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.


“There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”

-John Lennon

As the Cleveland Indians started batting practice before their Game Six showdown with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1997 American League Championship Series, Manager Mike Hargrove figured that everything was where it was meant to be.

Bip Roberts, a key midseason acquisition, was leading off and playing second base.

Tony Fernandez, an offseason free-agent signing that had lost his regular playing time when the team traded for Roberts, was penciled in as a reserve player on the bench.

It was all set.  The regular lineup was ready to face Mike Mussina…the hottest pitcher on the planet.

And then fate intervened.

Fernandez was taking his turn in the batting cage while Roberts was fielding grounders out at his normal second base spot.  Fernandez smacked a line drive toward Roberts and Bip reacted late to the ball, then immediately grabbed his hand in pain.

“Caught all thumb, no glove at all,” Roberts said in a George Vecsey article from the New York Times.  “I knew it was bad right away.”

Roberts headed into the visitor’s clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and took a shot to deaden the throbbing pain.  He eventually made his way out to the batting cage to see if he could handle the bat…as well as the pain in his hand.

“I kept changing my grip,” he said, “and once you start doing that, you’re dead.”

Because of the abnormal circumstances, Hargrove was forced to change his lineup that had been so lucky and productive throughout the postseason.  Roberts was now scratched from the second base position to be replaced by Fernandez, and Omar Vizquel was moved up from his normal spot batting second to hit leadoff.

It was an auspicious beginning for a team that was only one win away from the World Series.

For Baltimore, the feeling was optimistic as they were back home, playing in front of their home fans for two must-win games.  With Mussina pitching Game Six, they only needed a win from their best pitcher and then another win from Scott Erickson in Game Seven to erase the 3-1 deficit that they had fallen into after Game Four.  Erickson had dominated the Tribe in Game One before the Indians won three straight games in which the Orioles felt should have gone their way, so the Baltimore faithful knew that anything was possible.

Mussina, fresh off an LCS record 15 strikeout performance in Game Three, had struck out 31 batters in his three starts of the postseason.  He was only four K’s away from tying the all-time record of 35 for a single postseason, shared by Bob Gibson in 1968, Tom Seaver in 1973, and Orel Hershiser during the Tribe’s magical run in 1995.  Mussina turned it on early as he and Tribe starter Charles Nagy matched up like two heavyweight fighters in a classic boxing match.

The first inning showed exactly what was to come as it was a microcosm of the entire game.  Mussina dominated the Tribe hitters, setting Vizquel, Fernandez and Manny Ramirez down in order.  Nagy then answered with a scoreless frame, but certainly struggled to do so.

Nagy walked Brady Anderson to lead off the game and then was aided by a huge double play hit into by Roberto AlomarGeronimo Berroa crushed a double into the gap and then Nagy walked Harold Baines.  With runners at first and second, Charlie struck out Rafael Palmeiro to end the inning.  Nagy’s line thus far included two walks and an extra base hit, but most importantly—zero runs.

Mussina got David Justice to fly out in the second inning before striking out both Matt Williams and Jim Thome.  Nagy followed by allowing a single to Cal Ripken, then got B.J. Surhoff and Chris Hoiles to pop out and then allowed a double to Mike Bordick that Ripken was unable to score on.  With runners at second and third, Nagy got Anderson to ground weakly to Thome at first to end the inning.

Mussina was perfect through two innings.  Nagy had allowed five base runners and given up two doubles but still had not allowed a run.

Moose cruised through the Indians again in the third and fourth, including strikeouts of Brian Giles and Marquis Grissom to tie the record of 35.  Nagy allowed more base runners, as Alomar led off the third with a single and Ripken did the same in the fourth with a double.  Charlie stranded both runners again, however, and the game was still scoreless heading into the fifth.

It was in the top of the fifth that the Indians finally reached base against Mussina, when Justice led off the inning with a double into the left-centerfield gap.  Moose then struck out Williams to set the playoff record at 36 and Thome then launched a pitch deep into centerfield.

