It’s now been 30 years, folks—three full decades since the Sports Illustrated Curse and the Curse of Rocky Colavito joined forces to create one of the most infamously inaccurate proclamations in the history of sports journalism: “Indian Uprising – Believe It! Cleveland is the Best Team in the American League.”
That sort of preseason assessment certainly sounds logical in 2017 (S.I. just predicted a Tribe pennant again this year, although unaccompanied by a magazine cover). It would have proven fairly astute in 2007 or 1997, as well. But in 1987? The windswept wilderness of Municipal Stadium?
These days, even the most grizzled, die-hard Cleveland Indians fans tend to remember the April 6, 1987 issue of S.I. solely for that bright blue front cover—the toothy smiles of Cory Snyder, Joe Carter, and a giant floating Chief Wahoo all masking what looks like crippling self-doubt in retrospect. The Tribe was not—of course—the best team in the league, but quite objectively the opposite of that; as evidenced by an MLB-worst 61-101 record by season’s end.
If we take bad mojo and curses out of the equation, however, that whole incident was really nothing more than a publisher’s attempt to sell magazines with a hyperbolic headline—the pre-internet version of clickbait. So what about the actual article itself? If we crack open the pages to that dusty old Sports Illustrated, will we find that the expectations and premonitions for the ’87 season really were as misguided and inflated as the cover would suggest? Or is the real embarrassment reserved for the outdated advertisements? Well, I happen to have an original copy of said publication, so let’s find out!1
“Indian Uprising” ’87: A 30th Anniversary Commentary Track, a.k.a. Revisiting the Last Days of Lazy Native American Puns in Sports Journalism
Sometimes nostalgia has a smug element to it. For as often as we glorify or long for the past, we also seem to find few things more amusing than laughing at the people who reside in it. Their clothes are funny, their interests are backwards, and their opinions are hilariously devoid of vital information concerning their imminent future. It’s like how most people think of Alabama, only applied to the entire human population at a certain point in history.
Many of the things written in this particular issue of Sports Illustrated would have already acquired some comedic value within just a couple months of its publication—most obviously the notion that Cleveland was a pennant contender (the team was 16-34 by the end of May and manager Pat Corrales was fired by midsummer). Other things had slightly longer gestation periods for a chuckle, like Athletics coach Joe Rudi saying of young phenom Jose Canseco, “You look at Jose and wonder how God could have given anybody so much talent,” or Mets hurler Ron Darling posing for a photo with his wife in matching denim jackets.
If you were hoping for a laugh riot in S.I.’s analysis of the ’87 Tribe, though, it’s actually something else entirely—more like reading a personal profile of a peppy concert band from the 1910s, in which they speak excitedly about their next gig on the RMS Titanic.
“We’ve got a new breed of player now who actually wants to be in Cleveland,” Joe Carter says in the feature story. “It may have started with Bernie Kosar of the Browns, for all I know. He wanted to play here. Other players are impressed with the way we’ve turned things around. We have a lot of players who were considered suspect as major leaguers on other teams—guys like [Mel] Hall, [Pat] Tabler, Brook Jacoby. We all took our bumps and bruises together, knowing we had nowhere to go but up. Now we’re about to restore the history of the Cleveland Indians.”
I suppose, in a roundabout way, Joe was right. His eventual trade to San Diego in 1989 for Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga was one of the key steps in “restoring” the franchise to relevance. But I don’t think that’s quite what he had in mind.
Basically, the S.I. article—which doubles down on the shitty puns with the title “Pow! Wow!”—reads like a study in cautious optimism, not exaggerated chest-thumping. Remember, this was coming five months after the surprising Mets stunned the snakebitten Red Sox in the Bill Buckner World Series. The unexpected was en vogue.
It doesn’t hurt that the author of the piece was veteran journalist Ron Fimrite—a sort of throwback to the glory days of colorful, folksy sportswriting. Fimrite died in 2010 at the age of 79, at which time his former San Francisco Chronicle colleague David Bush noted that “[Ron] had the ability to tell a story with the right tone, whether it was humor or pathos. He always hit the right note.”
Appropriately, Fimrite was also a very nostalgic sort himself, focusing a lot of his work on telling the tales of obscure sports figures of the past. “If there is a message, people shouldn’t forget these people,” he once said. “Those people are worth paying attention to and worth knowing. I like writers who can recover the past and make it live in the present.”
