He may have only been sporting #17 in Cleveland for one season, but former All-Star center fielder Marquis Grissom certainly made the most out of his short time.
“It was one of the best teams ever,” Grissom said of the 1997 Tribe. “If you look at that team with Manny Ramirez, myself, David Justice, Matt Williams, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Tony Fernandez, Julio Franco, Orel Hershiser…I could go on and on and name the whole team.”
A two-time All-Star as well as a perennial Gold Glover and MVP candidate, the former Montreal Expos and Atlanta Braves star was dealt to the Indians from Atlanta at the end of Spring Training in 1997 along with Justice for fan favorite Kenny Lofton as well as reliever Alan Embree. Grissom was looked upon to replace Lofton’s amazingly consistent production on the new look Indians that were coming off of back to back division titles.
“I was definitely surprised,” Grissom said of the trade. “(Atlanta) had gone to the World Series back to back, so the initial reaction to ‘You got traded’ was like ‘For what?’”
The Braves had defeated the Indians in the 1995 World Series and then lost to the New York Yankees the following year. Grissom made the catch on Carlos Baerga’s fly ball to end the ’95 Series, so he was very familiar with the team he was now headed to.
“When it all sank in, it was exciting to go to Cleveland because they had just gone to the World Series too, a couple of years before,” Grissom remembered. “So, I was kind of excited because I was going from one winner to another winner. I just wanted to come over here and do my best to get this team back to the World Series.”
The ’97 squad did just that. After winning a somewhat-disappointing 86 games during the regular season, the Tribe steamrolled through a couple of the American League’s best teams in the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.
“We had to go through the Yankees first and then go through the Orioles,” Grissom said. “Both of those teams were unbelievable. They had great talent on both of those squads. We knew it was going to be a dogfight.”
The Tribe defeated the Yankees in five games and then fell behind the Orioles after losing Game One in Baltimore. With their backs against the wall, the Tribe came back to life when Grissom stepped up to the plate with two men on in the eighth inning of Game Two.
“I think in that situation we were down 4-2 and Armando Benitez had struck me out the night before that on three straight fastballs,” Grissom remembers. “I think they were 93, 94 and 95 mph. In that at bat, he threw me a couple of sliders that he left over the plate and I was able to foul them back. Then he threw me one that was very reachable in a bad count. I was able to get good wood on it. I was just so excited that we took the lead and tied the series up 1-1.”
Grissom lifted a homerun that was important enough to elevate him to the top of his class. Because of the series-changing longball, Grissom was named ALCS MVP for the pennant-winning Tribe. The highlight of his Indians career, however, almost never happened.
“Starting from that morning and being as sick as a dog—I was on a sickbed all that morning—I didn’t know if I was even going to be able to play that day,” Grissom said. “I got food poisoning the night before and it carried over to the next day. We were down 1-0 and it was a big game for us. I crawled off of that I.V. machine probably about 6:00 pm and I was caught in the middle wondering if I should play or if I should let someone else go out there who was 100%. I just took it upon myself—and thank God that Mike Hargrove allowed me to play, he saw the condition that I was in—and I got up off that sickbed and I went out there and was able to play competitively.”
It was a bizarre situation to say the least, but during the following game, the word bizarre took on a whole new meaning to the ’97 Indians and the baseball world. With Grissom sprinting home from third base on a suicide squeeze attempt in an extra-innings, tied game, Vizquel squared to bunt and missed the ball…or did he?
“I really couldn’t tell,” Grissom said with a laugh. “As I watch the replay nowadays, I still can’t tell. I’ve talked with Lenny Webster (Baltimore’s catcher), who is a good friend of mine, and he said he foul tipped the ball. I looked at the way that he reacted, and from his reaction, it looked like he did foul tip the ball. Then again, it also looked to me like he just watched the ball. I’m looking at it and I can’t tell if it hit the bat. My job was not to umpire in that situation…my job was to keep running and to sell it. If I sold it, then I sold it—but I just wanted to win. Anything that it takes for me to win, I’m going to do it. The umpire could have sent me back to third, but if I didn’t run you never know what would have happened.”
