Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians
Each week during the 2012-13 offseason DTTWLN will take a look back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians season—specifically the 18 thrilling games of the postseason as the Indians made an improbable run to game seven of the World Series.
PART ONE: LOWERED EXPECTATIONS
By Steve Eby
Heading into the 1997 baseball season, expectations for the Cleveland Indians were as low as they had been in years. After two years of dominating the American League Central Division, cruising to 199 regular season victories, two trips to the post-season and a 1995 American League pennant, the Tribe was supposed to take a major step back and fall back to reality and into a pennant chase.
The roster coming into ’97 did not have the fire power of the previous two years. Eddie Murray was traded away in July of 1996 and Carlos Baerga was shipped away a week later. Jeromy Burnitz was dealt in August and Dennis Martinez and Tony Pena were let go at the end of the season. During the offseason, Albert Belle signed a massive free agent contract with the Chicago White Sox and the Tribe traded Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino, Julian Tavarez and Joe Roa to the San Francisco Giants.
The biggest blow to the team, undeniably, was the loss of Belle. The big left fielder had finished in the top three of the MVP race in each of the previous three years and was arguably the best player in franchise history. From 1994-96, Belle had hit .325 with 134 homeruns and 375 RBI. He was the best player in the American League and was the core of the most thunderous lineup that baseball had seen in almost a half century.
To make matters worse, with Albert now being on the south side of Chicago, the White Sox were the new favorite to capture the AL Central crown. The Pale Hose teamed the former Indian slugger up with two-time MVP Frank Thomas to form the most formidable three-four combination in baseball. The steady Robin Ventura batted fifth and the starting pitching staff featured solid veterans in Jaime Navarro, Doug Drabek and Danny Darwin as well as up-and-coming youngsters James Baldwin and Wilson Alvarez. The back of their bullpen was also solid as future Indian Roberto Hernandez was in the prime of his career and locking down saves by the dozen. The Sox were in prime position and expected to drop the new-look Indians from their perch on top of the division.
Heading into Spring Training, doubt was definitely deep in the minds of Cleveland fans because of how much talent had skipped town since the previous year. The White Sox seemed exponentially improved, while the Tribe planned on replacing their lost talent mostly with newly acquired third baseman Matt Williams (who came in the trade with San Francisco), internal options in the organization and “creative” reshuffling of player’s positions. With a Gold Glover in Williams taking over the hot corner, the plan was to move star slugger Jim Thome across the diamond to first base, a decision that Manager Mike Hargrove said later on that made Thome the player that he became.
“Jimmy was a better player once we moved him to first base from third,” Hargrove said. “Moving to first base helped him relax and really become the player that he eventually became. It was fun to watch because you knew that if he stayed with that approach he could do things that could make him a Hall of Famer.”
With Thome taking over at first, 1996 first baseman Julio Franco also needed to change positions. Hargrove tried his 38 year old veteran at second base, a position that Franco had not played regularly since 1991. With an aging Franco and Thome learning a new position on the right side and Williams and the magical Omar Vizquel on the left side, the two sides of the Tribe infield could not have been more polar opposites. The infield also could not have looked much different than it did in the previous two seasons.
In the outfield, one giant bat was missing in leftfield and was replaced by one giant man. Kevin Mitchell was originally projected to receive most of the playing time in left, even though he had a body more like a designated hitter (or perhaps a defensive tackle). Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez were being counted on to take their normal spots in centerfield and right, but a Spring Training blockbuster trade would eventually shake things up in the outfield as well.
To go along with the changes in the starting lineup, the Tribe’s bench got a makeover as well. The Indians added veteran players to back-up their stars as they signed infielders Robby Thompson and Tony Fernandez, outfielders Chad Curtis and Mitchell and catcher Pat Borders. Despite the almost-new looking offense, the Indians pitching staff remained somewhat intact.
Charles Nagy, who started the 1996 All-Star Game was expected to anchor the staff along with veteran Orel Hershiser. Chad Ogea was looking to have a breakout season and the underperforming ’96 free agent Jack McDowell was ready for a big bounce-back year. Replacing “El Presidente” Martinez was a big job that was expected to be handed to rookie flamethrower Bartolo Colon out of camp.
The bullpen also remained mostly untouched and expectations were high, as closer Jose Mesa was coming off of back-to-back All-Star seasons. Also returning were veteran setup men Paul Assenmacher and Eric Plunk as well as youngster Paul Shuey. Added to the mix was another veteran, Mike Jackson, who had quite a bit of bullpen success in his previous seasons in Seattle and San Francisco.
As Spring Training started and moved on, the Indians seemed to be somewhat unimpressed by their new-look squad. By the time camp had nearly ended, General Manager John Hart decided that not enough changes had been made and shocked the baseball world with one of the biggest trades that baseball had seen in years.
There were only six exhibition games left to be played when Hart traded Lofton and relief pitcher Alan Embree to the Atlanta Braves on March 25. Lofton, the almost unquestionable best player left on the team, was scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season and Belle’s departure months before seemed to have spooked the Indians.
“We had to make this trade based on the fact that Kenny Lofton is a free agent at the end of the ’97 season,” Hart said in a 1997 interview from the Houston Chronicle. “We went through it last year with Albert Belle, and Albert left us. We were not prepared to let that happen again.” A stunned and unhappy Lofton had a different view on the exchange.
“I didn’t want to get traded,” Lofton said. “I think at that time, John Hart and those guys jumped the gun. I always stress on communication and if the team would have communicated with me, I never would have gotten traded. They just reacted and I was very upset.”
The fans of Cleveland were upset as well. Lofton was the energy of the team; the sparkplug that made the Indians mighty engine go. He was the most popular player that was left and was considered by many to be the most exciting player in the game. The haul that the Indians got back was a good one, but getting rid of Lofton after trading away Baerga and losing out on Belle was almost an unforgivable crime.
In exchange for their superstar, the Indians got back a couple of former All-Star outfielders in David Justice and Marquis Grissom. Grissom was considered to be the National League’s poor-man’s version of Lofton and was slated to step into Kenny’s spot in centerfield and at the top of the order. Justice was coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him for most of the ’96 season, but was expected to replace Belle’s spot in left field and part of his offensive production. It was the Indians hope that Justice and Williams could provide enough punch in the middle of the Tribe order and that Grissom could be a big enough boost at the top of the order to help Cleveland forget that both Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton were gone.
“I thought (the team) was still going to be really good,” Indians radio play-by-play announcer Tom Hamilton said. “Even though (Belle and Lofton) were gone, you had added Marquis Grissom, David Justice and Matt Williams. I still thought that this team was going to be very good.”