Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 66
Bob Toth | On 27, Jan 2017
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Countdown to Opening Day – 66 days
High numbered jerseys are not always a good sign of long lasting stays in the Major Leagues. Generally, the numbers have landed on the backs of late season call-ups who in turn would either switch numbers the next season, or would struggle to find their way back to The Show.
Both happen to be the case in the history of the Cleveland Indians franchise, as the number 66 has hit the playing field by four different players who encompass each situation.
By the time the number was on the back of an Indians player on the diamond in 1989, it had already been worn by seven different players for five different franchises, starting in 1935. Mark Higgins was the first to get that honor for the Tribe when he relocated from Colorado Springs to Cleveland for the final month of that season.
The Texas Rangers had twice tried to draft Higgins, but he spurned their advances. In 1984, Cleveland made him their first round selection with the seventh overall pick in the June secondary phase of the draft out of the University of New Orleans.
Higgins, a right-handed hitting first baseman and outfielder, showed some promise in the minors, hitting for both good average and power. In his second full season on the farm in 1986 for Class-A Waterloo, he hit 34 doubles, 23 homers, and 98 RBI while batting .317 with a .400 on-base percentage. He hit 19 homers and drove in 79 runs in 18 fewer games the next season at Double-A Williamsport, maintaining a .312 average, but hit just .230 for the club the next season and .200 in 26 games at Colorado Springs.
He hit .329 before his call to Cleveland, but little did he know that would be his first and last trip to the Majors. In six games, he was 1-for-10 at the plate with a single and six strikeouts.
He spent 1990 with the Milwaukee Brewers Triple-A affiliate in Denver, hitting .283 with 16 homers and 65 RBI. At the age of 26, that was where his professional baseball story stopped. He was last working in the greater Atlanta area.
Nine years later, the number returned to the Cleveland lineup on the back of another power-hitting option from the minors, Russell Branyan.
Drafted in the seventh round of the 1994 draft, Branyan wowed in the minors with majestic home runs. In his second full season, he hit 40 homers and drove in 106 RBI for Columbus of Class-A. The next season, he proved it was not a fluke, hitting 39 homers and driving in 105 in six fewer games between High-A Kinston and Double-A Akron.
He got the call to the Majors in 1998, appearing in just one game for the club after spending the rest of the season at Akron. He was 0-for-4 in his only game wearing 66 and he switched to 33 when he took the Major League field again the following July. He played eleven games in 1999, 67 in 2000, and 113 in 2001 for the club, showing some of the power production, but striking out at a high rate. After playing 50 games in the 2002 season, he was dealt south to Cincinnati for first baseman Ben Broussard.
“Russell the Muscle” would spend 14 seasons bouncing around the country, including six with the Indians. He was traded back to Cleveland from Atlanta in 2004, only to be sent to Milwaukee three months later. He re-signed with Cleveland in 2007, only to be purchased by Philadelphia two days later. He signed again with the club as a free agent in 2010, but was sent packing for Seattle four months later. He concluded his pro career back in the Indians farm system in 2014 after spending nearly three months of the year in Tijuana of the Mexican League, although he did play again for Culiacan (Mexican Pacific Winter League) that winter after his brief four-game experience with the Triple-A Columbus club.
Right-handed pitcher Willie Martinez signed with the Indians in 1995 as a free agent out of Venezuela. His story was even shorter than the above-mentioned players’ experiences in the number 66.
He got off to an inauspicious 0-7 start with a 9.45 ERA in eleven games to break into professional ball with the Tribe’s Burlington club in the Appalachian League as a 17-year-old, but improved the following season as he settled into the pro game. He worked his way up slowly from Akron to Buffalo from 1998 to 2000, but his ERA continued to rise. He did manage a nine-inning no-hitter pitching for Oriente in Venezuela in the 1999 offseason, reminding the Indians of his roller coaster prospect status with the club.
He started 2000 at Buffalo and as the Major League pitching staff became decimated by injuries, Martinez’s time inched closer, despite struggles in the minors related to mechanics, the lack of a third pitch, and bad eating habits.
“I’ve worked really hard to cut out the bad stuff,” shared Martinez about having to cut fatty foods from his diet in a story with Dennis Manoloff in The Plain Dealer on May 28, 2000. “My eating habits are more consistent than they’ve ever been, and I also got into good condition in the off-season. I feel very good.”
When reliever Tom Martin landed on the disabled list, Cleveland called up Martinez to help an exhausted bullpen. At the time, Martinez was 4-2 with a 6.11 ERA in a dozen games for Buffalo. He appeared the next day in a lopsided 11-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox. He threw three innings after a two-plus hour long rain delay and allowed just one run on one hit.
“For his first time in the big leagues,” manager Charlie Manuel was quoted in the June 16, 2000, edition of The Plain Dealer, “he did a good job.”
It was the last time he would appear in the Majors. He was sent down on June 16 with the club devoid of left-handed relief options. The club pondered recalling him in July, but went another direction. He struggled in the minors, eventually losing his starting spot on the Buffalo staff for manager Joel Skinner.
He pitched in 21 games with the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in 2001 and in four Double-A games for the Reds in 2002, later emerging in the Venezuelan Winter League for La Guaira in a dozen games in 2006. He has worked as a coach for the Atlanta Braves in their farm system since 2008, last working as the pitching coach for Danville in the Appalachian League in 2015.
For three players, it was eight games and one shared legacy as Cleveland’s trio of 66’s. The most recent to wear the digits – reliever Perci Garner – has already matched their eight combined games in the number 66 after he made his Major League debut in 2016. He struck out 12 in nine and one-third innings of work while posting a 4.82 ERA and a 1.82 WHIP after his call up on the final day of August.
The then-27-year-old right-hander completed his long and challenging path to the Majors after starting the season at Double-A Akron. A strong showing in relief there, including a 5-1 record with a 1.94 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP in 23 games, led to an Eastern League All-Star honor and a promotion to Triple-A Columbus. There, his good results continued as he went 2-0 in 18 games with a 1.63 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP, leading to his deserved promotion to Cleveland to close out the 2016 season.
Garner was a second round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies out of Ball State University in the 2010 draft. He was released by the organization at the end of spring training in 2015 and the Dover, Ohio, native returned to his home state when he signed with the Indians several weeks later.
Now, Garner will hope to have a more successful career showing than that of Higgins and Martinez before him. If he can find a way to contribute to the Indians bullpen at some point in the coming 2017 season, maybe a swap to a different number, a la Branyan, will bring him greater chances for a longer career.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images