Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians
Steve Eby | On 26, 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 TWENTY-TWO: WORLD SERIES GAME 7—THE BITTER END
Cleveland had certainly been down a long and winding path that took them to baseball’s biggest stage.
The Indians had extremely lowered expectations heading into Spring Training, they traded their best and most popular player before camp broke and they underwhelmed all season with a pitching staff that looked more unwatchable than some Triple-A staffs.
They were huge underdogs when they faced the Yankees and Orioles on their unimaginable trip through the playoffs, yet they sent both foes packing. They had battled through sloppy play and historically-cold weather in Cleveland to take the Marlins to the brink of elimination in a winner-take-all showdown in Miami.
For Marlins fans, the feeling was optimistic and fun-loving. Their team was only in its fifth season of existence, and they were just waiting for good things to happen. For Cleveland fans, things could not have been tenser. For years, Cleveland had suffered through unbelievable and unbearable heartbreak.
There was The Catch in 1954. The Curse of Rocky Colavito in 1960. Red Right 88 in 1980. The Drive in 1986. The Fumble in ‘87. The Shot in ‘88. The Shot II in ‘93 and most recently, The Move in 1995.
Game Seven. The Curse. It could all end tonight.
“What would a World Series (title) mean?” asked Indians reliever and Geneva, Ohio native Brian Anderson in a Sun Sentinal article, “It would probably cure a lot of people’s insanity.”
“I don’t know,” Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove said in a Mike Downey article from the Los Angeles Times. “I could tell you what it meant to the fans in ’95, when we ended 40 years of frustration in bringing a winner to them and the city went absolutely bonkers. I would assume that it would be pretty much the same this time, if we can get the job done tonight.”
Heading toward the game, all eyes were on Hargrove and who would be his starting pitcher for the most important game in franchise history. Would Hargrove go with Charles Nagy—the former All-Star with three years of playoff experience? Or would he go with Jaret Wright—the stud rookie who certainly had the hot hand after defeating the Yankees twice and then winning Game Four of the World Series as well?
Hargrove ultimately decided to go with Wright, announcing the decision after the Game Six victory. He went with the rookie over the veteran despite Wright working on only three days’ rest.
“The reason I decided to go with Jaret in Game Four instead of Game Two is because I didn’t want to risk him pitching two games in the World Series,” Hargrove said in a Murray Chass article from the New York Times. “But after seeing the way he handled himself in Game Four, I feel very good about him coming back, even on three days’ rest.”
“People have been asking me about my dreams ever since the New York Series,” Wright said in a Mark Whicker article from the Orange County Register. “Well, Game Seven of the World Series is the one you dream about.”
Wright was just the seventh rookie to start Game Seven of the World Series in history and the first since Joe Magrane in 1987. The Marlins countered with veteran lefthander Al Leiter, who was hammered by the Indians in Florida’s 14-11 Game Three victory.
“It’s the last major-league game of the year,” Leiter said in a Brian Schmitz article from the Orlando Sentinel. “You go all-out. It’s all or nothing.”
All or nothing. The Indians would either get it all…or they would get nothing.
To add to a storyline that needed no subplots, Game Seven was played on October 26, which was Hargrove’s 48th birthday.
The Indians last title: 1948…Destiny.
When the game started, both pitchers looked as if they had a date with destiny.
Shortstop Omar Vizquel, who was one of the huge heroes from Game Six, led off the game as Hargrove elected to start the red hot Tony Fernandez at second base over normal leadoff hitter Bip Roberts. Vizquel, Fernandez and Manny Ramirez were all set down in order by Leiter in the first, bringing Wright out to the mound—a place that he had struggled throughout the playoffs in the first inning.
Wright got Devon White to ground out to start the bottom half, but then allowed a double to Edgar Renteria. A walk to Gary Sheffield followed and the home team looked to be in business. The rally was quickly diffused, however, with a little controversy.
First baseman Darren Daulton bounced what looked to be a routine double play ball to Fernandez at second, who flipped the ball to Vizquel to retire Sheffield. Sheffield went into Vizquel hard and out of the baseline and Vizquel was unable to make a relay throw to first. Umpire Joe West called Sheffield out on the play and then called him for interference, which made Daulton out as well. The inning was over as Sheffield argued to no avail with the umpire.
