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Indians a dream after '94 nightmare Striking achievements in Cleveland add luster to shortened season; Season in review


Oh, how the 1995 baseball season proved that time does fly. It seemed much shorter than seasons past -- except 1981 and 1994, of course -- and it went by in such a blur that nearly 20 percent of the sport's loyal fans never got around to attending a game.

The games got shorter, too, after far-sighted baseball ownership concluded that the decline in fan interest was the result of too much baseball rather than too little, and tiptoed around the possibility that two truncated seasons and more than two years of bitter labor strife might have destroyed the credibility of a once-beloved industry.

Into this breach stepped the Cleveland Indians, who could have gone along with the devaluation of the season, but instead gave their fans more wins (100) over a 144-game schedule than any Indians team had won over a full season since 1954. Outfielder Albert Belle seemed particularly oblivious to the shortened baseball calendar, hitting 50 home runs and becoming the first player with 50 homers and 50 doubles in the same season.

The Indians became baseball's Dream Team at a time when the national pastime was just waking up from a nightmare. Iron Man Cal Ripken of the Orioles also did his best to restore the luster to the game's tarnished image, but 1995 still will go down as another year in which Major League Baseball made an asterisk of itself.

The players strike that wiped out the final two months of the '94 season stretched into spring training and forced the season to start three weeks late. The schedule was condensed accordingly, eliminating for the second year in a row the possibility of any milestone statistical performances.

The drop in attendance was immediate. Crowds were down by nearly 30 percent early in the season and fan interest was further damaged by severe injuries to several of the game's most popular players. Ken Griffey went down with a badly broken wrist. Matt Williams, who had joined Griffey in an aborted assault on the single-season home run record in 1994, missed most of the season with a broken foot. National League MVP Jeff Bagwell was struck down for the second year in a row by a hand injury.

It would have been a season to forget, but for a handful of memorable performances and a new, much-debated playoff format that kept a surprising number of marginal clubs in contention well into September. It turned out instead to be an interesting year -- for better or worse -- so here's a quick look back before baseball's first eight-team playoff field moves into the postseason.

Village of the damned

When spring training finally opened in April, there were 29 training camps instead of the usual 28. The Major League Baseball Players Association opened a camp in Homestead, Fla., for the dozens of free-agent players who remained unsigned after baseball's nuclear winter.

Most of those players found jobs. Two of them -- Vince Coleman and Tim Belcher -- played important roles in the Seattle Mariners' late-season comeback.

The hair club

The Cincinnati Reds started 1-8, but that was before owner Marge Schott came to the clubhouse with clippings of lucky fur from her late St. Bernard "Schottzie" and rubbed it on manager Davey Johnson and selected players. When the rest of the baseball world stopped laughing, the Reds started winning and didn't stop until they had secured their second division title of the '90s.

International flavor

Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo signed with the Dodgers and quickly became the biggest rookie sensation since the Dodgers unveiled phenom Fernando Valenzuela. Nomomania gripped Los Angeles as he dominated hitters and won the National League strikeout title.

If not for another stellar season by Greg Maddux, he might have had a chance to duplicate Valenzuela's Rookie of the Year/Cy Young double in 1981. No matter who gets the major postseason awards, Nomo's success figures to clear the way for a wave of promising players from the Far East.

Cal stands alone

Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games and -- for a few emotion-packed days -- made baseball fans forget that the game is still at the mercy of labor lawyers and ownership negotiators. Ripken's lap around Camden Yards proved that the link between the players and the fans has not been permanently severed, and that the ideals that baseball once seemed to represent still are valued by its ticket-buying public.

Ripken provided the most impressive milestone of the 1995 season, but there were others. Former teammate Eddie Murray delivered his 3,000th hit and Detroit Tigers veterans Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker set a major-league record for games played on the same team with No. 1,915 earlier this month.

Curses lifted, at least temporarily

The Indians weren't the only team to throw off the mantel of failure. The Mariners were serious contenders for the first time in the club's 19-year history, and the Colorado Rockies became the quickest expansion team in baseball history to reach the postseason, qualifying in their third season.

But the team with the most historical baggage to lose is the Boston Red Sox, who would love to lift the "Curse of the Bambino" and win their first World Series since the club sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. There's just the small matter of getting by the Indians and, most likely, the pitching-rich Braves.

The air up there

The Rockies have wasted no time creating a winning atmosphere in Denver, but skeptics insist that it was already there. The thin air that envelopes Coors Field obviously has contributed to the club's big home run total, but that shouldn't detract from the record-tying performance of Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla and Andres Gallaraga, who became only the second major-league foursome to hit 30 or more homers apiece in the same season.

Biggest disappointments

Maybe it was the shortened schedule or the roster uncertainty created by the lengthy labor dispute, but nothing went according to plan in two AL cities that expected to be playing host to postseason play this week. The Orioles spent plenty to put a competitive team on the field, but dropped out of contention for the AL East title in August and lost sight of a possible wild-card berth a couple of weeks ago.

Their frustration was mirrored in Chicago, where the White Sox were considered one of the favorites in the AL Central. Of course, nobody could have known that the Indians would blow everyone away by the All-Star break, but no one suspected that the White Sox would make it so easy for them. They had to rally in September just to finish less than 10 games under .500.

More labor pains

Maybe the players and owners have learned their lesson and maybe they haven't. Negotiations toward a new labor contract continue, but there could be more head-butting if an agreement is not reached in time for the owners to take full advantage of the winter ticket-selling season.

This is one area where no one can afford to "Wait until next year."

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