There was a bit of Royals news on this day, although it was not happy news and had nothing to do with spring training. The Jackson County Sports Authority filed a lawsuit against the team for more than $180,000 in back rent on Royals Stadium. The lawsuit followed months of negotiations between the two parties. The disagreement stemmed from money from concessions; the team claimed the lease required a percentage of the amount they received from the concession company, while the sports authority claimed the rental amount was derived from the entire sales amount. So that’s fun.
Anyway, back to looking at the other AL teams. Today, we review the Cleveland Indians, who finished fourth in the AL East despite a winning record at 81-78 (they had three rainouts that were not played, including a doubleheader on the last day of the regular season). If you were wondering about the franchise’s recent name change, since the Cleveland baseball team was known as the Indians in 1977, that’s how I will be referring to them here.
Not surprisingly for a team that finished around .500, Cleveland was a middle-of-the-pack team in both hitting and pitching, finishing sixth in the league with 3.87 runs scored per game and seventh with a 3.47 ERA. As further proof of their mediocrity, they scored 615 runs and allowed 615 runs.
For an average team, Cleveland certainly had some interesting players. They had two future Hall of Famers, one who would have been widely expected to make it in 1977 and one who was just beginning his career. Player-manager Frank Robinson, who had become the first Black manager in major league history in 1975, decided to hang up the spikes after the 1976 season. It was just as well; he had hit .224/.329/.358, although his manager was smart enough to play him sparingly; Robinson had just 79 plate appearances. So the countdown was on for his election to Cooperstown. But despite two seasons of leading the Indians to their best records in a decade, Robinson the manager was on the hot seat as 1976 ended.
Meanwhile, Dennis Eckersley had just finished his second season in the majors with a 13-12 mark and 3.43 ERA. While Eckersley would reach Cooperstown mainly on his dominance as a closer in the second half of his career, he was a pretty good starter for many seasons. But at just age 21, no one could have predicted that he was headed for the Hall.
Eckersley was joined in the rotation by veterans Pat Dobson (16-12, 3.78), Jackie Brown (9-11, 4.25), and Jim Bibby (13-7, 3.20). Cleveland also had a pretty good bullpen, with Dave LaRoche and Jim Kern combining for 36 saves in 1976. And then the Indians added free agent starter Wayne Garland, who had just won 20 games for Baltimore. They also made a trade for former Royal Al Fitzmorris. That made Brown expendable, and he was traded to Montreal for Andre Thornton.
Thornton represented an upgrade at first base over the aging Boog Powell. Cleveland also had third baseman Buddy Bell and DH Rico Carty to lead the offense. Carty was an interesting case because he was drafted by the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, then traded back to Cleveland a month later. In retrospect, the Indians had an odd offseason. They traded away two promising young catchers (Rick Cerone and Alan Ashby), then dealt one of their best hitters in outfielder George Hendrick for catcher Fred Kendall, along with outfielder Johnny Grubb and infielder Hector Torres. In March 1977, they sent Torres to Toronto for outfielder John Lowenstein, whom they had traded (with Cerone) to Toronto in December for Carty. Got all that?
Despite the efforts to upgrade the offense, the prognosis for Cleveland was that they wouldn’t score enough runs to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox. But they seemed to have the pitching to keep them in the hunt.