Leiter continued to roll, retiring the Tribe 1-2-3 again in the second. Wright then answered with a perfect inning of his own; the highlight being a strikeout of Charles Johnson. In the top of the third, the Indians finally came through and got to Leiter.
First baseman Jim Thome led off the inning by drawing a six pitch, full count walk and was pushed to second when Marquis Grissom grounded a “seeing-eye” single through the hole on the left side. Wright then bunted the two runners over for the first out, but put two runners in scoring position for the top of the order.
Vizquel was unable to break the scoreless tie as he popped up weakly to Renteria at short, bringing Fernandez up with two outs. The second baseman made his manager look like a genius for starting him, as he roped a line drive single back up the middle. Both Thome and Grissom came around to score on the clutch hit and the Indians held an early 2-0 lead.
Here we go!
As the Indians now had the lead, the game, season and franchise history were put into the hands of the 21 year old rookie. Instead of buckling under the pressure, Wright seemed to rise to the occasion and continued to deal up zeroes.
Jaret set the Marlins down scoreless in the third and then 1-2-3 in the fourth with the aide of two strikeouts. Leiter also settled down, holding the Tribe scoreless in the fourth and fifth, despite the Tribe threatening by putting runners at the corners in the latter.
Wright mowed through the Fish in the bottom of the fifth and Leiter did the same in the top of the sixth. Things then got a little hairy in the bottom half, as a defensive blunder would give the Marlins their first real scoring opportunity.
Wright got Renteria to line out to Grissom in center to start the sixth and then struck Sheffield out for the second out. Daulton then came to the plate and roped a line drive into right.
Ramirez came in on the ball and missed and the ball scooted past him to the wall. The slow-footed Daulton made it all the way to third base before Manny could fire the ball back in and suddenly the Marlins were threatening with the dangerous Moises Alou coming to the plate.
Thankfully for the Indians, Wright locked in and retired Alou on a fly ball to Grissom for the third out. Both Ramirez and the Indians had Wright to thank for escaping disaster.
Just Manny being Manny, I guess.
In the top of the seventh, former Indian Dennis Cook came in to replace Leiter, who had pitched well, but was taking a backseat to his rookie counterpart. Cook retired the side in order, including strikeouts of both Wright and Vizquel. Wright then went back out to the bump to start the bottom of the seventh and to face the struggling Bobby Bonilla.
Bonilla had had a tough series, making errors and batting right around .200 coming into the at bat. As he was waiting for Wright to finish his warm up pitches, he chatted with former Brooklyn Dodger Joe Black, who was sitting behind home plate.
“(Black) asked me if I was standing too close to the plate and I said, ‘You know what? I am,’” Bonilla said in a Sun Sentinel article by Chris Perkins.
Bobby Bo made the adjustment and slammed Wright’s first pitch deep into the Miami night and over the right field wall for a homerun. The 67,204 fans at Pro Player Stadium went nuts as the Marlins had drawn a run closer and Wright proved to be human after all. Afterwards, Bonilla gave all the credit to his new “hitting coach”.
“Joe came through there,” Bonilla said. “I backed off the plate and I was able to hit a ball out of the ballpark because I was able to wait on it.”
Yeah…thanks for nothing Joe.
When Bonilla touched home plate the Indians lead had been cut in half at 2-1 and the Marlins would bring the tying run up to the plate from now on.
Wright regrouped and struck out Johnson for the first out of the inning, then lost Criag Counsell, walking him on four pitches. When Marlins Manager Jim Leyland went to his bench and pinch hit the left handed Cliff Floyd for Cook, and with his pitch count at 108 while working on just three days’ rest, Hargrove pulled his rookie starter from the ballgame after his six and one third innings of masterful pitching.
Wright had certainly done his job—and now it was up to the Tribe bullpen to finish it. Wright had worked just over six innings, allowing just one run on two hits with seven strikeouts. The rookie was marvelous and gave the Indians and their fans so much promise for a bright future. For the present, however, the game was now in the reliable hands of reliever Paul Assenmacher.
