The Greatest Summer Ever: Alvaro Espinoza
Steve Eby | On 05, May 2012
Each week through the 26 weeks of the 2012 regular season, DTTWLN will profile and break down the roster of arguably the most exciting sports team that Cleveland has ever seen; the 1995 Cleveland Indians. The ’95 Tribe won 100 games in a strike-shortened 144 game schedule, won their first Central Division title and made the playoffs and World Series for the first time since 1954. Six players made the American League All-Star team, eight players batted .300 or better, and the pitching staff had the lowest ERA in the American League. The players have been ranked from the most important to the Tribe’s success to the 26th. This week breaks down #22 Alvaro Espinoza.
The 1995 Indians were not only known for being an explosive offensive team with a very solid pitching staff, they were also known for being a very loose and close knit team. Cleveland fans fell in love with the ’95 Tribe not only because they kept winning and winning, but because they looked like they genuinely liked each other and showed that they were always having fun.
Of course, if you were a member of the best team in baseball, how could you not have a great time? The team won almost 70% of the games it played, won the division by 30.0 games, led the league in almost every offensive category, and seemed to hit a walk-off homerun every three days. From the very beginning of the season, the Indians were the talk of baseball and were the favorites to win the American League Pennant and the World Series.
With this kind of fun, however, comes tremendous pressure…especially in the city of Cleveland. The story is well documented, but is worth mentioning. The Indians had not made the playoffs since 1954 and had not won the World Series since 1948. The Cavaliers were a sometimes up, but mostly down, franchise that still could not beat the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs even though Michael Jordan was retired, and the Browns were mediocre at best and already had one foot out the door for their move to Baltimore. The Browns were (and still are) the last championship team in Cleveland, having won the title in 1964. The pressure for the Indians to win was enormous.
So who was it that kept the Indians from having a meltdown? Who kept them loose and having fun when the weight of an entire cursed city was squarely on their shoulders? Albert Belle was known for thriving under pressure situations. Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel always had smiles on their faces no matter the situation. Veterans like Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Eddie Murray and Tony Pena had all been through pressure situations hundreds of times before. All of these guys helped, but the key man to alleviate the pressure of breaking a city-wide 31 year old curse was a light-hitting, backup, utility infielder who played with rec-specs.
Alvaro Espinoza signed with the Indians in March of 1992 after starting his career with the Minnesota Twins from 1984-86 and playing regularly for the New York Yankees from 1989-1991. Espy spent the ’92 season playing for the Indians AAA affiliate, Colorado Springs, but saw regular playing time with the Tribe in 1993 at shortstop, second base and third base. When the Indians traded for shortstop Omar Vizquel and handed the starting third baseman job to Jim Thome in 1994, Espinoza moved to his bench/utility role to backup the stars on the infield. The bench is where Espinoza made possibly his biggest impact and contribution to the ’95 team.
Espinoza was the ultimate prankster and goofball that the Indians needed to keep them loose. One of the most common sights to see on the Indians bench in 1995 was a player sitting on the bench, concentrating on the game, and having the dugout camera for the television broadcasts pointed straight at them. The player would nod coyly at the camera and Espinoza would be sitting next to him waving and smiling from ear to ear. What the player didn’t know, however, was that he was victimized by Espinoza with a bubblegum bubble stuck to the top of his hat. This prank, always followed by a laughing dugout, became a staple during the ’95 season.
The Indians did not only keep Espinoza around for his ability to blow bubbles and trick people, he was a solid fielder with a great arm that could spell anyone on the infield. He was not known for his hitting, but Espy did have his moments with the bat too, most notably on August 11 against his former team that had released him three years prior.
Espinoza was in the lineup playing third base that day in the Bronx because the starting third baseman, Thome, was injured the previous day after getting hit by a pitch. Espinoza responded with his best game of the season.
