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.


In playoff baseball there are great games, amazing games, legendary games…and then there’s Game Three of the 1997 American League Championship Series.

Unbelievable is really the only word that sums up the game that was played at Jacobs Field on October 11, 1997.  It was arguably the most bizarre game in Cleveland Indians history and it was the scene for perhaps the most unimaginable finish in baseball history.

Heading into the game, the series between the Indians and the Baltimore Orioles was tied at one game apiece.  The first two contests were played in Baltimore, where the heavily favored Orioles took Game One in dominating fashion and the Tribe used an eighth inning homerun by Marquis Grissom to steal Game Two.  The series now shifted back to Cleveland, where the Tribe had played inconsistently all season long.

The pitching matchup had all of the makings of a classic.  Veteran Orel Hershiser, who pitched brilliantly in Game Four of the Division Series against the Yankees, was matching up against one of baseball’s best right handers, Mike Mussina.

Two times during Baltimore’s ALDS matchup against the Mariners, “Moose” got the better of baseball’s most celebrated pitcher, Randy Johnson.  Mussina won both Game One and Game Four against the “Big Unit” and he did so by holding the mighty Mariners lineup to just three runs in 14 innings of work.  Now, Mussina was working on a normal five days rest and would have to work to shut down an Indians lineup that was arguably just as potent as Seattle’s.

The game started on a cool, dry day in Cleveland at a strange start time.  Hershiser’s first pitch to Brady Anderson came at 4:17 PM; a time that any player will tell you is not a fun time to hit at Jacobs Field.  Because of the toothbrush shaped light towers that towered over Cleveland’s four year old home, the late afternoon sun casted long shadows over the playing field and played tricks on hitters all day long.  Hitting a Major League fastball is hard enough, but hitting it when you can barely see it is almost impossible.  Both starting pitchers were able to take advantage of the circumstances, as the two starters battled back and forth in an amazing strikeout contest.

Hershiser got the first two Oriole batters out with a groundball and a fly out and then struck out Eric Davis to end the first inning.  Mussina followed by striking out Bip Roberts, Omar Vizquel and Manny Ramirez in the bottom half of the frame.

Not to be outdone, Hershiser fanned Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff and Cal Ripken in order in the top of the second.  Mussina responded in the bottom half again, striking out David Justice and then getting the following two hitters on weak groundouts.

Hershiser got another K in the third and Mussina struck out the side again.  Through three innings, the two starters had combined to give up zero runs, zero hits, two walks (which were both erased on double plays) and an unreal 12 strikeouts.

It wasn’t until the top of the fourth that a player got a base hit, and it came off of the bat of Anderson in the form of a leadoff single.  Anderson was immediately erased on a 4-6-3 double play off of the bat of Roberto Alomar and the Orioles “rally” was erased.

The Indians finally broke into the hit column in the bottom half as Ramirez laced a one out single to right.  Unfortunately, two more Mussina strikeouts thwarted any chance of a Tribe rally and the score remained at 0-0.

For the next couple innings, base hits were limited and scattered by both pitchers and the strikeouts kept piling on…especially for Mussina.  Moose fanned two Indians in the fifth and all three batters in the sixth.  Luckily for the Tribe, Hershiser (who had somewhat lost his strikeout pitch) kept recording out after out and held the mighty Orioles scoreless through the top of the seventh.  With his pitch count up from all of the strikeouts, Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove pulled his 38 year old veteran from the ballgame after seven innings of four hit baseball, with Orel having struck out seven and walked only one.  It was after the decision to pull the “Bulldog” from the game that the Tribe bats finally found a chink in Mussina’s armor.

The bottom of the seventh inning started with (what else) a strikeout of Ramirez for Mussina.  The K set a new League Championship Series record, as it was Mussina’s 15th of the game.  But what a strikeout it was.  Ramirez worked a tiring Moose for 13 pitches before finally punching out, and the impact of having to work so hard showed on the very next batter.

Jim Thome came to the plate with one out in the inning and Mussina, who was obviously laboring, walked him to give the Indians their first base runner since the fourth inning.  Justice followed and flared a fly ball to centerfield, where the outstanding glove of Anderson played.  Anderson, who proved that the twilight at Jacobs Field did not only play games with the eyes of the hitter’s that day, did not see the ball off of the bat and the ball dropped 10 feet in front of him.  The future Indian gathered up the ball and fired it in to second base just behind the slow-footed Thome, who chugged into second base safely.

For the first time in the ballgame, the Indians had two men on base and Mussina on the ropes.  It was only the second time in the game that a Tribe base runner had reached second base and the following batter, Matt Williams, made sure that he took advantage of the situation.

On the very next pitch, Williams rolled a slow grounder toward the hole on the left side of the infield.  Both Ripken at third and Mike Bordick at shortstop dove and missed the “ground ball with eyes”.  Thome barreled around third and scored the game’s first run as Justice stopped at second.  Sandy Alomar and Brian Giles both followed with groundouts to end the inning, but the Indians had taken an incredible 1-0 lead into the eighth, despite Mussina’s record performance.

