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 THIRTEEN: ALCS GAME 4—ALOMAR DELIVERS AGAIN
By Steve Eby
Through three games, the 1997 American League Championship Series was not shaping up to be anything that anyone thought that it would be.
During the regular season, the Cleveland Indians batted .286 as a team, third best in the American League and smashed 220 homeruns for second place in the Junior Circuit. The Baltimore Orioles held baseball’s best record and averaged 5.01 runs per contests and only lost four games in which they held the lead after seven innings.
Yet, after three games, the Orioles entered Game Four batting a lowly .210 as a team with only eight runs scored in the series. Not to be outdone, the Indians were batting a measly .160 and had only pushed seven runs across the plate in the ALCS.
Despite the poor performances by the Tribe offense, however, Cleveland still managed to squeak away two victories in the first three games (Game Two on an eighth inning homerun by Marquis Grissom and Game Three on a missed suicide squeeze by Omar Vizquel) and held a 2-1 advantage over the heavily favored O’s in the best of seven series. Baltimore needed a victory or would fall behind three games to one; an almost certain death sentence for any team wishing to advance before 1997.
Out of over 60 series played that featured a 3-1 deficit, only seven times in Major League Baseball history had a team come back from being down to win a best of seven series. The feat had occurred three times in LCS history and four times in the World Series. The most recent had been just the year prior, when the 1996 Atlanta Braves won the NLCS after being down 3-1 to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Trying to avoid the dreaded 3-1 curse and even the series up for the Orioles was Scott Erickson, who had dominated the Indians in Game One en route to a 3-0 victory. Opposing Erickson that night in Cleveland was 21-year old rookie Jaret Wright—the Indians new Yankee killer after defeating New York twice in the ALDS. Neither pitcher brought their “A” game to Jacobs Field that evening, as the slumbering bats finally awoke for both teams.
After a scoreless first inning, the Orioles went to work on the rookie in the top of the second. Future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken started a two out rally by lacing a single off of Wright into right field. The next batter, B.J. Surhoff, followed and broke the scoreless tie by putting Wright’s next pitch in the right-centerfield gap, scoring Ripken for a 1-0 Baltimore advantage.
The Indian bats answered back quickly, however. In the bottom of the second, David Justice led off the inning with a single off of Erickson and was followed by a scorching line out to centerfield by Matt Williams. Sandy Alomar, who was coming off of the best season of his career but was a dismal 0-11 in the ALCS, then broke through by smashing a two run homerun over the left field wall to give the Tribe a 2-1 lead. Legend has it that Alomar switched to a lighter bat for Game Four, as his struggles were perhaps due to the fatigue of a long season. Left fielder Brian Giles kept the crowd buzzing by following with a double, but Giles was stranded at second base when Grissom and Bip Roberts both recorded outs to end the inning. Now trailing and having their backs against the wall, the Orioles flexed their muscles in the top of the third.
Wright struck out shortstop Mike Bordick to start the top of the third, but then made mistakes that Baltimore made him pay for dearly. Brady Anderson socked his second homerun of the series with one out but the Orioles were certainly not done there. After future Indians Roberto Alomar worked a walk and Geronimo Berroa grounded into a fielder’s choice for the second out, Harold Baines rocked the second bomb of the inning off of Wright into the right field stands. Now trailing 4-2, Wright grooved yet another pitch to Rafael Palmerio, who went back-to-back with Baines for the third bomb of the inning. In the blink of an eye, the Tribe now trailed 5-2 and Wright was scuffling mightily.
With activity in the bullpen, the rookie right hander walked Ripken and then allowed a double to Surhoff. With runners at second and third, Lenny Webster finally diffused the big inning by grounding out to Williams at third. Jacobs Field fell into a stunned silence because for the second time in the 1997 playoffs, the Indians had allowed three homeruns in one inning (ALDS Game One).
Cleveland Manager Mike Hargrove had seen enough, as his rookie phenom had failed to come through for the first time all postseason long. After Erickson worked into and out of a jam in the bottom of the third, Hargrove turned the ball over to lefthander Brian Anderson to shut down the suddenly red hot Baltimore bats.
