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Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians

Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians

| On 19, Nov 2012

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 THREE:  HOMETOWN HERO

By Steve Eby

The 1997 All-Star break was more than just a meaningless, exhibition baseball game for the city of Cleveland.  It was days of festivities that engulfed the downtown area and brought positive, national attention to the great city.  The game itself brought some of the biggest names that the game has ever seen into town, but it was all of the “extras” that packed the downtown streets and bars to capacity.

In the days prior to the game, Cleveland featured an All-Star Gala at The Powerhouse at The Nautica Entertainment Complex, the Pinnacle All-Star FanFest at the Cleveland Convention Center and a celebrity softball game and an All-Star workout at Jacobs Field followed by batting practice.  Following both squads batting practices were the “main events” of the pregame festivities as the first ever Rookie Homerun Derby and the All-Star Homerun Derby took place on Monday afternoon.

Boston rookie Nomar Garciaparra highlighted the “Rookie Derby” by blasting three homeruns and earning his way into the “regular” Homerun Derby.  Competing against the Boston shortstop were some of the bigger sluggers in baseball.  Colorado’s Larry Walker, Houston’s Jeff Bagwell and Atlanta’s Chipper Jones highlighted the National League side, as Oakland’s Mark McGwire, Seattle’s Ken Griffey, Jr., and Cleveland’s hometown-boy Jim Thome represented the favorites for the American League.

Thome’s appearance in the Homerun Derby was the first of his career and the fifth time that an Indian had participated.  Albert Belle had represented the Tribe from 1993-95, and Manny Ramirez joined Albert in Texas for the ’95 Derby.

Thome disappointed somewhat in the contest, as Jimmy failed to hit a homerun and was eliminated in the first round.  Walker, on the other hand, dominated the competition, hitting the most long-balls (19) and the hitting the farthest drive (471 ft.) deep into the Mezzanine Level.  It was the Yankees’ Tino Martinez, though, who hit the most at the right time as he stole the Derby crown by hitting three homeruns in the finals to give him 17 total bombs.

When the festivities ended, it was time to get down to business and play the game.  As the lineups were being announced to the sellout crowd, two familiar faces received polar opposite greetings from the Cleveland fans.

Atlanta Braves centerfielder Kenny Lofton received the loudest, positive ovation of the night (rather than the Indians on the roster), as the former Cleveland star tipped his cap and smiled his big, trademark smile to his still-adoring fans.  Conversely, it was Belle who heard the loudest jeers.

Prior to the game, Belle had been asked if he was planning on playing in front of a Cleveland crowd that only a month earlier had been throwing garbage and fake money at the White Sox slugger.  Albert replied, “I’d rather just sit and shoot the breeze with the guys. I’ll save myself the hassle. Then I don’t have to deal with the village idiots for a few innings.”

Calling Cleveland fans “the village idiots” obviously did not sit well with the Jacobs Field crowd as the fans booed Belle mercilessly when his name was announced.  The only thing that stopped the boo-birds was the announcements of Thome, David Justice, and the man of the hour Sandy Alomar, Jr., who was in the midst of his 30 game hitting streak.

Sandy, as well as his brother Roberto (a future Indian who played for the Baltimore Orioles), donned black ribbons on the chest of their jerseys in honor of their late grandmother, Tonee Valazquez, who had passed away the week before in Puerto Rico.  Both brothers played in honor of their beloved family member, and both brothers would play brilliantly.

After the starting lineups were announced, there was a bit of controversy dealing with the FOX Network, which was televising its first All-Star Game.  After country singer LeAnn Rimes sang The Star Spangled Banner, FOX cut to a commercial and did not air the McAuley Boys performance of O Canada.  Canadian viewers flooded the FOX Network with angry phone calls over the mishap.  The telecast did come back in time, however, to catch the ceremonial “first pitch” which was thrown by former Indian legend Larry Doby.  Doby was being honored to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of baseball’s color barrier being broken, as Larry was the first African American player to play in the American League.

After all of the pomp and circumstance of the pregame festivities, it was time to play ball.  The two best pitchers in the game, Greg Maddux from Atlanta and Randy Johnson from Seattle faced off as if they were battling against each other. Johnson retired the NL Stars in order in the top of the first and Maddux gave up only a single to Mariner Alex Rodriguez in the bottom half.

