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 FOUR: THREE-PEAT
By Steve Eby
The second half of the 1997 regular season started out with some disappointment, had optimism in the middle and ended with pessimism.
Directly after the memorable All-Star break, the Indians embarked on a road trip that would send them to Minnesota, New York and Milwaukee. All eyes were on Sandy Alomar, who had a 30 game hitting streak on the line, one game away from tying Nap Lajoie’s franchise record of 31 set 91 years prior. Unfortunately for Alomar, the Tribe was set to face one of the hottest pitchers in baseball for his first try—Minnesota’s Brad Radke.
Radke came into the game a winner in his last six starts. He was in the middle of a career year (he finished with a 20-10 record) and was one of the lone bright spots on the rebuilding Twins roster. Alomar struck out twice against Radke and grounded out to third. With the Tribe trailing 8-2 with two outs in the ninth, Sandy had one more chance against Twins reliever and former Indian Greg Swindell. Swindell got Alomar to pop up a ball to third and suddenly the game and the streak were over. Alomar finished his 30 game tear batting .422 with two homeruns and 16 RBI.
Immediately following the end of the streak, the Indians went on a small streak of their own. The Tribe took the final three games in Minneapolis and then split a two game series with the Yankees. A two game sweep in Milwaukee followed and suddenly the Indians were red hot and winners of six out of their last seven games. In what was a typical fashion for the ’97 Tribe, however, just as soon as the Tribe got hot, they turned ice cold in the blink of an eye.
The Indians followed their sweep of the Brewers by losing 10 of their next 14 games leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. General Manager John Hart lashed out at the team by calling them “underachieving” and then made big changes to a roster that had already undergone so many.
Hart, perhaps trying to save face after disassembling his 1995 World Series team, pulled off a couple of big trades right at the deadline. The first trade was with the Cincinnati Reds and the Tribe sent a couple big time prospects away in exchange for lefthander and former 20-game winner John Smiley and utility infielder Jeff Branson. The prospect package that the Reds received included the promising infielder Damian Jackson, reliever Scott Winchester and future All-Star closer Danny Graves.
Hart followed up his big splash by landing another big fish on the same day. Hart pulled off his second trade of the day by sending left-handed reliever Steve Kline to the Montreal Expos in exchange for the big starting pitcher Jeff Juden. Juden was 11-5 for the Expos in 1997, and it seemed that adding Smiley and Juden to the trio of Orel Hershiser, Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright was just the overhaul that the starting rotation desperately needed.
Meanwhile, on the south side of Chicago, the Indians biggest competition took a completely different approach to the trading deadline. The White Sox were only three and one half games behind the struggling Indians but Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf decided that changes needed to be made. The White Sox shipped veteran pitchers Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin along with closer Roberto Hernandez to the upstart San Francisco Giants in exchange for six prospects. The trade became known as “The White Flag Trade”, implying that the White Sox had given up and conceded the division title to the Indians.
The changes for the two teams seemed to be a shot in the arm for the team, as the streaky Indians suddenly started winning again. The Tribe went on to win nine of their next 13 games, although Smiley and Juden were both unimpressive.
At first, Juden seemed to be the bigger bust as he made three poor starts for the Indians before being banished to the bullpen in favor of starter Chad Ogea. Juden became as close to a “non-factor” as there can be once he was sent to the ‘pen. Smiley also struggled, but wound up winning a couple of games and kept his spot in the right-handed-heavy rotation.
By this time in August, however, the big story in the starting rotation was Wright. The 21-year old rookie was pitching like a 10 year veteran and giving Cleveland fans hope that they finally had their legitimate ace. The hope was that Wright, along with fellow youngster Bartolo Colon who was dominating in AAA, would make a formidable one-two punch for the next decade in the front of the Tribe rotation.
Even with the Tribe’s upswing in August, Hart was not finished changing his roster. On August 13, Hart released infielder/designated hitter Julio Franco from his contract. Franco was brought in in 1996 to play first base, but switched to second base in ’97 in favor of Jim Thome, who moved from third base to make room for Matt Williams. Franco signed on with Milwaukee soon after, as the Brewers looked for a last-ditch effort to catch the surging Indians in the division race.
