For a Rust Belt city on the rebound, Cleveland just about knocked it out of the park last year.
Cleveland hosted the Republican National Convention. LeBron James and the Cavaliers extinguished the city’s 52-year pro sports championship drought. The Indians came within a whisker of winning their first World Series title since 1948. The Browns? Well, even The Man Upstairs grants only so many miracles.
The Indians are again an American League favorite in 2017 and will face the two-time defending AL West champion Texas Rangers on opening day in Arlington. First, though, the two loaded teams square off on Big League Weekend in San Antonio with games Friday night and Saturday afternoon at the Alamodome.
“We’re excited to visit San Antonio,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “We hear a lot of people go to the games, so it’s not your typical spring training atmosphere. It’ll be a nice break for the guys.”
The Indians built, and then blew, a 3-1 series lead against the Chicago Cubs in the Fall Classic, eventually losing the World Series’ Game 7 in extra innings. More than 40 million viewers watched the dramatic finale, making it the most-watched baseball game in 25 years.
“It was some kind of ride — the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” first baseman Carlos Santana said. “You wish you could replay it to do maybe one thing better.”
The Cubs credited a 10th-inning rain delay, of all things, for halting the Indians’ momentum.
“You want to say they broke their 108-year curse or whatever, and now it’s our turn,” Cleveland closer Cody Allen said. “But it doesn’t work that way. Nobody owes you anything. We start over, and the season is a six-month grind. I like our starting point, though.”
Cleveland, a small-market team that seldom splurges in free agency, surprisingly signed Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million contract. He’s averaged 38 homers and 112 RBIs over the past five seasons.
“When the market was unexpectedly soft at first, our guys were ready to pounce,” Francona said of his front office. “Encarnacion is such a huge force in the middle of the lineup.
“I knew it also meant Nap (Mike Napoli) wasn’t coming back. We have so much respect and love for Nap. But how do you turn down the premier bat out there?”
Napoli, who drove in 101 runs for Cleveland last year, signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Rangers, his former home, and he will face them in San Antonio.
“I had a terrific time in Cleveland, and now I want to help the Rangers get to the same place,” he said.
Encarnacion said he chose the Indians because of their possibilities.
“They look great and they have young talented players,” he said through a translator. “They will have a lot of opportunities to be in the World Series again and win it. Maybe I’m the one who puts them over the top.”
Francona spoke of the magic last summer in Cleveland.
“It kept building to a crescendo,” he said. “For the Cavs’ parade, they were expecting 400,000, maybe half a million — and 1.3 million showed up. I was downtown. It was unforgettable.
“Right then we were in the midst of getting hot and we took off in the standings. It was a fun time for a lot of people. Now you want one of those parades for us.”
BIG LEAGUE WEEKEND
The three-day event, now in its fifth year, is put together by Ryan-Sanders Baseball, owners of the Round Rock Express, in conjunction with the city of San Antonio.
Thursday: King of the Diamond Dinner, featuring Indians manager Terry Francona and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, 6 p.m., Hyatt Regency Riverwalk. There also is a sports memorabilia show on site each day.
Friday: Cleveland Indians vs. Texas Rangers, 7:05 p.m., Alamodome
Saturday: Cleveland Indians vs. Texas Rangers, 2:05 p.m., Alamodome
Tickets: $10 to $77, available at bigleagueweekend.com, or at the gate. Check the website for information about Thursday’s dinner.