After Hargrove had countered Leyland’s pinch hitter with a relief pitcher, Leyland went back to his bench as Floyd never got into the batter’s box. Before he ever got to see a pitch, Floyd’s Game Seven was over as Leyland replaced him with the right handed hitting Kurt Abbott to face the lefty Assenmacher. The strategy proved to be nothing more than a waste of a bench player, however, as Abbott flew out to Ramirez for the second out. Assenmacher then dug in to face White and struck the centerfielder out to end the inning and preserve the Tribe’s one run cushion.
Only six outs from the title.
Antonio Alfonseca shut down the Indians in order in the top of the eighth and Mike Jackson came in to face the Marlins in the bottom. Jackson retired both Renteria and Sheffield before being lifted for Anderson, who got pinch hitter Jeff Conine to foul out.
Three more outs…let’s get some insurance.
The top of the ninth started with Alfonseca walking Matt Williams, then having Williams erased on a fielder’s choice that was hit into by Sandy Alomar. Felix Heredia then replaced Alfonseca to face Thome, but the Tribe slugger got the better end of the matchup as he scorched a single through the right side that chased Alomar to third. The Indians now had runners at the corners with only one out.
Leyland performed a double-switch, where Jim Eisenriech replaced Heredia to play first base and closer Robb Nen came in where Conine was hitting to pitch. Nen came in to face Grissom, as the infield was drawn in.
Grissom tapped a groundball to Renteria and Alomar broke toward home. The Marlins shortstop gobbled up the ball and fired it to the catcher Johnson, who laid the tag on Sandy for the second out.
Jesus! Come on!
Brian Giles pinch hit for Anderson, but flew out to deep left field. Pro Player Stadium erupted, as the Marlins still had a punchers chance in the ninth. In order to make history and deny the Indians a date with destiny, they would have to score against Tribe closer Jose Mesa.
The plastic tarps were being hung in the Indians locker room, as the Cleveland Indians were primed to win their first World Series since 1948. Chad Ogea, who had defeated Kevin Brown two times in the series and recorded two base hits and an RBI in Game Six, had his name being engraved on the MVP trophy.
Mesa took his warm-up pitches as NBC did not cut to a commercial break. In Vizquel’s autobiography, Omar! My Life On and Off the Field, Vizquel writes of the meeting at the mound as Mesa entered the ballgame. “The eyes of the world were focused on every move we made. Unfortunately, Jose’s own eyes were vacant. Completely empty. Nobody home. You could almost see right through him.”
Come on Jose…Let’s do it baby!
Mesa was scheduled to face the six, seven and eight hitters in the Florida lineup: Alou, Bonillia, and Johnson.
1-2-3 Jose…Just this one time…
Mesa and Alou battled to a 1-1 count before Moises smoked a single back up the middle.
Mesa then came through and struck out Bonilla after an eight pitch battle, meaning a ground ball could win the Indians the World Series.
Two more outs…Two more outs…Two more outs…
Mesa got ahead in the count 1-2 before Johnson smacked an outside fastball into right field for a single. Alou lowered his shoulder and sprinted around second and into third base safely as Ramirez fired the ball into the infield. Runners were at first and third with one out as Counsell was coming to the plate.
Come on Jose…Ground ball—Ground Ball!
Counsell smacked Mesa’s 1-1 pitch deep into right field to the roar of the crowd. Ramirez hauled in the catch and Alou tagged and scored. The game was now tied at 2-2 and the Marlins had the potential winning run at first.
There is no way that just happened…not again.
Move over Frank Lane, Earnest Byner, Craig Ehlo and Art Modell.
Make room for Jose Mesa.
Mesa kicked the dirt on the back side of the mound in frustration as the man who was once a rock star in Cleveland had just become an all-time Cleveland goat. The 1997 World Series Game Seven line would forever read: Jose Mesa—blown save.
Mesa retired Eisenreich with a ground ball to Fernandez, but it was one batter too late. The damage was done. The game was tied. Game Seven of the World Series was headed to extra innings for the third time in history. By the time the frustrated Indians made it back to the dugout, the plastic tarps were down and Ogea’s name was being removed.