As September neared, the Indians went on a road trip to face the Anaheim Angels. After dropping the opener, Justice suggested that the Indians needed to raise up their spirits and their socks, in honor of Thome’s 27th birthday. On August 27, the team surprised Thome by having the entire roster hike up their stirrups (just as Jimmy always did) and went on to beat the Angels 10-4 behind strong bats and the strong pitching of Ogea. Just as superstitious as every other baseball team, the club kept their socks up for the remainder of the season and the roster seemed to gel.
“For whatever reason, that was the first time this team came together,” said infielder Kevin Seitzer in Bob Sherman’s October 7 article from the Seattle Times.
The team may have been brought together, but Hart still wasn’t done making changes. On August 30, the Indians sent another minor leaguer, Roland DeLaMaza, to Kansas City in exchange for former All-Star Bip Roberts. Roberts was having a solid year for the Royals batting .309 with 15 stolen bases before the trade.
The Tribe was looking for a new leadoff hitter, as Marquis Grissom seemed to be more productive batting at the bottom of the order, and youngster Brian Giles (who was not a true leadoff man) had been hitting first for much of the second half. Getting Roberts in the lineup would be a challenge, however, as he had played left field for the majority of the season in Kansas City but the Indians wanted him to move to second base where he played earlier in his career. Roberts made the transition seamlessly and provided an instant spark at the top of the order. On September 5, the veteran socked a homerun on the first pitch he saw in his first game as an Indian at Jacobs Field.
With the roster finally finished, the Indians had only one more regular season mission; clinch the division. With the White Sox and Brewers fading away, the Indians worked their “magic number” lower and lower and lower.
With the Tribe finally hitting their stride, the fans continued to pour into Jacobs Field. On September 9, “The Jake” hosted its 204th consecutive sellout, breaking the previous record of 203 held by the Colorado Rockies. The streak would eventually grow to 455 and would last into 2001. With everything seeming to turn the Indians way, bad luck returned as the starting rotation suffered a tragic blow on September 20.
Smiley had struggled during his time in Cleveland but it was possibly due to tendinitis that he had in his elbow and shoulder. Smiley was scheduled to make his first start off of the disabled list in Kansas City on September 20, but never made it out to the mound. Smiley was warming up in the bullpen before the game when he threw a pitch and his arm snapped awkwardly. The scene, evidently, was gruesome and Smiley never pitched a Major League game again.
Indians reliever Jason Jacome recalled the event in 1997 article by the Associated Press, “My stomach turned. You could see it was deformed through the skin. He was in extreme pain. He was yelling. I’m sure it was agony. I hope I never have to see something like that again.” Losing Smiley was a devastating blow for the Indians who were counting on the lefthander to pitch in the postseason and had worked their magic number below five.
On September 23, the Tribe had worked the number down to two. They were hosting the Yankees and were starting their ace, Nagy. The game had a playoff feel to it, as the Indians were set to play the Wild Card leading Yanks in the first round of the playoffs, barring a total collapse from Cleveland or American League East leading Baltimore. Batting leadoff for New York was Chad Curtis, who along with offseason free agent acquisition Kevin Mitchell was sent out of Cleveland earlier in the season for fighting in the clubhouse. Nagy was able to shut the former Indian down, but the rest of the Bronx Bombers hit him hard.
Nagy surrendered three runs in the second inning and two in the third. He then allowed two more in the fifth, giving New York a 7-2 advantage before Charlie was sent to the showers. Tribe reliever David Weathers did not fare much better, as the Yanks scored two more times in the sixth for a 9-2 lead.
Maybe feeling a bit too comfortable or perhaps a little tired, Yankees starter Kenny Rogers hit a wall in the bottom of the sixth. Rogers gave up a single to Manny Ramirez and then an RBI double to Williams. Williams moved to third on a Justice groundout, then made cut the deficit to five on an Alomar RBI groundout. With two outs, Seitzer laced a single and brought Tony Fernandez to the plate. Fernandez took Rogers’ 2-0 pitch deep over the left field wall for a two run homer and cut the Yankees lead to 9-6. The blast had given new hope to the Indians and their sellout crowd.
Relievers Paul Shuey, Alvin Morman and Jose Mesa did what Nagy and Weathers were unable to do and shut down the Yankees scoreless in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The Tribe climbed back even closer in the eighth, as David Justice rocked a solo homerun and Fernandez drove home Alomar with an RBI single. The score was 9-8 Yankees heading into the bottom of the ninth and the Indians looked for a little Jacobs Field magic that had been absent all season.
