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.


Claire Smith of the New York Times called it “The Series No One Wanted”.

Bernie Lincicome of the Chicago Tribune said it’s “the worst winner from the American League meets the non-winner from the National League…a Series made in gimmick heaven.”

There were no New York Yankees.  No Atlanta Braves.  No Baltimore Orioles.

Missing was Derek Jeter.  And Greg Maddux.  And Barry Bonds.  And Ken Griffey.  And Cal Ripken.

It was just the pitching-deprived, Belle/Lofton-less, 86-win Cleveland Indians and “the best team free agency could buy” Florida Marlins that were facing off in the 1997 World Series.  It was Major League Baseball’s nightmare as two mid-market teams that few people outside of the states of Ohio and Florida cared about were taking their biggest stage.  Just three years removed from a strike that cancelled the ’94 Fall Classic, baseball could not afford a World Series that made people yawn.

As they say, however, “it is what it is” and the Indians and Marlins were set to take aim at each other.  The series would turn into a poorly played but extremely exciting classic that featured just about every twist and turn imaginable.

After the 1995 season, the four year old Florida franchise went on a classic free agent spending spree to try and lure their disinterested fans to watch their baseball team play.  In the offseason prior to 1996, the Marlins signed big stars Al Leiter, Kevin Brown and Devon White to huge contracts and inked Cuban defector Livan Hernandez as well.  Before ’97, they hit the free agent jackpot again by signing Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou and Alex Fernandez.  They then traded seemingly their entire farm system as well as starter Cliff Floyd for Dustin Hermanson, Joe Orsulak, Darren Daulton, Craig Counsell and Matt Treanor.  It was clear that Florida was all-in on trying to win—and win fast—regardless of the financial irresponsibility that came along with it.

Luckily for the Marlins, their plan worked as they were set to host their first World Series game in the franchise’s short history.  The Marlins had won the National League Wild Card, finishing in second place in the National League East, nine games behind Atlanta with a 92-70 record.  They swept through the National League Division Series as they defeated the San Francisco Giants in three games.  They then shocked the Braves in the NLCS, winning a back-and-forth series in six games to become the first Wild Card team to reach the Fall Classic.

After the Marlins took care of the Braves and the Indians eliminated the heavily-favored Orioles, the “Series That No One Wanted” got started down in sunny Miami when the Marlins received home field advantage.  Prior to the All-Star Game deciding home field advantage in 2003, the National League team would always receive the advantage in odd-numbered years.

67,245 fans packed into Pro Player Stadium for Game One on October 18 as Hernandez, the 22-year old rookie, was set to take on the Indians veteran starter Orel Hershiser.  Hernandez was making his first World Series start in his career while Hershiser held a record of 3-1 with a 1.69 ERA in four World Series games.

“Experience is important because it relieves the surprise, the emotions, the newness of the situation,” said Hershiser in a Mike DiGiovana article from the Los Angeles Times.  “You learn to deal with the hype, to not let your adrenaline kick in too soon.  You have to discipline yourself to stay calm.”

“I don’t know about Orel, but I know Livan just beat Greg Maddux,” Florida Manager Jim Leyland said.  “He’s a real bright kid, he knows what he has to do, and he’s matured a lot.  I have a lot of confidence in him.”

It was a wet and humid 84 degrees in south Florida when Hernandez took the mound and the Indians jumped on the youngster early.

Leadoff hitter Bip Roberts started the series off with a bang as he blasted Hernandez’s third pitch down the right field line for a base hit.  By the time that Gary Sheffield could sprint to the ball and fire a strong throw into the infield, Roberts was standing at second base with a leadoff double.

Being in a National League ballpark perhaps wore off on Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove, as he played National League-style ball by bunting with Omar Vizquel and moving Roberts to third base.  The sacrifice was followed by a walk of Manny Ramirez and then a David Justice line drive single right back up the middle to drive in Roberts and the series’ first run.  Hernandez then settled down and got Matt Williams to pop out and then Jim Thome to ground out, but the Tribe had an early 1-0 lead as Hershiser strolled to the mound.

The Bulldog started out strong, allowing only a walk in the first inning and setting down the Marlins 1-2-3 in the second.  Hernandez, meanwhile, had found his groove as he struck out the Indians in order in the top of the second and worked out of a third inning jam that Roberts started with his second leadoff double of the game.  The Marlins then got even in the bottom half.

Second baseman Craig Counsell led off the inning with a double down the right field line and was bunted to third by Hernandez.  White followed with a walk and then Counsell scored on a groundout to Thome at first by shortstop Edgar Renteria.  The score was tied at 1-1—and then homerun derby started.

After Hernandez retired the Tribe scoreless in the top of the fourth, Hershiser opened the bottom of the inning by walking Bonilla.  Bobby-Bo then moved to second on a single by Darren Daulton, which brought Moises Alou to the plate.