As the Tribe dugout must have felt like a funeral home, the Marlins dugout was the complete opposite. Nen came out to work the top of the 10th and showed his blazing fastball and the talent that made him one of baseball’s best closers.
Nen struck out Vizquel to start the inning and then allowed a groundball base hit to Fernandez with one out. Unfazed, Nen used six pitches to retire both Ramirez and David Justice, as the fireballer lit up the radar gun at over 100 MPH.
In the bottom of the 10th, Hargrove stuck by his closer and sent him back out to the mound. White led off by smoking a ground ball up the middle that caromed off of Mesa and skipped over to Vizquel at short. Omar barehanded the ball and fired it over to Thome for the first out of the inning.
Mesa followed it up by allowing back-to-back singles to Renteria and Sheffield. The Marlins suddenly had the winning run in scoring position and pinch hitter John Cangelosi coming to the plate as a possible hero.
Mesa and Cangelosi battled to a full count before Jose froze the pinch hitter with a borderline strike three call for the second out. With Alou, arguably the Marlins best hitter, coming to the plate, Hargrove took the ball from his closer and sent him back to the dugout.
Damn it Jose! DAMN YOU JOSE!!!
Hargrove turned the game over to Nagy, the starting pitcher who had been skipped in the rotation in favor of Wright. It was the first time since September of 1990 that Nagy had come out of the bullpen and only the second time in his career.
Charlie came through, however, as he used just two pitches to retire Alou. The hard hitting outfielder blooped Nagy’s 1-0 pitch into right field and into the glove of Ramirez for the third out. Mesa was now off of the hook for the loss, but would never again be off of the hook in the minds of Cleveland fans.
Reliever Jay Powell, the Marlins sixth pitcher of the night, worked the top of the 11th and escaped due to some poor execution by the Indians and the help of a pitcher’s best friend.
Williams kicked off the inning with a walk, which allowed Hargrove to try his hand at “small ball”. The Tribe Manager elected to bunt with Alomar—his best hitter during the series—and Sandy laid down a hard one right back to the mound. Powell fielded the ball, spun, fired and retired Williams at second. The inning ended shortly after, as Thome grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.
Nagy went back out to work for the bottom of the 11th, as he was settling in for the long haul. The Tribe had long ago in the playoffs settled on what had basically become a four-man bullpen—but Jackson, Assenmacher, Anderson and Mesa had already been used. The game was Nagy’s to win or lose.
Bonilla started the Marlins rally with a base hit, as he scorched a ground ball back up the middle to put the winning run at first. It was now Leyland’s turn to try “small ball” with his catcher, as defensive replacement Greg Zaun squared to try and lay one down.
Zaun fouled off the first two attempts as Nagy’s sinkerball was difficult to keep fair. Leyland kept the bunt on, despite there being two strikes, and Zaun finally put one in fair territory.
The only problem for Florida was that the bunt sailed up in the air instead of getting down on the ground. Nagy hustled off the mound and snared it for the first off and it seemed like the Indians may have caught a break. Nagy only needed a ground ball and the potent Tribe bats would get another crack at the depleting Florida pitching staff.
Counsell dug in, fell behind in the count 1-2 and fouled off a few pitches before hammering Nagy’s sixth offering into the ground. The ball had double play written all over it as it rolled to Fernandez at second. The four-time Gold Glover got in front of the ball and turned to fire it to Vizquel at short, but took his eye off of it as it skipped off of his glove and scooted into short right field.
You have got to be kidding me.
Bonilla raced to third as the possible winning run now stood only 90 feet away with Eisenreich heading to the plate. Visions of former Red Sox player Bill Buckner raced through the minds of baseball fans everywhere as Fernandez had made a crucial error at the absolute worst possible time.
Nagy intentionally walked Eisenreich to set up a force at the plate and give White the first chance to be the hero. White failed to come through, however, as he bounced the ball right at Fernandez , who fielded it cleanly and fired a strike to Alomar at the plate. Bonilla was out, and the Indians now only needed one out to stay alive as Renteria strode to the plate.
