The Greatest Summer Ever: Building a Pennant Winner
Steve Eby | On 02, May 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 looks back at how the 1995 Indians roster was constructed.
After spending four decades out of first place, it was easy in 1995 to wonder how in the world the Cleveland Indians found themselves at the top of the baseball world. Wondering what they finally did right and why it took so long to do it was a legitimate question and fans that did not follow the team closely had to wonder:
Where in the world did these guys come from?
Just like most good teams, the ’95 Indians were built largely through good drafts. The team was constructed of players drafted by the Indians from as far back as 1987 to as recent as 1992 with the 1989 and 1991 classes chipping in four prospects each. The big contributors from the annual draft included left fielder Albert Belle (2nd round, 1987), starting pitcher Charles Nagy (1st round, 1988), reliever Alan Embree (5th round, 1989), third baseman Jim Thome (13th round, ’89), right fielder Manny Ramirez (1st round, 1991), first baseman Herbert Perry (2nd round, ’91) and pitcher Chad Ogea (3rd round, ’91). Other part time contributors included catcher Jesse Levis (4th round, 1989), outfielder Brian Giles (17th round, ’89), infielder David Bell (7th round, 1990), pitcher Albie Lopez (20th round, ’91) and reliever Paul Shuey (2nd round, 1992). Pitcher Julian Tavarez was not drafted, but signed as an amateur free agent during the summer of 1990.
In addition to the homegrown talents of Belle, Nagy, Thome and Ramirez, the rest of the young core of the ’95 team was brought in from some of the biggest and most successful trades in franchise history. The first heist is widely considered the most important one in Indians history, as the Tribe kick-started their ‘90’s dominance with one huge deal.
The trade brought a sparkly young catching prospect in Alomar, who would go on to win the 1990 AL Rookie of the Year Award, as the gem of the deal. In addition, it also brought the Indians Baerga, who would play in three All-Star Games and bat third in the mighty 1995 lineup.
“He was always a good hitter. Carlos always could hit,” Alomar said. “It wasn’t that he wasn’t a good Major League player; it’s that he wasn’t a good Major League player yet. When Carlos got traded with me I was like, ‘Wow, Carlos Baerga is coming with me and they don’t know how good of a player they’re getting.’ We were excited.”
A couple of years later, the Tribe executed what seemed like a small deal at the time, trading from a position of depth for what turned out to be an exciting young speedster to spark the top of their lineup.
“At that time, honestly, I went from one last team to another,” Lofton said of his first trade. “The good thing about it was that I knew I was going to have the opportunity to play every day and to be honest, that’s all I looked at. I wanted to play every day. Houston was in last and Cleveland was in last, but I got traded and had the opportunity to play in front of a new city and I was pumped.”
Lofton became the engine for the Indians offensive machine as he made six consecutive All-Star appearances in the 90’s and was one of the game’s best players for most of the decade. Sandwiched in between Lofton and Baerga in the #2 spot in the lineup was another trade acquisition—this one added just before the 1994 season began.
“I thought my career was about to take off,” Vizquel remembered. “When I took a look at the roster that they put together for that year, I saw guys like Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray and then some other guys that came a little later, I knew we were going to have a chance to win.”
Along with Alomar, Baerga, Lofton and Vizquel, other minor trades turned major upgrades occurred in the years prior to shape the 1995 Indians into the juggernaut that they became. In July of 1992, the Tribe flipped youngster Kyle Washington to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for pitcher Jose Mesa. Earlier that year, the Tribe had sent Curt Leskanic and Oscar Munoz to the Minnesota Twins for first baseman Paul Sorrento. Sorrento ended up as the Tribe’s everyday first baseman from 1992-95 and Mesa dominated and became the team’s record-setting closer during the 1995 season.