Paul Assenmacher and Mike Jackson combined to shut down the Orioles in the top of the eighth and Baltimore reliever Armando Benitez did the same to the Tribe in the bottom half.  As Hargrove turned to his closer Jose Mesa in the ninth, the Indians were just three outs away from taking an improbable 2-1 lead in the series.

Baltimore catcher Chris Hoiles led off the inning and immediately welcomed Mesa rudely with a leadoff single into the right-centerfield gap.  With the slow-footed Hoiles nursing a sore Achilles tendon, Baltimore Manager Davey Johnson replaced him with backup infielder Jeff Reboulet as a pinch runner.  It was at this point, that things started turning bizarre once again.

Jeffrey Hammonds bounced a Mesa pitch on the ground toward defensive replacement Tony Fernandez at second base.  Fernandez charged the ball and fielded it close to Reboulet, who had stopped running with hopes that the play would slow down and Hammonds would be safe at first.  Instead of tagging Reboulet or throwing the ball to Vizquel at second to retire the lead runner, Fernandez elected to throw the ball at first to retire Hammonds.  Reboulet sprinted toward second and Thome fired the ball to try and complete the uncharacteristic 4-3-6 double play.  The ball, however, hit the left elbow of Reboulet and caromed away from the play as the pinch runner was safe at second base.  The Orioles had dodged a bullet as there was now a runner at second with one out instead of bases empty with two.

The following batter was Anderson, who up to this point was the goat of the game for not catching Justice’s fly ball in the seventh.  In similar fashion, Anderson lifted a routine ball to centerfield, just deep enough that Reboulet may have been able to tag and get to third with two outs.  What happened, however, was again bizarre.

As the ball reached its peak in the late evening sky, Grissom lost sight of the flight and stopped dead in his tracks.  The former Gold Glove outfielder shrugged and held his hands out in disbelief as the ball landed about 50 feet behind him.  Giles sprinted in behind him and slid to stop the ball from rolling, fired it back in toward the infield and held Anderson at second for a strange, gift-wrapped double.  To the disbelief of the 45,057 fans on hand, Reboulet sprinted around and touched home plate to tie the game at 1-1.

After an intentional walk, foul out and strikeout, the inning mercifully ended with the Tribe having blown their lead.  Fernandez and Grissom hung their heads on their way to the dugout, having blown their chances at an inning that should have ended the game.

“I felt I had let us down,” Grissom said in a Jack Curry article from the New York Times.  “I felt like the worst guy in the world.”

After a flurry of changes that Johnson made including inserting his backup catcher Lenny Webster into the game, the Indians again blew a chance to win the game against the Baltimore bullpen in the bottom of the ninth.

Benitez walked Ramirez to lead off the inning and Johnson then lifted his righty in favor of former Indian lefthander Jesse Orosco to face Thome.  Orosco entered and immediately picked Ramirez off of first base, as Manny seemed to have lost concentration on the bases (in typical Manny being Manny style).  Thome followed with a walk and Williams eventually notched a two out single that certainly would have scored Ramirez, but as it stood, a Sandy Alomar groundout ended the threat and sent the game into extra innings.

Both Mesa and Arthur Rhodes worked perfect 10th innings before Baltimore threatened to break through in the 11th.  Hargrove brought in midseason acquisition Jeff Juden to face the O’s, and Juden struck out Reboulet and Hammonds to start the inning.

Anderson followed with a walk and then immediately stole second on the Tribe’s big right hander.  Hargrove then intentionally walked Alomar for the second time in the game, and Webster tapped an infield single to third to load the bases with two outs.

Hargrove went back to his bullpen and brought in Alvin Morman to face Palmeiro.  In perhaps the biggest at bat of the game, Morman struck out Palmeiro to end the bases loaded threat and the crowd went crazy with appreciation.  It was now the Indians turn to threaten in the bottom of the 11th.

Vizquel led off the inning by drawing a walk off of Rhodes, and Ramirez followed with a single to right.  Thinking bunt and having a lefty on the mound, Hargrove pinch hit Kevin Seitzer for Thome as Rhodes uncorked a wild pitch.  Vizquel scampered to third alertly, but Ramirez’s lack of attention burned him again as he stayed put at first base.  The Tribe now had the winning run at third as well as a runner at first with nobody out.

Johnson brought in his All-Star closer, Randy Myers to hopefully escape from the jam.  Myers got Seitzer to tap a weak grounder to third, and Vizquel wisely stayed put.  The slow roller moved Ramirez to second, but the Orioles had gotten the first out of the inning.

The next batter, Justice, sent a screaming line drive into left field, but Surhoff was playing in with the winning run on third and snared it for the second out of the inning.  Vizquel was forced to stay at third, and suddenly the O’s had a chance to work out of it.

Williams followed with a walk, and Myers struck out Alomar to end the inning and leave the bases loaded.  The Tribe had blown yet another opportunity to end the game and take the advantage in the series.

