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.


On October 4, 1988, the Los Angeles Dodgers hosted the New York Mets for Game One of the National League Championship Series.  Starting for LA was their eventual Cy Young Award winning ace, Orel Hershiser and opposing him was the Mets former Cy Young winner Dwight “Doctor K” Gooden.

Both pitchers were masterful, as Gooden allowed just two earned runs in seven innings of work and Hershiser also gave up two in just over eight.  Both pitchers earned a no-decision in the contest, but it was Gooden’s Mets who squeaked out a come-from-behind 3-2 win against the Dodger bullpen.  Hershiser and the Dodgers got the last laugh, however, as Los Angeles won the pennant and eventually the championship as Hershiser was named MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series.

Fast forward nine years and one day to October 5, 1997 and Gooden and Hershiser found themselves matching up against each other again.  Hershiser was starting for the underdog Cleveland Indians, who were trailing two games to one in the best of five American League Division Series, and Gooden took the mound for the defending World Champion Yankees who were trying to advance to the ALCS for the second year in a row.

The Tribe’s backs were against the wall, as the Indians squandered a five run lead in Game One, bounced back to win Game Two and then were dominated by Yankee starter David Wells in Game Three.  Gooden, who beat Cleveland three times during the regular season, was a “spot” starter for New York Manager Joe Torre, as scheduled starter David Cone was scratched after developing tendinitis in his throwing arm after his poor performance in Game One.

For Hershiser, the Indians, and the 45,271 fans at Jacobs Field, the night started off exactly where they did not want it to—with Orel getting hit…and hit hard.

Left fielder Tim Raines led off the game with a routine groundout to Bip Roberts at second base, but the Yankees locked in after that.  Derek Jeter, who was making a habit of torching Indian pitching in the series, hustled a one out double to start the hitting parade.  Paul O’Neill, who was having an even bigger series than Jeter, followed with another double that made the score 1-0 Yankees.

Hershiser got the next batter, Bernie Williams, to ground out (which moved O’Neill to third), but then hit Tino Martinez with a pitch to put runners at the corners.  Designated hitter Cecil Fielder then laced a single to centerfield that scored O’Neill and put New York’s advantage at 2-0.

Charlie Hayes followed in the order and did not let his foot off the gas as he rocketed another single into left.  Martinez was waved home but Tribe left fielder Brian Giles fired a strike to catcher Sandy Alomar, who laid the tag on Martinez to end the inning.

For the Indians and their fans, the night did not seem as though it would be long for Hershiser.  If not for Giles’ outstanding throw, the Yankees would have at least a 3-0 lead in a must win game for the Tribe.  It seemed as though Hershiser’s postseason magic from his previous seasons may have worn out, and Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove could see that his pitcher was not fooling anybody.

“In the first inning especially, Orel was up with his pitches and gave up some base hits,” Hargrove said in a Claire Smith article from the New York Times.  “Again, it didn’t look like Orel was able to locate his stuff.”  After Gooden set down the Indians scoreless in the bottom of the first, Hershiser needed to step up and start throwing quality strikes.

In the second inning, Orel continued to struggle somewhat, although the result was much better than in the first.  Hershiser allowed two more singles, a one out grounder up the middle to Rey Sanchez and a two out, line drive single to left by Jeter, but stranded the runners at the corners.  Having escaped the jam, Hershiser locked in and cruised through the Yankee lineup from then on.

“The first inning he was like in his first game,” Alomar said in the Smith article, “missing with his control, missing his spots. Then I think he said, ‘Wait a minute; I’m going to be aggressive.’” It was now up to the Indian offense to come alive and get some runs on the board.

The Tribe hitters answered immediately, as DH Dave Justice cut the Yankees lead in half when he socked a 2-2 pitch from Doctor K over the right field wall for a leadoff homerun in the bottom of the second.  Third baseman Matt Williams followed immediately with a double, and the Tribe seemed to be in business.

Gooden, however, buckled down and got Alomar to ground out to Jeter, then struck out Giles.  With two outs, he walked Marquis Grissom but forced Roberts into a groundout to end the inning and the rally.  The score was 2-1 New York and would remain so for most of the night.

Just like their classic pitcher’s duel back in 1988, Gooden and The Bulldog pitched as if they were competing directly against one another for the remainder of their evenings.  Hershiser retired 15 of the next 17 batters that he faced, walking zero and allowing only two meaningless singles.

