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 ELEVEN: ALCS GAME 2—GRISSOM RIPS ‘EM
By Steve Eby
If the 1997 Cleveland Indians taught the baseball world anything, it was to always expect the unexpected. All season long the Tribe had underperformed and not met expectations and the poster boy for the Indians lackluster play was centerfielder Marquis Grissom.
Grissom was acquired at the end of Spring Training with David Justice in a blockbuster deal that sent Indian legend Kenny Lofton and relief pitcher Alan Embree to the Atlanta Braves. The trade was largely unpopular at the time, and over the course of the season only Justice’s All-Star performance allowed General Manager John Hart to show his face around Cleveland as Grissom continually failed to impress.
The former All-Star’s batting average floundered around the .200 mark late into the month of May, and never rebounded to get above .270. Grissom was taken out of the leadoff spot early in the season because of his lack of performance and was banished to the nine-hole for the majority of the campaign. He finished the season batting a pedestrian .262 with 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases—numbers that were a far cry from Lofton’s.
To make matters worse, as the Indians headed into the ALCS against Baltimore, Grissom was battling the flu, was put on an I.V. and was not feeling 100%. “I was pretty miserable [Wednesday],” Grissom said in an article by Mike DiGiovanna from the Los Angeles Times, “and I still couldn’t eat too much.”
To his credit, Marquis did have a base hit in the Game One loss to Baltimore and he did crash into the wall chasing a ball in centerfield. It certainly was not for a lack of effort, but the hopes that Grissom would be a solid contributor for the Indians were bleak.
Game Two at Oriole Park at Camden Yards matched up two veteran pitchers as Baltimore’s lefthander Jimmy Key was facing Cleveland’s Charles Nagy. Both pitchers allowed runs early as they battled in a back-and-forth affair.
Key’s struggles were immediate. In the top of the first, Key struck out leadoff hitter Bip Roberts but then lost control and hit Omar Vizquel with a pitch. Manny Ramirez followed and blasted the lefthander deep to centerfield just as he had done to Scott Erickson the night before.
In Game One, Ramirez had a homerun to centerfield robbed by Oriole Brady Anderson in the first inning, as the Indians lost by a score of 3-0. In Game Two, however, Anderson was unable to track down Ramirez’s first inning blast as it sailed over the wall for a homerun and a 2-0 Indians lead. The Tribe was finally on the board and Key’s problems only snowballed from there.
The next batter, Matt Williams, roped a base hit into leftfield. He then stole second and Key followed by plunking Justice with his second hit by pitch of the inning. Sandy Alomar followed with a sacrifice of sorts, as the Tribe catcher grounded out into the hole between first and second, moving Justice and Williams to second and third with two outs.
Tony Fernandez was next, and Key hit him with a pitch as well, setting a playoff record for three in an inning. With the bases loaded and a chance to break the game wide open in the first, Kevin Seitzer struck out on a full-count changeup against Key, leaving the score 2-0 in favor of the Tribe.
The blown opportunity to score more runs came back to haunt the Indians, as Nagy allowed two runs of his own in the bottom of the second. Rafael Palmeiro roped a leadoff double to right field, and two batters later future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken blasted a two-run homer off of Nagy to tie the score. From there, both pitchers, as well as Baltimore reliever Scott Kamieniecki, danced in and out of trouble until Nagy blinked again in the top of the sixth.
Palmeiro again started the inning with a bang, as he led off the sixth with a single. Palmeiro was erased on a B.J. Surhoff fielder’s choice and Ripken followed with a single of his own through the left side of the infield. Harold Baines grounded out to second, moving Surhoff and Ripken both into scoring position with two outs, and Nagy followed by walking catcher Chris Hoiles. With the bases loaded and two outs, Cleveland hoped that Nagy could work the same magic to Mike Bordick that Key did in the first when he struck out Seitzer.
Bordick and Nagy battled back and forth and eventually worked the count full. With two outs and the 3-2 count, all three runners left early on the payoff pitch and the Orioles shortstop smacked a single into right field. Surhoff scored easily and Ripken was being waved around as Ramirez charged the ball hard. The ball scooted past Ramirez for an error, allowing Ripken to score uncontested as Manny scampered after the ball.
Hoiles, who was playing despite having a leg injury, stopped at third base instead of testing Manny’s arm. The Orioles now held a 4-2 lead although it possibly could have been worse.
