October 20, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
46°F

Excitement, hope high for Indians’ home opener

CLEVELAND — All 43,000 tickets were sold in six minutes, a fan frenzy you’d see for Justin Bieber, not baseball.

But Progressive Field, packed with pomp and pageantry, is the place to be on Opening Day — again.

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There’s always a buzz in Cleveland for the first home game, a date the locals have long treated like a national holiday. This year, though, there’s a vibe that’s been missing for a long time.

This one feels like much more than the first of 81 home games. This one represents a fresh start and perhaps a return to the days when the Indians were one of baseball’s big swingers.

“It’s going to be awesome,” said Nick Swisher, the Indians’ new first baseman and top salesman.

For months, Cleveland fans have been breathlessly counting down the days until the first public appearance of the transformed Indians, who hired Terry Francona as manager in October and then went out and spent nearly $120 million on free agents, including Swisher and Michael Bourn, the kind of star players who usually wound up signing big deals with major-market teams such as Red Sox, Dodgers or Yankees.

Oh, yeah, the Yankees. They’ll be at Cleveland’s opener, too.

But this one is mostly about the Indians, who return today after going 3-3 against Toronto and Tampa Bay, two teams expected to be in the AL’s upper echelon.

The Indians beat Blue Jays ace R.A. Dickey, last year’s NL Cy Young Award winner, to open the season and then capped their first road trip by hammering reigning AL Cy Young winner David Price and hitting five homers to thrash the Rays 13-0.

“We’ll deposit that and get ready for New York and see what we can do there,” Francona said after his club bounced back after being shut out in consecutive games. “But tomorrow will be fun.”

The Indians will honor “traditions” during today’s pregame festivities, which will feature one of the game’s timeless treasures — fathers throwing the ball with their sons.

Francona, re-energized from a one-year sabbatical in the broadcast booth after his ugly 2011 exit in Boston, will catch a ceremonial first pitch from his dad, Tito, who played outfield for the Indians from 1959-64. Swisher, too, will be joined on the field by his father, Steve, a major league catcher.

Indians outfielder Michael Brantley will catch a ball from his dad, Mickey, and Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. and his dad, Sandy Alomar Sr., will also take part in the ceremony.

For Francona, the chance to manage the team his dad played for and the one he cheered as a kid, was too much to pass up. The 53-year-old is back with the Indians, where he spent one season as a special assistant under Indians president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti after he was fired as Philadelphia’s manager.

Francona’s arrival was followed by an unexpected spending spree by Indians owner Paul Dolan, whose frugality in recent years enraged Indians fans and led directly to a decline in attendance.

But the money has been spent and now it’s time to see if it pays off.

“There’s a buzz about this team,” said Jason Giambi, who will be added to Cleveland’s roster Tuesday to face his former team. “I think we’ve brought the town a lot of hope. The Dolan family opened up their pocketbooks and brought in a brand new team. They could have easily been like, ‘Let’s see how these young kids develop after losing 94 games last year’ and I take my hat off to them. This team was well-put together.”

The Yankees, on the other hand, have been falling apart.

They’re barely recognizable these days with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson on a disabled list of All-Stars. They may be missing some big names, but they’re still the Yankees.

“There’s no better team on the planet to open up with,” Giambi said. “A draw for the fans. Unfortunately, there won’t be all the big names that you’re so used to seeing, but at the same time, that organization and what they’ve accomplished and everything, they’ll be fine. They’ve just got to keep their hands above water until the big boys come back.”