Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians

During the month of October DTTWLN will take a look back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians season—specifically the 18 thrilling games of the postseason as the Indians made an improbable run to game seven of the World Series.


With the Indians trailing 1-0 in the 1997 American League Division Series, all hope was fading in the city of Cleveland.  The New York Yankees were the heavy favorites and came back to win a historic game on the strength of back-to-back-to-back homeruns by Tim Raines, Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill.  The three consecutive blasts were the heartbreakers, but what hurt even more was the fact that the Indians held leads of 5-0 and 6-1 in that game.

For Game Two, the Indians had to face New York’s third-year ace Andy Pettitte and countered with 21 year old rookie Jaret Wright.  With such a young and inexperienced starter, Cleveland fans were wary that the possibility of returning to Jacobs Field down 2-0 was a real possibility.

“I would be (wary),” Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove said in a ’97 article from the New York Times, “if the rookie wasn’t Jaret Wright. I have yet to see him intimidated by any situation he’s been in.  I compare him to a very young Roger Clemens.  That’s the mentality, that’s the aggressiveness.  Now, whether or not he continues on, that’s up to Jaret.”

It was high praise for a kid that had only started 16 Major League games in his young career.  Hargrove’s praise did not seem unreasonable, however.  Wright won eight of his 16 starts and only lost three for a team leading .727 winning percentage.  Despite his limited time, Wright would finish fifth in the American League Rookie of the Year race and seemed to be getting better and better.  Nothing seemed to bother the youngster and his nerves seemed unflappable.

“I’m human, I’m going to have some nerves,” Wright said about his Game Two start in the New York Times article.  “I’m going to be nervous, excited, everything.  But that’s the thrill of competition right there.  Playing baseball in a place like New York is an awesome feeling.”  At the start of the game, the difference between the inexperienced rookie and a left handed ace was clear.

Pettitte cruised through the Indians order unfazed in the top of the first inning.  After allowing a Bip Roberts single to start the inning, Omar Vizquel popped out and Manny Ramirez bounced into a double play to the previous night’s hero, Derek Jeter.  The Yankee hitters then looked to keep all of the momentum that they had generated two nights before by jumping on the rookie pitcher early and setting a strong tone for the evening.

After getting Raines to groundout to start the Yankees half of the first, Wright seemed overwhelmed and lost control.  With the raucous crowd screaming at the Tribe right hander, Wright walked Jeter, O’Neill and Bernie Williams to load the bases with only one out.  As Yankee Stadium rocked, Tino Martinez turned on a Wright fastball that finally found the strike zone and rocketed it into left field for a double.  Raines and Jeter scored, but Williams was held at third as New York had an early 2-0 lead and were not quite done in the first.

The next batter was third baseman Charlie Hayes who lifted a deep fly ball to centerfield.  Marquis Grissom tracked it down, but with his back to home plate, allowed Williams to tag and score and Martinez to advance to third.  The Yankee lead was now 3-0, and the Indians seemed demoralized.

Pettitte set the Tribe down in order in the top of the second inning and Wright seemed to settle down and did the same in the bottom half.  In the third, both teams threatened but failed to score as the Indians rally was cut short on a caught stealing by Grissom and the Yankees missed out on scoring after a Williams double.  It wasn’t until the fourth inning that the Indians finally broke through on the young lefty.

Roberts led off the inning by lining out to Jeter at shortstop and Vizquel followed with a slow tapper toward Hayes at third.  Hayes fielded it cleanly but the speedy Vizquel was clearly going to make it safely to first.  Hayes fired the ball over toward Martinez anyways and the ball sailed past Tino and Vizquel scampered into second with an infield single and an error on Hayes.  Ramirez struck out and Matt Williams followed with a walk.  Finally having some runners on base, the Tribe bats started a two out rally that turned the tides on the Yankees and swung the momentum of the series back into the Cleveland dugout.

David Justice laced a single into right field that scored Vizquel and moved Williams to third.  Sandy Alomar followed with a single to center that brought Williams home and putting runners at first and second.  With the score now 3-2, Jim Thome scorched the Tribe’s third straight single, this time scoring Justice and tying the score at 3-3.

With Thome at first and Alomar at second, second baseman Tony Fernandez stepped up with the biggest at bat of the game.  Fernandez smoked a rocket into left field that froze outfielder Chad Curtis.  The ball kept rising and eventually sailed over the left fielder’s head and rolled to the wall.  Alomar scored easily and Thome chugged all the way around from first to make the score 5-3 in favor of Cleveland as Fernandez clapped his hands at second base with a double.  Grissom followed by ending the inning with a fly out to Williams in center, but the damage had been done and the momentum and lead were back with the Indians.

