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 TWO: FASTEN YOUR SEATBELT
By Steve Eby
The 1997 regular season started on April 2nd as the Indians traveled to Oakland to face the Athletics. The game was the first Opening Day that the Indians had played on the road since the opening of Jacobs Field in 1994.
The lineup card that Manager Mike Hargrove filled out certainly was different, as Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga and Eddie Murray were all missing and replaced with Marquis Grissom, David Justice, Kevin Mitchell and Matt Williams. The new-look Tribe did not take long to show that their new lineup was just as potent as the old, however.
The Indians out-slugged the A’s to a final score of 9-7, as the Tribe used homeruns from Mitchell, Justice and Jim Thome to put their record at 1-0. Justice’s blast was the big one, a two run shot in the top of the seventh that broke a 6-6 tie, in his debut for Cleveland.
Lost in the hoopla of an Opening Day victory was the dismal performance by the Indians pitching staff and starter Charles Nagy. The game was a sign of things to come, as the staff continued to give up runs in mind-blowing fashion.
Throughout the month of April, Indian pitchers allowed 172 runs in 25 games; an average of 6.88 runs per game (RPG). Included were the season-high 14 runs that were surrendered on April 8 in Seattle’s KingDome, when Orel Hershiser and Albie Lopez were beat up by the Mariners in a 14-8 loss.
To make things worse, the bullpen was a giant mess as well. Jose Mesa struggled mightily in the first month and was pulled from his role as closer in favor of free agent signee Mike Jackson. Mesa, who was accused of sexual assault in December of 1996, did not seem to have his mind right and Hargrove made the switch.
Thankfully for the Tribe, the offense (led by outstanding starts from Justice and Sandy Alomar, Jr.) kept up their hot hitting, scoring 167 runs over the same stretch for an average of 6.68 RPG. The high scoring affairs and the Tribe’s inconsistent play put Cleveland’s record at 12-13 after the first month of the season, one game behind the American League Central Division leading Milwaukee Brewers. Ironically, it was an April game in Milwaukee that the Tribe flexed its batting muscles the most.
On April 26, the Indians visited Milwaukee County Stadium for an early season, Friday night showdown. What the game turned into, however, was a record-setting homerun derby.
The Tribe and Brew Crew slugged a combined 11 homeruns that night, eight of which came of off the bats of Cleveland hitters. Newcomers Williams and Justice were the big sluggers, as Justice blasted two dingers and Williams had three. Williams nearly had two more, as the big third baseman sent two deep fly balls to the warning track that were caught up against the wall for outs. Alomar, Chad Curtis and Manny Ramirez also went deep off of Brewers starter Scott Karl and the Milwaukee bullpen, and John Jaha, Dave Nilsson and former Indian Jeromy Burnitz homered off of Hershiser.
The Indians won the game 11-4 and despite the Cleveland-record eight homeruns that he helped surrender, Karl didn’t think that he pitched all that poorly. “I didn’t think I made that many mistakes,” said Karl in a Chicago Tribune article from April 26, 1997. “It’s a little disheartening when you think you make good pitches and they crush ‘em. And they also crush your mistakes as well.” Karl was not the first pitcher to learn of the Tribe’s offensive thunder and certainly was not the last.
The Indians started the month of May by playing much better baseball, winning 15 of their first 24 games in that month. The pitching settled down somewhat (although starting pitcher Jack McDowell was lost for the season with an elbow injury on May 12) and the offense continued to roll. The Tribe won a season-high six straight games from May 17 to May 23, including a three game sweep of the Kansas City Royals in Cleveland. Seeing positive results from his new lineup, General Manager John Hart followed the Indians commitment of “long-term success” and signed three of his core players to long-term contracts.
On May 20, the Tribe announced the signings/extensions of Thome, Justice and Grissom through the 2002 seasons. Grissom got a new deal that would pay him $25 million over five seasons despite struggling with a batting average around .200 and being moved out of the leadoff spot. Justice and Thome both earned extensions, as Justice’s was worth $28 million over four years with a $7 million club option for 2003 and Thome signed a three year extension worth $24.5 million.
“I’ve got to believe that after this, I’ll be done,” said Justice in a May 21, 1997 article from the Associated Press about his new contract. “(After this,) I’ll be ready to retire and go out to pasture.” With a solid core of new players ready to take the Indians into the new century, Jacobs Field welcomed back an old familiar face in early June.
The struggling Chicago White Sox came to Cleveland for a three game series on June 3, marking the return of Albert Belle to Cleveland. Belle was showered with boos in his first at bat as he flew out to Grissom in centerfield. When Belle took his spot in left field in the bottom of the first inning, fake money and other debris rained down on the White Sox new slugger and Belle heard every taunt imaginable from the fans that used to love the disgruntled outfielder.
