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End of season may be end of era for Tribe

CLEVELAND – Most of the Cleveland Indians had been through this drill before, explaining how another promising season ended short of the goal.

But after losing Game 5 of the AL playoffs on Monday in Seattle’s Safeco Field, there was something very different about the way the Indians said goodbye to 2001.

A season ended. An era may have, too.

Manager Charlie Manuel sat in his office and rubbed his eyes. Bob Wickman went to every locker in Cleveland’s quiet clubhouse and hugged teammates.

Kenny Lofton and Dave Burba slowly took off their gray Indians’ road jerseys, perhaps for the last time, and rookie C.C. Sabathia choked back tears.

As Juan Gonzalez shooed away reporters until next spring, John Rocker showered and dressed – alone.

And in the middle of the room, departing general manager John Hart talked about the team he built and the one he’s leaving behind.

“I’m very disappointed we didn’t win this, but more than anything I feel a lot of pride for what we did accomplish,” said Hart, who is stepping down on Nov. 1, ending a marvelous 10-year run. “I’m proud of what we did here in Cleveland.”

Doing it again may prove to be the franchise’s biggest challenge. After missing the postseason a year ago, the Indians were again one of baseball’s elite teams. They chased down the Minnesota Twins in the second half; won their sixth AL Central title in seven years; staged baseball’s biggest one-game comeback in 76 years; and were within nine outs of ending the Mariners’ magical season.

But they let it slip away, and Cleveland’s 100th anniversary season ended without a celebration and just like every other season since 1948 – without a World Series title.

“I’ll remember this,” said Sabathia, the 21-year-old pitcher who won 17 games during the regular season and another in the playoffs. “I don’t ever want to feel this feeling again. This hurts. I feel like it’s all for nothing. I had a great year, but my team lost and that’s what matters most.”

What mattered most in the playoffs was the Indians, who pride themselves on bashing pitchers into submission, didn’t hit a lick when it counted most.

Cleveland should have saved some of those 19 hits it got in a 17-2 rout of Seattle in Game 3. In the series’ decisive game, the heart of Cleveland’s order – Gonzalez, Jim Thome and Ellis Burks – went a combined 0-for-13 and didn’t hit a ball beyond the infield dirt.

“We take pride hitting in the middle of the order,” said Thome, who hit 49 homers in the regular season. “But good pitching always beats good hitting. That’s what baseball is all about.”

And maybe that’s what the Indians, who will now be run by assistant GM Mark Shapiro, should think about.

Cleveland needs a makeover.

The days of power and punch could be replaced by pitching, speed and defense if the Indians’ front office slashes a $90 million payroll and decides to use younger players.

“At some point,” third baseman Travis Fryman said. “You’ve got to reload.”

Shapiro’s first decision is a tough one.

The Indians have a contract option for 2002 on Manuel, who has missed 26 games over the past two seasons while being hospitalized. He will soon have his gall bladder removed.

The 57-year-old Manuel, who just completed his second season as manager, said his health isn’t a concern but the club will certainly factor it into its decision about his future.

Fryman said he won’t be shocked if Manuel doesn’t return.

“I hope Charlie is back,” Fryman said. “I like to play for Charlie. But I won’t be surprised if he’s not. I think health will play a part in the decision. Your life is a little more important than a baseball season.”

Lofton will be a free agent and it’s unlikely the Indians will re-sign him after they acquired center fielder Milton Bradley from Montreal this summer.

Gonzalez signed last winter to replace Manny Ramirez’s bat, and he did, driving in 140 runs. He and the Indians share a mutual $14 million option for next year, meaning either party can back out.

There’s little doubt Gonzalez wants a long-term deal that the Indians may not be able to afford. He recently hired Jeff Moorad, the same agent who struck Ramirez’s huge deal in Boston, so he’s probably gone.

Wickman has been talking to the club about a multiyear deal, and if one gets done, Rocker may be done as well.

The controversial pitcher was awful after coming over in a trade from Atlanta, and just like during his days with the Braves, he never seemed to fit in with his new teammates.

The Indians may try and trade him, if they can find a team willing to take his baggage.

During his tenure, Hart rebuilt the Indians into a perennial AL power and may do it again with another team. He’s expected to interview for the vacant Texas GM job soon.

His legacy in Cleveland will include championships and close calls. Twice the Indians got to the World Series but failed to win it. In 1997, they were two outs away from a title before losing Game 7 to Florida.

On Monday, one more painful memory was added to the others.

“Nine outs away,” Hart said. “It was a nice run.”

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