By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - A season of promise quickly deteriorated for the Cleveland Indians, who lost their stature, some innocence and a dear friend.
"That," said Lee Stevens, who came over in a June trade, "was some wild ride."
There's never been one quite like it in Cleveland's baseball history.
The Indians survived season-ending injuries, blockbuster trades, a managerial change, a philosophical shift, emergency surgeries, a surprising retirement and an untimely death.
The club used a record 59 players, including 15 who made their major league debuts.
"Who would have thought all that would happen?" outfielder Milton Bradley said.
Cleveland finished with a 74-88 record -- its worst since 1991 -- and a franchise accustomed to playing baseball in October is watching for just the second time since 1995.
"It was a disappointing season, but it was a great season," Ellis Burks said, underscoring 2002's highs and lows.
In December, first-year general manager Mark Shapiro traded All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar, and a week later learned that outfielder Jolbert Cabrera had been shot.
During spring training, outfielder Alex Escobar, one of the keys in the Alomar deal, tore knee ligaments. Before the Indians left Florida, second baseman John McDonald and bullpen coach Luis Isaac were hospitalized.
April began with the Indians going 11-1, but on the club's first road trip, pitcher Chuck Finley was viciously attacked by his wife, actress Tawny Kitaen.
Bradley sustained a serious eye injury when he got hit by a ball on May 1, and two weeks later, pitcher C.C. Sabathia was robbed at gunpoint at a downtown hotel.
"A turning point in my life," said Sabathia, who finished 13-11 after a strong second half.
The Indians' turning point came on June 27.
With his club losing ground in the AL Central, Shapiro gave up on competing this season and traded ace Bartolo Colon to Montreal for Stevens, infielder Brandon Phillips and pitcher Cliff Lee.
Transition was no longer part of the Indians' vernacular.
"We admitted we were rebuilding," Shapiro said. "That wasn't easy to do."
It got tougher.
During the All-Star break, manager Charlie Manuel met with Shapiro and demanded to know if he was part of the future. Shapiro wasn't ready to make a commitment, and the young GM fired Manuel, replacing him on July 11 with third-base coach Joel Skinner.
Five days later, the Indians lost Jimmy Warfield, their beloved trainer for 32 years, who had a brain hemorrhage.
"Nothing was as tough this season as losing Jimmy Warfield," Shapiro said. "Nothing."
Over the next few weeks, Shapiro traded Finley and veteran relievers Paul Shuey and Ricardo Rincon. In exchange, the Indians got unknown minor league prospects who wouldn't be seen by Cleveland fans until September.
In August, Bob Wickman's brittle elbow gave out. The closer will have reconstructive surgery and miss all of 2003.
Second baseman Ricky Gutierrez revealed he had played with a sore neck since April. Like Wickman, he was done for the year and is facing possible career-ending surgery.
Outfielder Matt Lawton had shoulder surgery. He may not be ready until next May.
The month closed on another down note as third baseman Travis Fryman announced his retirement.
September was for the rookies -- 19 were on the final-day roster -- and Jim Thome.
Thome, who is eligible for free agency, set the club's single-season record with 52 homers and reached base in last 55 straight games.
He batted .304, scored 101 runs and led the AL with 122 walks. Thome also had 118 RBIs, his final one coming in the sixth inning on Sunday.
After getting his 500th career RBI at the Jake, Thome was lifted for a pinch-runner and given his third curtain call of the final weekend by Indians fans who don't want him to leave.
He doesn't want to go, and the Indians are determined to re-sign him as long as they don't have to sacrifice the future by overpaying to keep Thome.
"We'll see what happens," Thome said. "It's been a great ride here."
As he walked off the field following Sunday's win over Kansas City, Thome stopped in front of the Indians' dugout to wave one last goodbye to the adoring fans - and to a season Cleveland fans won't soon forget.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)