Morman and Eric Plunk worked a scoreless top half of the 12th, but it was not easy as Plunk allowed a two out double to future Indian Geronimo Berroa in the process.  Johnson then sent Myers back out to work the bottom of the 12th, where things went from bizarre to unbelievable.

Myers struck out Giles to start the inning, as the Tribe left fielder was the 21st Indian to strike out during the game. The 21 K’s shattered the LCS record, yet the Tribe still had a chance to win the game.

Grissom, who was Game Two’s hero and thus far Game Three’s goat, followed with a one out walk.  Fernandez then followed with perhaps the most important at bat of the game.

Myers ran a fastball in on Fernandez, who hit the ball off of the handle of his bat and blooped it toward shallow right field.  Alomar and Hammonds converged and the ball dropped in safely for a single.  Alertly and aggressively, the speedy Grissom sprinted around second and hustled toward third.  Hammonds, possessing one of baseball’s best outfield arms, picked up the ball and fired it toward Ripken at third.

Grissom flopped in with a headfirst slide just in front of the future Hall of Famer’s tag, and the Indians again had the potential winning run at third with less than two outs.  Striding to the plate for one of baseball history’s classic moments was the light hitting Vizquel.

With the speedy Grissom at third and with Vizquel being one of baseball’s best bunters, the entire world was thinking suicide squeeze.  Hargrove certainly was too, but not wanting to tip his hand and risk an early pitch out, Grover elected not to execute baseball’s most exciting play on the first three pitches as Myers fell behind in the count 2-1.

A record four hours and 51 minutes after the longest game in LCS history started, Hargrove put on the squeeze and Grissom broke for home as Myers rocked into his delivery.  Vizquel laid his bat out to bunt and in the blink of an eye, the ball tipped off of Webster’s glove as Grissom still raced for the plate.

The Oriole catcher stood up and made no effort to chase the ball that had dribbled only a few feet away from him.  As Grissom touched home plate, home plate umpire John Hirshbeck signaled safe and a confused Grissom, Vizquel and Jacobs Field crowd went nuts in excitement.

Webster, Ripken and Johnson started screaming at Hirshbeck, needing an explanation of why a fouled off bunt can end the ballgame.  Hirshbeck claimed that Vizquel had missed the ball and that Grissom had stolen home for the final 2-1 score.

Johnson and Webster pleaded their case that Vizquel had fouled it off, but Hirshbeck did not waiver.  The Indians had won in the most unbelievable fashion; in one of baseball history’s most bizarre games.

“I missed the bunt,” Vizquel said in a Thomas Boswell article from the Washington Post.  “I was ready to kill myself, because Marquis would have been out at the plate.  Then I saw Marquis run across the plate and I just started jumping.”

The Oriole players and Manager had a different view of the events that transpired.

“He definitely tipped the ball and it deflected off my glove,” said Webster in the Boswell article.  “All I could do was get a bit of my glove on it.  I definitely saw contact.  I heard contact.  When (Hirschbeck) gestured with his arm, I thought he meant ‘foul ball.’  I didn’t run and get the ball for that reason.”

“I did not hear anything,” said Hirschbeck in response.  “If I had ruled a foul ball, I would have screamed foul — loud.  And waved emphatically.”

“I thought I heard a ‘tick,’” said Johnson.  “Maybe that’s wishful hearing.  And I saw the ball change direction.  To me, that means a foul tip.  When my catcher doesn’t go after the ball, I figure it’s a foul ball.”

Television replays showed that Vizquel did not make contact with the ball, so Hirshbeck’s call was widely ruled correct.  This view will probably never be shared by Webster, however, who was criticized afterwards for not hustling after the ball.

“He definitely tipped it and it deflected off my glove,” Webster said in the Curry article.  “I’ve seen the replays and it clearly shows that.”

In Webster’s defense, it was extremely questionable that he would have been able to run after the ball, pick it up and still have time to tag Grissom even if he had hustled after it.

“I don’t think so,” Webster said in the Boswell article.  “If I dash, I’d have to dive back (toward home plate) for him.  I don’t know.”

Regardless, the call went the Indians way and whether it was luck or destiny, the Tribe held a 2-1 lead in the series and it was the Orioles who were left making excuses.

“Both teams had chances to win it all night,” Johnson said in the Curry article.  “You just hate to see it end on one of those deals like this.”

“It was a game that had everything,” Hershiser said.  “I don’t know which team was called the cardiac kids, but we’re getting close to that.”

For Grissom, scoring the winning run in Game Three coupled with his Game Two heroics outshined the blunder that he made in the ninth inning.

“So far, destiny has smiled on (Grissom) twice and dumped on him once,” Hargrove said in the Boswell article.

Destiny also seemed to be shining brightly on the Tribe.  They held a two games to one lead in the best of seven series against the best team in baseball and had won their last two games in dramatic and unlikely fashions.  With Game Four on the horizon, Baltimore would turn back to Game One starter Scott Erickson, who dominated the Indians less than a week prior.  The Tribe would turn the ball over to rookie phenom Jaret Wright, who won two of the Tribe’s three games against the Yankees in the ALDS.

Photo: Baltimore Sun

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