Anderson sprinted back and made a run-saving catch on Thome’s deep fly out, as Justice had to hustle back to second base.  With two outs, Mussina kept adding to his total as he struck out Sandy Alomar to end the inning and the Tribe’s first threat of the ballgame.

In the bottom half, Nagy kept doing what he was doing as he allowed back to back, two-out singles to Berroa and Baines.  Just as they had done all day also, Baltimore stranded the base runners when Palmeiro grounded out.

Mussina kept steady by striking out two more Indians in the sixth and allowing only a walk to Justice in the seventh.  Nagy countered with his first 1-2-3 inning of the night in the sixth and was aided by some outstanding defense in the bottom of the seventh.

Baltimore started the frame with back to back singles by Bordick and Anderson and the Oriole fans were screaming for the Birds to finally take advantage of the situation.  With Robbie Alomar (one of the best bunters in the league) coming to the plate, Baltimore Manager Davey Johnson called for a sacrifice and Alomar executed.

The bunt travelled hard down the third base line and Williams charged, called off Nagy and fielded it cleanly.  He spun quickly and fired it to the shortstop Vizquel, who was covering third base on what is called a “wheel play”.  The throw made it to Vizquel just before Bordick could reach third base and the Baltimore faithful let out a groan of “here we go again” as umpire John Hirshbeck called Bordick out.

Berroa followed the heads up play by Williams by bouncing into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning and yet another Oriole rally.  Nagy had escaped again, but the entire ballpark was buzzing about Williams play on the bunt.

“That, to me, was the key play of the game,” Johnson said in an article by Mark Maske of the Washington Post.

“A lot of third basemen come in and just take the sure out and go to first base,” Anderson said in a Murry Chass article from the New York Times.  “We would have had a better chance to score.  He laid that one down about as good as you could.  You have to give Matt Williams credit.”

Williams downplayed the moment.  “We practice that about a million times in the post-season,” Williams said in a Jack Curry article from the New York Times.  “It’s just second nature.”

All of the practice was well worth it as the Indians finally had a little bit of momentum in a game that had been all Baltimore.  Mussina worked the top of the eighth inning and allowed only a walk to Giles—just the third base runner of the day for the Indians.  At the end of the inning, Johnson decided that 108 pitches and eight innings of shutout, one-hit baseball was enough and pulled Mussina from the game.

“Mussina is the best pitcher in the game right now,” Palmeiro said in the Maske article.  “I’m disappointed that he pitched great every time out, and we didn’t give him any run support.”

“Mike Mussina dominated us,” Hargrove said.  “He was absolutely outstanding.”

Mussina had been outstanding and considerably better than Nagy, but after Charlie, Paul Assenmacher and Mike Jackson set down the Orioles scoreless in the eighth, Mussina’s effort was again for nothing.

Mussina set an ALCS record with 15 strikeouts in Game Three and was even better in Game Six.  Moose retired 20 of the first 21 batters that he faced and allowed only one hit—the Justice double in the fifth.  For the series, Mussina pitched 15 innings allowing four hits, no earned runs, had 25 strikeouts and was tagged with two no-decisions.

In the ninth, Johnson turned to his closer Randy Myers to preserve the scoreless tie.  In the inning that Myers worked, the Indian offense got two men to reach base for the first time all game, but the outcome was the same as Myers worked out of the jam to turn the game back over to Jackson, who dominated the Oriole hitters.

Jackson worked the ninth and struck out Bordick, Anderson, and Berroa in the inning.  Alomar had worked a two out walk, but Jackson continued the trend of the night; dominating pitching.  Myers then did the same in the 10th as he too retired the Tribe in order.  Hargrove turned back to his bullpen and lefthander Brian Anderson for the bottom half, and Anderson set the O’s down by tallying two more strikeouts to send the game to the 11th, where fate finally intervened.