In this case, we’re using a Rom Fimrite article, written about his immediate present day, to mine what has since become the distant past. I have to imagine he’d dig it.
ARTICLE SUBHEAD: “The lost Tribe is back, thanks to the bats of young sluggers Joe Carter and Cory Snyder.”
S.I. managed to work in yet another pun there. Remember, headline writers are often separate people from the actual authors of stories. And sometimes, the two don’t care for each other. It’s a cats and dogs situation, intellectuals vs. car salesmen.
“Believe it or not, something is happening in Cleveland,” Fimrite begins the article, immediately introducing the dreary imagery of rundown factories and losing sports teams that the movie Major League would crystalize for the masses two years later.
“Cleveland? You mean the river’s on fire again?,” he responds to himself, like a proto-Terry Pluto editorial or a Jim Gaffigan bit. “It stopped snowing? You got a new joke? C’mon, what do you mean, something is happening in Cleveland? The football season’s been over for almost three months.”
Ah yes, once upon a time, it was Cleveland’s FOOTBALL TEAM that held the sterling reputation. Unfortunately, in this example, Cleveland fans were still recovering from the 1986 AFC Championship—ya know, “The Drive?” It was in the immediate aftermath of that heartbreak that the surprising hope of an “Indian Uprising” finally started turning some frowns upside down again. The rebirth of spring, etc etc.
“Baseball is just beginning, and this could be the year that….
“What? Baseball in Cleveland? You gotta be kidding. Let me tell you something about baseball in Cleveland.” [Fimrite is clearly gonna stick with this internal dialogue thing for the rest of the article. C’est la vie.] “Why, last year’s team was the first in 10 years to finish higher than sixth, and it finished fifth. No team in that town has finished as high as third since 1968, and the last one to finish second was in 1959.”
From here, Fimrite begins the familiar diatribe of Cleveland’s woes—the then 33-year pennant drought, the miserable attendance figures, and so on. It’s old news now. It was, somehow, even older news then.
“Don’t talk to me about baseball in Cleveland,” he yells at himself.
“True enough,” comes the response. “But last season the Indians won more games (84) than they had in any year since 1968, and they passed 1985’s attendance in their 38th home date. The fans are excited. It’s like 1948 all over again. There’s a feeling that this is the year. People, baseball people, are starting to talk.”
Fimrite never directly mentions the “sleeping giant” concept that was often discussed later in the 1990s, referring to Cleveland’s supposedly rabid—but hibernating—baseball fan base. And though he does compare 1987 to 1948, it’s clearly with tongue firmly planted in cheek. He’s being level headed about this. The “baseball people” are talking, but that’s what they always do. He continues conversing with himself.
“So tell me about this year.
“Sure. The Indians have quality players at every position, so many good ones, in fact, that first baseman Pat Tabler, a .326 hitter in 130 games last season, will not start against righthanded pitching; and leftfielder Mel Hall, a .296 hitter in 140 games, will not play against lefties. The regular infield averages 27 years of age and 87 RBIs. It’s a team that is just approaching its peak.”
Hey, remember when sportswriters could just reference batting averages and everybody was fine with that? Don’t you kind of miss those days? Anyway, Fimrite was only half correct. Indeed, Mel Hall only hit .154 against lefties in 1986, so Corrales (and later Doc Edwards) continued to platoon him in 1987. In a bizarre fluke, Hall then wound up hitting .364 in his 36 plate appearances against lefties that season, not that it helped anything (Hall, as you may recall, was also a terrible human being). Tabler, meanwhile, proved too good to platoon. He was the Tribe’s everyday first baseman in ‘87, putting together a .307 / .369 / .439 slash in 553 at-bats (clobbering lefties at a .366 clip) and making the All-Star Team. He was abruptly traded the following season to Kansas City, a victim of an unavoidable rebuild process.
“Yeah, but how about pitching?” Fimrite continues. “Understand they’ve got some 48-year-old geezer starting for them.
“Not just any 48-year-old. He’s Phil Niekro. Knucksie. And they have some young guys, including a phenom, Greg Swindell, who throws hard. They also picked up Rick Dempsey, a smart catcher. He’ll be a big help [not a lot of love for Andy Allanson].