Nagy fired in strike one to get ahead in the count and then turned to his famous sinker. Renteria flicked his bat out at the pitch and lined it back up the middle.
Nagy stuck his glove out and the ball nicked it as it sailed past. Vizquel made a diving effort at the ball—but it scooted past him into the outfield for a walk-off game winning single.
Unbelievable. Only in Cleveland.
Renteria raised his arms as the ball hit the grass and Counsell touched home plate and lept high into the air and into a mob of Marlins that had spilled onto the field. The Indians players somberly meandered off the field—all except Thome, who collapsed in front of the mound in disbelief and sorrow. The Marlins had won the first World Series in their brief history and the Indians were sent back to Cleveland on a 49 year drought.
For Leyland, it ended a personal drought that relieved years of playoff disappointment.
“I guess every little boy imagines this might happen at one time. It’s a total fantasy for me,” Leyland said in a Ben Walker article from the Associated Press. “I was a little concerned. We haven’t given up all year tonight wasn’t the time to give up. When we walked into the clubhouse tonight, we knew we were going to be world champions.”
With Ogea’s name completely erased, Game One and Five winner Livan Hernandez was named World Series MVP (just the second rookie to win the award) during the postgame celebration. By this time, the Indians had made their way to their untarped clubhouse—all except for Vizquel, who sat in the empty dugout with tears in his eyes, torturing himself by watching the Marlins celebrate.
“I wanted to know what the feeling was like on the other side,” Vizquel said in a Jack Curry article from the New York Times. “We didn’t have anywhere else to go. We had played 190 games to get to this point where we are right now. I wanted to see what they felt.
“No question, this is tougher than losing to the Braves in ’95,” Omar added. “We were so close. We were one inning away. A lot goes through your mind. You start thinking about hopefully celebrating and about your teammates and friends. Then it all gets taken away.”
The feeling in the visitor’s clubhouse, meanwhile, was devastating.
“I don’t really know what to tell the team, other than they played hard all year long,” Hargrove said in the Walker article. “We overcame long odds to get where we’re at. We played hard, we didn’t give the game away, it could’ve gone either way. It just happened to go the Marlins’ way.”
In the Downey article, Hargrove then spoke of his players. “Feel for them, feel the loss. But don’t feel bad about who they are, or where they’ve come from, or where they’ve gone. They should feel proud of themselves, because they were champions. They were winners.”
“This has been a crazy year for us…an adventure year,” Alomar added in the Blum article.
“It’s disheartening to come that close,” Thome said in the Curry piece.
“I’m very disappointed that we lost,” Hargrove concluded. “I can’t describe how disappointed.”
The disappointment for the team was huge, but even more so for Mesa and Fernandez. Mesa did not comment, but Fernandez took the high road like a true professional.
“It’s a play that I should make,” Fernandez said of his error in the 11th in Blum’s article. “It’s a play that any second baseman should make.”
“If the Lord allowed this to happen, then it happened for a reason. He knows that I can handle it.”
The rest of the talk in the Tribe clubhouse was of the performance of Wright, who would never again truly capture the magic of his 1997 postseason.
“My performance is separate,” Wright said. “It’s a team. We go out there together. Next year, there’ll be a fire to go out there and celebrate like the Marlins did tonight. All you can do now is wait.”
And wait. And wait. And wait.
The feeling was one that seemed unfair, as the Marlins got to hoist the trophy in just their fifth year of existence, while the Indians long-suffering fans had to watch yet another team get the better of their own.
“I don’t think you can find a better finish than that,” said Conine in a Hartford Courant article.
Indians fans could certainly find a better finish.
For the national media, it was just another blurb to add to the “Cleveland Sports Misery” graphic that Cleveland fans have seen far too many times. It was just another blown opportunity to laugh about. Just another Mistake on the Lake.
For the fans of the great city of Cleveland, however…this one hurt. This hurt BIG time. It was like getting punched in the gut, kicked in the nuts and being dumped by the prom queen all at the same time—only it was all that times about 10 million.
It happened again. Jesus…I can’t believe that actually happened again. Two outs away…
Maybe next year…
Photo: Roadell Hickman/Associated Press