BASEBALL 2002: Indians Enter New Era With New Look

By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - The changes are subtle: silver accents on the jerseys with navy blue replacing red as the color of their shoes, belts, socks and undershirts.

The Cleveland Indians have slightly new uniforms this season. No big deal, right?

Well, check out who's wearing them.

Brady Anderson, Matt Lawton, Ricky Gutierrez, Mark Wohlers, Eddie Perez and Jerrod Riggan.

Talk about contraction.

"It's definitely a different team," designated hitter Ellis Burks said. "Now let's give this a chance, and see if it works."

No, these are not your older brother's Cleveland Indians. They're entering a new era with a new look.

Even Chief Wahoo, the club's perpetually smiling mascot, has lost his job as an everyday player. He's been replaced for weekend games on the home cap by a script "I."

Following a winter many Cleveland baseball fans will remember more for being blindsided by a blockbuster trade -- All-Star Roberto Alomar going to the New York Mets -- than any snow storm, the Indians are heading into 2002 as a shell of the team that has won six AL Central titles in seven years.

Ordered by ownership to slash payroll by $10 million, rookie general manager Mark Shapiro has taken the first steps in rebuilding the Indians, who for years have relied on a powerful offense to bludgeon their division foes into submission.

Now, the emphasis is on pitching, and with a starting rotation featuring hard-throwers Bartolo Colon, Danys Baez, C.C. Sabathia and Ryan Drese and a potentially lights-out bullpen, Cleveland has some of the best arms in baseball.

"We have to change the way we win," said Shapiro, who has noticed that the Indians are being picked by many to finish third in the Central behind Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox.

"Fine with me," he said. "The people that have written us off are going to be surprised."

This is new territory for the Indians.

Gone are the days when they terrified opposing pitchers by parading one All-Star after the next to the plate and scored runs by the dozen. But although that may have been fun for Cleveland fans to watch, the beat-'em-til-they-drop philosophy didn't produce a single World Series title.

The Indians are still 0-fer since 1948.

"I'm sure we've been construed as a team that looked like we could turn it on and turn it off," said 39-year-old left-hander Chuck Finley, hoping to bounce back from an injury-ravaged season. "It's the grand allure of the Cleveland Indians -- marquee names, big bangers. Their presence arrived at the ballpark an hour and a half before they got there.

"But there are different ways of presenting yourself. We still should be good enough to win. No doubt in my mind, we're still the team to beat until somebody does it. We still won it last year. You can't discount us just because we lost a couple players."

But what a couple they were.

Alomar's departure in an eight-player swap with the Mets in December was followed by the Indians' decision not to re-sign free agent slugger Juan Gonzalez or Marty Cordova.

In addition, the club let Kenny Lofton, their leadoff hitter for most of the past decade, and pitcher Dave Burba, a rock-solid starter, leave as well.

Just like that, the Indians said goodbye to 89 homers, 362 runs, 375 RBIs, 47 stolen bases and 10 wins from a year ago.

"We made some tough decisions, but ones we easily addressed by bringing in other quality players," said Shapiro, given the difficult task of rebuilding while keeping the Indians competitive. "They (moves) weren't popular with the fans, but given our economic constraints, they were necessary."

Lawton, who came over in the Alomar deal, will take Gonzalez's spot in right and will share leadoff duties with the former Oriole Anderson, who can play left or center and seems to have some pop back in his bat.

Gutierrez has the impossible job of filling Alomar's spikes at second. He's up for the challenge, even though he's moving back to the right side of the infield for the first time since 1997.

"I don't worry about that," Gutierrez said of replacing Alomar. "I'm not going to go out and try to be like Robbie Alomar. He's going to be a Hall of Famer. I just have to go out there and play my baseball."

Perhaps the two players who best personify the current and future state of the Indians are young outfielders Milton Bradley and Russell Branyan.

The Indians acquired Bradley, 23, in a trade last July with the idea of having him replace Lofton, now with the rival White Sox. Bradley has shown he can run down balls in the gap, but his offense hasn't caught up yet.

Branyan, finally getting a chance to play every day in left field, can hit some of the longest home runs in the game. When he connects, that is. The 26-year-old struck out 132 times in 315 at-bats last season.

Hit or miss. That's the Indians this season.

"If they both fail," Shapiro said. "It's going to be very tough for us."

But in their new uniforms, at least the Indians will look good doing it.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)