Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians
Steve Eby | On 22, Oct 2014
During the month of October 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 NINETEEN: WORLD SERIES GAME 4—THE ROOKIE HAS THE WRIGHT STUFF
On October 22, 1997, a frigid air mass pushed south from Canada. It swept across Lake Erie as lake-effect snow covered Cleveland and the temperature plummeted to 38°. Huge gusts howled through the downtown area and the wind-chill dropped to a numbing 15°.
It was abnormally cold in Northeast Ohio, as the average temperature for October 22 in Cleveland was a mild 58°. As Game Four of the 1997 Fall Classic was about to begin, however, the stage was set for an infamous showdown between the Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians in what became the coldest World Series game in recorded history.
As the players took batting practice, heavy snow showers fell in the ballpark and turned Jacobs Field into a winter wonderland. Christmas carols echoed throughout the stadium, as the Indians creative staff blared them over the public address system.
“I don’t like this (stuff),” Marlins shortstop and Colombia native Edgar Renteria said of the snow in a Sun Sentinel article by David O’Brien.
“I don’t like the cold,” Marlins scheduled Game Five starter and native Cuban Livan Hernandez agreed in a Murray Chass article from the New York Times. “I don’t like to pitch in the cold. I like it when it’s hot. But these are the times where you can’t worry about whether it’s hot or cold. You’ve just got to go out and pitch and do the best job you can.”
The pitching matchup for Game Four was also a topic of interest. Marlins rookie Tony Saunders, one season removed from pitching Double-A baseball, was the starting pitcher for Florida. The start would mark only Saunders’ second appearance in the postseason.
“I’m very excited,” Saunders said in the O’Brien article. “This is something you never really think about because you don’t believe it’s going to happen your first year. There’s a lot of players who play a long time and never get the opportunity (to play in the World Series), and I’m getting it my first year.”
“He’s got a long way to go,” Florida Manager Jim Leyland said, “but he’s on his way to becoming a very fine pitcher. I’m sure he’ll have jitters; I’d worry if he didn’t. But there’s a difference between nervous and scared.”
The 23 year old was not, however, even the youngest or most inexperienced starter in the game. Those titles belonged to Indians pitcher Jaret Wright who was the youngest pitcher to start a World Series game since Bret Saberhagen in 1985 and was also making his first World Series start of his career.
Between his time at Double-A Akron, the regular season in Cleveland and the playoffs, Wright had thrown 210 innings in 1997—by far the most he had logged at any point in his career. It was because of this that Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove pushed his hottest pitcher to Game Four, as Grover was worried about the wear and tear on the youngsters arm. It was also Hargrove’s intention to have Game Four be Wright’s only start in the World Series because (as he stated in a Mike DiGiovanna article from the Los Angeles Times) he wasn’t sure, “how much Jaret Wright had left in his tank.”
When hearing of his managers questioning, Wright replied, “Are the Marlins going to see this? It is full, very full.”
Wright had become the talk of the baseball as he defeated the defending World Champion Yankees twice in the Indians upset in the ALDS. He struggled in his one start against Baltimore in the ALCS, but the surging Indians found a way to win the game and series despite the rookie’s struggles. Perhaps a bit humbled, Wright did not look to Game Four as a “gimmie” because he was facing another rookie.
“I’m going to go up there like I’m pitching against Kevin Brown,” Wright said in the O’Brien article.
Saunders, who less than a year prior was opposing Wright in an Arizona Fall League game, was impressed earlier than most people of the Indians young right hander.
“The first couple times I watched him pitch,” Saunders said in the Chass article, “I said it’s not going to take this guy long because he has great stuff. I knew he was going to be here sooner or later.”
Conversely, Wright did not recognize the name of Tony Saunders. “I don’t remember too much about him. I saw a lot of guys out there.”
Fortunately for the Indians, Wright and his Tribe teammates did not get much time to get to know Saunders during Game Four either because, while the snow did not accumulate on the ground, Cleveland runs accumulated aplenty.
After Wright had set down the Marlins scoreless in the top of the first (thanks in large part to a Bobby Bonilla double play ball), the Indians gave the Marlins rookie a lesson in what it was like pitching to their mighty lineup. Omar Vizquel started things off by smoking a line drive single into left with one out. Manny Ramirez followed and launched a high, deep drive to the opposite field and over the right field wall for a homerun and an early 2-0 Cleveland lead.
The Tribe was not finished pounding Saunders, though. After a David Justice strikeout, the Florida right hander allowed an infield single to Matt Williams to start the two out rally. Sandy Alomar, who was becoming red hot in the series, then smoked a double over the head of Devon White in centerfield, scoring Williams and making the score 3-0 in favor of the Tribe.
Wright and Saunders exchanged scoreless second innings before the Tribe went back to work in the third. Ramirez led off the inning with a walk and then fell asleep on the bases. With a 1-2 count on Justice, Saunders spun and fired to first where Ramirez was standing flat footed and the rookie had Manny dead-to-rights. Fortunately for Cleveland, Saunders’ throw skipped away from first baseman Darren Daulton and allowed Ramirez to hustle to second. It was only the beginning of the sloppy play the Marlins would exhibit this inning.
