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.


The Cleveland Indians beating the New York Yankees is like Luke Skywalker defeating Darth Vader.

It’s like Rocky Balboa knocking out Ivan Drago.

It’s like the 13 Colonies defeating Great Britain.

Beating the Yankees is awesome.

Beating the Yankees is better than beating the Mariners, the Orioles or even the Red Sox.  It’s like when the Browns beat the Steelers or when Ohio State beats Michigan…it doesn’t matter how many wins they have just as long as they win the big one.

Heading into 1997, however, the thought of the Indians getting the best of the Yankees was more of a fantasy than a reality.

Seven times in franchise history the Indians finished in second place to New York.  In 1921, ’26, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’55 and ’56 the Tribe had excellent seasons only to look up at the Yanks in the standings.  Only twice had the Indians got the better end of the deal.

In 1954, Casey Stengel’s team led by Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Mickey Mantle won 103 games to finish in second behind the Tribe’s record 111 victories.  Over 30 years later, it was Lou Brown’s Indians led by Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn and Willie Mays Hays that won a one-game playoff over the Yanks to clinch the AL East.

The latter, of course, is fictional…which is what the scene in downtown Cleveland felt like prior to the deciding Game Five of the 1997 American League Division Series on October 6.  The Indians were fresh off a historic, come-from-behind victory that gave them new life and put the Yanks on the brink of elimination for the first time.

The series was tied at two games apiece in the best of five series and Jacobs Field was buzzing from the time the gates opened.  The 45,203 fans knew that the Tribe had a tough assignment with Yankee lefthander Andy Pettitte on the mound, but were beaming with excitement to get an up-close look at their 21 year old budding ace Jaret Wright.

Wright had gone from starting the season in Double A to pitching the Tribe to their first playoff victory of the season in Game Two.  Jaret survived a jittery first inning to defeat the Bronx Bombers by allowing only three hits over six frames.  Another similar outing against New York would turn the baby-faced pitcher into a Cleveland folk hero.  Wright certainly did not disappoint.

The rookie and Pettitte battled back and forth through the first two and a half innings.  Wright dissolved Yankee threats in both the first, second and third innings and Pettitte also worked around base runners in the first.  It was Pettitte, however, that broke first as the Indians scored the first blow in the bottom of the third.

Marquis Grissom drove a one out single to left field off of Pettitte and Bip Roberts followed with a blooper that landed in front of centerfielder Bernie Williams to put runners at first and second.  Tribe shortstop Omar Vizquel bounced into a fielder’s choice, retiring Roberts at second but putting runners at the corners with two outs.

With Manny Ramirez at the plate, Vizquel stole second and came home with Grissom when Ramirez bounced a ground-rule double into the seats and put the Tribe up 2-0 on the heavily favored Yankees.  Matt Williams followed by driving Ramirez home with a perfectly placed grounder through the hole between third and short to make the advantage 3-0 in favor of the Indians.

Pettitte’s struggles and the Indians hot hitting did not stop in the third.  Game Four’s hero Sandy Alomar led off the bottom of the fourth with a double into centerfield to put the Tribe back in business.  First baseman Jim Thome, who slugged 40 homeruns in 1997, followed Alomar by laying down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move Sandy to third with one out.  The sacrifice was only the second in Thome’s career and would prove to be his last.

After Thome’s surprising bunt, Tony Fernandez lined a drive to the strong armed Paul O’Neill in right.  Alomar tagged as O’Neill caught the ball and fired it in offline to allow Sandy to score and put the Cleveland lead at 4-0.

With “The Jake” rocking, New York somewhat silenced the crowd by cutting the Tribe lead in half the very next inning.  Tim Raines worked a one out walk off of Wright in the top of the fifth, stole second and advanced to third when Alomar’s throw bounced into centerfield.

Derek Jeter followed with a strikeout and then O’Neill walked to put runners at the corners.  Wright then got Williams behind in the count 1-2 before making his first big mistake of the game when Bernie smacked a single to right field.  Raines scored easily and O’Neill did as well when Ramirez made a costly error to allow him to come all the way around from first.  Williams ended up being stranded on second, but the lead was now cut to 4-2.

Pettitte settled in and retired the Tribe in order in the fifth, but the Yankee hitters along with the Tribe’s poor defense seemed to be getting to Wright.

Designated hitter Mike Stanley led off the top of the sixth by smashing a line drive double up the alley in centerfield.  Wright then got Charlie Hayes to groundout, but allowed pinch hitter and future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs to ground a single up the middle and score Stanley.  The crowd that had been loud and crazy all night was now silenced as the Yankees cut the lead to 4-3.

That was all that Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove needed to see from Wright, who had pitched well enough to win for the second time in the series.  Wright allowed three runs, only two of which were earned, over his five and one third innings.  He handed the ball over to reliever Mike Jackson and left to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd.

With the potential tying run on first, Jackson turned in one of the most underappreciated performances of the ’97 playoffs.  Pinch hitter Jorge Posada struck out swinging against the superior Jackson and then Raines followed with a weak groundout to Fernandez at second to retire the side.  Jackson preserved the lead and kept Wright as the potential winning pitcher if the Tribe held onto the lead.

Pettitte, meanwhile, had gotten into a groove and retired Indian hitter after Indian hitter.  When he was replaced by Jeff Nelson in the bottom of the seventh, Pettitte had retired the last nine Indians he faced, seven of which were via groundout or strikeout.  Thankfully, the Tribe bullpen matched Pettitte pitch for pitch.

