Remembering Game 7 and the 1997 Season
Craig Gifford | On 26, Oct 2011
It has been well documented that the last major sports championship of any kind for the city of Cleveland came all the way back with the 1964 Cleveland Browns. For Indians fans, the wait has been even longer, having to go back to 1948 since the Tribe stood atop the baseball world. Fourteen years ago today that waiting nearly came to an end.
On October 26, 1997, the Indians were two outs away from being crowned World Series champions. Cleveland led 2-1. The champagne was on ice and the clubhouse walls were protected for the party that was about to take place. Years of waiting were going to end. Then, in what felt like an instant, the usually dependable Jose Mesa blew the save in the bottom of the ninth inning. A single from Edgar Renteria in the 11th broke the hearts of Clevelanders everywhere and sent the Marlins faithful into a frenzy.
No Cleveland team had been so close to a title in the previous 33 years and no Cleveland team has come anywhere near that close since. It was heartbreaking as so many in Cleveland had a positive vibe going into that game. The Indians had lined their rotation up so that their top two starters were both available for that all-important game. The decision of who to start was actually a bit controversial. Manager Mike Hargrove had to choose between veteran ace Charles Nagy and young phenom Jaret Wright. Hargrove went with the rookie, who had carved up the Yankees and Orioles in the first two rounds of the postseason. Nagy would still be available in the bullpen.
Wright rewarded Hargrove with 6.1 innings of solid, one-run ball. A stout bullpen got the 2-1 lead into the ninth inning for Mesa, who had struggled in the series to that point. Considering Mesa’s struggles and Nagy being one of the longer-tenured players on the team, a lot of people thought it should have been Nagy taking the hill in the ninth. Instead Mesa allowed two hits and a sacrifice fly before Nagy came on to get the final out. Too little, too late.
Most Indians fans were a little bewildered that a rookie was called on to start that final game. However, with the year Wright had from his June promotion on, it was hard to argue with Hargrove’s decision. The Mesa thing has been unforgettable ever since. Iconic shortstop Omar Vizquel went so far as to mention Mesa’s implosion in a book he wrote several years later. He said he could tell Mesa was going to blow the game as he saw the fear in Mesa’s eyes before throwing a single pitch.
While that Game 7 was a disheartening moment for the Tribe and its fans, the 1997 season, as a whole, was a magical ride. Getting to that point was totally unexpected with a whole lot of twists and turns along the way.
After tearing through the AL Central Division in 1995 and 1996, the Indians bid adieu to Albert Belle (free agent) and Kenny Lofton (trade) before the 1997 season. Carlos Baerga had been traded in the middle of the 1996 campaign, meaning three key players from the previous season’s runs were gone. In their place were Marquis Grissom, David Justice and Tony Fernandez – all good players, but not seemingly the caliber of what Cleveland had lost.
The 1997 season also marked the first year Jim Thome was moved from third base to first. This was to make room for stud third baseman Matt Williams, who was signed after the 1996 season. With so many changes and a starting rotation that had a lot of questions after Nagy and the aging Orel Hershiser, many wondered if Cleveland would stumble back to Earth. They did stumble. However, stumbling for them was still good enough for 86 wins (their lowest total from 1995 – 2001), good enough to win a horrible division.
Along with Wright’s late-season emergence, the 1997 Indians were also remembered for Sandy Alomar Jr.’s heroics. Alomar, bothered by injury the previous couple years, stayed healthy all season and had a career year. The catcher hit 21 home runs to go with 83 RBI. He was the All Star Game MVP. He hit the game-winning home run in the Mid-Summer Classic, which was held that year at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, making the moment all the more memorable and magical.
That year also saw the emergence of Thome and Manny Ramirez as they moved up the ranks from good players to offensive leaders.
The 1997 season turned out to be Mesa’s final year as the Tribe’s closer, as Mike Jackson came on the scene and started handling some of the closing duties that year before taking over full time in 1998.
With all the changes going on that season, it is no wonder the Tribe struggled. They put it together in time to storm through the playoffs.
The 1997 postseason started with one of the best five-game, first rounds in history. The Indians, down two game to one in the series and trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth looked to be done when vaunted closer Mariano Rivera came on for the Yankees. Alomar, continuing his wild season-long journey, hit a home run to tie it. It was one of the only moments the greatest postseason closers has ever been touched up in the playoffs. The Indians score a walk off run in the ninth to send the series to a final fifth game, where they won an exciting 4-3 ball game.
The ALCS against Baltimore was won in six games. It was a hotly contested series as the cardiac Tribe got all four of its wins by one run. Every game had Indians fans on the edge of their seats.
Oddly enough, the Indians won the ALCS in an 11-inning affair, 1-0. The only run being a home run from Fernandez. It completed the Tribe’s improbable run to the World Series, but may have been foreshadowing as the Indians’ fate was eventually sealed nine days later in 11 innings.
Fourteen years ago – a grand stage, a city with hope, two outs away, a magical season ending just the wrong way.
Photo: Associated Press