From 1994-1996, the Indians had become known for heroic comebacks and late inning rallies. In ’97, however, the magic simply was not there. Coming into the game with the Yankees, the Indians were 0-62 when trailing after eight innings. The 43,039 fans on hand were hoping that the Tribe could reverse that disturbing number.
The Indians finally had some dramatics as Roberts led off the inning with a walk. Omar Vizquel bunted Roberts to second for a sacrifice and the Indians only needed a single to tie the game. Ramirez followed with a strikeout, and then Williams walked. Justice strode to the plate with a chance to be a hero.
D.J. fell behind in the count 0-2 before ripping a single back up the middle. Roberts scored and tied the game. Williams scampered to third as the possible winning run. The crowd rose to its feet as the always clutch Alomar dug in to face Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson.
Alomar scorched Nelson’s second pitch into centerfield for a single and Williams trotted home. The Indians had won their first game in 1997 after trailing in the ninth and were now only one win or one White Sox loss from being Central Division Champs for a third year in a row.
All eyes around Cleveland turned to the scoreboard to see what the White Sox were doing. The score was 5-3 in favor of the Minnesota Twins with the Sox coming up to bat in the bottom of the ninth. The crowd at Jacobs Field, eyes glued to the JumboTron that was playing the game from Chicago, started booing when former Indian Albert Belle strode to the plate to lead off the ninth.
Rick Aguilera was pitching for the Twins and sent the Indians fans into a frenzy when he struck Belle out looking. Greg Norton followed with a fly out and when Mike Cameron struck out the Indians were champs again.
The Tribe players, watching the game in the clubhouse, popped the champagne in celebration that they would be playing October baseball again.
“This club has been through a lot this year,” Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said in an article from the Philadelphia inquirer. “They deserve a lot of credit. They didn’t deserve a lot of the knocks they’ve taken.”
“What an unbelievable bunch of guys,” said Nagy in the same article. “Losing Albert, losing Kenny (Lofton), and to come back and do it again is so special.”
“It’s a great feeling,” said Justice to the Associated Press. “They’re all exciting.”
The clinching game not only sent a message to the baseball world that the Indians were back, it sent a message to the team that they had just beaten as well. “We kind of sent them a message that it’s not going to be easy,” Grissom said of the coming American League Division Series in a New York Times article by Jack Curry.
“This Cleveland Indians ball club, you make any kind of mistake against them and they let you know about it,” Yankees Manager Joe Torre said in the article by Curry. “We have to pitch better. But it’s a good test for us. We know what we’re up against next week.”
The three-time champion Indians improved their record to 84-71 with their comeback win against the Yankees. They would lose four of their last six games to stumble into their first round matchup with New York with a record of 86-75…second worst of all the playoff teams.
“It was one of the most disappointing regular seasons that I can remember in my 23 years here,” Indians radio play by play man Tom Hamilton said. “The ball club just never seemed to catch fire, never seemed to have a sense of urgency about it, and I just thought that ball club underachieved all season long.”
After a rollercoaster ride that was the regular season, fans had reason to be pessimistic about the Indians chances in the playoffs. Even with the expectations low, Tribe fans still tuned in to watch their team and to get one last listen in to a Cleveland legend.
Former Indian pitcher Herb Score, who had spent over three decades announcing Tribe games, had announced that he was going to retire following the 1997 postseason. The reaction in Cleveland was one of shock and sadness.
“Herb told me during a commercial time out in the middle of a ballgame in July or August,” Hamilton remembers of his former broadcast partner. “It was during a two minute break and you take your headsets off, do some work and your shooting the breeze back and forth. It was with about 30 seconds to go before we go back on the air. He kind of looked at me and smiles and says, ‘Oh by the way, this is it. I’m done; I’m going to retire after this season.’ With that, the engineer says, ‘You’re on,’ and I’m looking at Herb and he’s laughing because it was exactly what he wanted. I think he finally wanted to see me speechless. I had no chance to react because we’re back doing the broadcast. That was Herb; he wanted nothing big made out of it, but it was a big deal for him to be retiring.”
A big deal for sure, but nobody, not even a man who had been watching Indians baseball since the 1950’s, could have had no idea about the gigantic thrill ride that the Cleveland Indians were about to put the city of Cleveland on.