Jackson stayed on for the top of the seventh and allowed a single to Jeter to lead off the inning.  Paul Assenmacher then came in for Jackson to face the lefthander O’Neill.

O’Neill smashed Assenmacher’s second toward Thome at first, who dove and knocked the ball down to the Earth.  Thome picked up the ball and, on his knees, threw out Jeter at second by a step.  The crowd erupted at Thome’s fine defensive play and then roared even louder as Assenmacher then got Williams to bounce to Vizquel for an inning and rally ending double play.

After Pettitte and Nelson set the Tribe down in order in the seventh, the Yanks threatened again in the eighth.  Assenmacher got Tino Martinez to pop out to start the inning and was then replaced by Tribe closer Jose Mesa.  Mesa had struggled in his only other appearance in the series, giving up a single, a walk, a hit by pitch and a Jeter homerun in the Tribe’s Game Two victory.  This outing was nearly as shaky.

Mesa got Stanley to strikeout looking for the second out of the inning but then allowed back to back singles to Hayes and Boggs to ignite the relentless Yankees again.  Mesa did come through in the end, however, as he got Posada to ground back to the mound to end the eighth.

The Indian offense looked for some insurance and finally showed some life and got some runners on base in the bottom half of the eighth.  Brian Giles led off the inning by flying out to deep left field but was followed by Vizquel who dropped down a perfectly placed bunt single down the third base line.  The hit, which raised Vizquel’s batting average to an even .500 for the series, was the first base runner for the Tribe since Alomar’s double to lead off the fourth.  Vizquel stole second after Ramirez struck out, and Williams followed with a walk.

Yankee Manager Joe Torre replaced Nelson with lefty Mike Stanton to face the Tribe’s lefthander Dave Justice.  Justice, who had hit lefthanders better than right handers all season long, struck out swinging despite his advantage to end the threat.

When Mesa trotted back out for the top of the ninth, the crowd rose to their feet as their Tribe was only three outs away from defeating the heavily-favored, defending World Champion, hated New York Yankees.  It was not going to be easy for Mesa (like anything is ever easy for Cleveland), as the top of the order was due up for New York.

Raines led off and bounced the first pitch back up the middle.  Fernandez ranged far to his right and gloved the bouncer with a backhand.  He planted and fired to Thome at first for out number one.

Jeter followed and dribbled the second pitch he saw toward the Gold Glover Williams at third.  Matt barehanded the ball and fired to first to get Jeter by a step for the second out.

O’Neill, undoubtedly the Yankees best player in the series, strode to the plate as the Yankees last hope.  He wasted no time bringing the Yankees back to life as he roped a long drive into the right-centerfield gap.  The ball banged hard off the wall and O’Neill raced into second as the potential tying run.

Torre turned to his bench as the speedy Scott Pose pinch ran for O’Neill at second, leaving the heroics up to Bernie Williams.  Keeping New York’s aggressive approach for the inning going, Williams also swung at Mesa’s first pitch (just his fifth pitch of the inning).

Bernie lifted the ball high into medium left-centerfield.  Giles and Grissom converged on the ball and Giles called off the centerfielder.  The ball landed safely in Giles’ glove, and Brian raised his hands in celebration as Grissom hugged him and tackled him to the ground.

Mesa dropped to a knee and pointed up to the sky as the Indian dugout poured onto the field.  The championship-starved crowd went berserk on the corner of Ontario and Carnegie as the Indians had defeated their longtime nemesis.

It was all over.  The Tribe had done it.  The impossible had become a reality.  The Indians had eliminated the Yankees.

It was a series for the ages, full of unlikely moments and unlikely heroes.  No heroics, however, were more unlikely than those provided by the 21 year old rookie who had slayed Goliath twice in one week.

“We’re on Cloud Nine, especially me, starting in Double A and whatnot,” Wright said in a Claire Smith article from the New York Times.  “It’s a good feeling.”

Cloud Nine was the perfect way to describe it.  In Game Four, the underdog Indians were a mere four outs away from elimination, with the mighty Mariano Rivera on the mound.  Things had never looked more dismal until Sandy Alomar drove an opposite field homerun out of the ballpark to tie the game, and the Indians never looked back.

“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.  For a lot of fans, they were happy enough (with that).  Generations of fans from the 40’s and 50’s thought, ‘You can’t do any better than this…we eliminated the Yankees.’”

For the Tribe players, the feeling was special as well…especially for the two players who came over in the Spring Training trade from Atlanta.  “They had come back and won four straight against us last year,” Grissom said of he and Justice in Smith’s article, who’s Braves had lost the 1996 World Series to New York. “So to just come back and beat them the way we did, when we were down, two games to one, it was just a great feeling.”

With the Yankees now eliminated, the Indians could turn their attention to their next matchup…the 98 win American League East Champion Baltimore Orioles who had defeated the Seattle Mariners in four games the day before.

“I thought Baltimore was heads and tails better than any other team in the American League that year,” Hamilton said.  “I thought Baltimore was really good…Baltimore had the best record in the game.”

The best record maybe, but the Indians had a ton of history-making momentum on their side.  The Indians had finally beaten the Yankees and they were now only four wins away from their second American League pennant in three years.

Photo: Sports Illustrated

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