The Indians gave starting pitcher Orel Hershiser a 1-0 lead that day against Yankees rookie Andy Pettitte when Carlos Baerga grounded a single to right field that scored Lofton in the 1st inning. Hershiser was able to hold that lead until the bottom of the sixth inning. After getting the leadoff batter to groundout, Hershiser allowed back to back singles to Wade Boggs and Bernie Williams. The next batter, Paul O’Neill, worked a walk which loaded the bases for the Yankee designated hitter Ruben Sierra. Sierra took Hershiser’s first pitch of the at bat deep down the right field line at old Yankee Stadium for a grand slam, turning the Indians 1-0 lead into a 4-1 deficit.
Hershiser was able to keep the score right there through the bottom of the 7th inning, giving the thunderous Indian lineup a chance to comeback. In the top of the eighth inning, Baerga had his second big hit of the day when he led off the inning by lining a drive down the left field line where a fan reached out and grabbed it for a ground-rule double. Belle immediately followed with a double of his own, scoring Baerga and cutting the Yankee lead to 4-2.
Yankee manager Buck Showalter turned to his bullpen and future Indian Bob Wickman to retire the Indians and get out of the jam. Wickman, as Tribe fans now know as commonplace, did not get the job done easily. Manny Ramirez greeted Wickman with a line drive single to centerfield, scoring Belle and making the score 4-3. Murray followed by doubling down the right field line, but O’Neill was able to throw Ramirez out at home, keeping the Yankee lead at one.
In the bottom of the 9th, Showalter turned to his closer, John Wetteland, to finish off the Indians. Wetteland got pinch hitter Sandy Alomar to foul out to third to start the inning. Lofton and Paul Sorrento followed with walks, bringing up Baerga. Carlos continued his big day, singling through the left side and bringing Lofton home to tie the score. Wetteland got Belle to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning, but the damage had already been done.
The score remained tied into the top of the 11th inning, when Espinoza was leading off. He already had two hits for the day, a one out single in the 4th and leadoff single in the 7th, but was stranded both times. Espy started the Tribe’s half of the inning with another single, his third hit of the day, on a line drive back up the middle. Alomar was able to lay down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move Espinoza to second, and Lofton followed by driving him in with a double down the right field line. With the Indians up 5-4, Tribe manager Mike Hargrove turned the ball over to Jose Mesa for the bottom of the 11th. Mesa was able to strike out Randy Velarde and Boggs to start the bottom of the 11th, and got Williams to ground out to Espinoza for his 33rd save in 33 tries. Espy’s final line for the day was 3-5 with scoring the game-winning run and recording the last out of the game.
During the postseason, Espinoza also left his mark on the Indians highlight films. Espy played in seven games that postseason and will be forever remembered for being involved in two of the most memorable plays. The first play was when Espinoza was at third base during game six of the ALCS. Mariner Jay Buhner grounded out to Espy for the final out and clinched the American League pennant for the Indians. The second play came in game three of the World Series. Espinoza pinch ran for Baerga in a tie game in the bottom of the 11th, and Murray singled him home to win the first World Series game for the Indians in 47 years.
Alvaro Espinoza’s statistics for the 1995 season were not his career best, nor were they anything special. He finished the season with a .252 batting average, two homeruns and 17 RBI. What he did provide for that team, however, was a steady glove, a strong arm, an ability to play multiple positions well, and enough bubblegum to keep the rest of the dugout cool and loose during the most pressure-filled season that the Indians had in decades.
Espinoza started the 1996 season with the Tribe, but on July 29, he was traded to the New York Mets along with Carlos Baerga for infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino. Espinoza batted .306 for the Mets with four homeruns, arguably the most productive offensive stretch of his career. Espy was released by the Mets after Spring Training in 1997 and hooked on with the Seattle Mariners for the start of the ’97 season. He played 33 games for the M’s before getting released in July, thus ending a 12-year Major League playing career.
Espinoza turned to coaching the following year. He was the minor league infield coordinator for the Montreal Expos in 1998. In 1999, Espy got his first managing job as the skipper for the Vero Beach Dodgers, and became LA’s roving minor league infield coordinator from 2000-01. He held the same job for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2002 and 2006, and was a coach on the Pirates big league staff in between. From 2007-08, Espinoza was a coach in the Yankees minor league system for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees before hanging up his baseball uniform for the final time following the 2008 season.
Next Week: Herbert Perry