Indians face long road -- and 70 long years of losing -- this October

Seven decades after Cleveland's last World Series title in 1948, skipper Terry Francona & Co. are looking to break baseball's longest title drought. Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Tito Francona had hip surgery two days after the 2016 World Series, which ended, again, in heartache for the Indians, their fans and the city of Cleveland. When Francona came to, he was wobbly, which isn't unusual for him. A doctor and a nurse asked him about the World Series. "I was so doped up from the drugs," he said, laughing, "I thought we won."

The Indians haven't won the World Series since 1948, the longest active drought of any team in Major League Baseball. The loss to the Cubs in Game 7 in 2016 was the cruelest, which is saying something, given the heartbreaks of 1954, 1995 and 1997. But the Indians are back in the playoffs for a third straight year, with a team good enough to win the World Series. Since Francona took over as skipper in 2013, no American League team has won more games than the Indians. That resurgence has helped bring a renaissance to Cleveland; it is a vibrant city again. Even the Browns are getting better, and the Cavaliers won the NBA championship in 2016. There is a sense around town that the Indians are next.

"I was asked to help recruit the Democratic National Convention to come here [in 2016]. Me, of all people. It was hilarious. I talked to the [DNC] representatives, and I got CPAC mixed up with a Z-Pack, which is what you take when you have a chest cold," Francona said. "I talked a lot about Cleveland. I told them that our baseball team is a lot like our city here: We have been pushed around a lot, but now, we are pushing back."

The American League is going to be a nightmare this October, with three 100-win teams, the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros, the latter of which the Indians will face in the ALDS. But the Indians also are potentially an elite team. They are the only team in major league history to have four pitchers (anchored by Corey Kluber) post 200 strikeouts. Their offense is demonstrably better than the one that nearly won the 2016 World Series, led by shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jose Ramirez, sawed-off switch-hitters who each recorded 80 extra-base hits this year. They have a rebuilt bullpen that features a healthy Andrew Miller to go with new closer Brad Hand. They traded for third baseman Josh Donaldson, a former MVP whose calf injury has healed.

"It's a really cool city to be a part of now," Indians reliever Dan Otero said. "I was at Trader Joe's the other day, and the cashier told me, 'Hey, you guys keep it going.' I'm not very recognizable, but things have changed here. Now, we just have to finish the job."

Herb Score and 70 years ago, their forefathers brought forth, in Cleveland, a new title, conceived in starting pitching and dedicated to the proposition that not all teams are created equal. The Indians won the 1948 World Series, beating the Boston Braves in six games. The Indians had future Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Satchel Paige, future Hall of Fame outfielder Larry Doby, the American League's first African-American player and the AL MVP, shortstop Lou Boudreau, a player-manager.

"Amazing, how did he make pitching changes and keep on hitting?" Francona said of Boudreau. Then he laughed and said, referring to his own commute, "but I bet he didn't ride a scooter to the park every day."

That was the Indians' second championship ever and their first since 1920.

"I was born in 1963," said Bernie Kosar, who grew up in Northeast Ohio as a huge Indians fan, then played quarterback for the Browns from 1985 to '93, during which time he suffered his share of agony in both football (The Fumble and The Drive) and baseball. "But," he said with a laugh, "I was at the '48 World Series because that was so big for this city, everyone from Cleveland said they were at that World Series -- even if they weren't born yet."

The 1954 Indians team could've been even better. It went 111-43, and it was supposed to tear through the Giants and win the World Series again. Instead, the Giants, led by Willie Mays, swept the Indians. Mays' robbery of Vic Wertz's drive was the iconic play in the Series.

"I still can't believe we lost," Feller told me 50 years later.

"My dad," Kosar said, "told me about it nine million times. Nine million times."

"I was born in 1963. But I was at the '48 World Series because that was so big for this city, everyone from Cleveland said they were at that World Series -- even if they weren't born yet." Former Cleveland Browns QB Bernie Kosar

That started a historic slide, one filled with heartbreak and bad luck. In 1955, rookie left-hander Herb Score won 16 games, and the next season, at age 23, he won 20. But he was hit in the eye with a line drive in 1957. He pitched a few more seasons but was never the same.

The Indians took three decades to recover. Every year from 1960 to 1993 (not counting the strike-shortened 1981 season), they finished at least 10 games out of first place; only the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland A's (1932-68) had a longer such streak. It was a difficult 1960s for the Tribe, other than a bunch of strikeouts from Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant. The '70s were miserable, as they finished a combined 229 games out of first place, and jokes about their ballpark (The Mistake By The Lake) reigned. But at least they had catcher Duke Sims, who, according to a former teammate, could vomit on command.

