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My Last Favorite Indian

When I was younger, my brothers and I all had our favorite Indians. It was - to us - an obvious requisite for being a fan. Be Rad was an Omar fan, my younger brother favored Kenny Lofton, and the one after him was firmly in Sandy Alomar, Jr.'s camp. The last two didn't exist yet. I loved Jim Thome. Played third base in Little League because he did for the Tribe. Wore my socks up because he did. Struck out a lot because I didn't have any talent, but he struck out a lot too, so I was okay. I was 17 when he packed up his wife and his lies and left town.

That next year, Jhonny arrived on the scene. Kind of. He tore the cover off the ball to the tune of a .621 OPS in 242 mid-to-late season at bats. He added 25 more ABs of uninspiring ball in 2004 before completely exploding onto the scene in 2005. At 23, he posted .292/.366/.520 as a shortstop while giving Indians fans a reason to use the phrase "Woody Held" in a way that wouldn't get you kicked out of church. I was sold. Thome was ancient history, and I had my new favorite Indian.

 As is the case with almost any relationship, Jhonny and I had our ups and downs. After his monster year in 2005, he kind of blew in 2006. I worried about him, but I had to put on a brave face to defend him to the people around me. "The league is adjusting to him," I would say. "He'll adjust back and be just fine." His OPS+ was 137 as a 23-year-old at short! I was sure Jhonny was the future. He'd be back.

And sure enough, he was. Over the course of the next two years, he hit 69 doubles and 44 home runs. While his defense wasn't going to win him any awards, he was adequate. His range was what my college coach might describe as "cardiac," (i.e., he could have a heart attack on his way to any given ball, and the resultant fall wouldn't significantly diminish his range). His hands were good enough and his arm was accurate if not especially strong. His height and relatively high arm angle when compared to other SS generally gave TV viewers the impression that he had just chucked it towards Keith Olberman's mom, but the ball generally got where it needed to go.

Sadly, it was in 1910 that the seeds on Jhonny's demise were sown, and chinks had been showing in his armor even during his halycon seasons with the Tribe. It was somewhere in 1910 when, by most accounts (according to my copy of the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers), Chief Bender came up with the "nickel curve" that we now call a slider. Nearly a century later, Major League scouts and pitchers had identified a good slider as Jhonny's kryptonite. This no doubt in some way contributed to his apparent inability to identify the parameters of the strike zone. His walk rate, while never stellar, has continued to decline, and his numbers have followed suit. This, combined with his repeated insistence on rolling over off-speed pitches into weak grounders to the left side, made Peralta a hard player to defend. Even so, defend him I did.

Oh, but I loved Jhonny, polarizing figure that he was. I would blind myself to his flaws and overstate his virtues. I would bristle when people called him fat or lazy or stubborn. I would hang on his every at-bat, begging him to plug the gap in right-center and bump his OPS back towards .750. He was doing this early this year, and drawing enough walks to keep his OPS+ around 100. "Look," I would proclaim happily to the doubters, "he's a league-average hitter when adjusted for park factors and things of the like!" League-average. He was my favorite player, and I was reduced to clinging to the hope of a triple-digit OPS+. I didn't care; he was Jhonny. Now he's a Tiger.

There will always be Indians I like more (or less) than others, but I'm not going to have another favorite Indian. Part of it is opportunity; a favorite player grows on me by continued exposure, and I don't currently have a TV or the internet at home. But a large part of it is just the realities of life and the game. I have bills to pay and a job that I hate, my favorite team already stinks, my favorite football team is no better, my favorite basketball team just lost its best player in a painful but completely understandable decision. On the Tribe, players all too often come and go through no fault of their own or the Dolans'. That's life; the rewards related to tying my emotional well-being into one player simply don't come close to outweighing the risks.

My dad never had a favorite Indian when I was growing up, and lately I've begun to understand why. I feel like I've fully come of age as a fan. For many of us, the last iteration of the Tribe ended with the Victor trade. For me, it ended at about 6:45 last night. Godspeed, Uncle Jhonny.

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