SI prediction gave Cleveland false hope in '87

February 10th, 2017

"Believe it or not, something is happening in Cleveland." -- "Pow! Wow!" story in Sports Illustrated, April 6, 1987.

Thirty years ago. Pow! Wow! If I could point to one moment when the mysteries of baseball first overwhelmed me, it would be when Sports Illustrated picked the Indians to win -- the single worst prediction, I contend, in sports history.

"Believe it!" the biggest and best sports magazine in America pronounced. "Cleveland is the best team in the American League."

We believed it. We believed it with all our heart.

That Cleveland team lost 101 games and finished with the worst record in the Major Leagues.

"Well, 1987 was the fool's gold of Cleveland sports," said Mark Winegardner, author of numerous books including a "Prophet of the Sandlots." "We wanted to believe."

We wanted to believe so badly that we did.

A few weeks before that Sports Illustrated came out, the Browns had lost in overtime of the AFC Championship Game. They seemed destined for great things. The Cavaliers were building a team of young stars -- Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price. Things were looking up in Cleveland.

And here were the Indians on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Believe it! The Tribe had led the Majors in runs scored in 1986. The Indians even won 10 straight at one point -- and they did it with a collection of young hitters like Joe Carter and Cory Snyder, along with Brook Jacoby, Brett Butler and Julio Franco.

"There was just enough legitimacy in that team so that we didn't think it was nuts for SI to pick them," Winegardner said. "And let's be honest: Cleveland was so starved for positive national media then that, of course, we were going to believe."

Looking back on it, it was nuts. Everything about it was weird. It's disturbing to see just how much the cover (with the rather jarring "Indian Uprising" headline) features the now controversial Chief Wahoo logo. The team started celebrating Chief Wahoo again -- it reportedly put the logo on the hats at the request of a couple of players in 1986 -- and Sports Illustrated apparently loved it.

The rest of the cover looked like a school project a parent helps a child put together the night before homework is due. Carter and Snyder look hastily positioned in 1970s baseball card poses with bats over their shoulders. What is that?

"And why is it just those two?" Winegardner said. "Where was Julio Franco or Brett Butler? They were both better hitters than Cory Snyder."

Then there is the larger question: Why did Sports Illustrated actually pick Cleveland in the first place? Yes, the Indians could hit, but their pitching was dreadful, and there seemed no reason to believe it would be any better in 1987. Their top two pitchers were both knuckleballers: 47-year-old Phil Niekro and protege Tom Candiotti. They signed 42-year-old Steve Carlton two days before Opening Day in a desperation move. Their bullpen was a mess.

"I was already reading Bill James," writer and Cleveland native Scott Raab said. "So I wasn't convinced that Joe Carter and Cory Snyder were saviors, or that Phil Niekro and Steve Carlton were still good pitchers."

Ah yes, Bill James.

"The Cleveland Indians," James wrote in the Baseball Abstract, "remind you of one of those movies that is supposed to be a metaphor for life, and the only thing you can think of while watching it is that if this is life I'm sure glad it isn't mine."

James was right. How bad was Cleveland's pitching in 1987? The Indians allowed 957 runs, the most in the Majors in almost 50 years. The Tribe went 14-51 when scoring between three and five runs, the second worst record in baseball over the last half century. Cleveland needed six, seven, eight runs to have a chance.

The Indians' highlight was when Carlton relieved Niekro in a game at Yankee Stadium; it's the only time in baseball history that two 300-game winners pitched in the same game. The Hall of Famers gave up seven runs in five innings. Cleveland lost 10-6.

In retrospect, there was no chance that the 1987 Indians could have won the pennant. Maybe Sports Illustrated just wanted a cover to jolt people. ("What if that was actually the first hot take?" Winegardner said.) Or maybe, it just showed how little we actually know.

That's how I took it. That cover altered how I looked at baseball, and maybe life, too. And it isn't just me.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was a young Cleveland baseball fan, and he completely fell for it, too.

"Oh, I totally bought in," Morey said. "I thought Cory Snyder was going to be the biggest star in the game. I mean, you think, 'They're Sports Illustrated, they must know something.'"

Morey was 15 years old in 1987 and had a knack for math and numbers. He was the star of the neighborhood "Earl Weaver Baseball" games on the old Commodore 64 computer. And so when he saw Cleveland finish dead last, Morey tried to figure out what had gone wrong. He began reading Bill James. He began crunching numbers.

Morey came to the conclusion: "Maybe the experts don't know what they're talking about."

And from that point on, Morey dreamed of running a team like he does now and trying to beat the experts. Two more quick things to consider about what must go down as the worst prediction in sports history. One: That cover created a massive run on Snyder rookie cards that people inevitably still talk about to this day.

"I probably had 4,000 of them," Morey said.

But that season changed the entire landscape of Cleveland baseball. At the end of the year, the Indians hired general manager Hank Peters, who built a strong farm system in Baltimore. Peters brought over John Hart, who had been a Minor League manager with the Orioles. He also hired a young kid out of Princeton named Mark Shapiro, one of the first analytical type of executive. Hart and Shapiro would lead Cleveland to two World Series appearances in the 1990s.

"I would argue that the '87 Indians tees up the run that Cleveland had in the 1990s," Winegardner said. "I don't feel like the Indians would have invested in the farm system and changed the way they were doing everything had that season not happened."

It's amazing how much changed in 1987. That year, Cleveland drafted future superstar Albert Belle. Brett Butler left -- it was clear that he was not going to stay in Cleveland because, as Winegardner points out, he wouldn't even give the club his phone number when he was there -- and the Indians used the compensatory pick to draft Charles Nagy, who won more than 100 games for them in the 1990s. The Tribe traded Joe Carter to San Diego for Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga, and over the next few years, the Indians drafted Jim Thome, Brian Giles and Manny Ramirez. They also traded for Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Matt Williams. Everything that went wrong in '87 started going right.

"I remember the first time I met Mark Shapiro. It was a couple of years after the Sports Illustrated cover, and he had a notebook they called 'The Indians Way,'" Winegardner said. "It was an actual plan. It was an actual philosophy. They'd never really done that before. I think it only happened because that 1987 team was such a failure."