The 1987 Cleveland Indians might be the biggest disappointment in Cleveland sports history. The Tribe was supposed to be a contender. They had finished the 1986 season at 84-78, which was the downtrodden franchise’s best record since 1968. The Indians drew 1.47 million people went to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium that summer, the largest number that the Indians had drawn since the pennant race of 1959. Hopes were high, excitement was in the air and the Indians had something in Cleveland that they hadn’t had in decades…optimism.
It wasn’t just the city of Cleveland that had high hopes for the Tribe either. The popular national sports magazine, Sports Illustrated put Indian stars Joe Carter and Cory Snyder on the front cover of their baseball preview issue with the title, Indian Uprising. The subtitle of the article read “Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League.” The famous magazine had picked the Cinderella Indians to finish first in the American League Eastern Division and to win the American League pennant.
“It’s like getting your first baseball card,” Carter said when asked what it was like to be asked to be on the cover of the magazine, “We didn’t know (if we felt we were the league favorite) and we didn’t care. I was happy because I was going to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”
The predictions were a national feel-good story. The Indians had been so bad for so long and they finally had a nucleus of good players. A large percentage of the country was rooting for the Indians to finally break the curse that had been placed on the city since the trade of Rocky Colavito.
“When you have hitters like Andre Thornton, Brett Butler, Julio Franco, Joe Carter, Mel Hall, Brook Jacoby, Pat Tabler and Cory Snyder, you figure you’re going to score runs,” said pitcher Phil Niekro, who was brought to Cleveland as a free agent prior to the 1986 season. Niekro, whose knuckleball won him 318 games in his 24 year Major League career, was right, but Sports Illustrated and the national media were slightly off on their predictions.
So what went so wrong? The Indians lost 10 of their first 11 ballgames, stumbling out of the gate with a 1-10 record. They bounced back slightly, but a six game losing streak at the beginning of May proved to the baseball world that these were the same old Indians. By the end of the season, the Tribe was 37 games behind the division champion Detroit Tigers and Cleveland was back to being called “the mistake by the lake.”
“We had a good offense, but we had no pitching,” Carter said.
“We just gave up way more runs than we were able to score,” Niekro added.
Both former players were spot on. The Indians pitching staff gave up nearly 1,000 runs on the season and had an ERA of 5.28; worst in the American League. The Indians finished with a 61-101 record, which was good enough for last place and the worst record in baseball. Only the 97-loss San Diego Padres were within a handful of games ahead of the Indians.
The Indians, in all reality, were doomed from the start. Sure they had a young, explosive offense, but their pitching looked terrible from day one. The rotation sported two 300 game winners in Niekro and Steve Carlton, but both future Hall-of-Famers were at the very tail ends of their legendary careers. The ace of the staff was another knuckleballer, Tom Candiotti, and his knuckler was flat and hittable for most of the season as he scuffled to a 7-18 record for the year. Major League teams can’t win if they can’t get anybody out and the 1987 Indians fit that bill perfectly.
The Indians knew early their chances were bleak. “Game one…or maybe when we were taking the (team) picture,” Carter said in regards to when he knew the team wasn’t a contender. “Andre Thornton got hurt that year early on and I knew. We knew that anything could happen but realistically a lot of things would have had to go right for us to take it.”
“About half-way through the season I knew they were wrong,” Niekro said, who was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays that August. “We had the hitters, but the pitchers couldn’t get anybody out.”
By midseason all of the excitement that 1986 team had generated was gone. Cleveland Stadium barely drew one million fans and most of those fans were ghosts in empty seats by the All-Star break. “When you hit .284 or .285 as a team the year before and then lose 101 games… (the feeling is) not too good,” Carter said glumly. Carter’s tone is one that Cleveland fans have had far too often.
Niekro finished his career in 1987. After being traded to Toronto on August 9, he was released by the Blue Jays on August 31. On September 23 he re-signed with the Atlanta Braves; the team he had his best years with. He pitched one more game for Atlanta before retiring at the end of the season. Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 which was his fifth year of eligibility. Niekro credits his father with teaching him how to throw his legendary knuckleball and his outstanding career.
Carter stuck around with Cleveland for the following two seasons. He hit a career-high 35 home runs for the Tribe in his final season on the lakefront in 1989 and then was involved in one of the most important trades in franchise history.
In December of 1989 Carter was dealt by Cleveland GM Hank Peters to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga and Chris James. The haul that the Tribe got for their superstar breathed new life into the ballclub and the Indians went on to the most exciting stretch in franchise history.
It was felt by many in Cleveland, however, that Carter already had one foot out the door for the 1989 season and that he was going to leave the Indians as a free agent after the 1990 season regardless of what happened. This did not sit well with some Tribe fans and Carter was booed in his many returns to Cleveland as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in the following years. Carter’s memories of Cleveland are fond though.
Carter has many fond memories of his time in Cleveland. “When I was a rookie in ‘84, we were facing the Yankees who we hadn’t beaten that year,” Carter said, grinning. “Bert Blyleven threw a shutout and we were facing Ron Guidry. (That game) I hit a two-run homer and my first career grand slam. I drove in all six runs and we won the game 6-0.”
Carter then told of his second favorite memory. “We were playing the Kansas City Royals in Kansas City. One of the Royals hit a two run homer in the eighth inning. I was mad and started kicking the ground and I hit a sprinkler head and all of the water just shot into the air. We just sat there for like five or ten minutes to get it to stop and I’m just like…‘oops’.”
Carter left San Diego after the 1990 season to sign with Toronto. He won his first World Series as a member of the Blue Jays in ’92, then hit one of the most dramatic homeruns in baseball history in game six of the 1993 World Series.
With the Philadelphia Phillies leading the game 6-5, Carter came to the plate with runners on first and second with one out. Toronto was leading the series three games to two, so when Carter hit a three run homerun off of Philadelphia closer Mitch Williams, history was made as the last pitch of the World Series was a home run for only the second time in Major League history.
“When I touched first base,” was when Carter realized it was a historic home run. “That’s why I had to stop jumping up and down and I made sure I touched all of the bases because I wanted it to count as a homerun. I touched first, second, third and then get mobbed at home plate. I knew it was pretty big. The last year it happened was the year I was born, 1960. So I like to think it’s always destiny. My bat model on the bat that I hit the homerun with was J-93. To me, it stood for Jays ‘93.”
Carter is back in Cleveland because the Indians are honoring him with his own bobblehead doll. “They used to say ‘you’re not famous until the (trade) rumors start,’ well, now you’re not famous until you have a bobblehead,” Carter said. “This is bobblehead number three for me, so I know I’ve made it.”
Photo: Sports Illustrated