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 city of Cleveland has long been a football town, but when Browns owner Art Modell moved his beloved franchise to Baltimore in 1995, the town turned to baseball as its #1 love.

The Indians were the talk of the town—the golden children now that the Browns were long gone.  In 1997, they were competing in their second World Series in three years and had come back from sunny Miami tied at 1-1 with the Florida Marlins.

Normally, an October 21st game that was played while the wind-chill was 23° would be reserved for the Cleveland Browns, but that was exactly what the Indians and Mother Nature brought to Jacobs Field for Game Three of the ’97 Fall Classic.

The game time temperature didn’t seem so daunting.  The thermometer read 49° when Charles Nagy delivered the first pitch, but there was a 25 MPH wind that made The Jake almost unbearable.

“You just try and keep your hands warm, so you can get a grip on the ball,” Nagy said in a Buster Olney article from the New York Times.  “Other than that, you just find a warm place on the bench and try and get back to the dugout as fast as you can.”

“I’m not going to make a big deal about that,” Florida Manager Jim Leyland said.  “It’s cold—so what?  They know it’s cold, I know it’s cold, the other dugout knows it’s cold.  It’s no big deal; it’s part of the game this time of year.”

“Yeah, it will be cold,” said Marlins second baseman Craig Counsell.  “But, hey—it’s the World Series.”

The Indians, playing in their home ballpark and having played through late April evenings on Lake Erie felt that the advantage was theirs.

“I don’t know if a fish can swim in snow,” reliever Mike Jackson joked in an article by Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinal.

Unfortunately for Jackson and the Indians, the Fish seemed completely up to the task of trying, as the Marlin offense got off to a quick start against Nagy.

Charlie retired Devon White and Edgar Renteria easily to start the ballgame, using only four pitches to get two groundouts.  Gary Sheffield then stepped in and crushed a flat 2-1 sinker from Nagy half way up the bleachers in left field.  The Marlins had a 1-0 advantage as the Indians came to bat in the bottom of the first.

Lefthander Al Leiter was on the mound for Florida—a former member of the Toronto Blue Jays World Series teams.  Leiter was making his first World Series start, as he only came out of the bullpen for the Blue Jays in the ’93 Fall Classic.  The Indians greeted him more rudely than the Marlins had greeted Nagy.

Bip Roberts led off the ballgame for the Indians by tapping a slow roller just to Leiter’s right.  The southpaw was unable to make a play on the routine grounder and the speedy Roberts reached first safely on the error.

Omar Vizquel followed by grounding out to second base, but it was a productive out as Roberts was able to advance to second.  After a Manny Ramirez groundout, David Justice was able to draw a two out walk, putting runners at first and second.  Matt Williams then came through, dropping a single into centerfield that scored Roberts, tied the game at 1-1 and moved Justice to third.  Sandy Alomar then gave the Tribe a 2-1 lead when he blooped a single into left, scoring Justice.  Leiter then struck out Jim Thome to end the frame and both pitchers settled down and worked a scoreless second inning.  Nagy then lost control in the third.

With the wind whipping around Jacobs Field, Nagy did not have a great feel on the baseball.  He allowed a single to Charles Johnson to lead off the inning, but then struck out Counsell for the first out.  Nagy’s fingers then turned numb from the cold and Charlie walked White and Renteria to load the bases.  Sheffield then dug in and also watched four wide ones go past, as Nagy had walked in the tying run making the score 2-2.  After that, Bobby Bonilla, showing the patience of a two year old, swung at the second pitch of the at bat and grounded into an inning ending double play.

Nagy had become just the seventh pitcher in World Series history to walk three consecutive batters.  After the Tribe was set down scoreless in the third and Nagy allowed the Marlins to take a 3-2 lead in the fourth (courtesy of a Darren Daulton homerun), Leiter did his best Nagy impression in the bottom of the fourth.

Leiter walked Alomar to lead off the inning and then followed it with another walk to Thome.  Tony Fernandez swung at a 2-0 pitch and flew out, but then Leiter walked Marquis Grissom to load the bases.  Roberts then struck out swinging for the second out, bringing up Vizquel.

Omar worked the count full, and as all three runners took off on the pitch, Leiter missed with ball four to walk in the tying run.  Just as Nagy became the seventh man to walk three consecutive batters, Leiter had just become the seventh man to walk four batters in an inning.  The Indians had scored a run without the benefit of a base hit.  The Tribe was not finished, however, and things then started to turn ugly for Florida.

Ramirez followed the walk-fest by swinging at the first pitch and dribbled a slow grounder toward third.  Bonilla charged hard and had no play on Ramirez but uncorked a wild throw anyways.  The ball skipped past Daulton at first and allowed Thome and Grissom to score as Vizquel scampered to third.  The Indians now led 5-3 on Florida’s second error and unearned run of the game.

The Tribe tacked on a couple more runs in the fifth, when Sandy Alomar reached on a one out, infield single.  Thome followed by blasting a 2-0 Leiter fastball into the seats in right field, making the score 7-3 Tribe.

Florida answered right back in the sixth, as Nagy walked Daulton between two strikeouts of Bonilla and Moises AlouJim Eisenreich, the Marlins new designated hitter, then smoked a line drive over the right field wall to cut the Tribe lead to 7-5.  After the inning was over, Nagy was removed from the ballgame in favor of relief pitcher Brian Anderson.

In the other dugout, Leyland had also taken the ball from Leiter and handed it over to Felix Heredia.  The 21 year old Dominican product was just what the doctor ordered for Florida, as the lefty dominated the Tribe batters in his two innings of work using pinpoint control and the ability to run a fastball in on the hands of a hitter.  When his night was over, Heredia had worked 2.1 scoreless innings in a game where no one else could seem to get anyone out.