“Something else they’ve got is star quality. They may have been short on superstars lately, but now they have got Joe Carter, who’s 27, and Cory Snyder, who’s only 24.”
Okay, you saw what just happened there, right? Fimrite intentionally makes a quick pass over the Cleveland pitching staff to get back into the strength of the team, its young hitters. He even flusters his other self in the process. It’s a clear suggestion that, hey, the Tribe ain’t gonna win on the strength of its arms. But if you’re gonna deem a club “the Best Team in the American League,” wouldn’t you be a bit hesitant to choose one with two knuckleballers (one of them 48 years old) at the top of its rotation?
Interestingly, this article was written just before Cleveland signed another ancient hurler, 42 year-old Steve Carlton, on April 4. Maybe the Indians were believing their own hype, and decided young southpaws like Swindell and Scott Bailes could benefit from Carlton’s leadership. Anyway, it didn’t work. Nothing worked on the mound for the ’87 Tribe. And while you can say hindsight is 20/20, I think a quick glance at the arms arsenal heading into the season should have created some serious doubts about the Indians’ chances at not sucking in ‘87, let alone competing for a pennant. Was everyone really that blown away by Ken Schrom’s 14 fluky wins in ’86?
Not even the heroism of a young John Farrell could save this club from disaster. Bailes and Yett were part-time starters who were also asked to help anchor a paper-thin bullpen with journeymen Sammy Stewart and Ed Vande Berg. A closer-by-committee formed after the implosion and demotion of 1986 fireman Ernie Camacho, eventually leading to the rise of Doug Jones, who led the team with. . . eight saves. Both Niekro and Carlton were traded by midsummer, and when the smoke cleared, Cleveland’s 5.28 team ERA wasn’t just the worst in the league, it was the worst in franchise history, AND the worst of any MLB team in 30 years, AND, eventually, the worst of the entire 1980s.
Anyway, Fimrite understandably skipped through that minefield and shifted back to the cover boys, Carter and Snyder.
“At 6’3″, 215 pounds, Carter is a large man, but he has the rangy build of a born ballplayer, not the thick-muscled physique that is so much in vogue these days. . . . He needed a year and a half to get going [after coming over from the Cubs], then whamo! Just look at his ’86 stats: .302 average, played all 162 games, 200 hits, 108 runs scored, 36 doubles, 9 triples, 29 homers, 29 stolen bases and a major league-leading 121 RBIs. And he played in the outfield, mostly in left, and first base, which he’ll do again this year. Team captain Andre Thornton says Carter is ‘the complete player.’”
Just about the only thing Joe didn’t do was draw walks (he never walked more than 50 times in a season in his career). But he was versatile and dynamic, without a doubt. In 1987 alone, he wound up playing 84 games at first base, 42 in left field, 14 in right field, and 13 in center—albeit to the tune of a -1.2 defensive WAR. His overall numbers that season dipped below the Troutian level of ’86 (offensive WAR dropped from 5.0 to 2.0, OPS from .849 to .784). But we’re talking about a 30-30 man in the middle of the line-up putting up numbers that would eventually mirror his excellent career averages. Joe Carter was NOT victimized by a magazine curse.
As for Snyder, Fimrite described him as “Carter’s height but leaner, a whipcord of a man, with thick forearms. He is blond, with a thin blond mustache, but his young face has a leathery look.”
“The Indians drafted him in ’84 out of Brigham Young, where he set an NCAA record with a career slugging average of .844. That’s .844! He played on the ’84 Olympic team, and with only a little more than a year in pro ball, Cleveland called him up last June from Triple A. In just 103 games with the Indians he hit 24 homers. He can play any position in the infield or outfield, and Cleveland manager Pat Corrales says he has a Clemente-type arm. There’s no higher compliment than that. This year Snyder will play Clemente’s position, right field. Heard enough?”
The man they called Cor-Dog would generally be remembered as a disappointment in the long run. But, like Carter, he wasn’t immediately derailed by appearing on the S.I. cover. Snyder, Carter, and Brook Jacoby each clubbed 30+ homers in ’87, a rarity for teammates in these final days before the steroid era. Cory’s problem was similar to Carter’s, in that he simply never saw a pitch he didn’t want to swing at. His 166 strikeouts in 1987 stood as a club record until Jim Thome topped it in three consecutive years from 1999-2001. Both Snyder and Thome were then surpassed by the whiff exploits of Mike Napoli in 2016 (194).
