By Bob Nightengale
USA TODAY Sports
The Cleveland Indians hate talking about that evening, but they’ll forever be proud of it.
The Indians say they don’t ever want to watch it again, but every time it comes on TV, they can’t look away.
The night of Nov. 2, 2016, belongs to Chicago Cubs folklore, and Indians infamy.
It was the night the Cubs won Game 7 of the World Series, their first championship in 108 years, setting off a national celebration everywhere outside the 216 area code.
The Indians were that other World Series team.
They had a 3-1 lead in the World Series, with the last two games in Cleveland, and were just one swing away from winning Game 7, only to have their hearts ripped out.
“It was painful, really painful,” Cleveland general manager Mike Chernoff told USA TODAY Sports. “When you get that far, and don’t accomplish the final goal, it hurts. You play every moment over and over.
“I was watching TV, flicked on a station, and there it was. Game 7. I couldn’t divert my eyes from it. But I felt like I needed to do it.
“It was cathartic in some ways.”
Club president Chris Antonetti, who has worked in the Indians’ front office for 18 years, was asked how long it took for him to get over the crushing World Series defeat.
He looked straight ahead, and with a stern look on his face, said:
“I’ll let you know when it happens,” he said.
You look at him again, waiting to see the slightest trace of a smile, and Antonetti simply repeats himself.
“I will let you know.”
Only now, 3 months later, can the Indians put in perspective what they accomplished.
When they walked into their spring-training complex,the signage was impossible to miss:
American League Champions 2016.
“It’s not like guys aren’t pretending what happened, and it’s hard to turn the page,” Chernoff says, “but with time you reflect back on how we did it. There was this tremendous organizational pride we all felt, and home-grown team, and the values we stand for.
“And with more time, you can reflect back on those things, and it lessens the pain.”
Still, it is raw. They think about Rajai Davis’ dramatic two-run homer off Aroldis Chapman that tied the game in the eighth inning. They felt as if they would win it in the bottom of the ninth with Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis due up, but instead they went down 1-2-3. A rain delay. And then it was all over.
“What I do want to always remember is that homer,” Chernoff said. “It was insane. I was sitting in our suite, and I almost fell out of it. I almost blacked out. When he hit that homer, I never heard a louder stadium in all of my life, probably because I was screaming at the top of my lungs too. You try to stay reserved for everything, but that was a moment I couldn’t.”
The Indians really should have never even reached the World Series, let alone made it to Game 7. They were without two of their starters in the postseason, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Starting catcher Yan Gomes was relegated to the bench with a fractured wrist. Center fielder Michael Brantley played only 11 games all season. And starter Trevor Bauer suffered a gash on his pinkie repairing his drone, limiting him to only two-thirds of an inning in the ALCS against Toronto.
“We had some guys in here that thrived on that,“’ said Indians reliever Andrew Miller, whose dominant relief work – he was unscored upon in his first eight appearances – keyed a gallant effort from Cleveland’s bullpen. “We heard everything. “You guys are done. You guys can’t do it. Too many injuries. You’re not good enough.’ We were picked to be the underdog every time out.
“Hopefully, that experience will pay off this year, and we’ll be able to forget about that last game as soon as we can.”
Certainly, the Indians are counting on a return trip to the postseason, hiking their player payroll to a franchise-record $130 million. They stunned the baseball world, and even themselves, by signing free agent first baseman Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million contract. They never imagined they could replace Mike Napoli with a guy who averaged 39 homers and 110 RBI the last five seasons. They had a hole in their bullpen for a left-handed reliever so they signed one of the best on the market in Boone Logan. They’ll now have Miller for an entire season after acquiring him at the trade deadline last July. And their rotation returns intact.
Considering the woeful American League Central, these powerful Indians may be able to set their playoff roster by Memorial Day.
“We just have to take care of business, just like we did last year,” Lindor said. “If we play together and have fun, it will be a good year. If we don’t do those things, and take things for granted, we won’t have that success.
“It’s up to us. No excuses.”
The Indians’ biggest acquisition this year may be Brantley. He stayed in Cleveland all winter to rehab his surgically-repaired shoulder, and is optimistic about regaining his All-Star form. The Indians plan to take it slow, and delay his spring-training debut, but also are counting on him to be their everyday center fielder.
“The kid has worked his ass off,” Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But I think we need to reserve some enthusiasm, because we want him back desperately. But after not having him for a whole year, he deserves to do it right. To have him back will be so nice. We’re going to do it right so he can have his best chance to be successful.”
If Brantley, who finished third in the AL MVP race his last full season in 2014, is back the rotation stays healthy .Miller continues his domination. and the lineup lives up to its past that haunting memory of Game 7 will fade awfully quick.
“If the outcome had been flipped,” Miller said, “it would have been interesting to see how people would have reacted with all of the calls and 1/8 managerial 3/8 decisions. We were a good story, but you had so many people pulling for the Cubs. It’s hard to compete against one that had a 108-year drought, with all of their famous fans, and everything else. Boston just went through that when they ended their drought. Now, Cleveland is building their own unfortunately.
“Maybe now people will be rooting for us. They probably won’t be writing books and making movies about us like the Cubs, but if we win it this year, I can’t think of a better story.”