Cleveland Indians Staging a Baseball Comeback

As the baseball playoffs near, the Cleveland Indians are making a big comeback. They're now a threat to overtake the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central Division. Michele Norris talks with sports commentator, Stefan Fatsis.


Last week we discussed the end of the baseball season with Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. What we didn't include in our conversation was the amazing comeback being staged by the Cleveland Indians in the American League's Central Division. Well, several listeners let us know that they thought we'd blown it by focusing on the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. Since it's Friday, Stefan is with us again.

Stefan, you slighted the good people of Cleveland. Care to extend an olive branch?

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Absolutely. The Indians' comeback has been one of the most amazing in the history of baseball. They trailed the Chicago White Sox by 15 games on August the 1st. They had a record of 55 wins and 51 losses at the time. Chicago had a record of 69 and 35. Now Cleveland trails by just one and a half games with 10 days left in the regular season. It's been an amazing performance by a young, powerful team that appears completely unfazed by pennant pressure. They've won 35 out of their last 47 since August 1st; 15 of the last 17.

NORRIS: So if Cleveland does win the division, where would it rank in the history of comebacks?

Mr. FATSIS: Right at the top. In terms of distance made up, it would be the biggest comeback ever in major-league baseball, just ahead of the famous Yankees recovery to overtake the Boston Red Sox in 1978. But being such a negative culture that we live in, we tend to focus on who blows the lead, not who makes the comeback. So in terms of flops, while everyone compares this to the 1978 Red Sox, the White Sox disaster-in-the-making here better compares to what the cross-town Chicago Cubs did in 1969.

NORRIS: And I'm told that that was the year that the New York Mets wound up winning the World Series.

Mr. FATSIS: Yes. The Cubs had a 10-game lead with 45 games to go, and I was e-mailing today with a guy who studies hot streaks in sports, Alan Reifman; he's a professor at Texas Tech. He's got a Web site called the Hot Hand. Now he crunched a few numbers to show that Cleveland in August and September is playing at an almost identical pace as the 1969 Mets, and the Chicago White Sox are playing at an almost identical losing pace to the Cubs of '69. Both are two games below 0.500. The biggest difference, though, is that even if they blow the division lead, the White Sox still could wind up qualifying for the playoffs. There was no wild card back in 1969 where an extra second-place team makes it.

NORRIS: So, Stefan, we're talking sports at a time when a major hurricane is churning in the Gulf. Hurricane Rita is bearing down on Texas and Louisiana, so I'd like to shift gears if I could. This is the heart of football country, and it may seem trivial to talk about sports at a time like this, but sports does matter.

Mr. FATSIS: Especially in the South, and football in the South. We saw how much fans of the New Orleans Saints cared about the team's opening-day victory in the National Football League. Ditto for the road win by the Louisiana State football team at Arizona State. Now you're seeing more dislocation. LSU postponed its home opener in Baton Rouge for a third time. They'll play Tennessee on Monday night, and that came after Tennessee said it would forfeit rather than travel to play the team in Baton Rouge. Rice University postponed its game tomorrow against Navy. The University of Houston postponed a game tomorrow; that whole team--coaches, personnel--they hit the road to prepare for next week's game.

NORRIS: Now given the magnitude of Katrina and now potentially Rita, why don't the schools take a breather? Why do they reschedule their games?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, two reasons. The first one may sound a little crass, but it's money. Football is the main revenue sport for these big schools, and it's crucial to their multimillion-dollar athletic budgets. LSU, for instance, lost around $2 million by playing its first game on the road. And the second and I think more important reason is pride. You consider a school like Tulane, whose campus is closed at least for this semester. All of its sports teams, though, managed to stay together, scattered at four other universities; they're the only functioning part of Tulane right now. They're really the face of the school to the nation. In a couple of weeks, Tulane is scheduled to play the University of Houston. When you think about the emotional implications of that game and what it might mean to the players, students, alumni, and then you can understand a little bit how sports can matter.

NORRIS: Thank you, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Stefan Fatsis writes about sports and the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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