Justice let one more pitch go by before slapping a slow grounder toward Renteria at short. Ramirez alertly sprinted to third and Renteria fielded the ball and made an ill-advised throw to first. Just like Saunders’ ball a moment before, the throw scooted past Daulton and allowed Ramirez to score and Justice to hustle to second. The score was now 4-0 as Justice was awarded an infield single and Renteria was given an error.
Just like the weather was bringing, things seemed to snowball from there for Saunders. Williams followed Justice by drawing a walk and was then followed by Alomar who drove D.J. home with a groundball through the right side. With the score now 5-0, Saunders walked Jim Thome to load the bases and Leyland had seen enough of the rookie. Saunders was replaced by Antonio Alfonseca and the bases were still loaded with nobody out.
To Alfonseca’s credit, he certainly limited the damage. Second baseman Tony Fernandez kept the Tribe rolling by lining a single to center that scored Williams to make the score 6-0, but the Florida right hander took over from there.
Alfonseca struck out Marquis Grissom for the first out and then did the same to Bip Roberts for the second. When he got Vizquel to pop out to end the inning, Alfonseca had escaped a bases loaded, one out jam with allowing just one run. It was excellent work by the Marlins reliever who kept the Indians from blowing the game wide open. Perhaps a bit “jump-started” by their bullpen, the Marlins offense finally got to Wright in the top of the fourth.
Bonilla led off the inning with a lineout, but Daulton followed by crushing a double into the right-centerfield gap. Wright then walked Moises Alou and allowed a single to Jim Eisenreich to get the Marlins on the board and made the score 6-1. Wright, however, did the exact opposite that Saunders did and came back to retire the next two hitters and end the inning. Alfonseca and Wright then traded back and forth scoreless innings until the sixth.
Daulton started the Florida rally again by drawing a one out walk and was followed by an Alou homerun that was blasted deep over the left-centerfield wall to bring Florida back within three runs. The Indians got one back in the bottom half, however, as the Tribe loaded the bases against reliever Ed Vosberg and Alomar drove home the Tribe’s seventh run with a fielder’s choice. With the score 7-3 Cleveland, the Indians kept their foot on the gas in the seventh and then all but ended the game in the eighth.
Fernandez scored the Tribe’s eighth run in the seventh inning, courtesy of a Brian Giles RBI single and then Williams put an exclamation point on things the following inning. With one out and Justice on first, Williams put the first pitch he saw from reliever Jay Powell onto the homerun porch to make the score 10-3 in the bottom of the eighth. While Williams circled the bases, the fans at The Jake were rocking like it was mid-August while the Marlins in the first base dugout shivered in the cold.
The seven run cushion was more than comfortable enough for Tribe lefthander Brian Anderson, who was brought into the game in the seventh inning and worked the final three scoreless frames to seal the victory. The Indians had throttled the Marlins by a final score of 10-3 and had evened up the World Series at 2-2.
“The series is tied 2-2, what’s wrong with that?” Leyland said in the O’Brien article. “This is probably the way it’s supposed to be, the two pennant winners from their respective leagues, and we’re 2-2 after four.”
The series was knotted up thanks to the Indians potent lineup but also because of their 21-year old rookie pitcher who was proving to be somewhat hittable, but unbeatable nonetheless. Wright ran his postseason record to 3-0 after his six inning victory and did so by limiting damage in his innings and stranding Marlin base runners all day.
The Indians, on the other hand, did an excellent job of coming through in the clutch. Their professional approach and execution in the harsh conditions were not lost on their manager.
“It hurts, and it’s just not a lot of fun,” the former Tribe infielder Hargrove said of hitting in the brutal Cleveland weather in the DiGiovanna artcile. “Hitting it off the end of the bat is probably worse than hitting the ball down by your hands. It’s very painful, and it stays painful for a while.
“And it’s the kind of hurt that when it stops hurting, it feels so good that it stopped that it was worth getting hurt in the first place.”
What also stung somewhat was the 0-4 performance that Grissom had turned in at the plate. The O-fer snapped Grissom’s World Series hitting streak at 15 games—two shy of Hank Bauer’s record.
Things looked positive for Grissom in the fifth inning, as the centerfielder launched what looked to be a sure double into the left-centerfield gap. White, however, brought flashbacks of his outstanding catch in Game Three of the 1992 World Series when he was playing with Toronto as he crashed into the out-of-town scoreboard to make an outstanding running catch and deny Grissom of history.
Despite being denied a run at history, Grissom and his teammates were all smiles after their Game Four victory. The series was tied up at 2-2 and there was one more game to be played at Jacobs Field for the 1997 season before the series would shift back to sunny Miami.
The Game Five forecast showed warmer weather and dryer conditions as there would be a rematch of Game One starters Hernandez and Orel Hershiser. The Marlins second rookie in as many nights was ready to take on the Indians veteran, as the winner of the matchup would find itself one victory away from a World Series Championship.
Photo: Jeff Haynes/Getty Images