Unfortunately for the Indians, Gooden was just as good as Hershiser, as he did not allow more than one base runner in an inning through the fifth, but was pulled from the game when the Tribe worked him into a jam in the sixth.

Gooden got Jim Thome to strike out swinging to lead off the bottom half of the sixth, but then lost Justice to a full count walk.  Williams followed by flying out deep to centerfield, but Alomar then came through with an infield single.  Torre turned to his bullpen and lefthander Graeme Lloyd to face pinch hitter Tony Fernandez, who promptly reached on an error to load the bases.  Playing the matchup game perfectly, Torre then handed the ball to right hander Jeff Nelson to face Grissom, and Nelson came through by getting the Tribe centerfielder to pop to second and end the inning.

Hershiser lasted through the seventh inning allowing just the two runs, surprising all of those who watched him struggle through the first two innings.  When he exited the ballgame, the Indians were trailing by a 2-1 score, but the way that Hershiser pitched did not merit a loss.  The Bulldog turned in what would come to be one of the better performances by an Indians pitcher in the postseason, but he was betrayed by his offense that did not give him any run support.

“I started to feel my stuff, and the defense played well behind me,” Hershiser said in the Smith article. “I was just fortunate to get to the seventh inning.”

“You have to credit Orel,” Torre said.  “He really settled in and pitched a heck of a game against us.”

If the Indians failed to score in their last three at bats, however, the “heck of a game” would only be a footnote in the Yankees run to the 1997 ALCS.

Nelson and lefty Mike Stanton picked up right where Gooden had left off, as they set down the Tribe in the bottom half of the seventh.  Paul Assenmacher came in for the Tribe in the top of the eighth and proved that he too could not retire the invincible O’Neill, as he surrendered a leadoff single to the right fielder.  Assenmacher did settle in, however, and struck out Williams and Martinez before giving way to Mike Jackson, who came in and struck out Fielder.  Given a boost by their bullpen, the time was now for the Indians to come back before the Yankees gave the ball to their All-Star closer, Mariano Rivera.

The bottom of the eighth inning couldn’t have started worse for the Tribe, as Stanton struck out Justice looking on three pitches.  Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Torre turned to Rivera to face the right handers Williams and Alomar and possibly end the series.

Heading into the ’97 ALDS against the Indians, Rivera had been a postseason master.  He had appeared in four playoff series’ in his young career and had been outstanding.  In 19.2 innings pitched, Mo had allowed only one run for a 0.47 ERA with a 2-0 record.  Throw in his save in Game One of this series, and Rivera’s ERA shrank to 0.43.  Needless to say, the Indians hopes of extending the series were on life support.

Rivera used his trademark cut-fastball to get ahead of Williams and put him in a 1-2 hole.  Williams then made contact on the cutter, but flew out weakly to O’Neill in right.  This brought Alomar to the plate; the longtime Tribe catcher who had produced clutch hit after clutch hit all season long.  The city of Cleveland turned to Sandy one more time to work some of his magic in their most desperate hour.

Alomar took a cutter for ball one and then another for ball two.  Behind in the count for the first time all series, Rivera laid a fastball on the outside corner of the plate and Alomar took a mighty swing.

The ball sailed deep to right field as O’Neill raced back toward the warning track.  The ball kept sailing and sailing as it made it ever closer to the wall and O’Neill leapt to try and snare the deep line drive.  As O’Neill got pinned against the wall on his jump, the ball just snuck over the yellow line and bounced off of the platform just in front of the seats for a homerun and a tie ballgame.  Jacobs Field exploded with cheers as Alomar raised his fists and galloped around the bases in front of the jubilant crowd.

As Sandy reached the dugout, his teammates pounded his fists, his helmet and his back as the Indians finally had new life in a series where they were left for dead.  The crowd would not quiet, as Alomar peeked back out of the third base dugout and raised his arms in celebration.  The game was tied at 2-2, and for the first time in days, the Indians had some momentum.

After the dust had settled, Rivera dug back in and kept his cool to retire Fernandez on a grounder to first.  Fired up, Jackson stayed in the ballgame and set down the Yankees in order in the top of the ninth.  The highlight of the frame was Jackson striking out Sanchez on a slider to end the inning.  The outstanding performance by Jackson, coupled with Alomar’s clutch shot, gave the Indians a chance to win the ballgame and tie the series in the bottom of the ninth.

