The Greatest Summer Ever: Catching Up With Paul Sorrento
Steve Eby | On 18, Apr 2015
Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today we catch up with former first baseman Paul Sorrento.
After retiring from playing Major League Baseball, former Indians first baseman Paul Sorrento did something that was normal for a lot of newly retired fathers.
“I’ve been a dad,” Sorrento said. “I’ve got two kids. My son is 16 and my daughter is 14. I retired in 2000, so from 2000 to 2011 I was just raising my kids.”
It wasn’t until 12 years after retiring from playing baseball that Sorrento’s ‘retirement’ became somewhat abnormal compared to the rest of us.
“Then in 2012 I started coaching in the Angels system,” Sorrento said. “I coached one year with their California League affiliate and then in 2013 I was the hitting coordinator.”
For the 2014 season, Sorrento served as the hitting coach for the 2014 American League Western Division champion Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The team led the American League with 98 wins during his interim gig, as Sorrento was filling in for regular hitting coach Don Baylor, who broke his leg catching the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day. The promotion came as a reunion of sorts, as Sorrento suddenly worked for the team that drafted him nearly 30 years prior and one that traded him away before he made it to the Big Leagues.
After being drafted in the fourth round in 1986, Sorrento was dealt from the Angels to the Minnesota Twins after the 1988 season in a package that sent former Indian Bert Blyleven to the West Coast. Sorrento got his first taste of Major League action the following summer with the Twins and played sparingly for parts of three seasons in Minneapolis.
Stuck behind Twins legendary first baseman Kent Hrbek, Sorrento was relegated to a bench role as the Twins won the 1991 World Series. After just 81 games over three years in Minnesota, Sorrento welcomed a trade from the defending champs to the 105-loss Indians.
“It was great for me,” Sorrento said of the deal that sent Curt Leskanic and Oscar Munoz to the Twins. “I had been in Minnesota and we just won the World Series in ’91. Kent Hrbek had just signed a multi-year deal there, so it was right toward the end of Spring Training and I was excited about the trade. I was still young and I knew I was going to get a chance to play.”
Getting a personal turnaround was great, but Sorrento looked for a team turnaround as well.
“I also knew that they had some exciting young players, so it was great because we all got to come up together and we were all kind of the same age. We were all hungry…it was a great atmosphere.”
It didn’t take long for Sorrento’s high expectations to get filled, as he saw something special in the Indians young group immediately.
“I think it was during that first year (in 1992) that I realized that we had a good core group of players with Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle and Sandy Alomar,” Sorrento remembered. “We had some real good, young players. I think Jim Thome even came up toward the end of that year. You could tell that offensively we had a good group of core players who were going to be real good for a long time. We just needed to add some pieces—and that’s what we did—and we became pretty good.”
‘Pretty good’ is a pretty big understatement because the up-and-coming Indians took the American League by storm after switching over to their new ballpark—Jacobs Field—after the 1993 season. Inspired by their sparkling new home, the Tribe finished just one game out of first place when the labor strike ended the season in 1994.
“The old ballpark during the opening series and the last series was at like 75,000 people. That was pretty special—it was really cool,” Sorrento said. “Obviously coming into a new, state-of-the-art facility affected all of us players. We were all pumped. From the business end of it, there was going to be new revenue so that’s how they could add a Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez, Tony Pena and Orel Hershiser. It was kind of like the perfect storm. We had a good nucleus of players and then they just added veterans who had been around and knew how to win. They taught us how to win and it was great.”
The Indians won in 1994 and stepped up their winning ways when the strike settled itself in late April of 1995. Fueled by a lineup full of table setters and slugging RBI machines, the Tribe used their mighty lineup to show that they were never out of any game—no matter the score.
“We had guys that were gamers and never gave up,” Sorrento said of himself and his teammates. “It speaks to the type of offense we had—we could score five or six runs really quickly. We just kept chipping away and chipping away.”
On June 4, 1995, it was Sorrento who had the final ‘chip’ in chipping away the biggest comeback in a year full of them.
“We were down early…big…8-0,” Sorrento remembers of their game against the Toronto Blue Jays. “With a guy like David Cone on the mound you think that about 95% of the time he’s going to take over the game and finish it. I think that goes back to the type of guys we had on that team.”
The Indians trimmed the eight run deficit to one by the time Sorrento strode to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning and Thome was on at first representing the tying run.
“I remember that day that the wind was blowing in. I got a good pitch and I just killed it,” Sorrento remembered. “I remember that I thought I may have celebrated too early because it barely went out—it was only like the first or second row. The Jake is a pretty good hitting yard so if you get it good you know it’s probably gone. I just remember thinking, ‘Please go out, because I’m going to look like an idiot if it doesn’t.’ It ended up just capping off a great team win. We never gave up.”
Jacobs Field rocked and Sorrento’s game-winning blast helped set the stage for a string of 455 consecutive sellouts that Jacobs Field would host. The string would start eight days later and last for nearly six years.
