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'90s were great, but Tribe has fresh identity

New manager, new stars gives fans plenty of reason to be optimistic

CLEVELAND -- Along a corridor in the concourse in the right-field stands is a wall that bears a pair of pennants pointing guests at Progressive Field to section 304.

Perched atop the facade are three red numbers and seven capitalized red letters atop a white backdrop, hovering above a stripe of brown bricks. The collection of crimson characters has endured more than a decade of harsh Cleveland winters. So, too, have the city's natives, who each summer venture back to the ballpark, admire the emblem and contrive a refreshing dose of nostalgia.

"455 THE FANS"

Unlike its fellow retired numbers, that line on adjacent pillars symbolizes an entire era, one that this trying town beside Lake Erie has long taken pride in. Recently, however, it's an era that has haunted an organization seeking to carve out a new identity, one independent of the franchise's heyday from 1994-2001.

"It's gone," Indians center fielder Michael Bourn said of the bypassed era. "We have to make a new mark."

During that span, the Indians claimed six division titles and two American League pennants. Although they didn't capture a World Series championship, they seized the support and attention of every resident dwelling in a city hankering for a winner. Along the way, the youthful ballpark hosted a capacity crowd for 455 consecutive games, prompting the club to add the number to the franchise's pantheon of immortality in April 2001.

As time has elapsed and the Indians have cycled through multiple rebuilding phases, the number 455 has taken on additional meaning. No longer does it simply represent a link to the past; the digits serve as a reminder of the present, and how the organization continues to live in the shadow of that standard.

That juncture in time remains unparalleled in the eyes of those who have filled the forest-green seats at Progressive Field.

"It's never going to be like it was in the '90s," said Indians closer Chris Perez. "It's just not. But fans still need to appreciate it, because it's something very special that happened there."

The toughest challenge is attempting to replicate an inimitable era. This past offseason, however, has provided the organization and its fans a fresh source of optimism.

"The most difficult barometer for us is being measured by the '90s," said Indians senior vice president of public affairs Bob DiBiasio. "It's so difficult for the franchise to have to live up to that and be measured by it, but that's our goal.

"Our goal is to turn the town upside down like we did then."

* * *

Dec. 2, 1993, was a hallmark day in Indians lore. The team agreed to deals with veteran free agents Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray, which signaled -- after finishing fourth or worse in the division for 25 consecutive seasons -- that the organization was finally taking strides to place a competitor on the field.

The additions supplemented a young core primed to make the leap into contention with speedy center fielder Kenny Lofton, physically imposing slugger Albert Belle and hit machine Carlos Baerga paving the way. By 1994, both the batting order and starting rotation had received a makeover and, for the first time in eight years, the club sported a winning record.

Martinez and Murray only lasted three years in Cleveland -- the Hall of Fame first baseman was traded during the '96 campaign. It didn't matter, though. Their decision to join a long-embattled franchise indicated a shift in perception about the Indians. At last, fans had a reason to back their team and opposing players had justification for respecting it.

DiBiasio harkens back to that December day, when the organization introduced its two seasoned stars at its brand new ballpark. He attempts to compare it to the winter just passed, a typical one in Cleveland, with an abundance of lake-effect snow. There was also a flurry of roster activity by the Indians, an aggression on the trade front and free-agent market reminiscent of former general manager John Hart's constant wheeling and dealing during the '90s.

Coming off a 94-loss season in 2012 -- the third time in four years the club logged 90 or more defeats -- the team hired a new, established manager in Terry Francona, signed Bourn and Nick Swisher to two of the richest free-agent contracts in franchise history and completed several trades to bolster the team's depth. The Indians' 5-24 showing last August is a distant memory.

"In my 34 years, I don't know if we've had an offseason that was so dramatic in changing the fortunes of how people react to us," DiBiasio said. "We've put ourselves in position to be a championship team so quickly."

Whether fans will adopt this new team as fervently as they did the team 20 years ago remains to be seen. The Indians sold out Monday's home opener in six minutes, but attendance over the rest of the season will prove the real barometer of the relationship between the city and the team.

Though he rooted for the Cubs as a child, Swisher grew up in Ohio. He remembers the sellout crowds and has picked bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr.'s brain about his days as a catcher on the most beloved teams in franchise history.

"He can bring us back to those days and give us a feel as to how that was," Swisher said, "because obviously that's our goal, is to get that place packed every night."

