Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What never was

The pinnacle of Eric Wedge's tenure as Indians manager came and went like so many other moments that marked his seven years at the helm.

It was on the precipice of something greater that would never be realized. It preceded a downfall. It was the beginning of the end.

If there was one moment in time to freeze from Wedge's now-ending tenure as Tribe manager, it was October 16, 2007. Game 4 of the American League Championship Series versus the Red Sox.

Already clutching a 2-1 series lead, the Indians battled Boston to a scoreless draw for four innings before exploding for seven runs in the fifth off Boston starter Tim Wakefield, highlighted by Casey Blake and Johnny Peralta homers. Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez answered with three straight solo home runs in the top of the sixth, but mustered no further damage. Jensen Lewis and Rafael Betancourt mopped up for starter Paul Byrd, and the Indians won 7-3, taking a 3-1 series lead.

One win away from the World Series. One win away from homefield advantage in the World Series and a Rockies team that was their competitive equal, if not inferior.

That is the snapshot of the Wedge era that we wish we could have and hold. The stands filled with Wahoo-clad, delirious fans, flooding the noisy streets around downtown after the game, honking car horns, reliving the late '90s, when this was all commonplace.

But it was fleeting. It was a prelude to heartbreak. It was the all-too-Cleveland career of Eric Wedge.

Looking back, October 16, 2007 was Wedge's watershed. Before that game, the Indians were building toward something. They were climbing the ladder of success. They had bottomed out in 2003, losing 94 games with a stripped-down, young team in Wedge's rookie managerial campaign.

They climbed to 80 wins in '04, including an August surge that made us believe that this team was on the verge of prime-time ready, even though a late-season swoon put a damper on things. Unfortunately, swoons and collapses haunted Wedge's club on more than one occasion.

The 2005 season was the breakout. Ninety-three wins and their hand on the destiny throttle heading into the season's last week. But a last-week collapse versus Tampa Bay and Chicago killed off a would-be wild card berth. The year after was marred by bad pitching, and the Indians fell to 78 wins.

But then came that magical '07 season. A snowy opening weekend wiped out an entire four-game series with Seattle. The Indians moved their next series, against the Angels, to Miller Park in Milwaukee. The hardship out of the gate seemed to galvanize the team, and the Indians had their only really successful April under Wedge.

The season ended with 96 wins, a division title and a first-round dispatch of the Yankees in four games. As the Indians carried their 3-1 series lead into Game 5 against Boston, it looked like the plan that Wedge and Mark Shapiro had hatched four years previous was about to reach fruition -- perhaps doing what Dick Jacobs, John Hart and Mike Hargrove couldn't: win a World Series.

But Josh Beckett outpitched C.C. Sabathia in Game 5. The Red Sox won, 7-1. And the meltdown was on. Games 6 and 7 at Fenway Park weren't close. Boston rallied to win the pennant, four games to three.

The Indians were never the same. As a manager, neither was Wedge. He won Manager of the Year honors, but the rockslide was already in progress.

What followed was a quick descent. Two years of slow starts quickly rendering the remainder of the season irrelevant, except for grooming young players for bigger roles down the road. Two years of purging the roster of veterans. Two years of sliding toward the inevitable conclusion that was reached on Wednesday, when Wedge's job was terminated, effective at the end of the season.

As so it was that Wedge fell, in the span of 24 months, from the cusp of the World Series to a Peralta groundout that ended the second game of Wednesday's doubleheader against the White Sox. In front of a sparse crowd on a chilly last night of September, Wedge managed and lost the last home game of his Tribe career, so very far away from recent history.

Wedge managed the Indians for seven years, longer than most managers get. He'll go into the record books as the fifth-winningest and third-losingest manager in Tribe history. His lofty standing among Cleveland managers speaks more to endurance than accomplishment. Only Lou Boudreau, Mike Hargrove and Tris Speaker will have managed more Indians games than Wedge when all is said and done this year.

For a low-key guy who preached stability and frowned upon sideshows and distractions in his clubhouse, Wedge will be continually linked to controversy in Cleveland sports circles. The media and fans took frequent issue with his game management skills, his bizarre fascination with players who can play multiple positions, his lack of extensive big-league playing experience on his coaching staff, and his use of the phrase "grind it out," which became part of the Cleveland sports lexicon, but not in a good way.

Most of all, he'll be remembered for walking in lockstep with Shapiro. Wedge will be remembered by the Cleveland baseball-watching masses as Shapiro's puppet, a front office lackey that Shapiro had, in the past, referred to as his "partner."

It's not entirely deserved. Shapiro and Wedge might have been involved in a game of circular back-scratching early on in their partnership, but as the past couple of seasons progressed, the groupthink started to disintegrate.

Some fans might argue that terminating Wedge was a move made to placate the ticket-buying public, who have been staying away from Progressive Field in droves. That's not true. Nobody in baseball thinks offering a manager up as a sacrificial lamb is going to directly solve the problem of lagging gate receipts on any level. If any baseball executive thinks that, he shouldn't be a baseball executive.

Bottom line, if Shapiro and Wedge were still seeing eye-to-eye, Wedge doesn't lose his job.

There will be time to debate the ups and downs of Wedge all winter, as the Indians commence the search for a new manager. Right now, what we have is a manager that was, Octobers that never were and the shaky prospect of what this team might be in several years.

It's a shame it had to end this way. Wedge wasn't the greatest manager in Tribe history, but he wasn't the inept buffoon some believe.

The past seven years could have been better. Maybe they should have been better. But the current reality is that the Indians are right back where they were when Wedge took over in 2003: at rock bottom and trying to claw their way back up through the American League.

Fortunately for Wedge, that's not his problem anymore.

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