Just four seasons ago, the Cleveland Indians were a few innings away from winning the American League pennant and an appearance in the 2007 World Series.
That the Indians lost that Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox was not, in retrospect, the worst thing that could have happened to a franchise which has not won a title since 1948.
But it was the end of an era and the beginning of a steep decline for the Tribe. Eric Wedge, the manager of that team, has since been fired and such stars as CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez have been traded.
The window of opportunity, which seemed to open in Cleveland in the early 1990s as the team readied to move into a new ballpark and saw them win three pennants from 1995 to 2007, appeared to slam shut.
The fate of the Indians seemed to mirror that of the city, and the two were not unrelated.
Economically hard-hit, the same city which set an American League record for most consecutive sell-outs, suddenly lost jobs and people.
Not surprisingly, with attendance in a nosedive, the Indians could not afford to keep their best players. The sell-off began.
But a funny thing has happened this spring. In the first three weeks of the season, the Indians enjoyed the best record in baseball at 12-4. Their rebuilding process, thought to be long and arduous, was suddenly looking ahead of schedule. The Indians swept Boston at home then posted a winning record on a road swing to the West Coast.
"I'm excited," said Manny Acta, the second-year manager. "That's what baseball is all about. It's early, yes. But I don't care. I'm happy. I'm excited about my club.''
Acta has reason for optimism. The Indians boast a number of young players who are making an impact, including Carlos Santana, their catcher. If Michael Brantley, their centre fielder, and Matt LaPorta, their first baseman, can make contributions too, the Indians could continue to surprise.
Meanwhile, the Indians are welcoming back Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, both of whom were severely limited in playing time and production by injuries over the last two seasons.
It is unlikely the Indians will contend throughout the season and most agree their time is still a season or two away. But for a city hit by hard times, Cleveland will take any good news it can get.
This week in the MLB
Teams of the week
• Tampa Bay Rays. They began the season 0-6 and Manny Ramirez quit rather than face a 100-game drug ban, but have since taken off, winning eight of 11. Last week, the Rays were 6-1. Manny who?
• Washington Nationals. Like the Rays, the Nationals stumbled at first. And like the Rays, they have rebounded nicely, going 4-2 in the last week. Stephen Strasburg will miss the season, but the Nats will not be pushovers.
Players of the week
• Jed Lowrie, Boston Red Sox. Tabbed as Boston’s utility infielder, Lowrie forced himself into the line-up with a stretch that saw him hit safely in seven consecutive games. During that streak, Lowrie hit a smouldering .625 (15-for-24) with nine RBI.
• Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins. He could be the game’s most dominant starting pitcher. He allowed no runs and struck out 18 in 14 innings over two starts last week. Each time, he flirted with a no-hitter.
Duds of the week
•Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds. The second-year pitcher was arrested for attempting to shoplift six T-shirts at a department store, charged with removing the price tags on shirts that totalled just US$60 (Dh220). It’s not as if Leake couldn’t have bought the shirts himself: he will make $425,000 this season.
Series of the week
• Kansas City at Texas, Friday-Sunday. The Rangers lead the AL West, which is no surprise. The shock is the start being enjoyed by the Royals, who are tied, with Texas, for the second-best record in the league. The good times are unlikely to last for the Royals, but this will be a good test for them.
• Cincinnati at Milwaukee, Monday-Wednesday. The Reds are the defending NL Central champions, but the Brewers might have the best shot of unseating them. This is their first chance to measure up against the division leaders. The clubs were tied after the first 17 games of the season.