“It was an All-Star lineup,” Sorrento said. “There was no easy out. For an opposing pitcher, there would be a lot of pressure on them. If they made any mistake then they could get hurt. I think that a big factor too was our home fans. That year started that string of sellouts where the Jake was just rocking every night and sold out every night. When I sit here now (as a coach), I can still hear the drum but it doesn’t seem the same. No disrespect to the club they have now—they have a real good club—but I just remember how loud it would be back then. The excitement just kind of got you through the dog days. If you came out dragging a little bit the energy of the crowd would get you through the games a little bit for sure.”
The fans came in droves throughout the remainder of the ’95 season as the Indians marched their way to their first playoff appearance and pennant since 1954. Jacobs Field hosted the World Series in just its second year of existence, but the mighty Tribe lost in six games to the Atlanta Braves.
“To this day, I still don’t know how we didn’t win the World Series in ’95,” Sorrento said as he shook his head. “We had to go up against Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux who are all Hall of Famers, so you have to give them the respect they deserve.”
Despite the disappointment at the end, Sorrento still has very fond memories of the best team that he ever played for.
“If you just look at that season, we clinched so early that year…it was crazy. I know it was a shortened season and I think if we played a full season we’d have had a good shot at the wins record.”
Sorrento is quick to point out that the ’95 team was not just the offensive juggernaut that most people remember, as well.
“We had great pitching. Our team led the league in ERA in ’95. We always knew we were going to be in the game. We just had to grind it out and good things would happen.”
Having an All-Star type lineup certainly didn’t hurt the pitching staff, either.
“We always knew that if our pitchers could hold the other team to four or five runs, then we had a pretty good chance of winning.”
When Cleveland brought in first baseman Julio Franco for the 1996 season, Sorrento left Cleveland after 1995 and signed a free agent deal with their ALCS opponent—the Seattle Mariners. He left the shores of Lake Erie after four years of batting .261 with 75 homeruns and 266 RBI with the Tribe. Sorrento’s 71 homeruns as a first baseman rank fifth on the Indians all-time list behind Thome’s 218, Luke Easter’s 91, Andre Thornton’s 86 and Fred Whitfield’s 85.
In two years with Seattle, Sorrento had arguably the best two seasons of his career. He reached career highs with a .289 batting average and 93 RBI in 1996 and then slugged a career best 31 homeruns in 1997. Two years with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays followed and then Sorrento retired following the 1999 season.
After an 11 year career, Sorrento clubbed 166 homeruns including nine grand slams. The nine salamis tie some impressive names on baseball’s all-time list, adding himself alongside of Yogi Berra, Orlando Cepeda, Mickey Mantle, Edgar Martinez, Stan Musial, Sammy Sosa and his former teammate—Thome.
“It’s just one of those things,” Sorrento said of his grand slams. “I look back now and didn’t think about it when I was playing. You read off the list and it makes you proud. It’s something I really didn’t think about…if there was some sort of magic potion I’d give it to our hitters now, but there isn’t. It’s nice to know but I can’t give an answer (of why it happened).”
Now back with the Angels organization, Sorrento enjoys being back in the game and giving back to today’s athletes.
“Well I’m the hitting coach, so it’s just about getting our guys ready to play,” Sorrento said. “Keeping them confident—I’m not too far removed from the game to realize how hard it is. I realize it’s very hard to hit, especially on an everyday basis. It’s a grind for 162 days, so I just try to stay positive with the guys and keep them confident and prepared for the game. We concentrate more on the mental side of it. I just try to get them in routines. If you do that over the course of the season your numbers will be there. We also work on situational hitting and moving runners. All of the stats will be there at the end.”
With the Angels, Sorrento also gets to get a firsthand look at three of the game’s best position players.
“I think Albert Pujols has kind of cemented himself as a first ballot Hall of Famer. He has an unbelievable presence in our lineup. He’s right up there with the best I’ve seen. Mike Trout is just reaching his potential—if he’s even reached it yet. He has a long career to go. It’s scary. His ceiling is unlimited. He has so much talent and plays the game the right way. Josh Hamilton is just a freak of nature really. He’s 6’5” and 250 and can run like the wind. He has power to all fields and has such great talent.
“All three are real good teammates who want to win and play for the right reasons. I’m fortunate to get to watch them play every day. The things they do make you kind of drop your jaw every once in a while. Behind the scenes, I don’t think people realize how hard they work. They’re always in the cages and work very hard at their craft. They’re right up there with the best I’ve ever been around. They’re fun to watch every day.”
While Sorrento is having fun watching three of today’s best athletes, he can’t help but remember being on a team that was loaded with similar talent from top to bottom nearly two decades ago.
“It was a special team and I have special memories,” Sorrento said of his Cleveland days. “I still keep in touch with a lot of them…it was a tight team.”
Photo: Bowman Baseball Cards