CLEVELAND -- When baseball's postseason cranks up this week, there will be plenty of players and coaches wearing Indians uniforms who had their fill of chicken wings on their way up to the bright lights of Jacobs Field.
Unlike any major-league club in recent history, the 2007 Tribe is a made-in-Buffalo outfit.
The Bisons and Indians first hooked up in 1995, right when the Tribe went on its run of six division titles in seven years that included trips to the '95 and '97 World Series. And there were a few key Buffalo-based contributions (Chad Ogea's two wins in the '97 Series and Richie Sexson's 31-homer season in 1999 among them).
But no one on manager Mike Hargrove's coaching staff on either Series team came through Buffalo. And neither did anyone from the star-studded core. Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Charles Nagy, Omar Vizquel and Jose Mesa were either trade acquisitions or homegrown products whose Triple-A days were spent elsewhere in the early '90s.
Things are quite different this time thanks to the Indians' rebuilding process under General Manager Mark Shapiro, the farm director who built Buffalo's championship clubs of 1997 and 1998. It resulted in a 96-win season that tied the Red Sox for the best record in the majors.
Manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis had the same roles on spectacular Buffalo teams in 2001 and 2002. Bench coach Jeff Datz won a title here as a manager in 1998 and third-base coach Joel Skinner took the Herd to a division crown in 2000.
The likely 25-man postseason roster trying for the Indians' first World Series title since 1948 includes 15 former Bisons.
"The depth of our organization is something we've really worked hard to establish," Wedge said before a recent game. "We've utilized that year in and year out. This year, it's been a big contributor."
Key players all over the field have Bisons lineage.
Center fielder Grady Sizemore, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, first baseman Ryan Garko and pitcher Fausto Carmona all played major roles on Buffalo's 2004 Governors' Cup championship team. Catcher Victor Martinez and DH Travis Hafner helped the Herd start 2003 with a 48-30 record and their promotions contributed to Buffalo's downfall in the second half of that season.
Five members of the '07 Bisons -- second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, relievers Jensen Lewis and Rafael Perez and outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Ben Francisco -- have also been big factors. The Tribe probably cemented the Central Division title when it called up the 21-year-old Cabrera in early August and put him in the lineup every day in place of slumping Josh Barfield.
"Guys like Jhonny and Grady really showed me the ropes in Buffalo in 2004 and it was a special thing we shared there," Garko said. "Doing this with them again has been amazing. I went to the World Series in 2002 [watching the Los Angeles Angels beat San Francisco] and it was unbelievable. I can't even imagine what that would be like for us."
"In Buffalo, it was our job to develop these guys to do exactly what they're doing," said Bisons manager Torey Lovullo, who spent September as a coach with the big club. "We want them to accept responsibility as a big leaguer, look [Wedge] in the eye and tell him they can get the job done.
"These guys are on the verge of doing something unbelievable. There's something really special going on here.
>Farm breeds Carmona
When the national media starts probing the '07 Indians, the farm system will certainly get a ton of attention because the only veteran addition from the offseason who has had impact is closer Joe Borowski. The only trade-deadline boost came from the return of former Tribe center fielder Kenny Lofton.
Before one recent game, a USA Today reporter asked Wedge if his team had received any surprising contributions this year. The local reporters in the group burst out laughing and Wedge snickered too.
"Oh yeah, it's not quite how we had it planned out, I'll tell you that much," Wedge said. "But it's a credit to our depth and the poise of our young players."
With starters Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers flaming out and landing back in Triple-A, the biggest farm star of this season is Carmona. He has reminded everyone of a young Pedro Martinez since he won 17 games at Class A Lake County in 2003 and burst on the scene for the Bisons in the '04 playoffs. Riding an electric sinker, Carmona went 19-8, was second in the AL with a 3.06 earned run average and is in the middle of every Cy Young Award discussion.
The Indians tried making Carmona a closer last year and it was a disaster, a flurry of last-pitch losses that produced a 1-10 season. The Dominican's confidence wasn't ruined, in part because of some quality starts in Buffalo at the end of '06 and because of the solid job he did in the big leagues as a set-up man earlier in the year.
"Everybody talks about last year and they're talking about 10 days," Wedge said. "Look at those six weeks where he set up prior to those 10 days as the closer. He was as dominant a set-up guy as there was in the American League.
"He's just pitching more of his stuff, a little better idea what he wants to do. He's doing a better job using the plate, how he wants to utilize his weapon and his tools."