No longer having a save situation, Torre replaced Rivera with Ramiro Mendoza in the ninth inning.  Mendoza was making his second appearance of the series, having dominated Tribe hitters after Cone was beat up in Game One.  Leading off for Cleveland was Grissom, who greeted Mendoza rudely by blooping his second pitch over the head of Sanchez at second base for a leadoff single.

The next batter was Roberts, the Tribe’s leadoff hitter.  With everyone in the world expecting it, Roberts squared to bunt Mendoza’s first pitch and laid down a beauty.  The ball was pushed to the right side, trickled past Mendoza and toward the second baseman’s area.  The speedy Roberts sprinted down the line and nearly beat the throw to first as Sanchez made a beautiful play on the ball for the first out of the inning.  This brought up Omar Vizquel, who was batting .500 for the series and already had two hits for the evening.

With the possible winning run at second, Vizquel watched as Mendoza fired strike one by the Tribe shortstop.  Not wanting to let another good one go by, Omar swung and connected on Mendoza’s second offering.

The ball was smacked back up the middle and was destined for centerfield.  Grissom took off for third, thinking that he could score on a single up the middle.

In desperation, Mendoza stuck out his glove and got a piece of the ball that had nearly scooted past him.  The ball skipped off the mitt and trickled toward the left side of the infield.  Jeter, who had all of his momentum going up the middle, planted hard and dove toward the slow grounder.  The ball just missed his outstretched glove and rolled into left field.

Grissom turned hard around third as the crowd was going wild at the Indians amazing luck.  By the time defensive replacement Chad Curtis could fire a desperation throw to the plate, Grissom had touched home and given the Indians an incredible 3-2 victory.

There was absolute pandemonium at the Jake as the Indians spilled out of the dugout and mobbed Grissom and Vizquel.  The fans were going berserk for their Tribe who had done the impossible by beating Mariano Rivera and were now one win away from eliminating the hated Yankees.

Car horns blared throughout the night as chants of “Let’s Go Tribe!” could be heard throughout the city.  The party was rocking as Tribe fans had a new-found faith in their underdog, never-say-die Indians team that had been so inconsistent and almost unlovable all season long.

For the Yankees and Rivera, the company line was that they were not rattled or affected by the loss.  Any human could tell, however, that they were clearly spooked by the Jacobs Field magic that had just occurred.

“Sandy Alomar does something that hardly anyone in the history of the game has done…beat Mariano Rivera late in the ballgame,” Indians radio play by play man Tom Hamilton said.  “You beat the Yankees in a classic.”

“It won’t affect us,” Rivera said in an ESPN Page 2 article.  “We feel confident we can win.”

The Indians had stolen all of the momentum back in the series and would play the deciding Game Five on their home turf.  Forgotten because of the heroics of Alomar and Vizquel was the outstanding performance of the 39 year old Hershiser, who gave his team a big boost when they needed it the most.

“They’re about to put me out to the glue factory, I think, but it’s a blast to have a chance to win, again,” Hershiser said in Smith’s article.  “It’s a struggle to continue to work out, to get in that workroom.  But when you’ve got the W’s, it’s worth all the work.”

Looking to get the series deciding W for the Tribe was rookie sensation Jaret Wright, who was facing off against Yankee lefthander Andy Pettitte in a rematch of Game Two.  Wright had bested Pettitte in the contest back in the Bronx and this time had momentum and a raucous home crowd behind him.

The poise and talent that the 21 year old had shown in New York left quite an impression on everyone who watched him.  After perhaps being a bit intimidated and struggling through the first inning in Game Two, Wright had settled down and dominated New York for the remainder of his outing.  He seemed to pitch beyond his years and this time it was the Yankees who seemed somewhat intimidated to face the rookie.  This intimidation factor was not lost on Wright’s teammates, including the veteran Hershiser.

“If he stays healthy and keeps getting exposed to these situations, he’s going to mature very quickly, and the regular seasons are going to become yawners for him,” Hershiser predicted in the Smith article about his young teammate.

By this time, it was obvious to everyone that the Indians could have something special in Jaret Wright.  It wasn’t until after his performance in Game Five, however, that there wasn’t any doubt.

Photo: Cleveland.com

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