“It’s expected they’re going to show their ignorance,” Belle was quoted when talking of the Cleveland fans in a June 1997 article by the Scripps Howard News Service. “They’ve been in that situation before, when Art Modell moved his team to Baltimore. They were ignorant about that. They’re ignorant about me leaving and going to Chicago. It’s typical.”
What else was typical was that while Belle was busy talking trash, his bat was the one that talked loudest. Chicago won the game 9-5 as Belle roped two doubles and smashed a three-run homerun that proved to be the back-breaker for the Indians and starter Chad Ogea. After the game, Belle was fined $5,000 for making an “obscene gesture” to the sold out Jacobs Field crowd.
Extra security measures were taken for the second game of the series, as the homerun porch that was formerly known as “Albert’s Alley” was blockaded before the railing. Extra security guards were hired to ensure that Belle was protected.
“We were surprised,” Hart was quoted in a 1997 article by Paul Sullivan for the Chicago Tribune. “We’ve never had any incidents in Cleveland, and I think so much of it was the fact that this town supported Albert so much. I think there was a lot of backlash from the fact that here’s a guy who was supported, and it was the first time anyone had (left the club as a free agent) in the years we’ve been building this ballclub.
“So it was more of a backlash here. We took security measures the second day in, and there were no more incidents. Obviously, we’re going to do the same thing this trip in, and I don’t think you’re going to see any incidents. I think the fans have gotten over it.”
There may not have been any more incidents, but the team continued to underwhelm as the White Sox took game two of the series by a score of 9-4. The loss, combined with a Milwaukee win over Boston, knocked the underachieving Cleveland out of first place for the first time since May 17.
The Tribe got a bit of revenge the following night as they beat Belle and the Sox to avoid a sweep and the Indians took back over first place for good with an extra-inning victory. The lead grew rapidly as the Brewers lost their following six ballgames, including two to the Indians.
A big reason for the Tribe’s sudden upswing was the torrid hitting of Alomar. The veteran catcher hit a homerun on May 25and then didn’t stop hitting through the All-Star break. On May 30, Alomar got a base hit in Baltimore when nobody else on the Indians were able to reach base as he broke up a perfect game by Mike Mussina with one out in the ninth inning with a line drive single to left. Sandy continued his hitting streak through May and on into the month of June.
On June 6, Alomar extended his streak to 10 as he went 4-4 with four doubles in Fenway Park against the Red Sox. The streak got to 15 on June 14 as the Indians played their first “Interleague Play” game in franchise history in St. Louis. Game number 17 came when Jacobs Field hosted a National League team for the first time that wasn’t a World Series game when the Cincinnati Reds visited on June 16. On June 22, he pushed the streak to 21 with a big homerun that turned out to be the difference in a 5-3 win over the Yankees. Alomar just kept hitting, and hitting, and hitting.
On June 24, Alomar doubled in the sixth inning of a game against Minnesota to push the streak to 23. It was during this game that Cleveland got their first look at a young 21 year old right-hander that few had ever heard of…Jaret Wright. Jaret was the son of former Major Leaguer Clyde Wright and had started the season in AA Akron. Wright got his first big league victory that day as the Indians cruised to a 10-5 victory against the Twins.
By the time July hit, Alomar’s hit streak had hit 26 games. Sandy hit safely in both games that he played in Houston, then again in an Independence Day game at home against the Royals. On July 6, he pushed his hit streak to 30 straight games as he tapped a slow roller and beat out an infield single in the second inning.
”I’m in a good groove right now,” Alomar was quoted in a July 1997 article from the New York Times by Dave Anderson. ”Everything you see looks like a beach ball and you hope it stays that way. I’m able to stay back and still react to the fastball. I feel I have good bat speed now and good bat speed is the most important part of hitting.”
Alomar, the American League’s leading hitter heading into the All-Star Game, was one hit away from reaching the club record of 31 straight games set by Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie in 1906. It was the longest streak in the AL since Milwaukee’s Paul Molitor hit safely in 39 straight games in 1987 and was four games shy of the Major League record for a catcher which is held by San Diego’s Benito Santiago also in 1987. The 30 game streak was the first in the Major Leagues since the Chicago Cubs Jerome Walton accomplished the feat in 1990. The city of Cleveland would have to wait, however, to see if their beloved catcher could match the club record as the All-Star break came upon them. Needless to say, American League All-Star Manager Joe Torre took notice of Sandy’s outstanding season and named Alomar to his fifth All-Star game.
Joining Sandy for the Mid-Summer Classic (which was to be held in Cleveland) were teammates Justice and Thome. Hargrove was added to the coaching staff as well. Justice was making his third All-Star appearance and Thome was making his first. Justice, the only Indian to be elected to start, was nursing a hyperextended left elbow and sat out of the contest, but the red hot Alomar did everything he could to make sure that Cleveland had a night to remember.
Photo: Associated Press