In the top of the second, baseball fans everywhere had a good laugh and a flashback to the 1993 Mid-Summer Classic.  In ’93 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Johnson was pitching to the Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk.  A fastball from the flame-throwing Johnson got away from him and sailed over the head of the burly Kruk.  Obviously flustered, Kruk fanned himself with the collar of his jersey and eventually struck out because he was stepping out of the batter’s box as Johnson was rocking into his windup.  A similar situation occurred at the Jake in ’97.

Walker, arguably the National League’s best player and it’s leading hitter with a .398 batting average, batted third in the top of the second.  The Rockies’ slugger had backed out of an interleague game earlier in the season that Johnson pitched, but there was nowhere to hide this time.  “The Big Unit” rocked and fired a fastball over the head of Walker, almost an exact replica of what had happened to Kruk four years earlier.  Walker, a left hander, took his helmet off, turned it backwards on his head, and stepped into the right handed batter’s box.  Johnson eventually walked Walker, but stranded him at first to end the inning.

With the very first pitch of the bottom of the second, Seattle’s Edgar Martinez did something that few mortals could in the 1990’s; square up Greg Maddux.  Martinez took Maddux out of the park and onto the homerun porch to give the American League a 1-0 lead.  In ’97, Martinez was the first player ever to be voted into a starting lineup as a designated hitter.

The 1-0 lead held into the seventh inning, as Johnson, Toronto’s Roger Clemens, New York’s David Cone, Detroit’s Justin Thompson and Toronto’s Pat Hentgen shut down the NL Stars.  Jose Rosado, a two-time All-Star for Kansas City, then came in to face Atlanta catcher Javy Lopez in the top of the seventh.

Lopez greeted Rosado rudely, smacking a pitch down the line toward the homerun porch.  The ball clanked hard off of the foul pole, tying the contest back up at 1-1.  Alomar, who had entered the game as a defensive replacement for Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez in the sixth, had called the pitch that Lopez took deep.  Due to hit fourth in the bottom half, Alomar was hoping for a shot at redemption.

The bottom half of the seventh led off with a standing ovation for Thome, who was brought into the game to pinch hit for Martinez in the DH slot.  Thome faced off against San Francisco’s Shawn Estes to lead off the inning.  Estes got Thome to ground out to shortstop Royce Clayton, a representative from the St. Louis Cardinals.

Following Thome was Bernie Williams of the Yankees.  Williams worked a walk and was followed with a fly out from Seattle’s Joey Cora.  With two outs, Alomar strode to the plate hoping to find a gap.

The Cleveland crowd grew loud for their hometown favorite as they rose to their feet.  Perhaps a bit rattled by the situation, Estes uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Williams to hustle into second base.  The fans grew even louder as Alomar now only needed a single to break the tie.

What Alomar did, however, was more than that.  As if it were scripted out of Hollywood, Alomar socked Estes’ 2-2 pitch over the left field wall and into the bleachers for a two-run homerun.  Jacobs Field exploded with cheers as the jubilant Alomar pumped his fists and bounced around the bases.  The fans chanted “MVP!  MVP!” as Sandy rounded third and touched home plate to give the AL a 3-1 lead.  Williams and on deck hitter Jeff Cirillo of Milwaukee greeted Sandy with high fives at the plate and the rest of the AL squad poured out of the dugout to greet the nights hero.  As Alomar tried to disappear into the dugout, the fans called Sandy back out for a curtain call.  Alomar obliged and the crowd went berserk as he waved his hand.

”This one’s a topper,” Alomar was quoted in a 1997 New York Times article by Dave Anderson. ”This home run before a hometown crowd…you only get one chance to do this in an All-Star Game in the city where you play.”

Alomar certainly made the most of his opportunity, as Baltimore’s Randy Myers and New York’s Mariano Rivera held up the 3-1 lead and gave the American League their first victory since 1993.  The victory would be a trend setter for the AL, as the National League would not win another game until 2010.

After the game, the choice for MVP was obvious.  Alomar drove in two of the four runs in the game and his epic homerun was the deciding factor in the game.  When Major League CEO Paul Beeston presented Sandy with the All-Star Game MVP Award, Alomar become the first player ever to win the award in his home park.  This accomplishment has only happened one time since, when Boston’s Pedro Martinez won the award in Fenway Park in 1999.  Alomar also became the first player to homer in his home park since Hall of Famer Hank Aaron did it in Atlanta in 1972.

As memorable as the game was for Alomar and the city of Cleveland, the Indians still had a first place team and a third consecutive title to work for.  The second half of the regular season would be filled with broken records, superstitious antics and even more roster changes.

Photo: Cleveland.com