Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 66
Bob Toth | On 20, Jan 2020
Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
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.
While that has been largely the case in the history of the Indians franchise, the team did employ a rare exception to that rule in 2019 when Yasiel Puig joined the club.
Acquired as part of a massive trade ahead of the deadline in July, Puig swapped sides of the state after opening the season with the Cincinnati Reds. He was joined by San Diego’s Franmil Reyes as well as a trio of minor league prospects, with the Indians sending starting pitcher Trevor Bauer to the Reds as their part of the three-team deal. Puig had worn the number 66 since breaking into the Majors in 2013 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and happens to be the longest-tenured and most successful of the players to wear the number during their MLB careers.
Puig, who remains a free agent at the time of this story, was off to a strong start with the Reds after being dealt by the Dodgers last offseason after six seasons with Los Angeles. Brought in to help the front office address a lack of production in the outfield, the cannon-armed Cuban was on a career-high production track in the power department, posting a .252/.302/.475 slash with 15 doubles, a triple, 22 homers, and 61 RBI through 100 games in the Queen City.
His first consistent glimpse of the American League led to a decline in power, but not a decline in production for the 28-year-old vet. He spent 49 games with the Tribe, hitting .297 with a .377 on-base percentage and a .423 slugging mark. He hit just two homers to end with 24 on the year, but he matched his doubles output in half as many games by hitting 15 two-baggers. He added 23 RBI and swiped five bases as the Indians ultimately finished on the outside of the playoff picture for the first time since 2015. It marked the first time in Puig’s seven-year career that he failed to play bonus baseball in October (he had played in each of the previous two World Series).
Puig has always been a character on the field and has found his way into occasional trouble off of the field, but it is unknown how much those factors are contributing to his current status as an unemployed outfielder. Last season, he was infamously ejected and suspended for an altercation the night that his rumored trade to the Indians leaked. Two years earlier while with the Dodgers and playing an interleague matchup at Progressive Field, he gave a pair of one-fingered salutes to trash-talking fans near the LA dugout (he later apologized for his antics through a translator after admitting that he “stooped to their level”).
A return to Cleveland by Puig was always going to come down to dollars and not so much sense. He seemed to be a good fit in the clubhouse despite his previous reputation and would seemingly bolster the team’s crowded, but underwhelming, outfield mix. The market on free agent outfielders has rapidly dried up, with Puig and Nick Castellanos the biggest names left standing. While Puig may have been looking for a multi-year deal in potential negotiations, his price tag and the length of commitment may have drastically changed, especially a month out from teams reporting to Arizona and Florida for spring preparations.
Before Puig’s arrival to Cleveland last season, Aaron Civale made his Major League debut in the double-six. After the acquisition of Puig, he switched over to the number 67. As chronicled in Sunday’s story, Civale is expected to wear the number 43 for the 2020 campaign, last worn by Josh Tomlin in 2018.
By the time the number was on the back of an Indians player on the diamond for the first time in 1989, it had already been worn by seven different players for five different franchises, starting first 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.
Cleveland made Higgins their first round selection with the seventh overall pick in the June 1984 secondary phase of the draft out of the University of New Orleans. A right-handed hitting first baseman and outfielder, he 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 he 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 it would be both 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, but that was where his professional baseball story stopped at the age of 27. He passed away March 22, 2017, at the age of 53 after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disorder.
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” spent 14 seasons all 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 Tribe’s 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 start when breaking into pro ball as a 17-year-old, but he improved the following season as he settled into the minor league game. He slowly climbed the organizational ladder while his ERA did the same. 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. When reliever Tom Martin landed on the disabled list, Cleveland called up Martinez, who boasted a 6.11 ERA over a dozen games for Buffalo at the time. He appeared the next day in a lopsided 11-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox, allowing a run on one hit after a two-plus hour rain delay.
It was the last time he would appear in the Majors. He struggled after being optioned, eventually losing his starting spot on the Buffalo staff for manager Joel Skinner. He pitched in the minors with Minnesota in 2001 and for Cincinnati in 2002 before emerging in the Venezuelan Winter League in 2006. His post playing career has included time as a coach in the Atlanta Braves organization.
Reliever Perci Garner matched the first three players’ eight combined MLB games in the number 66 when 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.
Those games marked the only ones of his big league career. The former second round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies out of Ball State University in the 2010 draft and a Dover, Ohio, native saw injuries derail his 2017 campaign (he was limited to 13 games with very mixed results). He signed that offseason with Baltimore, but he did not pitch for any O’s affiliate or professionally after that pact.
Photo: Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
Miss out on our other Countdown pieces? Check out more Indians history below!
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 99 (Daniel Robertson)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 90 (Adam Cimber)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 88 (Phil Maton)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 77 (Jack Armstrong)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 76 (Tom Magrann)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 75 (Mike Walker)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 73 (Ricardo Rincon)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 72 (Jason Giambi)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 71 (Johnny Hodapp)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 70 (James Karinchak, George Kontos)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 69 (Luis Medina)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 68 (Jefry Rodriguez, others)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 67 (Aaron Civale, others)