Johnson gave the ball to reliever Armando Benitez, who just had to hate facing the Indians.  In 1996, then-Indian Albert Belle blasted a grand slam off of Benitez at Jacobs Field, tagging the right hander with the Orioles only loss of the series and prevented a Baltimore sweep.  In Game Two of this series, he allowed Grissom’s game winning three-run homerun that gave the Tribe life and tied the series up at 1-1.  Then, in Game Four, it was Benitez that surrendered a walk and then Alomar’s game winning hit to put the O’s in a 3-1 series hole.  Game Six would just be the climax in a historically-bad career against the Indians.

The inning started out well for Benitez as he struck out Grissom and then retired Vizquel, who was trying to drag bunt his way aboard.  With two outs, Fernandez—the man who wasn’t even supposed to be playing—dug in to face the flame throwing Oriole.

Benitez fired a blazing fastball just off of the outside edge for ball one to fall behind 1-0.  As he dug back in and shot a second pitch even closer to the black of the plate, Benitez became clearly frustrated with the umpire when he called it ball two.

Fernandez motioned to Benitez that the ball was outside…a gesture that Benitez did not want to see again.  Instead of unloading another fastball to the Indian second baseman that nearly signed with Baltimore before deciding to join the Tribe, he threw a hard slider that hung right over the middle of the dish.

Fernandez swung and lifted a towering fly ball deep into right field and toward the 25 foot wall.  The fans at Camden Yards held their collective breaths, hoping to hear the ball clank off of the in-play scoreboard.  As Berroa, the right fielder in hot-pursuit of the ball, neared the fence, he started to slow down and hung his head as the ball sailed over the wall and onto Eutaw Street.

The Indians dugout erupted with glee as the Indians now held a 1-0 lead in the top of the 11th inning.  The rest of the ballpark was dead silent as Fernandez rounded the bases…except for a familiar voice up in the Tribe pressbox.

“The only time I saw Herb (Score) get really excited was on Tony Fernandez’s homerun at Camden Yards,” Indians play-by-play man Tom Hamilton recalled of his former partner who was set to retire at the conclusion of the playoffs.  “(He was) so (excited) that he got out of his chair to make the homerun call when it cleared the wall in right field.  Herb said, ‘And the Indians are going back to the World Series!’  Then he caught himself, because we’re the visitors and he says, ‘MAYBE’.  So he did get caught up in that moment.”

It certainly was hard to blame Score for getting caught up in the moment.  The Tribe was leading 1-0 in a game that they had no business leading, and they were on the doorstep of their second World Series appearance in three years.  Fernandez had blasted his first postseason homerun in his 133rd postseason at bat, but it certainly came when it meant the most.  When Benitez settled down to strike Ramirez out to end the inning, Hargrove sent closer Jose Mesa out to the mound—three outs from a pennant.

Mesa jogged to the mound and immediately set the tone for the inning by striking out Hoiles to lead off the frame.  Johnson then turned to his bench and backup catcher Lenny Webster, who was hoping to make up for his defensive blunders in Games Three and Four.

Webster’s redemption was not to be, however, as Mesa got him to hit a slow tapper back to the mound.  “Joe Table” gobbled the ball up and fired it over to Thome for the second out.

Now only an out away from the World Series, Anderson delayed the Indians celebration by lining a single through the right side between Fernandez and Thome.  Robbie Alomar then strode to the plate, hoping to continue the Orioles rally.

Alomar and Mesa locked horns in a classic battle and eventually worked the count full.  With Anderson running on the pitch, any ball hit into the gap would certainly score the tying run.

Mesa rocked and fired a pitch toward the outside corner.  The ball inched closer and closer to the right handed batter’s box and Alomar let it go, assuming it was ball four.  Home plate umpire Mike Reilly screamed out ‘STRIKE THREE’ and Mesa dropped to the ground in celebration.

Robbie’s jaw nearly hit the ground as he held out his hands, feeling helpless at the umpire’s poor judgment.  His brother Sandy, meanwhile, had sprinted out to the mound and dog-piled on his longtime teammate.  The rest of his teammates were soon to follow, as the Cleveland Indians were once again American League Champions.

Baltimore’s fans stood in stunned silence as the Indians celebrated on their field.  All season long they were the best team in the American League.  All season long the Indians had struggled to meet expectations.  All season long the bad taste of losing in the 1996 ALCS had lingered.  The bad taste would have to linger even longer.

