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The 1997 Indians: An example for how the Cubs could make the postseason

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The franchise the Cubs defeated in the World Series might have some lessons for them.

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With no Cubs or major-league games on TV Wednesday night, I found myself watching a MLB Network documentary on the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s — the team that was a dominant force for several years, with lots of young stars, that got to the World Series twice but didn’t win either time.

After having a dominant regular season in 1995 — winning 100 games even though the season had been shortened to 144 games — they ran into the buzzsaw of the Braves pitching staff in the World Series and lost in six games.

Then they won 99 games in 1996, only to run into an 88-win Orioles team that got hot at the right time and they lost their division series to Baltimore three games to one.

This created a sense of urgency for team management, which, similar to the current Cubs, had put together a team of great young players by draft and by trade, and added in some veteran free agents.

By the time 1997 had started they had traded Kenny Lofton, who was among the most popular of their young players (and who they’d acquired in a lopsided trade from the Astros), as well as sending Carlos Baerga to the Mets. Coming back in those deals were Marquis Grissom, David Justice, Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino, all important pieces for the Tribe for the next several seasons.

They got off to a slow start in 1997, sticking fairly close to the .500 mark in the first half before playing better in August and September and winning the A.L. Central with just 86 wins. It helped that no one else in that division was any good — the Indians were the only team in that division that year who finished over .500.

They were the underdogs against the 96-win Yankees in their division series, but came back from a two-games-to-one deficit to advance to the ALCS.

There they faced the 98-win Orioles. Tony Fernandez hit a home run in the 11th inning of Game 6 for the series win.

You likely know the disappointment of Indians fans when their team lost Game 7 of the World Series that year, in extra innings (sound familiar?) after being two outs away from winning that game in the bottom of the ninth. The Cubs, of course, continued that disappointment for Cleveland fans last year.

But that Indians team, which won fewer games than its two predecessors, came closer to winning the World Series than the 100-win 1995 team did. (Not that we’d want the Cubs to get to the Series and then lose it!)

My point: The Cubs might have to make deals that are unpopular with fans in order to continue winning. The Indians made five straight postseasons and six of seven with their core beginning in 1995. Other teams with long postseason runs, such as the 1990s/early 2000s Braves, didn’t stand pat, either. They had to constantly rework their roster to continue winning.

The parallels aren’t exact, of course, and every year is different. But the Cubs could do the same before the July 31 trading deadline. There’s still time to improve this year’s team and still time to win.