“You’ve got to shut ’em down any way you can,” Florida Pitching Coach Larry Rothschild said in a Larry Lebowitz article from the Sun Sentinel.  “And he did it.  The game changed after that.”

The change that occurred was not for the betterment of the Indians.  The Tribe bats had stopped scoring, but Florida’s kept going.  Anderson allowed a Counsell single to lead off the seventh, then got White to ground out in a fielder’s choice that moved Counsell to second.  Jackson relieved, but was not the dominating Mike Jackson that Tribe fans had grown accustomed to seeing.

Jackson allowed Renteria to single up the middle on the first pitch he threw and drive in Counsell to cut the Tribe lead to one.  Sheffield followed with another big hit, as he hit a line drive double over Grissom’s head in center to bring Renteria all the way around to tie the game at 7-7 in the seventh.

The Marlins went right back to work in the eighth.  Paul Assenmacher took the mound for the Tribe and struck pinch hitter Kurt Abbott out to lead off the inning.  He then allowed singles to Johnson, Counsell and White to load the bases and make the 44,880 fans’ hearts’ race.  He then got Renteria to pop out and another reliever, Eric Plunk, was brought in and retired Sheffield.  The crowd went wild as Plunk strolled back to the dugout, but the love for Plunk was pretty much over for the evening.

The Indians threatened to score in the bottom of the eighth as Grissom reached second base but was stranded after singling to start the inning.  The single stretched Grissom’s World Series hit streak to 15 games; second longest in history and two games behind the record.

With the Indians failing to score, Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove stuck with Plunk instead of handing the ball over to his closer, Jose Mesa.  The decision would turn out to be a disastrous one as Plunk and the Tribe defense completely imploded.

Plunk walked Bonilla to lead off the inning then allowed a single to center from Daulton.  As Bonilla tried to race from first to third, Grissom fired the ball in from center to try and gun down the slow-footed veteran.  The ball skipped past Williams at third and Bonilla trotted home to give Florida an 8-7 advantage.  Daulton was awarded third base as the ball bounced into the Indians dugout and things just got uglier from there.

Plunk struck out Alou for the first out and then intentionally walked pinch hitter Cliff Floyd.  With Johnson at the plate, Plunk spun to try and pick Floyd off at first, but Thome could not handle the throw as it bounced out of his glove.  The ball caromed away from Thome far enough to let Dalton score from third on the E-3.  Plunk then allowed Johnson to single as Floyd motored all the way to third.

Hargrove pulled Plunk from the game as a chorus of boos rained down on the unpopular right hander.  Alvin Morman was summoned and did not fare much better than Plunk.

Morman had Counsell down in the count 1-2 before he hit a potential inning-ending double play ball to Fernandez at second.  Fernandez whiffed on the grounder and the ball scooted past him for the Indians World Series record-tying third error of the inning.  Floyd scored easily as Johnson and Counsell ended up safe at first and second with still only one out.

Morman struck White out for the second out of the inning but then walked Renteria to load the bases.  Mesa was called from the bullpen to stop the bleeding, but Jose was also unable to end this nightmare.

Sheffield scooted a Mesa pitch through the right side and into the outfield for a hit as Johnson and Counsell both came around to score unearned runs.  A wild pitch followed, moving Renteria and Sheffield into scoring position, and then a Bonilla single scored them both to put a cap on the Indians historic failure.

When Dalton lined out to end the inning, the Marlins had already batted around.  They sent 11 men to the plate, walked three times, recorded four singles and were aided by three Indian errors and a wild pitch.  The seven runs in the ninth tied a Series record that had stood alone for over 60 years.  The score was now 14-7 heading into the bottom of the ninth.

“It was just poor play,” Hargrove said in a Murray Chass article from the Los Angeles Times.  “Those things happen.  They’re not pretty.”

The Indians, now down by a touchdown and extra point, came out to face Marlins closer Robb Nen in the ninth.  By the time the inning was over, Nen had put the scare of a lifetime into Leyland.

Justice started the Tribe rally by drawing a walk and then Nen followed by striking out Williams.  Brian Giles came in to pinch hit for Alomar and Nen continued the theme of the night by walking Giles on a full count pitch.

Thome loaded the bases by working the count full again, then stroking a single into right field. Fernandez followed by lifting a sacrifice fly into left to score Justice and cut the score to 14-8.  The Indians, however, were down to their last out.

As was the Tribe’s theme of the postseason—they did not give up easily.  Grissom scooted a single past Renteria at short to score Giles and move Thome to second.  Roberts then smacked a double into the gap that scored both Thome and Grissom and suddenly the tying run was on deck.

The Tribe rally ended, however, when Nen got Vizquel to ground out to Counsell and make the final score 14-11.  The Tribe ended up a field goal short and were only on the short end because of their ugly play all game.

“Tonight, both teams out-uglied each other,” Hargrove said in the Chass article.  “It was about as ugly a game as you’ll see.  The game was such an ugly game it won’t be hard to let it go.  Tomorrow you get a chance to redeem yourself.”

Leyland, whose team was slightly less ugly for the evening, did not blame the weather for both team’s poor performances.

“I don’t think the cold affected anybody,” he said.  “The only thing is, if you have a pitcher who’s going deep in the count and walking people, you don’t want to be out there standing around. But I don’t think that had anything to do with the cold weather.”

The two teams hoped he was right.  A cold front was scheduled to whip through Cleveland the next day and Game Three was about to seem tropical compared to Game Four.

The Tribe, now trailing 2-1 in the series would turn their hopes over to their prized rookie Jaret Wright to even the series back up.  The Marlins also gave the ball to a rookie, as Tony Saunders was set to battle the Indians, the snow, and the coldest temperatures in World Series history.

Photo: Getty Images


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