* * *

Perez identifies the mid-'90s in Cleveland as "the perfect storm."

The Indians benefited from an unforeseen confluence of factors that garnered the team an unmatched following. With the economy thriving, the team flourishing, the city's NFL franchise relocated and a new ballpark open for business, fans flocked through the turnstiles. Jason Giambi made his Major League debut in 1995 with the A's and remembers the corner of Carnegie and Ontario as the epicenter of a prospering downtown.

"It was the place to go. It was unbelievable," Giambi said. "They were selling out every game. Some of the best players in the game were playing there. The fans were coming out in droves. That city was bumping."

The buzz tapered off once the Indians launched a rebuild in 2002. Over the last decade, the team hasn't drawn better than 21st in the league in attendance. That peak occurred in 2007, when the club inched to within one win of a trip to the Fall Classic.

Scattered among the sparse crowds are fans still clad in the jerseys of Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome or Manny Ramirez, long after the '90s legends donned the uniforms themselves.

"Those are players that are worthy of perpetual celebration," said team president Mark Shapiro. "I hope that continues to be offset or balanced with more jerseys from this year's team."

Striking a balance is key. For years, the Indians have clenched the connection to the '90s era as tightly as possible. They returned former manager Mike Hargrove to the organization as a special advisor. Alomar and Travis Fryman commenced their coaching careers in the Cleveland system. Belle, Lofton and Baerga have made appearances at the club's Spring Training complex in Goodyear, Ariz.

Now, the organization appears prepared to loosen its grip on the past. An offseason reclamation project has eased that transition.

"Everybody knew about the Indians in the '90s," Bourn said. "But at the same time, this is a totally different team. When people try to make comparisons about this team to that team, you can't do that. It's just different. What they did in their era is what they do. What we do in our era is what we do."

* * *

It's a different convergence of fortunes that made the Indians' transactions feasible this offseason.

Francona brought instant credibility to the franchise and helped lure free agents to Cleveland. Local and national TV deals generated additional revenue streams, which aided in the pursuit of Bourn, Swisher, Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds. Perennial piranhas on the free-agent market such as the Yankees and Red Sox either clamped down on their spending or looked elsewhere for help.

Recently instituted collective bargaining adjustments provided the Indians with market advantages. Cleveland didn't have to part with its first-round Draft selection when agreeing to terms with Swisher or Bourn because it finished the 2012 season with one of the 10 worst records in the league.

Shapiro cautioned against comparing the circumstances in the '90s to the current litany of factors ushering the Tribe into another epoch of optimism. He did say that, given the manner in which the 2012 campaign concluded, the front office did not anticipate the aggressive offseason that eventually transpired. Ownership approved the decision to be opportunistic. Will it pay off?

"The front office stepped up this offseason and improved us tremendously," Perez said. "Now it's our turn to show them more, too."

For the first time since 2007, the clubhouse has a palpable energy, with Swisher, Bourn and left fielder Michael Brantley routinely performing renditions of old-school hip hop and R&B songs before games. Young players can be seen taking advice from the new crop of veterans that includes Giambi and Swisher. The team's version of the "Harlem Shake" dropped jaws as Francona wiggled his hips and costumed players morphed the locker room into a Halloween-themed rave.

"It's definitely a new era, a new style, a new attitude," Perez said.

The Indians don't want to put a lid on the '90s era.

As DiBiasio said, "We'd be foolish not to celebrate those who created some of the greatest memories in the history of this franchise."

So, fans will receive bobbleheads of Vizquel and Belle this summer, and Baerga and Hart will be enshrined into the team's Hall of Fame. The focus, however, will remain on this 2013 squad, with the hope that the teams of the next few years will one day be as distinguished as those from the '90s.

"It continues to be one of our greater challenges as people examine us through the lens of the mid-'90s," Shapiro said. "But I do feel like, as we get further and further away from that, that becomes more of our history and less of our measuring stick."

Aside from Alomar, the players in the Indians' clubhouse have no connection to the franchise's past. They're ready to earn their own acclaim.

"We're our own team," Swisher said. "It's 2013. The '90s are way past us. We just have to go out there and be us. It's hard not to be excited if you're a Tribe fan right now. It's our job to go out there and do what we do."

Zack Meisel is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel.

Cleveland Indians, Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, Jason Giambi, Chris Perez, Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher