Tribe plan working well

By Tom Withers Associated Press Published:

CLEVELAND _ Mark Shapiro looked out at an audience of excited Indians fans, some of the same ones who called him crazy for trading Roberto Alomar.

But before beginning his luncheon speech, Cleveland's rookie general manager joked about his rough winter.

"It's sure nice not having to stand behind chicken wire up here," he said.

Or wear a flak jacket.

The Indians are 11-1, and Shapiro is enjoying his team's blistering start as much as anyone. This was supposed to be the year Cleveland fell back in the pack, remember? Third-place in the AL Central, here we come.

Well, it hasn't happened. Not yet anyway.

After sweeping four straight from Minnesota and going 6-0 on a season-opening homestand, the Indians own baseball's best record and are off to their fastest start since opening the 1966 season at 14-1.

"I don't think anybody expected a start like this," first baseman Jim Thome said. "With all the new faces, it was important for us to get it going early."

The Indians are 9-0 in their division. The starting pitchers are 10-0 with a 3.88 ERA. The bullpen has a 1.80 ERA, and will carry a 15-inning scoreless streak into a three-game series at Chicago tonight.

Ellis Burks is leading the AL with a .419 average. Thome, a notoriously slow starter, has homered in four straight games and is on pace to drive in more than 150 runs.

Matt Lawton, one of the newcomers, has scored 15 runs and is having so much fun that he joined Cleveland fans in doing the wave as he stood in right field during a game last week.

And the offense, expected to have trouble, is averaging 6.6 runs per game. With a more patient approach at the plate, the Indians aren't as free-swinging as usual and are near the top in walks.

"Well, I guess we're not as bad as people thought," shortstop Omar Vizquel said. "We have the best record in baseball. Who's going to believe that?"

Even skeptical Indians fans are coming around.

Last week, only 23,760, the smallest crowd at Jacobs Field since it opened in 1994, came to see the Indians beat the Twins. The empty seats were a strange sight in a ballpark that was sold out for 455 straight games and has packed in more than three million the past six seasons.

The winning streak, however, has resulted in a box-office boon, and the club said Monday that it has sold 60,000 single-game tickets since April 1.

"I anticipate seeing several crowds of 40,000 here this summer," Shapiro said. "We were spoiled. The fact is, the better we play, the more they will come."

Off the field, the Indians are different, too.

Cleveland always had one of baseball's edgiest clubhouses, but these days there are wall-to-wall good vibrations. And although none of the current players will name names, the departures of Alomar and Juan Gonzalez have helped chemistry.

Even the clubhouse stereo, which used to blare before and after games, sits silently on top of a cabinet as dust builds on some unplayed CDs.

"This team has the best camaraderie of any team we've had," said Thome, in his 10th year with the Indians. "We're close. There's a special feeling here already. Bottom line. Nobody worries about their stats. The only thing we care about are wins."

Shapiro's remodeling started last September. About to take over for John Hart, Shapiro met with manager Charlie Manuel to talk about the type of team he wanted to have.

Instead of discussing stats, though, the two shared their beliefs on what kind of players they wanted to be around _ win or lose. Talent was only part of it. They wanted a club filled with players of character, who put team goals first and didn't quit.

So far, that's exactly what the Indians have done.

"We wanted a team that would be motivated by pride," said Shapiro, who was asked by ownership to trim $10 million from the payroll. "That can mean several different things, but it means you go hard every day. You don't take one off. The fast start is affirmation of what we are trying to do. We have 25 guys in that locker room believing in the system, believing in each other.

"It's a start. It's also a statement."

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