Miracle on Ontario Street (2001): Sunday Night History
Steve Eby | On 22, Dec 2015
The late, great Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Maybe my dad and I should have listened to him.
This story is not one about Kris Kringle taking over for a drunk, Macy’s Santa Claus in December, but one about a young college student and his father leaving a baseball game in August with their beloved Indians trailing by a seemingly insurmountable amount of runs…only to watch them finish off a miraculous comeback with their heads down in their family living room.
When we walked through the door, my mother exclaimed, “What are you doing here?!? They’re coming back!” My dad and I had already realized this as we were listening to Tom Hamilton on what seemed like a never-ending drive from downtown Cleveland to Avon.
The miracle comeback occurred on August 5, 2001, against the mighty Seattle Mariners at Jacobs Field. The M’s were sitting in first place at 80-30 and were on their way to a historic 116 wins. They were a month removed from hosting the 72nd All-Star Game that featured four Seattle starters, one bench player and three other pitchers. They were the team that was destined for greatness.
The Indians, on the other hand, were clinging to their glory days—the 2001 season marking the end of an era as Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Sandy Alomar were nothing but memories at that point and Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton and Juan Gonzalez were not long for the team either. The aging Tribe was sitting a full game out of first place when the ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week began, as the Central-leading Twins had already dropped a matinee contest to the Royals earlier.
In all fairness to my father and me, we had stuck through another game earlier that week together, as the Indians were walloped 17-4 by the Oakland A’s on Thursday. Rookie starter CC Sabathia was battered early on and the efforts out of the bullpen by Tim Drew and Ricardo Rincon were not really any better. That was the game we had decided to stay for the entirety. The Tribe followed up their drubbing by dropping the first two games of the three game series to the Mariners on Friday and Saturday. Please excuse us if our attitude became, “Here we go again” once Dave Burba allowed four runs in the second inning and then tag-teamed an eight-run third with reliever Mike Bacsik to put the Tribe in an early 12-0 hole.
To our credit, we stuck around for a while longer. In the bottom of the fourth we finally saw the Tribe get on the board when Gonzalez led off the inning with a single and then Thome immediately followed it up with a deep home run to right center. Having cut the lead to “only” ten runs, we decided to stay for a bit longer.
The Mariners answered the Indians first “comeback” attempt and answered the two-spot with another two runs off of Bacsik in the top of the fifth. The score then sat at 14-2 and my dad and I started to talk about something we had never done before—we were going to leave the game early.
It was Sunday and we had just sat through a butt-kicking on Thursday. It wasn’t fun being there. The Indians were only kind of good and the Mariners were amazing. Seattle starter Aaron Sele was cruising. It wasn’t worth staying.
Even a decade and a half later I’m still trying to convince myself of that.
Sele set down the Indians in order in the bottom of the fifth and then Bacsik actually settled in a bit and retired the M’s scoreless in the sixth. Dad and I watched the Tribe put up another zero in the bottom half and decided that we had seen enough. We headed toward the exit.
On our way down the right field ramp, Bacsik threw up another zero in the top of the seventh. When we reached Gate C, Russell Branyan launched a leadoff home run in the seventh to cut the Seattle lead to 14-3.
“Do you still want to go?” my grinning dad asked.
“Are you kidding?” I replied.
We walked by a bar with approximately 40,000 other people who had just left the game to see that the Indians had loaded the bases after the Branyan blast. We watched Jolbert Cabrera—who had earlier replaced the All-Star Alomar—drive in the Indians’ fourth run on TV but then saw Eddie Taubensee—in for Gonzalez—end the inning with a fly out.
It was a ten-run deficit heading into the eighth inning. At this point, Dad and I still made the right choice.
When we got to the car it was the start of the bottom of the eighth inning. Bacsik must have thrown another scoreless inning because the score was still 14-4. As soon as Dad put the car in reverse, Thome blasted his second home run of the night. This one was a leadoff shot against M’s reliever John Halama. Branyan was hit by a pitch before we hit the Shoreway and by the time we made our turn onto Clifton in Lakewood, Marty Cordova had smacked the second home run of the inning. The score was now 14-8 and Dad and I just looked at each other…wondering if we had made a mistake.
We were westbound on I-90 before the inning ended. Somewhere around Rocky River we heard Omar Vizquel lace a double that scored Einar Diaz and moved Lofton to third. The score stood at 14-9 and I remember my heart stopping when a pitch got away from Seattle’s catcher, Tom Lampkin. Lofton dashed toward the plate, but was thrown out to temporarily stop the bleeding for the Mariners third pitcher, Norm Charlton. After eight, the Tribe still trailed 14-9 and, according to Baseball-Reference, still only had a 1% chance of victory.
Tribe lefty Rich Rodriguez made quick work of the Mariners backups in the top of the ninth, and Dad and I exited I-90 as the bottom of the ninth began. We heard Taubensee lead off the inning with a single before a Thome fly out and a Branyan strikeout put the Indians down to their last out. A double by Cordova moved Taubensee to third and ended the night for Charlton as we arrived home during the pitching change.
All-Star Jeff Nelson entered the ballgame as my mother berated us for leaving.
A walk to Wil Cordero.
A single by Diaz plated Taubensee and Cordova.
Seattle Manager Lou Piniella waved for his closer as my dad and I tried to decide if we wanted a miracle to happen or not.
All-Star Kazuhiro Sasaki entered and gave up a ground ball single to Lofton. Vizquel strode to the plate as the potential game-winner.
Instead of a walk-off grand slam, Vizquel laced a liner down the right field line and into the corner. Cordero and Diaz scored easily. Charles Gipson—in right field to give All-Star Ichiro Suzuki a rest—fired the ball to the infield far too late to retire the speedster Lofton at the plate or Vizquel at third.
The game was tied 14-14. The hundreds that remained at Jacobs Field sounded like thousands. My slack-jawed dad looked at me. I shook my head. My mom laughed at us.
A groundout by Cabrera ended the inning and sent the game to extra innings. Wickman retired the Mariners in the top of the tenth and future Indian Arthur Rhodes danced around a two-out single by Branyan and a walk to Cordova in the bottom half. Tribe reliever John Rocker struck out the side in the top of the 11th before Piniella gave the ball to Jose Paniagua for the Tribe’s half.
Paniagua got Diaz to pop out and then gave up a line drive single to Lofton. Then he gave up another line drive single to Vizquel.
I couldn’t believe what was happening.
Cabrera lined the first pitch he saw into left field and Lofton turned on his after-burners. He flew around third and touched home safely. He jumped high into the arms of Taubensee, who nearly flipped the center fielder over with excitement. The Indians had won 15-14.
The few that stayed at Jacobs Field that night got their money’s worth, while the rest of us just have our stories to tell. It was definitely bittersweet for my dad and I…we still can’t live this one down and we have never left another game early since.
The Indians 12-run comeback tied a Major League record.
It was historic. It was amazing.
It was a miracle.
Photo: Associated Press