With the Cleveland Indians of 2008 in desperate need of a true leadoff hitter, (Grady should be batting third), we decided to go back 18 years and look at who the Tribe felt would be their leadoff hitter for the next decade.
The year was 1990, and the John McNamara-led Indians were in need of a spark. Hank Peters had noticed that the St. Louis Cardinals possessed a slick-fielding speedy outfielder who sported motorcycle goggles. With Mitch Webster not exactly tearing the cover off of the ball, the Indians went ahead and traded catching prospect Tom Lampkin for center fielder Alex Cole.
Just one week later he would set a Major League record by five bases bases against the lollipop arm of Kansas City Royals catcher Mike MacFarlane. He ended the season batting .300 and driving in 13 run
I was 11 years old back then, and he instantly became my favorite player. I waited over two hours to get his autograph at a local baseball card shop that summer.
The front office was very excited about this projected future phenom patrolling center field for years to come. They immediately moved back and increased the height of the center field wall in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium for the 1991 season. This was done apparently to maximize Cole's range and potential gap hit opportunities.
Alex Cole was subsequently caught stealing 17 times that year and never showed his Gold Glove potential. The wall experiment didn't work, as the Indians finished a dismal 57-105 and John McNamara was fired in the middle of the season.
Murray Chass wrote about Cole's struggles in the New York Times on July 28, 1991. Here is what he said:
Ironically, Cole's performance in 1990 was pivotal in prompting the power-poor Indians to move back the Cleveland Stadium fences. They figured they would win with speed, primarily Cole's.
"I think it goes back to spring training when Alex fell coming out of the batter's box and dislocated his shoulder," Mike Hargrove, the Indians' manager, said, trying to explain the outfielder's enigmatic effort. "He's been tentative as a baserunner since. He's been hesitant about sliding headfirst, especially going back into first base. It's made him more cautious. He's not aggressive, and he doesn't get a good jump like he did."
Cole, Hargrove added, has played "like he doesn't want to make a mistake" and that, too, has made him cautious. "We did some things to calm his fears," the manager said. "We said if we make mistakes on bases, do it on the base ahead and not on the base behind. Go out and put pressure on the other team. We've let him know that no one's going to shoot him for being thrown out. No one's ever given him that idea. It's just a perceived notion of his that he's under pressure not to make mistakes."
Even though he has tried to steal only 24 times, Cole ranks second in the American League in number of times caught.
It was the beginning of the end for Alex Cole in a Tribe uniform, as he was traded on July 4, 1992 to the Pittsburgh Pirates for minor leaguer Tony Mitchell, giving way to former University of Arizona point guard Kenny Lofton.
Cole bounced around the majors the next four-and-a-half years with the Pirates, expansion Rockies, Twins, and Red Sox. He was out of the league after 1996, while bouncing around the minors a few years after that.
Unfortunately, this is not where the Alex Cole story ends.
In 2002 he plead guilty to possession with the intent to distribute heroin and served 18 months in jail. Four years later, a judgment in excess of $30,000.00 was entered against him for running up credit card bills under a friend's name and then not repaying them (i.e. stealing money).
I prefer to remember Alex Cole as I knew him 18 years ago, as a speedy center fielder with the cool goggles. There wasn't much to root for with the Wahoos back then, and he provided hope for a prosperous future.
Hopefully the current Indians' regime can find a spark plug that they can stick at the top of the order to set the table, so we don't have to suffer through anymore disappointing summers.