go Cubs Go” rang out around him. “’Cubs are gonna win today,’” he sings mockingly. “That pissed me off.”
He was ready last year, too, when he bought into pundits’ claims that his was the best team in the game. And then came a stinging first-round defeat to the upstart Yankees for which he blames himself. He didn’t finish the job.
The defeats have been more painful for the cast of characters that produced them. Cleveland is a truly middle-class franchise, having ranked between 14th and 18th in the game in payroll in the three years of its recent contention. There has been substantial turnover—only 13 of the players on the 2016 World Series roster are still in the organization and expected to contribute this October—but mostly around the margins. The core remains: starters Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco (injured in ’16), Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger. Relievers Cody Allen, Andrew Miller and Dan Otero. Catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. Outfielders Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley (injured in ’16). And Lindor and second baseman José Ramírez, the team’s two bona fide MVP candidates who have combined for a 38.1 WAR over the past three years. The Angels’ Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons have been worth 44.7 over that period; no other team has a pair that tops 35. Ramírez signed a five-year deal in ’17, and Lindor is under club control through ’21, but of that group, only they, Bauer and Clevinger are guaranteed to be around past next season. The window is closing.
The Indians are in the postseason again this year, having won their third straight division title, on Sept. 15—though their residence in the moribund AL Central means MLB.com has not placed their playoff odds lower than 98% since June 22. In some ways it feels as though they’ve been coasting all year toward October. They now face their first real adversity this year, down 0–2 to the defending world champion Astros in the ALDS.
Manager Terry Francona, for one, had grown tired of the regular season. After a meaningless late-September game in which he let an ineffective Carrasco get his work in rather than play matchups in the bullpen, he lamented to reporters.
“I hate it. I hate it,” he said. “I can’t wait until we start playing f—— games where we can try to do what we’re supposed to do.”
The Indians almost never discuss the question that most divides them. “To be honest, I haven’t talked to anybody about it,” says first baseman Yonder Alonso, who signed with Cleveland this winter. In a world of toxic debates over everything from politics to religion to high school yearbooks, that is probably a wise choice, because in the Indians clubhouse, not much inspires more sighs than this: Which was worse, 2016 or 2017?
There’s no question, says Kipnis. “You don’t recover from 2016.” Coming so close only to fall short nearly broke him.
In mid-September of 2016, Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Paul Hoynes wrote an obituary to their season, after Carrasco joined rotationmate Danny Salazar on the disabled list. Held together—literally, after a drone accident left Bauer dripping blood—by superglue and athletic tape, the team limped into the playoffs … and upended the Red Sox, the Blue Jays and the conventional wisdom. Francona pioneered the now-widespread use of his elite relievers at the first sign of trouble. Miller and Allen, entering games as early as the fifth inning, got 25% of their team’s outs. Cleveland suddenly seemed like Titletown, USA. At Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavaliers distributed their championship rings; 150 feet away, 29 hours later, the Indians won Game 1 of the World Series against a team that had historically been hard to favor in anything: the Cubs. Statistically and karmically it felt like the Indians’ time. They headed home to Progressive Field with a 3–2 lead, then fought back from a 5–1 deficit in the fifth inning of Game 7. Davis sent the stadium rocking with a game-tying, eighth-inning moonshot off all-world closer Aroldis Chapman.
And then the rain came. And then the tears. The postgame silence was pierced only by tears, goodbyes and the sound of Kipnis and Mike Napoli discussing what to do with $20,000 of Champagne.
The next 24 hours were exhausting, Kipnis says. He questioned every move he’d made, before deciding he’d given his all. Still the pain dug into him. “The nice thing about it is that you got to experience it, you got to go to the World Series,” he says. “You’d think that would soften the blow, but that’s the reason it’s such a bigger blow.”
Absolutely not, says Clevinger. “The first-round bounce [in 2017] is worse.” At least in ’16, they could celebrate a year that exceeded almost all expectations.
Last year the Indians stormed through the regular season, capping it with a record 22-game win streak. Midway through the month, September call-ups quietly wondered what, exactly, a loss felt like. They entered the playoffs with 102 wins and, according to Fangraphs, a 24% chance of winning the whole thing. They went up 2–0 in the ALDS against the Yankees. Then everything fell apart. Kluber followed a Cy Young Award-winning regular season with a 12.79 ERA amid speculation he was pitching through a back injury. The offense scored zero, three and two runs in the last three games. The normally sound defense committed seven errors in Games 4 and 5. Game 5 was the sixth straight potential October clincher they lost. Afterward they seemed stunned. Clevinger and his family lingered in Cleveland for almost 10 days, trying to get their feet under them before decamping to Florida for the long winter.
“It’s the feeling of forgetting, like you lost something really meaningful to you and you can’t find it,” he says. “And then you realize, No, you just can’t come back and play until next year and try again.”
Ramírez refuses to choose. He tries to move forward, he says, to be done with the games as soon as they are done with him. He lets himself suffer for 24 hours, then tries to clear his mind once his flight touches down in the Dominican Republic.
Lindor parses the question. The 2016 loss was harder. The 2017 loss was more embarrassing.
Lindor has the best smile in baseball, and he flashes it indiscriminately. He smiles when he makes a play during infield practice. He smiles when he misses one. He smiles while he stretches. He smiles while he lifts. He smiles while engaged in upside-down pushups that might violate the Eighth Amendment. He smiles at teammates and he smiles at opponents. During a game against the Orioles last year, teammate Abraham Almonte accidentally tossed Lindor someone else’s bat. Lindor smiled before, while and after he used it to hit a home run.
His smile means so much to him that he keeps two toothbrushes at home and two on the road—one electric for morning and night, and one manual for a quick touch-up after meals—plus one more in his locker for emergencies. Color and brand don’t matter; he says the key is soft bristles. He proselytizes about oral hygiene, checking in with friends after their teeth cleanings. He is perhaps the only person in history who has said, earnestly, “I like going to the orthodontist.” If baseball hadn’t worked out, he thinks he might have been a dentist.
It takes a lot to wipe that smile off his face. But the end of every baseball season does it. None of Lindor’s low minor league teams made it past the playoff semifinals. His Team Puerto Rico finished second at the World Baseball Classic last spring. His Triple A squad did win the International League title—but it did so four months after he was promoted off the team, to the Indians.
“I’m not a winner,” he said last spring. “I’m almost a winner.”
Last October, after the Yankees made Lindor almost a winner again, he lingered in Cleveland for about a week. He stridently refused to turn on the TV while he tied up loose ends. “I usually don’t pack before the playoffs,” he explains. “I wasn’t counting on moving until Nov. 3.”
Of course the date is seared into his mind; everything about that series is. He knows he went 2–18 with four walks that week. He knows he grounded into a rally-killing double play in Game 5 that erased his team’s best chance at a comeback. And he is pretty sure he knows what happened.
“I just got caught up in the hype,” he says. “I felt like, We’re good. If I don’t do it, somebody else will do it. Now I think if I don’t do it, somebody else will do it—but we all have to work really hard.”
That series changed the way the team looks at the regular season. The Indians’ divisional lead allowed them to use September as spring training, allowing players to learn new roles and giving Francona a chance to evaluate his options. But Clevinger points out that he has worked on approaching this period “with mindfulness.” He does not want to lose sight of the real goal.
And Lindor has learned his lesson, he believes. Before the meaningless last game of the regular season, against the Royals, he scoured scouting reports. He went 1–4 with a walk and a home run. And then when his manager offered to relieve him late in the 2–1 win, he declined. He wanted to play all nine innings. He wanted to finish the job.