Hershiser got ahead of Alou 0-2 before throwing him an inside changeup.  Alou turned and crushed a long line drive down the line in left field, heading toward the stands.  Hershiser tried to use his body language to push the ball foul, but it clanked off of the left field pole for a three-run homerun and a 4-1 Florida lead.  Pro Player Stadium erupted as Alou rounded the bases and kept up his knack for timely hitting.

Alou had hit a game winning single in the bottom of the ninth against San Francisco in the Division Series and then hit a three-run double off of Greg Maddux in the NLCS.  None were bigger, however, than giving your club momentum and a three run lead in the Game One of the World Series.

Perhaps somewhat shaken by the noise created from the largest World Series crowd in 34 years, Hershiser fell behind Charles Johnson 2-1.  He then laid a fastball over the plate and Johnson crushed the ball deep down the left field line.  This time, there was no doubt that the ball would stay fair, and Johnson followed the path that Alou had just taken after his 438 foot blast landed in the upper deck.  The Marlins had just become the first team to hit back-to-back homeruns in the World Series since Boston’s Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman did so in Game Seven of the ’86 Fall Classic.

Now trailing 5-1, the Tribe offense had work to do.  Hernandez got Roberts and Vizquel to ground out to start the top of the fifth, but was not so fortunate with Ramirez.  Manny lifted Hernandez’s 1-1 pitch high, deep and over the left field wall for a solo homerun and brought the Tribe back to within three runs.  Needing a bounce-back inning, Hershiser went back out for the fifth and continued to struggle.

Orel started the inning by getting Renteria to ground out, but then walked Sheffield to start the rally.  Bonilla singled through the right side to put runners at the corners, then Jeff Conine lined a single back up the middle to score Sheffield and make the score 6-2.  Not being able to fall further behind, Hargrove pulled his starter and turned the ball over to reliever Jeff Juden to face Alou.

Juden forced a groundball from Alou that Vizquel was able to flip to Roberts for the second out of the inning.  Robert’s relay throw, however, was late and Alou was safe at first as Bonilla scampered to third.  With two down and runners at the corners, Juden let go a wild pitch as Bonilla chugged home and made the score 7-2.  The book on Hershiser had now officially closed and the seven runs that he allowed tied a World Series record.

The Indians got another run back in the top of the sixth, as Jim Thome lifted an opposite field homerun into the left field seats.  The Indians second homer of the game made the score 7-3.  Back-to-back singles by Sandy Alomar and Marquis Grissom followed with the pitchers spot coming to the plate and Hargrove pinch hit Jeff Branson in place of Juden.  Branson struck out looking at a 1-2 pitch and with Roberts and his two doubles coming to the plate; Leyland pulled his starter from the game.

Former Indian Dennis Cook was brought in and immediately retired Roberts to end the threat.  Cook and Eric Plunk exchanged scoreless seventh innings before the Indians finished the scoring for the night in the eighth.  Marlin reliever Jay Powell walked Grissom with one out and pinch hitter Brian Giles smoked a double into the right-centerfield gap.  Grissom scored on the play and moved the score to 7-4.  The score would end up being the final, as closer Robb Nen worked a scoreless ninth inning, despite allowing back-to-back singles to Justice and Williams.  In the inning, Nen’s blazing fastball touched 102 MPH on the radar gun.

As Pro Player Stadium celebrated their Game One victory, the Indians found themselves in familiar territory.  Dating back to the 1995 ALCS against Seattle, the Tribe had lost Game One of each of its last six playoff series’.

“We don’t try to do this,” Hargrove said in a Jason Reid article from the Los Angeles Times.  “But there’s no reason in panicking over something that you can’t control, because it’s already over with.  It doesn’t work to sit and stew over Game One when you’ve got Game Two facing you.  You have to move on.”

For Florida, they were sitting on a 1-0 series lead and had gotten a solid performance from their young pitcher.  Hernandez became the first rookie starter to win a World Series opener since Philadelphia’s Bob Walk did it in 1980.

“When I was a child,” Hernandez said in a Ben Walker article from the Associated Press, “I didn’t even think of this because it was not something that was passing through my mind.”

The Marlins also got a big boost from their offense, as Alou’s and Johnson’s back-to-back jacks set the tone for the rest of the game.

“We’ve been preaching all year that it is important to win the first game of a series to get off to a good start,” Johnson said.  “We can celebrate tonight because it was a big win.  But there’s a lot of baseball left.”

“To get the first game is awesome,” Alou agreed.  “Now we need to keep playing the same way.  We are playing a team that never gave up.  They battled and kept coming back.”

Coming back had been the “Indian Way” all postseason.  They battled back from 0-1 deficits to win Game Two and the series in both of the previous two tries.  The Tribe would have to do it again—and they had their work cut out for them as Florida ace Kevin Brown was scheduled to throw Game Two against Chad Ogea—if they wanted to stay competitive and win the franchise’s first championship in 49 years.


Photo: Scott Shaw/The Plain Dealer

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