“It was very disappointing,” Game Five hero Jimmy Key said in the Maske article.  “I thought we had the best team, but we got beat.  The best team doesn’t always win in baseball.  Every year is different.”

“It’s extremely disappointing,” Hoiles agreed.  “It’s going to be tough watching those two teams on television, knowing that maybe we should have been there.  It was a bizarre series, really.”

“It’s sad to end that way,” (Roberto) Alomar said.  “It should have ended on a strike, not a ball.  It won’t be easy to forget.  I’ve been [to the World Series] twice, and I wanted to be there a third time.”

“You’re always disappointed when you don’t prevail,” Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos said in a Peter Schmuck article from the Baltimore Sun.  “We’re disappointed.  Everyone is disappointed.  There are 50,000 people here who are disappointed.”

“We were the best team in the American League, just like we were the best team in ’69 when the Mets beat us,” Johnson said.  “But they played us tough.  It was a real close series, and we wish them the best.”

At the time, it seemed that the Indians did not need any well wishes.  The team was on a magical run like the city had not seen in decades and it seemed that fate and destiny had a lot to do with it.

“I don’t believe in destiny,” Fernandez said in the Curry article.  “I believe that the Lord arbitrated it this way.  He wanted me to play for some reason and I did.”

Hargrove tended to agree.  “You don’t win this many one-run games because of fate or luck,” he said in an article by the Associated Press, “but because you mind your Ps and Qs and you’ve got talent.”

Lost in the hoopla and destiny talk was the gutsy game that Nagy had turned in for his team.  The veteran was clearly the second best of the two starters, but pitched well enough and made big pitches when he needed to.

“Charlie wasn’t as pretty or dominating as Mussina,” Hargrove said in the Curry article, “but he was very effective and worked out of trouble in the first three or four innings and then again in the seventh.”

“We just persevered and toughed it out,” Nagy agreed.

“Charles gave us a chance and we managed to score a run,” Sandy Alomar concluded.  “Right now, we beat the best team in baseball.  Right now, we’re playing with destiny.”

Whatever the reason, the Indians gutted out a win and were headed to the franchise’s fourth World Series.  Fernandez played a game in which he was scheduled to sit and became the hero with his eleventh inning solo homerun.  It was one of the premier moments in Indians history, but it was a bit overshadowed in the series as Grissom was awarded the ALCS MVP Award for his series-turning blast in Game Two.

The irony of the whole situation was not lost on Roberts, who could have been sour that he did not play.  Roberts, however, could not wipe the giant smile off of his face, putting the team ahead of himself as the 1997 Cleveland Indians all seemed to do.

“This,” Roberts said in the Curry article, “is the greatest feeling I’ve ever had.”

It was a great feeling for a lot of Indians as the majority of the club, including Roberts, was about to make their first World Series appearance against the National League Champion Florida Marlins.  Only 10 players remained from the 1995 World Series team, but that was ok in the eyes of General Manager John Hart.

“It may not be a better club, but it has far fewer distractions,” Hart said to the Associated Press.

Gone were Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton.  So were Eddie Murray, Carlos Baerga and Dennis Martinez.  Gone were the swagger and the amazing can’t-lose attitudes.

And none of it mattered.  The Indians had just ousted the best team in the American League in the wildest series that baseball had ever seen.

“You win a game on a missed suicide squeeze bunt,” Hamilton recalls.  “You have Marquis Grissom being fed intravenously in Game Two of the ALCS when it looks like you’re going down 2-0 and it would be tough to recover.  Then, they take the needle out of his arm and he recovers and hits a homerun off of Armando Benitez that saves that series in my mind and really turns the tables on Baltimore… It was the most intense, unpredictable, zaniest baseball that I’ve ever been a part of.”

“Crazy things have happened,” Mesa (who was one of the ’95 holdovers) said in the Curry article.  “Whatever happens and whatever we go through, we know we’re going to win the World Series.”


Photo: Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun

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