Last April, everybody was talking up the Tribe. Cory Snyder and Joe Carter posed for a Sports Illustrated cover, picking the Cleveland Indians to win the American League East became the cool thing to do and Opening Day attendance in Cleveland doubled the previous year's.The only trouble was, they had to play the season.
The pitching fell apart, Snyder struggled with slumps and strikeouts, the manager was fired in July and the Indians finished last in their division. But as they wrapped up spring training in Tucson last week and prepared to the open the season tonight at Texas, the Indians were feeling good about themselves again. "My confidence is high," Snyder said.
Which was not always true last summer. For the first time, James Cory Snyder, the kid who, according to legend, hit three home runs against UNLV in his first game as a BYU freshman, went through slumps. Of course, many big leaguers would love to have 33 homers and 82 RBI in a "bad" season, but Snyder shattered a Cleveland record by striking out 166 times and his batting average fell to .236.
One pitcher, Baltimore's Mark Williamson, said of Snyder, "He looked bad swinging at pitches down all night, hacking at them." And that was after Williamson had given up a game-winning homer to him.
At home in Southern California, his father, Jim, watched Cleveland's games via satellite dish and was cringing with most every at bat. "I could see the wheels going around in his head while the pitcher was winding up," he said.
Frequent phone calls home and long talks with his road roommate, Brett Butler, helped Cory, but he still had a violently up-and-down season. From July 6 through Sept. 29, his average went from .232 to .256 and back to .229 before he closed the season with four hits on the last day.
Butler, now with San Francisco, well remembers Snyder's searching. "He's been a big fish his whole life," he said, "and he'd never been in an opportunity to fail. It was just the mental part that he'd never gone through."
The high expectations were not the trouble for Snyder, who's faced those all his ball-playing life. He may have done too much too soon in the big leagues by coming up from Triple-A in June 1986 and putting together a full season worth of numbers 24 homers, 69 RBI and a .272 average in 103 games but the toughest part for him last season was not living up to his own standards.
Says Jim Snyder, a former minor-league infielder, "He started to panic . . . He was so frustrated. Once you get going downhill like that, it's very hard to right that ship."
After last season, Cory has a much better idea of how to handle slumps besides not getting into them in the first place. "You just learn that when you get in a slump, you don't try to change everything around," he says.
When he went home for the winter, Snyder told his father, "If I don't do something with this talent, everyone else will catch up."
He went through his most ambitious offseason program ever, lifting weights with a neighbor, former U.S. Olympic teammate Mark McGwire of Oakland, and set about being the Cory Snyder that he and a lot of baseball people expect him to be. "He will be an All-Star," former Cleveland hitting coach Bobby Bonds predicted in Snyder's rookie season. "And in the long run, he should be Hall of Fame material."
Snyder does have genuine ability. Now that he's in right field to stay after trials around the infield, his arm the one that earned him a BYU scholarship as a pitcher, before he landed at third base and shortstop looks like one of the best in the business. "He's got a cannon for an arm," says McGwire. "Not too many people are going to run on him." They tried last season, when Snyder was fourth among major league outfielders with 16 assists.
And those wrists. "Seriously quick wrists," says McGwire, admiringly. "He can hit a ball a long ways."
BYU Coach Gary Pullins figures Snyder can bat .280 or .290 and still hit 35 or 40 homers a year. "He can be a driving force as a major-league player," says Cleveland Manager Doc Edwards.
reasonable for a team that lost 101 games. And that part is fine with Snyder, who says, "It's a lot better when nobody expects anything . . . the media blew it out of the water."
All the high hopes faded quickly last spring when the Tribe started 1-10 and never recovered. They were 31-56 at the All-Star break, when Manager Pat Corrales was fired and replaced by Edwards, the bullpen coach. When all the preseason predictions came out last spring, the players knew better. "In their hearts," Edwards said, looking across the desk in his clubhouse office and smiling knowingly, "they knew we didn't have the pitching to contend for the first division, much less the pennant. But they couldn't say that."
So they're regrouping under Edwards, who created a more relaxed atmosphere in spring training. Snyder responded by working hard to close the holes in his swing, while still taking his cuts. "I don't want to cut down on my free-swinging," he said, "and be a defensive hitter. I want to go out there and be aggressive."
Edwards is willing to live with the strikeouts, as long as Snyder's on-base percentage goes up he walked only 31 times in more than 600 plate appearances last season. Edwards points to Jack Clark, who struck out 139 times last season, but walked that often, too.
Says Oakland's McGwire, "People make too big a thing about strikeouts. Strikeouts don't bother me if I'm feeling good at the plate and getting my cuts . . . it's an out, just like a groundout or popout. They happen."
More than anything, Snyder and the Indians are eager to start all over. A month of Arizona sun burned away the bad memories of last season when, says Snyder, thinking of clubhouses everywhere, "It got to a point where it wasn't fun coming here anymore."
While not happy about being out of the lineup for a couple of days last week after jamming his wrist while sliding into home, Snyder seemed relaxed and confident as he sat at his locker, autographing his baseball cards and sending them back. (Hint: Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope.) The Indians know they can only do better this season, and Snyder likes working with Edwards and Charlie Manuel, the new hitting coach. His contract is up after this season and, because his $185,000 salary is not much for a proven slugger, this is a key year for him.
But he's hoping mostly to have fun again, and teammate Mel Hall says, "We're expecting big things from him." Just like always.