The botched squeeze play was ruled a steal of home by Grissom as Webster just stood there as the speedy centerfielder crossed home plate with the winning run. The comeback was just one more in the string of them from a team that always refused to quit.
“With the pitching staff that we had, the hitters that we had and the way we had been playing all year—we had been coming back in games all year when we were down—we knew that if we were down, we knew we had a chance to comeback,” Grissom said. “We just needed to put some good at bats together and that’s what we did with that veteran ballclub we had.
“When you look at the team we had…it was unbelievable. We had a veteran team who knew how to play and knew what to do. We had one goal and that was to win the World Series, not just go to it. It’s too bad we came up just short.”
The Indians crazy, magical run continued through seven games of one of the greatest World Series’ in baseball history before they were defeated by the Florida Marlins in Miami. The defeat still hangs like a gray cloud over the city of Cleveland and it weighs on Grissom even to this day as well.
“I don’t think it will ever go away,” Grissom said of the pain. “We got so close. We played our butts off to get there and to come up short was devastating. We were in a situation where we brought Charles Nagy in as a starter in basically a closer’s role and it didn’t work out. He was ahead in the count, but we were still facing a pretty good hitter in Edgar Renteria. He put it on us, but there’s nothing we can do about that. It’s part of the game.”
As the Indians magical run ended, so did Grissom’s time in Cleveland. During the offseason, the Indians re-signed Lofton to return home for the 1998 season and Grissom was traded to the Milwaukee the same day. In exchange for Grissom and pitcher Jeff Juden, the Indians brought back pitchers Mike Fetters, Ben McDonald and Ron Villone from the Brewers. Even though his time on Lake Erie was short, one thing about Cleveland sticks out in Grissom’s mind more than anything.
“The fan support was unbelievable,” Grissom said. “When I was in Atlanta and we would go to Houston, Chicago or Philadelphia, we would have just as many fans in the stands as the home team. I thought that Atlanta—America’s Team—was the only team like that until I came to Cleveland. We would go to Toronto or Detroit and it was unbelievable. We had so many fans and such support. Even in the community that I lived in; they welcomed me with cookies, cakes and doughnuts every day. It was unbelievable. The fan support reminded me of St. Louis, Chicago and Atlanta where the fans are very knowledgeable and they appreciate the work.”
Grissom finished his 17-year playing career in 2005 after stops with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants upon him leaving Milwaukee in 2000. Although the shortest stop of his playing career was during 1997 in Cleveland, Grissom will forever cherish the time he spent playing at Jacobs Field.
“I was so happy to be around those guys and I learned so much,” Grissom said of his talented teammates. “I tried to get information from all of my teammates so that I am now able to teach those different experiences to all of the kids in my association today. It really was a great experience for me and I’ll never forget it.”
The association that Grissom spoke of is one that he spends the majority of his time today working on and promoting. Grissom has spent his entire post-playing career giving back to the community and helping underprivileged youth to enjoy the game that he loves so much.
“As soon as I retired I got into Little League Baseball and I started my own baseball association called the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association,” Grissom said. “The MGBA gives the underprivileged kids a great opportunity to play competitive baseball. During the time when I was playing, a lot of the minority kids didn’t get that opportunity to play baseball. I was one of those kids who was fortunate enough to have great coaches during Little League, middle school and high school to have a chance to go to that next level. We teach kids the fundamentals of the game while also preaching the education at the same time. We’re telling them and showing them how important their education is in life because not every kid is going to get that scholarship to go to college or to go to that next level and play professional baseball.”
In addition to changing the lives of the less fortunate youth, Grissom has also served as the first base coach for the Washington Nationals—the same franchise that he broke into professional baseball with when they were in Montreal. Currently, Grissom resides in Georgia with his wife Sharron.
Photo: Baltimore Sun