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 FIVE: ALDS GAME 1—THOSE DAMN YANKEES
By Steve Eby
As the 1997 Cleveland Indians were set to open their third straight postseason, pessimism around the town was spreading like wildfire. “(Expectations going into the playoffs were) very minimal,” Indians radio play by play man Tom Hamilton said. “I felt, based on what I had seen all season long, there was no reason to think that this ball club was going to have a special October.”
Up first for the club were the Wild Card winning and longtime Cleveland-nemesis New York Yankees. The Yanks finished the regular season with a record of 96-66, two games behind the American League East champion Baltimore Orioles and winners of 13 of their last 16 games. The Yankees were the 1996 World Series Champions and boasted a roster full of superstars. Needless to say, the Yanks were heavy favorites over the inconsistent Indians.
Heading into game one of the best of five series, Indians Manager Mike Hargrove decided to go with a three man pitching rotation instead of four. Playoff veteran Orel Hershiser would pitch game one and game four (if necessary), rookie Jaret Wright would pitch game two and five (if necessary) and Charles Nagy would pitch game three. The Yankees also elected to go with a three man rotation, sending David Cone out for games one and four, Andy Pettitte in games two and five and David Wells in game three.
With game one featuring two playoff veterans in Cone and Hershiser, the first contest promised to be a low scoring pitcher’s duel. What actually happened was a ton of early Indian offense.
Cone, who had been on the shelf with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder since August, started out wild as he walked Bip Roberts to lead off the game. Roberts immediately stole second base and then moved to third when Omar Vizquel laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. Manny Ramirez followed with a line drive, RBI single into centerfield that gave the Indians an early 1-0 lead, but the Tribe wasn’t close to being done yet.
Jim Thome followed Ramirez by also lining a single back up the middle that moved Manny to second, but Thome was erased at second base on a fielder’s choice that David Justice had grounded into. With runners at the corners, Cone uncorked a wild pitch to Matt Williams that scored Ramirez for a 2-0 Indians lead. Justice, however, did not get a good read on the ball and stayed at first base.
Continuing his wildness, Cone hit Williams with a 1-1 fastball putting runners at first and second with two outs for Sandy Alomar, Jr. Alomar, who had a phenomenal regular season, stayed hot and blasted Cone’s 2-2 pitch over the leftfield wall for a three run homerun and an early 5-0 Tribe lead. The 57,398 stunned fans in the largest crowd in the 22-year history of the remodeled Yankee Stadium fell silent.
Hershiser set down the Yankees in order in the bottom of the first inning. Then, Cone settled down and held the Indians scoreless in the top of the second. The only blip on the radar for Cone was a two-out Vizquel single to left field. In the bottom half of the second, the Yanks got a run closer.
Hershiser led off the inning by working the count full on centerfielder Bernie Williams and then walking him. Tino Martinez (the Yankees best player in 1997) followed by lining a single to right, moving Williams to second. A walk to former Indian Chad Curtis loaded the bases with nobody out and suddenly Hershiser was in jeopardy of letting New York right back in the game.
Future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs followed with a groundball to Roberts at second, who flipped to Vizquel for one out, but Boggs beat out the relay throw avoiding the double play. Williams scored on the fielder’s choice making the score 5-1 still in favor of the Tribe.
“The Bulldog” then buckled in and got a huge strikeout of Yankees catcher Joe Girardi, blowing away the Yankees future manager on four pitches. Second baseman Rey Sanchez followed by tapping a ball weakly to Hershiser, who tossed the ball to Thome to end the inning. Orel had escaped the bases loaded, nobody out jam allowing only one run. It seemed certain that this night belonged to the Indians.
The two starting pitchers exchanged scoreless third innings and then each allowed a run in the fourth. Brian Giles led off the Tribe half by lining out to Sanchez, but Marquis Grissom followed by scorching a line drive over Sanchez’s head and into the right centerfield gap. By the time the centerfielder Williams could get to the ball and fire it back in, the speedy Grissom was at third base with a one out triple. The next batter, Roberts, smacked a line drive single into left-center to put the Indians lead back up to five at 6-1. After Roberts stole second base, Cone walked Vizquel and New York manager Joe Torre decided that he had seen enough. Cone was sent to the clubhouse having surrendered six runs in less than four innings. Torre called upon spot-starter/long reliever Ramiro Mendoza to stop the bleeding and he did so immediately. On the first pitch that Mendoza threw, Ramirez bounced a weak grounder to Boggs at third who retired Vizquel at second and Sanchez’s relay got Ramirez at first for an inning ending double play.
Gaining some momentum from their bullpen, the Yankees answered the lone Tribe run in the bottom of the fourth. After getting Williams to ground out to Roberts to start the inning, Hershiser made a mistake when he was ahead in the count of Martinez and paid for it dearly. Tino crushed Orel’s 1-2 pitch deep into the right field stands to cut the Yankee deficit to 6-2. Curtis followed the Martinez blast with a line drive single to right and suddenly Hershiser was getting hit hard. A Boggs double play grounder ended the inning, but the 39-year old Hershiser was not fooling any Yankee batters any longer.
With Hershiser resting in the dugout, Mendoza then picked up right where he left off and retired the Indians in order in the fifth. Orel came back out for bottom half, but unfortunately for the Indians, also picked right back up where he was and allowed Girardi to ground a single up the middle to kick start another Yankee rally. Sanchez followed with a double that put runners at second and third with nobody out for the second time in the ballgame, and Hershiser was on the ropes again. Tim Raines followed by lifting a fly ball to center, which Grissom caught and Girardi tagged up and scored to make the score 6-3. When Derek Jeter singled to move Sanchez to third, Hershiser’s night was over.