>More than just Fausto
Carmona was far from the only stunning surprise in '07.
Cabrera, who spent most of the season in Double-A before hitting .283 in Cleveland, was being groomed as a shortstop. But he got a crash course at second base during his nine-game August road trip with the Herd and was off to the big leagues. Don't remember him at Dunn Tire Park? Don't fret. Those were the only nine games he played in Triple-A this year.
"Cabrera got so hot so quick, he really helped us both offensively and defensively," Sizemore said. "It's impressive to see what these guys are doing so quickly. It's not an easy spot to come into this situation."
"Asdrubal has done a great job," Wedge said. "He's in the middle of everything. It's the only way I can describe it. He really has a clear understanding of the game for a young player."
Gutierrez, who batted .341 in Buffalo this year before a May call-up, had 13 home runs in just 271 at-bats and has played a terrific right field. The Tribe expected to be using David Dellucci, Shin-Soo Choo and Trot Nixon there but all have been injured.
"Franklin has been around a couple spring trainings and was up last year so we knew what he could do," Hafner said. "We know the minor-league system has a lot of talent but it's really tough to make the impact these guys have done. They've provided a tremendous spark."
In the bullpen, Rafael Perez moved from the Bisons' rotation to the Indians' left-handed set-up role and has become one of the best in the majors thanks to his devastating sinker/slider combo. Left-handers batted just .145 against Perez and he posted a 1.78 ERA.
Lewis, 23, began the year in Double-A, rocketed through Buffalo (1-0, 1.38 in 10 games) and went 1-1, 2.15 in 26 games with the Tribe. In a sign-of-the-times moment, he announced his first big-league call-up July 13 on his Facebook.com page.
"Just one of those things you get caught up in the moment," Lewis said. "Anytime you get on a roll like this, it's always confidence. For me, it's not getting too overwhelmed like I did when I first came up trying to do too much. I try to tell myself it's the same game, just a different venue."
Lewis could be the Tribe's No. 1 human interest story. A Cleveland native who grew up in Cincinnati, he cried as a 13-year-old when the Tribe lost Game Seven to the Marlins in '97. And he was ridiculed at school for wearing a jersey of Vizquel, his favorite player. Now he's trying to help avenge that loss.
"Ridiculous," he said, laughing. "Absolutely ridiculous. This is storybook stuff."
>Standouts star again
Established ex-Bisons have certainly been keys as well. Among position players, Martinez is the Tribe's MVP and belted a career-high 25 home runs. Hafner struggled much of the year but most players would take a 24-home run, 100-RBI season. Same for Sizemore, who strikes out too much but still hit .277 with 78 RBIs and 33 steals. Rafael Betancourt (5-1, 1.47), another '03 alum, has become the AL's top set-up man.
Garko, a converted catcher who made the team as the first baseman when he thought he might return to Buffalo, became a 20-home run man. More important, he became a solid defensive player.
The biggest turnaround came from Peralta, who hit just .257 with 13 home runs and was brutal defensively at times last season. It was a big step back after he hit .292 with 24 home runs in 2005 on the heels of his MVP season in Buffalo in '04 (.326-15-86).
After last season, Peralta had laser eye surgery. And he recommitted in the weight room to work on his body, which had grown two inches and added nearly 20 pounds from '05 to '06. He's still not that polished defensively but Peralta improved to .271 with 21 home runs this season.
"I feel great. It's been a good year," Peralta said. "I'm really, really happy to have 20 home runs. I'm not finished yet and we aren't either."
"You're talking about a guy who really committed to change on the mental, physical and fundamental side," Wedge said. "The league adjusted to him last year but he adjusted all winter, spring and through this season. He's a great example of what you have to do to get better. It doesn't always happen."
>Learn from experience
The youthful Indians were in the pennant race in 2004 until August. They won 93 games in '05 but went 1-6 in the last week to choke away the Central. Then they took a step back last year as bullpen trouble doomed them to a 78-84 record. But that club finished 31-20 and never lost that momentum.
"When we were in Minnesota, [Twins outfielder] Torii Hunter said, 'These guys have been together so long and there's such a tremendous nucleus, it's like they're a family,' " Lovullo said. "That's very important to us. They've been groomed, they came close in '05 and there's a learning curve. They're not going to let things slip away."
"We know we have to take it one step at a time but, sure, we all know what's out there," Garko said. "We can do something really special that almost no one in this room has accomplished -- and that hasn't been done around here in a long time."e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org