Cleveland's new tribe go to war

Rupert Cornwell reports on the transformation of baseball's team of perennial losers
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The junior relationship of the Almighty to baseball in Cleveland right now may be divined from a phone call to the Catholic cathedral of St John the Evangelist. "For information on Cleveland Indians raffle tickets, press one... for the Mass schedule, press seven... for the Confession schedule, press eight."

Only one confession here is any longer acceptable - that the ridiculed, beloved and finally resurgent Tribe are indubitably the best team in baseball, and that if heavenly justice has any meaning the 1995 World Championship pennant should be dispatched without further ado to the shores of Lake Erie.

A World Championship pennant... in Cleveland? Until this year, no way. The Indians have not come close since 1954, when the New York Giants swept them 4-0 in the World Series. Since then, the team has had only 10 winning seasons. If baseball had promotion and relegation, the Indians would long since have fallen through the trapdoor at the bottom of the GM Vauxhall Conference.

In America's national pastime they have been the amiable pushovers - even two films depicting the misadventures of the worst team in the land dispensed with fiction and used the Indians. And who were Cleveland to sue?

But now the Cleveland Indians, like the renaissant city that idolises them, are back and touched with magic. Tonight, the team once known as the "Mistake by the Lake," take on the Boston Red Sox in their first play- off game in 40 years.

Chief Wahoo, a grinning red-painted Indian with a feather in his hair - surely the most politically incorrect mascot in baseball - beams from every window in the city. A farm system once the laughing stock of baseball has yielded a crop of superstars, while every acquisition, from the veteran Eddie Murray to the washed-out starter turned record-breaking closing pitcher Jose Mesa, has proved a masterstroke. The result is the most lethal Tribe since Geronimo's Apaches, built on strong pitching, solid defence and, above all, the fiercest batting line-up around.

For the entire season the Indians have been flirting with a winning percentage of .700, a feat achieved by fewer than a dozen teams in history. Five hitters are averaging over .300, led by Albert Belle. He is not the Holy Church's idea of a saint but if the pennant does return to Cleveland, his No 8 shirt may be pinned to the wall of St John's as a sacred relic. In a strike-shortened season, he has hit 50 home runs, the 12th man to do so in Major League history and is only the eighth player ever to collect more than 100 extra-base hits in a season.

After a 17-7 thrashing of the Kansas City Royals on Sunday, the Tribe had won their 100th game, increasing their lead in the American League Central Division to 29 games, the widest margin in Major League history. And so Cleveland fans dream of an October to remember, culminating in an all-Ohio World Series, an Interstate 71 match-up with the Cincinnati Reds, baseball's aristocrats and the runaway winners of the National League Central.

But if a Reds-Indians finale is the sentimental choice around these parts, the smart money says it will be the Atlanta Braves to face Cleveland come 21 October. The Braves have been carried to their customary division victory in the National League by their equally customary dominant pitching, led by the redoubtable Greg Maddux.

But to make the Series Cleveland, like everyone else, must now survive not one but two eliminating rounds. For the first time, baseball is employing a wild-card format - in both the American and National Leagues an extra team is joining the three division winners. Purists loathe it because the old-fashioned race for the championships is devalued, but in a year of mostly one-horse division races,the chase for the extra post-season slot has maintained some suspense.

Even for the Tribe, the going may get tricky. The first-stage round of five games, in which there is no home-field advantage for the team with the best record - they play two at home and three away - is tailor-made for an underdog with a hot pitcher and a slice of good fortune. After this, the winners go through to the traditional best-of-seven championship series, with the winners squaring off in the World Series.

Boston's surprise win in the AL East gives them a shot at their first world championship since 1918. By capturing the AL wild-card berth, the New York Yankees will be in the post-season for the first time in 14 years. In the NL, the Los Angeles Dodgers, complete with Hideo Nomo, the Japanese pitching sensation, will cause trouble for anyone - even the Braves. But if God is truly in his heaven, this is Cleveland's year.