Also acquired via trade were starting pitcher Mark Clark (St. Louis, 1993), outfielder Ruben Amaro (Philadelphia, 1994) and outfielder Jeromy Burnitz and pitcher Joe Roa (New York Mets, 1995) who came over in the same trade. During the 1995 season, both Scooter Tucker (Houston, May 15) and starting pitcher Ken Hill (St. Louis, July 27) were acquired by the Indians before the trade deadline.
To add the final pieces to what was becoming a very attractive puzzle, the Indians filled out the remainder of their roster with veteran players that were signed as free agents over the previous years. With 11 of 15 free agent acquisitions signed either in 1994 or ’95, most of the newcomers were still fairly new to the team when the 1995 season had started. This was, however, by design.
“We had said all along that we were going to try to develop our core players and when we felt like we had a chance to contend, we would try to trade for or sign a couple big time free agents that would help us to get over the top and contend,” Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. “We did that when we signed Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray.”
Murray and Martinez were the first big pieces to sign on with the Tribe, doing so prior to the 1994 season. The Indians were looking for veteran leadership to teach their youngsters how to win, while the veterans were looking for a fun place to win before their long careers ended.
“I knew what kind of offensive team the Indians had,” Martinez said. “I got convinced by John Hart, the general manager then. They were looking for a starting pitcher; someone who could go deep into the game. They were scoring a lot of runs. And being a pitcher of that caliber, I knew I was able to do that. I was looking for a strong offensive team. As a starting pitcher, you’re always looking for that support when you can. So I thought that that was the right place for me. I felt that that was the right environment for me to be, especially in that ballpark. It was amazing then, because it was the beginning of that ballpark, Jacobs Field, and that really intrigued me.”
Along with the two former National Leaguers, the Tribe also brought over catcher Tony Pena prior to the ’94 season.
With three important veterans in tow, the ’94 Indians were able to impress enough to draw more interest from more veteran free agents the following winter. The big haul came in the form of former Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser, but the Tribe also added a key bullpen piece for the ’95 season in veteran Paul Assenmacher.
“The ’94 ended with a lockout, so the next season we didn’t really know what was going on or even when Spring Training was going to start,” Assenmacher remembered. “When things started developing and guys started to sign, one of the first phone calls that my agent got was from the Cleveland Indians. I remember playing the Cleveland Indians in 1994 when they were a good up-and-coming team. I figured that there was a nice, new ballpark and they drew real well, so it was a great opportunity to come over to the Tribe.”
In addition to Hershiser and Assenmacher, the ’95 Tribe also added free agent DH Dave Winfield, infielder Billy Ripken and pitchers Bud Black, John Farrell, Gregg Olson and Jim Poole. Out of the “also signeds”, only Poole and Winfield remained with the team through the end of the season and just Poole made the postseason roster. Prior to the ’94 season, free agent signees included outfielder Wayne Kirby (1991), infielder Alvaro Espinoza (1992), reliever Eric Plunk (’92) and pitcher Jason Grimsley (1993). Also included on the 1995 roster was reliever Dennis Cook, who was claimed off of waivers from the Chicago White Sox during the 1994 strike.
All in all, the 1995 Cleveland Indians were constructed in a variety of ways that seemed to click perfectly.
“Everybody felt that chemistry was important,” Vizquel said, “and we had so many different kinds of personalities that chemistry came from all over the place. We had some really funny guys, we had some really intense guys, but when you saw the team play together and the way we came off the field and everybody was laughing, we just looked like kids. We almost looked like the Bad News Bears…only we were winning games instead of losing games. Every day was entertaining. Every day something was happening in that dugout that was very entertaining.”
Most importantly, the collection of players from all over turned into an AL Champion and a consistent winner throughout the remainder of the decade.
“That team, you can see if you go one by one, you can look back and say, ‘Man, that was the team of the 90′s’,” Martinez said. “I mean, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Paul Sorrento, Carlos Baerga, Omar Vizquel, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Sandy Alomar, Tony Pena and then the pitching…Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Charles Nagy, Chad Ogea, Mark Clark, Jose Mesa….just name them one by one, it was an amazing team. I cannot say I was ever involved with a team better than that one.”