Hargrove turned the ball over to lefthander Alvin Morman to face the left handed Paul O’Neill. Morman struggled with his command and walked O’Neill on five pitches to load the bases and Hargrove went back to his bullpen; this time for the right handed Eric Plunk.
For the moment, Plunk seemed to be just the right recipe for the Tribe as he got the switch-hitting Williams to pop out to third and struck out Martinez looking to end the inning and the potential Yankee rally. The Indians had dodged another bullet and were in desperate need of some insurance runs to pad their 6-3 lead.
The runs did not come, however, as Mendoza was in complete control. The right hander set down Alomar, Giles and Grissom in order in the top of the sixth, needing only eight pitches to carve through the bottom of the Tribe order. Letting the Yankees hang around in Yankee Stadium is a recipe for disaster, and the Tribe was about to learn this lesson again.
Plunk retired Curtis to start the bottom of the sixth and then things turned historically bad for the Tribe. Boggs stayed hot and slapped a single to left to start the one out rally. He moved to second on a fielder’s choice groundout by Girardi and scored on a Sanchez single which cut the lead to 6-4 and brought the potential tying run to the plate in the form of Raines.
With momentum clearly on the side of the Yankees, the crowd at the stadium was buzzing and in Plunk’s head. ”I was thinking that now the fans were into it,” Raines said in a Jack Curry article from the New York Times. ”Once we get the fans into it, it helped change the game.”
It didn’t take long for the fan’s buzz to turn into a roar, as Raines blasted a 2-1 forkball high and deep into the Bronx night. The towering blast landed in the upper deck in right field and the Indians five run advantage had evaporated as the Yanks tied the game at 6-6.
As Raines crossed home plate, he bumped fists with the next batter, Jeter, before heading back to the dugout. The Yankee faithful remained on their feet and Jeter would not step into the batter’s box until Raines stepped back out onto the field and waved his helmet to the appreciative crowd.
Once Jeter climbed into the box, Plunk got ahead of the young shortstop 0-2 and tried to run a fastball in on his hands to try and put him away. Jeter swung weakly and barely got his arms extended, but hit the ball on the “meat” of the bat. The ball sailed deep to left field and over Giles’ head. By the time the Indian left fielder could get back to it, the ball had crept over the wall for another homerun and a 7-6 Yankees lead.
”I don’t hit many, so I’m excited,” Jeter said in the Curry article about his 375 foot blast. ”I think the fans blew it out.” No matter the cause of Jeter’s homerun, Hargrove made his way out to the mound to replace his stunned reliever.
Lefty Paul Assenmacher strolled in from the bullpen to face O’Neill and the Bronx crowd was still on their feet. O’Neill also fell behind in the count 0-2 before Assenmacher tried to sneak an outside fastball past him, but O’Neill reached out and crushed the ball out to centerfield. Grissom raced back and was pinned up against the wall as the ball banged into the empty, tarp-covered bleachers.
The crowd again went wild as the Yankees now had an 8-6 lead over the Indians after O’Neill’s 408 foot blast. The back-to-back-to-back homeruns were the first ever to be hit in baseball’s postseason history.
After yet another curtain-call, Assenmacher dug in to face the cleanup batter, Williams. Assenmacher’s first pitch, a fastball, smacked Williams in the back, immediately turning the fans cheers into boos. Williams trotted down to first base, obviously angered, but kept his cool as the umpire warned Assenmacher and the Indians bench.
The next batter was Martinez, who lifted another fly ball into left, but this one stayed in the ballpark as Giles finally recorded out number three. The fans gave a standing ovation to their Yankees who banged out four hits, three homeruns, and scored four times in the inning. The stunned Indians headed back to the dugout now down 8-6.
Needing some kind of spark, the Indians sent the top of their order up to start the top of the seventh. Roberts led off the inning with a single, which was the first base runner that Mendoza had allowed. Mendoza then struck out Vizquel and got Ramirez to fly out before Torre again went to his bullpen to get the left handed Mike Stanton to face the lefties Thome and Justice.
The two southpaws put some life into the Tribe again as Thome was able to beat out an infield single and Justice walked to load the bases for Williams. With two outs, the powerful third baseman put the scare of a lifetime into Yankee Stadium as he smashed the first pitch deep into the right field corner. O’Neill raced over and made a running catch to thwart the Indians rally and hopes for a comeback.
Assenmacher and Mike Jackson were able to hold the Yankees scoreless for the rest of the game, but unfortunately Jeff Nelson and Mariano Rivera were able to do the same to the Tribe. The Yankees won game one in thrilling, come-from-behind action despite the struggles from their starting pitcher.
“It’s incredible,” Cone said in the Curry article. “What a game. What an incredible game. I was shaky. I gave up five runs and we came back. What an incredible victory.”
For the Indians, the defeat seemed crushing. The Yankees were the heavy favorites to win the series and almost nobody around the nation or in Cleveland were giving the Tribe much hope for an upset. Spirits around northeastern Ohio were at an all-time low, as the Indians were now down one game to zero in the best of five series following a game that they seemed to have in the bag. What made matters worse was that they blew the game to the hated Yankees.
“We were very fortunate,” Jeter said in a postgame interview. “We sort of stole one tonight.”
“With a five-game series, there would have been a lot of pressure coming back the next day being down 0-1,” O’Neill said in the Curry article. “This was a huge win.”
Instead of the pressure falling on the Yanks, all of it fell on the shoulders of the Indians and game two starting pitcher Jaret Wright. Wright, a 21-year old rookie, was the Indians best pitcher down the stretch, but he had never been tested on a stage quite like a crucial playoff game in Yankee Stadium.
Photo: Kathy Willens/Associated Press