Outfielder Super Joe Charboneau brought hope, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1980, but he played two more years, without success, then vanished. Then in 1987, Sports Illustrated picked the Indians to win the World Series. They lost 101 games.

"We thought we were going to be good, we had a 10-game winning streak in '86," said Tom Candiotti, a pitcher on the 1987 Indians. "We had a few games delayed 15 minutes because there weren't enough people to work the gates because so many people were coming in. Can you imagine that? We had high expectations for '87. We had a good spring, but as soon as the season started, everything went sour. After three weeks, we were 10 out, and it never got better. We looked at each other and asked, 'What just happened to us?'"

The Indians didn't rebound until 1994, when they moved to Jacobs Field. They played .647 baseball for a seven-year period and sold out 455 consecutive home games. But they lost to the Braves in six games in the 1995 World Series, out-foxed by Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

"That was hard," said Sandy Alomar, an Indians coach and the catcher on that team. "We had the best offense in baseball. But '97 was worse. It was devastating. That feeling of loss is still with me."

The Indians led 2-1 in the ninth inning of Game 7 in 1997, with closer Jose Mesa on the mound, but he gave up a run to tie it. In the 11th inning, an error by second baseman Tony Fernandez led to a walk-off single by Edgar Renteria: The Marlins, not the Indians, won it all.

"In '97, I was a huge Indians fan, as I have been for more decades than I care to say, but I was close friends with [then-Marlins and Dolphins owner] Wayne Huizenga [for whom Kozar played]," Kosar said. "And I was a [former Miami] Hurricane, so he took good care of me for tickets for Game 7. If you look at the picture when Craig Counsell crossed home plate with the winning run that night, everyone is standing and cheering, except for two people: Me and my mom were sitting there, being sad. I have that picture hanging in my office."

"Our baseball team is a lot like our city here: We have been pushed around a lot, but now, we are pushing back." Indians manager Terry Francona

Pitcher Orel Hershiser, an Ohio native who started games in the '95 and '97 Series, said, "That's the best team I've ever played for, talent-wise, but we couldn't achieve the final prize."

Ten years later, the Indians had a 3-1 lead on the Red Sox in the 2007 American League Championship Series but lost the next three games. They weren't relevant again until Francona was hired to manage the team in 2013. He could have managed several other places, but he chose Cleveland, partly out of loyalty to the team that hired him for the front office in 2001 and partly because his father, Tito, from whom he got his nickname, played for the Indians from 1959 to '64.

"Everything changed when he walked in the door," second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "He had two rings. That's what we all wanted. We knew he could show us how to get there."

"I changed my way of thinking about the importance of a manager after watching Tito keep us in contention in 2014 despite all our injuries," former Indians GM Mark Shapiro said. "He was brilliant."

But even Francona couldn't get the team through the 2016 World Series. The Indians had a 3-1 lead over the Cubs in the Series but lost the last three games. They lost Game 7 in the 10th inning after a 17-minute rain delay in the ninth inning perhaps took away their momentum.

"We had a chance to change the movie," Alomar said, "but we came up short."

"I don't think you ever get over something like that," Otero said, "until you win the World Series."

So now they have another chance, but the noise will be even louder. In 2016, the Cubs hadn't won the World Series since 1908. Now the pressure is on the Indians to end their drought.

"It's hard enough to win as it is," Francona said. "It's not my fault that my dad wasn't good enough to win. We try not to think about what happened yesterday, let alone 70 years ago. What has happened before never enters the equation for what we're trying to do."

Plus, the window is slowly closing on the small-market Indians. Donaldson, Miller, reliever Cody Allen and outfielder Michael Brantley are free agents at the end of the season. This might be the team's best chance for the next few years, and everyone here knows it.

"There will be no words to describe what this city will be like when we win." Indians coach and former Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar

But if they do win ...

"That city will go bonkers," Candiotti said. "I love Cleveland. I grew up there as a player. I always root for the Tribe. We had a day recently [with the Diamondbacks, for whom he is a broadcaster] where we got to wear our favorite team jersey. I wore my Tom Candiotti Indians jersey."

"I remember there were hundreds of thousands of people that greeted us at the airport and lined the streets on our way down. All that for a team that came up one game short," Hershiser said, recalling the reaction after 1997. "If they win, it will be a full-scale celebration."

"I was part of the parade when the Cavs won. There were one million people downtown that day. It was a defining day in the lives of so many people here," Kosar said. "And with all due respect to the Cavs, when the Indians win, it will be even bigger. The depth and the level of passion by the fans here is amazing."

"We remember what it was like when the Cavs won," Otero said. "We were asking ourselves, 'What is it going to be like if we win?' If there were one million at the parade, there will be three times as many if we win."

"There will be no words," Alomar said, "to describe what this city will be like when we win."

And no one here, especially not Francona, will ever forget it.