Anderson answered Hargrove’s call magnificently. B.A. shut the Orioles out over the next three innings and gave the Indians a chance to get back into the game. The Tribe hitters were happy to oblige.
Grissom got the Indians a run closer in the bottom of the fourth when he followed a two-out Giles double with an RBI single and the Tribe was able to claw all the way back and regain the lead in the fifth, thanks to another strange turn of events.
With one out, Manny Ramirez got the Tribe back to within one run when he blasted a solo homerun off of Erickson. Jim Thome and Justice followed with back to back singles to put runners at first and second before Williams struck out for the second out. Alomar continued to break out of his slump by smacking a single into the left-centerfield gap that scored Thome to tie the game and moved Justice all the way around to third to put runners at the corners. Baltimore Manager Davey Johnson turned the ball over to reliever Arthur Rhodes, who immediately walked Giles to load the bases. It was at this point that things turned bizarre for the Orioles catcher for the second game in a row.
In Game Three, Webster had become a goat in the eyes of Baltimore fans for not hustling after a ball that was “missed” by Omar Vizquel on a botched suicide squeeze attempt. Webster thought that the ball had been fouled tipped and gave no effort as Grissom stole home to end the ballgame.
In the fifth inning of Game Four, fate shined poorly on Webster again. With Grissom at the plate, Rhodes bounced a changeup that rolled about 15 feet from home plate and allowed Justice to score the go-ahead run from third as well as allowed the other two runners advance as well. Justice collided with Rhodes, who was covering the plate just as Webster’s weak flip was headed towards him, and the ball rolled about 10 feet away from the plate. Justice got up, stumbled and then got tangled up with Webster a few feet away from the plate. With Justice lying on top of him as well as being blocked by home plate umpire Durwood Merrill and unable to see the ball, Webster did not make any attempt to recover the baseball or to cover the plate and Alomar made a dash for home from third.
Rhodes recovered from being the first victim who was trucked by Justice to pick up the ball and fired it to Ripken, who was in a footrace with Alomar running from third base to home. Just as Ripken caught the flip from Rhodes, Alomar touched home plate safely for the Tribe’s second run on one wild pitch.
As Merrill recalls the play in his book, You’re Out and You’re Ugly, Too!: Confessions of an Umpire with an Attitude, “There were so many bodies strewn around home plate that you almost expected Marcus Allen to come flying over the pile for a touchdown.”
Johnson, fired up at a home plate umpire for the second day in a row, stormed out onto the field screaming at Merrill for interference to be called on Justice, who did not try to stand up after falling on Webster. Merrill defends himself in his book by saying, “Davey might have been right in calling for interference if Justice had deliberately sat on the catcher, or tried to hold him. But Justice was just trying to get the hell out of the way so Rhodes could toss the ball to Ripken.”
For the second day in a row, Johnson’s arguments fell on deaf ears as the Indians were given another bizarre, lucky break at home plate. The score was now 7-5 in favor of the Indians, and it would remain so until the seventh inning as Anderson and Rhodes shut down the opposition.
In the top of the sixth inning, Anderson faced Webster as the Baltimore catcher got a standing ovation from the 45,081 Cleveland fans on hand who were appreciative of the help and lucky breaks that he had given the Tribe over the last two days. Webster ended up striking out to another standing ‘O’, and after the game, he lashed out at the Cleveland fans for their reactions.
“If they were knowledgeable baseball fans they’d know that none of this was my fault,” Webster said in a Ross Newhan article from the Los Angeles Times. “If I really thought this was my fault, if I really came away worried about it, I’d get a blade and cut my wrists, but I’m out there giving 100% and doing all I can on those plays and I’m sleeping well at night.”