From there, Wright locked in.  Curtis reached first to lead off the bottom of the fourth on an error, but was immediately erased when Joe Girardi grounded into a 4-3 double play.  Rey Sanchez followed by grounding out to Williams at third and Wright pumped his fist as he went back to the dugout.

With their 5-3 lead intact, the Indian offense went back to work in the top of the fifth looking for some insurance.  Roberts led off the inning with a groundout, but the red-hot Vizquel beat out another infield single to Hayes with one out.  After Ramirez popped to second base, Williams locked in on a Pettitte fastball and launched it over the left-centerfield wall for a two run homerun and made the score 7-3 in favor of Cleveland.

Fired up, Wright went back to work and set down the Yanks scoreless in the bottom half of the fifth.  Yankees reliever Brian Boehringer replaced Pettitte in the sixth and answered Wright with a 1-2-3 inning.  Then, with his pitch count rising, Wright made sure that the baseball world knew his name in the bottom half.

Martinez, Hayes and Curtis all came to bat in the sixth inning and all three struck out against the Tribe rookie.  Wright cruised through the five, six and seven hitters and scowled as he marched back to the dugout in front of a stunned Yankee Stadium crowd.  With his pitch count up, Hargrove turned the ball over to his bullpen as Wright’s jubilant teammates gave the rookie high fives, fist bumps and pats on his back for the impressive effort.

Boehringer danced into and out of trouble in the top of the seventh as the Tribe loaded the bases but failed to score off of the Yankee right hander.  Tribe relievers Mike Jackson and Paul Assenmacher set down the Yankees scoreless in the bottom half and then New York lefty Graeme Lloyd set down the Indians in order in the eighth.

In the bottom half of the inning, with the Yankees running out of chances, Assenmacher walked Williams to lead off the inning.  He then retired Martinez and with one out Hargrove turned the ball over to his closer, Jose Mesa.

Mesa had had an up and down year with the Tribe, as the former All-Star battled legal trouble and inconsistency all season.  He was relieved of his duty as closer in the first half in favor of Jackson, only to earn his job back with a solid second half.  In Game Two, however, the unreliable Mesa came back as Jose struggled immediately.

The first batter to face Mesa was Hayes, who immediately laced a single into left putting runners at first and second.  Curtis followed with a walk, loading the bases for pinch hitter Mike Stanley.  With Cleveland fans everywhere fearing the worst and having flashbacks of the Game One collapse, Mesa uncorked a pitch that plunked Stanley in the back.  Stanley walked down to first and Williams came into score to cut the Tribe lead to 7-3.  Suddenly, the tying run was at the plate in the form of the future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, who came on to pinch hit for Sanchez.

Mesa buckled down and got Boggs to pop out to Vizquel at short and then got Game One’s hero, Raines, to ground out to Thome.  Mesa had escaped and limited the damage, but continued to put doubt in the minds of Cleveland fans and his teammates with his inconsistency.

After reliever Jeff Nelson shut out the Tribe in the top of the ninth, Hargrove sent the struggling Mesa back out to the mound to close out the game.  Mesa, however, continued to be shaky as Jeter led off the inning by blasting his second homerun in as many games over the centerfield wall to light a fire under the Bronx crowd and put the score at 7-4.  With activity in the bullpen, Mesa did settle in and retired the next three batters to end the game.  The Indians lined up and exchanged high fives with each other, having escaped from New York with a split, evening the series at one game apiece.

For the Yankees, the bad news of losing Game Two turned worse as Game One starter David Cone was taken for an MRI after “experiencing discomfort” in his right shoulder during a workout.  Cone was scheduled to start Game Four, but his status for the rest of the playoffs was now doubtful for their ace pitcher.

“Things did not go well today,” Cone said in an Associated Press article. “I’m not conceding.  It’s up to (manager) Joe (Torre), but I would say it’s very tenuous.  I was to the point where I thought I had it under control.  Today was a setback.”

It was a setback for New York, but also another booster shot for the underdog Indians.  Despite their epic Game One collapse, hope and optimism stormed back to the city of Cleveland and to the team.

For Game Three, which was to be played after a “travel day” in Cleveland, the Tribe was sending ace pitcher Charles Nagy to the mound, while the Yankees were scheduled to counter with big lefthander David Wells.  Jacobs Field promised to be rocking as the Tribe headed back home for the final three games and with the momentum clearly on their side.

Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

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