“I thought (Hoiles) could have scored,” Orioles Manager Davey Johnson said in DiGiovanna’s article, “but he’s been hampered by a sore Achilles’ tendon.”
Now trailing by two runs, Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove pulled Nagy from the game and brought in lefthander Alvin Morman to face Anderson. Morman promptly retired the future Indian on a pop fly to Vizquel to retire the side.
Kamieniecki, Morman and Tribe relievers Jeff Juden and Paul Assenmacher combined to work a scoreless seventh inning and Johnson brought in his setup man Armando Benitez to shut down the Tribe in the eighth.
Leading by two and having the duo of Benitez and closer Randy Meyers waiting to pitch was as automatic as it got in 1997. Only four times all season had Baltimore lost a game that it was winning after the seventh inning, so hope was bleak for the Tribe.
Benitez struck out pinch hitter Jeff Branson, walked Alomar and then struck out Fernandez for the first two outs in the inning. With Benitez being right handed, Hargrove brought All-Star Jim Thome in off the bench to pinch hit for Seitzer.
Thome worked the count full and then checked his swing on the pitch that was ruled ball four. Replays clearly showed that Thome broke the plane of the plate and should have been rung up on strikes to end the inning. Third base umpire Larry McCoy signaled that Thome held his swing, and the Tribe now had runners on first and second for Grissom.
“I thought Thome swung,” Johnson said in a postgame interview.
“I thought it was a great call,” Hargrove said conversely with a smile on his face. “Every check swing is close, and your opinion on whether or not he went depends on whose side you’re on.”
Regardless of whether the call was correct or not, the tying run was now on base with two outs and the potential go-ahead run was digging into the batter’s box.
The hard throwing Benitez dug in and fired a 99 mile per hour fastball past Grissom. He then fired in a slider, the first time that Grissom had seen that pitch from Benitez all season after striking out in his only two regular season at bats against him. Perhaps still rattled from Thome’s check swing call, Benitez fired in another slider and Grissom swung hard and connected.
The ball traveled deep into left-centerfield as Anderson and Surhoff gave chase toward the gap. The ball cleared the fence and landed deep over the wall for a three run homerun and a 5-4 Indians lead. The 49,131 stunned fans fell silent as Grissom rounded the bases as the hero.
“That slider (I hit for the homer) was identical to the one I took for a strike,” Grissom said in DiGiovanna’s article. “I knew I hit it good. We needed that.”
Grissom certainly hit it well and he credits his good approach at the plate and his recovery from his illness for the result.
“(Benitez) throws so hard that I wasn’t trying to hit a homer, I was just trying to hit the ball hard,” Grissom said in a Jack Curry article from the New York Times. “I think being sick actually actually helped me. I was relaxed for every at-bat today. I was a lot worse (in Game One).”
The Indians bullpen took over the game after Grissom’s blast, as Assenmacher, Mike Jackson and Jose Mesa slammed the door shut over the last two innings. The final score was 5-4 in favor of Cleveland and the Tribe had stolen one in Baltimore to escape with a split.
“We wanted to get one,” Roberts said in the Curry article. “We didn’t think that we would sweep them. To get one is a big step in the right direction. Going home 2-0 would have been tough to come back. They got a killer instinct over there. But, right now, it’s 1-1.”
Some credit can go to Ramirez, Nagy and the Tribe bullpen, but most should go to Grissom who turned the tide of the series with one heroic swing.
“In that situation, it was going to take something dramatic for us to win,” Hart said of Grissom’s homer in DiGiovanna’s article. “What you saw there was a man of character, a man who has been there before, come through.”
“He was on an I.V. yesterday and he went out there and ran into the wall and he came back today and played hard,” Roberts said in Curry’s article. “I think this is just justice right now. He came up with the biggest hit of the season. Right now, he’s my hero.”
In the Orioles clubhouse, more attention was being given to the third out that did not happen rather than Grissom’s heroics.
“I thought Thome swung,” Davey Johnson said in the DiGivanna article. “The next guy hit a hanging slider, and that was the ballgame. . . . I can’t think of another time this year when Armando lost a lead in the eighth inning when he was throwing well. But Grissom can be very good too.”
“Our team can thrive on a moment like that,” Jackson said. “It’s a huge boost for us going home.”
Going home tied at one game each was exactly where the Indians wanted and needed to be. The Grissom blast set the stage for Game Three in Cleveland which would matchup Orel Hershiser and Mike Mussina and would turn into perhaps the most wild, unimaginable playoff game in Cleveland Indians history.