It’s easy to forget that Snyder came up as an infielder and continued to play the occasional shortstop through the rest of the ‘80s. In the Lonnie Chisenhall mold, though, he thrived when converted to right field (although there were some growing pains at first). He ended up finishing third in the league in outfield assists in ’87 with 16, and topped the league with the same mark a year later. The dude had a cannon, no doubt.
“I never thought I’d be playing the outfield in the majors,” Snyder told Fimrite. “But I’m having a good time out there. I don’t think you can completely kick back, though. I’ve got to keep thinking of the situations. If I boot one, for example, I’ve got to know where to throw afterward, and I like using my arm on long throws. I think because I’ve got a strong arm and an infielder’s quicker release, I’ve got an advantage. The fact is, I’m just happy to be here. I’d play anywhere.”
“That’s the thing,” Carter added. “Just being here is important. I think my timing was all wrong in Chicago. . . . Coming to Cleveland was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”
Carter was saying that despite having just emerged from a long contract dispute over the offseason, which included him walking out of camp in protest when the Indians decided to renew his $250,000 salary rather than meet his demand for a raise up to the $400,000 range. Yup, that’s baseball in the ‘80s for ya. Six figures, baby.
“Snyder and the other young Indians,” Fimrite wrote, “were much more than casual observers of the Carter ordeal. They are concerned, as is Carter, that front-office penuriousness might bankrupt the future of this promising team.”
“We’ve got such a good thing going,” Snyder said, “why not pay a little more to keep the players happy? We’re just talking about fairness, not millions. We can keep a good team here for years. Why create a situation where as soon as a player gets the chance, he’ll move out? That’s not fair to the fans who’ve waited so long. I know I don’t want to leave Cleveland. I love it.” [Snyder was traded to the White Sox after the 1990 season]
“We can draw two, three million if we do well,” added Carter. “We just have to remember where we came from and not fall back on the press clippings we’re starting to get. I know the fans are behind us. You should see the letters I get. I like Cleveland. I like the down-to-earth atmosphere. Chicago was too fast for me. I didn’t like all that hustle and bustle.”
“It’s the people,” said Snyder. “The people make the town. Any city in the world has its bad sections. I remember when I came through Cleveland with the Olympic team, my first impression was that it was an ugly place, too industrial-looking. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen what they’ve done to rebuild downtown, to make things better. I think all the Cleveland jokes come from people who’ve never been there.”
Keep in mind Cory is saying that a full seven years before the Gateway project was completed.
Fimrite concludes his story as a humble observer, sitting in the Tribe’s spring training clubhouse in Tucson on a March afternoon well before reality proved him—and loads of other people—wrong.
“The two players pull on fresh uniform shirts and grab their gloves,” he wrote. “They are eager to get back out to the field. Carter pauses at the doorway to the dugout.
“I think we’ve got the kind of ball club anyone would want to play for,’ Joe said. “We’re all in our prime. This is not just a one-year thing. We’ve got nothing to look forward to but the future. They say everything that goes around comes around. Well, I think it’s finally come around to us. I think our time has come.’ “
In a separate section of this same S.I. Baseball Preview Issue, where predictions for all 26 teams were included, Fimrite penned a far more condensed pre-cap of the Indians season. This included a quote from doomed manager Pat Corrales about the hype around his club. “I don’t pay any attention to that,” he said. “If you’re good, you don’t have to blow your own horn.” Smart, Pat. Keep that horn in storage!
Fimrite’s own final and official assessment of the club was this: “If Cleveland gets even a modicum of good pitching, this may indeed be an Indian summer.”
They didn’t, and it wasn’t.
After the season, the Indians’ new ownership group, led by Dick Jacobs, hired back Hank Peters as the team’s new president, the first real critical step in the building of what would become the “Era of Champions” in the 1990s. Those teams would help people forget about the various disappointments of the 1987 Indians, but weirdly, not about the Sports Illustrated issue that cursed them.
Thankfully, for those of us who were just kids at the time, the memories remain surprisingly fond ones—impersonating the likes of Carter, Brett Butler, and Julio Franco in the backyard. Joining the Wahoo Kids Club. Watching games on Channel 43. My sister even had a crush on Greg Swindell. Didn’t feel all that cursed.