Baltimore got a run closer in the top of the seventh inning, as the Indians Anderson gave up a single to the Orioles Anderson to lead off the inning. Brian then struck Alomar out and was pulled from the game in favor of righty Jeff Juden. Juden allowed Anderson to steal second base, then immediately allowed Berroa to drive him in with an RBI single to cut the score to 7-6. Paul Assenmacher came in and put out Juden’s fire, and Mike Jackson relieved and shut down the O’s in the eighth to set the stage for closer Jose Mesa.
In the top of the ninth, Mesa came in to shut the door but immediately ran into trouble. Mesa walked Alomar to lead off the inning and then led Berroa lace a single to right, moving Alomar to third. All of a sudden, the Birds had the tying run at third with nobody out. Mesa buckled down to strike out pinch hitter Eric Davis, but allowed an infield single to Palmeiro that scored Alomar to tie the game at 7-7. As boos rained down on Mesa after he eventually retired the side, the Tribe bats looked to pick up their closer.
Alan Mills was entering his third inning of work as the opened the ninth inning for Baltimore and walked Ramirez to put the potential winning run on base immediately. Johnson then turned again to his bullpen and brought in former Indian Jesse Orosco to face lefties Thome and Justice. Hargrove countered Johnson’s move by pinch hitting Kevin Seitzer for Thome, and Seitzer laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt moving Ramirez into scoring position at second base. Orosco then retired Justice on a fly ball for the second out of the inning, bringing up Williams for a chance to be the hero. Johnson then turned to right hander Armando Benitez, who seemed to react to facing the Cleveland Indians like Superman reacted to kryptonite.
Benitez walked Williams setting up a battle with Alomar. Benitez laid a fastball over the heart of the plate and Sandy smoked the ball deep to the left-centerfield gap. The ball split the outfielders and skipped off the warning track as Ramirez jogged home for an 8-7 Tribe victory. Benitez hung his head, stung by the Indians again, as the Jacobs Field crowd went wild and Alomar was mobbed by his teammates between first and second base. The Tribe now held a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, and the mighty Orioles (who were “destined” to win this series) were facing elimination.
“Somebody’s messing with fate right now,” Johnson said in a Mark Maske article from the Washington Post. “But we’re not out of it. There’s a long way to go. We’re a tough ballclub. The margin of victory has been so small in this series, we could very easily be up 3-1. It certainly isn’t over yet. My guys don’t feel it’s over yet. … I believe in this ballclub.”
“This ballclub puts itself in position to take advantage of the breaks that come its way,” Hargrove said. “That’s just good hustle. I don’t know about fate. But if it’s there, I’ll take it.”
If fate did in fact have something to do with it, it sure was not on the side of Webster. For the second time in one crazy weekend in Cleveland, the Baltimore catcher had to answer questions about a wacky play involving him.
“I was going back to the plate hoping Arthur would get the ball and flip it to me,” Webster said in an article by Roch Kubatko of the Baltimore Sun Times. “Justice was holding him down. He couldn’t move. Nobody could get the ball. Then I saw Cal coming and it was too late.”
One Indian in particular felt obligated to stick up for Webster. “You can’t blame him,” said Grissom, who is the godfather of Webster’s son, Rashad. “It’s not his fault the ball hit six feet in front of the plate.”
Outside of Grissom, all of the talk in the Tribe clubhouse was about Alomar, who had busted out of the slump that he was in to start the series. “I was having a tough series so far,” Alomar said in Maske’s article. “I knew I had to be more patient. Benitez throws very hard. I was looking for a fastball and he threw it, and I was able to hit it in the gap.”
As for the Indians, they now held a two game lead in the series and were playing their best baseball of the season at the time that it counted the most. “It’s been unbelievable,” Alomar said. “This team has not played like this the whole season. It seems like in the postseason it’s been a different team.”
The Tribe now had three chances to win one game and advance to the franchise’s fourth World Series. Game Five would be held at Jacobs Field and match up Chad Ogea against Scott Kamieniecki. Games Six and Seven would move back to Baltimore if the Orioles were able to win and force them. The Tribe, however, looked to finish the job in Game Five at home after perhaps the craziest weekend of baseball Cleveland has ever seen.
Photo: Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun