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Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians

Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians

| On 23, Oct 2014

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.


Through four games, the 1997 World Series could not have been more opposite than the American League Championship Series that the Indians had just completed.

During the ALCS, the Indians managed to squeak by with four wins over the heavily favored Orioles despite having only 18 runs cross the plate in six games.  They pitched well in the clutch, limiting any damage that Baltimore could have done all series as well as playing solid defense.  The two teams combined for a hefty but not unreasonable 10 errors over the six ballgames.

The Fall Classic, however, was a different story.  The Tribe had scored a mind blowing 31 runs and had given up 25.  Both pitching staffs imploded when they got to the cold air of Cleveland and the defenses had played sloppy and poorly.  The Marlins and Indians had combined for an astonishing nine errors through the first four games. 

“This is crazy,” Tribe shortstop Omar Vizquel said in a Sun Sentinel article from Randall Mell.  “I can’t really believe this is the World Series.  There are so many home runs and so much hitting.  The World Series is supposed to be a matchup of pitchers, but it’s not working out that way.”

The nation was taking notice of the two team’s lackluster play.  Television ratings were the lowest for a Game Four since the “Earthquake Series” in 1989 and the series was on track to be the least watched since television records began in 1959.  National television and radio pundits were critical of the two teams involved.  The Sun Sentinal called it “this horrible, poorly played, how-did-baseball-allow-these-guys-to-get-here series”.  The managers of the two teams, Florida Manager Jim Leyland in particular, took great offense to the media’s criticisms.

“It’s making me puke,” Leyland said in a Ronald Blum article by the Associated Press.  “I’m sick and tired of hearing about New York and Atlanta and Baltimore.”

Tribe skipper Mike Hargrove agreed.  “They had the same chance that we did.  We won it.”

Leyland continued to boil with rage at Commissioner Bud Selig’s comments that the slow pace of the games was part of the reasons for the ratings decline.  NBC broadcaster Bob Costas had another theory.

“If you look at where baseball was in 1993, not 1963, with attendance and relative television ratings,” Costas said in an article by Paul Sullivan from the Chicago Tribune, “I think a lot of this is connected to what happened with the strike.  Baseball still is strong in most places regionally, but it’s having problems nationally.”

Leyland disagreed.  “Aren’t our fans entitled?  67,000 fans, the second-largest since the White Sox played in ’59?  I’m sick of hearing the weak comments about the pitchers and everybody crying because Atlanta, Baltimore and New York aren’t here.  We beat them.  And the Indians beat everybody they had to beat.

“I get tired of having to apologize because the Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians are in the World Series.  It’s great for baseball…I don’t want to hear about everything that’s not perfect about us being in the Series.  We’ve got a hell of a lot more problems in baseball than worrying about (TV ratings)…It hurts me to be honest with you, to think that the Cleveland Indians and Florida Marlins worked as hard as we did to represent baseball—doesn’t it seem like we’re getting cheap shots consistently, almost having to apologize for being here?”

Perhaps the Tribe and Fish had been taking some cheap shots, but the sloppy play certainly justified at least some of the criticism.  Yes, the Marlins had defeated the darling Braves and the Tribe took care of the superpower Yankees and flavor-of-the-month Orioles, but both teams had yet to play a game worthy to stand up to other classic World Series teams.

“We have been a little sloppy,” Leyland said of the two teams to the Associated Press.  “I think the (weather) conditions have a little something to do with that.”

The weather was going to be a factor once again in Game Five, but certainly not to the extent that it was in Games Three and Four (the snowiest and coldest in World Series history).  The temperature at game time was a chilly but much warmer 46° as the two teams readied to battle to try and take a 3-2 edge in the Fall Classic.

The pitching matchup was a rematch of Game One, as veteran Orel Hershiser was on the bump for the Tribe and was facing rookie pitcher Livan Hernandez.  The age differential between the 39 year, one month and seven days Hershiser and the 22 year, eight months and two days Hernandez was the largest in World Series history.  Despite this, it was Hernandez who had gotten the better of Hershiser five days earlier in Florida as the Marlins won 7-4 on the strength of back-to-back homeruns by Moises Alou and Charles Johnson.  Cleveland needed a big rebound from Orel if they were to avoid having two must-win games down in Miami.

It was a slightly different lineup that Hershiser would be facing for Game Five, as Leyland decided to juggle his lineup by putting “Mr. Marlin” Jeff Conine at first base and moving regular first sacker Darren Daulton to designated hitter.  Daulton had struggled mightily defensively in Game Four by allowing two poor throws scoot past him that blew the game open for the Indians.

Hershiser started the game by controlling the new lineup, allowing two first inning singles but being aided by an inning ending double play off the bat of Bobby Bonilla.  Hernandez also worked out of an Indian threat in the bottom half, as Bip Roberts led off the game with a walk and was bunted to second, but was stranded after Manny Ramirez and David Justice recorded back to back groundouts to end the inning.  After the scoreless first, both teams broke through in the second.

Dalton led off the inning by smacking a ground-rule double and came around to score when Johnson blooped a two out single into right for a 1-0 Marlins lead.  A walk to Craig Counsell followed and then Devon White smoked a 1-1 pitch from Hershiser into the right-centerfield gap.

Johnson scored easily, putting the Fish up 2-0 and Johnson was waved around third to try and give Florida a third run.  Ramirez gobbled the ball up and fired it Roberts who made a perfect relay throw to Sandy Alomar at the plate.  Johnson was tagged out as Alomar hung on to the throw and the inning was over on the Tribe’s defensive gem.  Trailing 2-0, the Tribe got one back in the bottom of the second.

With one out in the inning, Jim Thome lifted a fly ball to right, that took a crazy bounce off the wall and allowed Thome to hustle into third for a rare triple.  Alomar followed by driving in the Tribe’s first run with a single and making the score 2-1.  The Indians ended up loading the bases after the Alomar RBI, but all runners were stranded when Vizquel flew out to end the inning.  After Hershiser worked a 1-2-3 third, the Tribe offense went back to work in the bottom half.

After getting two quick outs off the bats of Ramirez and Justice, Hernandez lost control.  He walked Matt Williams on five pitches then uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Williams to go to second.  He followed by walking Thome on four pitches and fell behind 1-0 to Alomar.

When a pitcher is struggling like Hernandez was, conventional baseball wisdom says to lay off a pitch or two and make the pitcher throw a strike.  After Hernandez had thrown nine out of 10 pitches out of the zone, Alomar was in this position.  Sandy, perhaps the hottest hitter on the planet at the time, threw conventional wisdom out the window and swung hard on a grooved fastball.  Sandy blasted the pitch deep over the left field wall for a three-run homer and put the Tribe ahead 4-2.

Jacobs Field was rocking and it seemed to fire up Hershiser.  The Bulldog buckled in and set down the Marlins in order in the fourth and fifth.  With the score still 4-2 in the top of the sixth, Orel struck out Edgar Renteria to lead off the inning and retire his 10th batter in a row.  It was, however, the end of all things good for Hershiser as the veteran seemed to tire quickly and the Marlins took full advantage.

Gary Sheffield started the rally with a groundball single into left and was followed by a Bonilla walk.  Hershiser then got Daulton to line out for the second out and brought Alou to the plate for the biggest at bat and turning point of the ballgame.

Alou got ahead in the count 2-1 before lifting off and blasting a hanging Hershiser slider deep into the left field bleachers for a three-run homerun.  Jacobs Field fell silent as he rounded the bases and when he touched home plate the Marlins now held a 5-4 lead.

Singles by Conine and Johnson followed and Hershiser was pulled from the ballgame.  The wheels had fallen off so quickly for Orel that it was hard to comprehend how the Indians lead had evaporated in the blink of an eye.

After Hargrove replaced Hershiser with lefty Alvin Morman, things did not get much better for the Tribe.  Morman walked the only batter he faced to load the bases and Hargrove turned the ball over to righty Eric Plunk to face White.  White worked the count full on Plunk before the pitcher fired in ball four to walk in the Marlins sixth run of the game.  Plunk then struck out Renteria and was rained on with a chorus of boos as he walked off the mound.

Things continued to slide downhill on the Indians after that.  Hernandez had pitched himself into a groove and was dominating the Tribe hitters in the middle innings.  The Marlin hitters, meanwhile, were taking it to the Cleveland bullpen.

Jeff Juden replaced Plunk and worked a 1-2-3 seventh but then allowed an RBI single to Johnson in the eighth.  Jose Mesa came in to work the ninth and was banged around for another run as Alou again came through in the clutch to make the score 8-4.  The Tribe had one more chance in the ninth and Hernandez was out there looking for the complete game victory.

Roberts led off the inning by reaching on an error and was chased to third when Vizquel lined a single into center.  With the tying run on deck and nobody out, Leyland gave the ball over to his closer Robb Nen to slam the door on the Tribe.

Nen struck out the struggling Ramirez for the first out and then allowed Vizquel to swipe second base on a defensive indifference call.  Justice then grounded a single back up the middle that scored both Roberts and Vizquel and made the score 8-6.

Williams followed with a potential double play ball, but after Justice was retired at second, Counsell made a wild throw to first that skipped past Conine for the Marlins second error of the inning.  The E-4 allowed Williams to move into second.

Thome batted next and kept the inning and rally alive as he lined a single past Renteria that scored Williams and put the tying run on base.  The man of the hour, Alomar and his four RBI’s, were unable to come through in the clutch again, however, as Nen forced Sandy into a deep flyout to right that ended the game.

The Marlins now owned a 3-2 lead in the best of seven series and were one victory away from their first World Championship.

“Yes, there’s a one-game advantage,” Leyland, whose Pittsburgh teams had blown playoff leads in the past, said in a Paul Sullivan article from the Chicago Tribune.  “But the postseason is unlike the regular season.  They’re only one game behind.  If they win a game, everything is back even.  The Cleveland Indians are very capable of making that up.”

They were going to have to if they wanted to be the team of destiny that they seemed to be all October long.  The Indians had their backs firmly against the wall and were one loss away from being an “also-ran”.  Just as they had done all postseason long, however, the Indians kept their cool and their approach the same.

“We were down to the Yankees,” Hershiser said in an article from Sun Sentinel writer Randall Mell.  “This is a never-say-die team.  There’s a lot of character in this clubhouse.  This is a strong team mentally with a lot of physical talent.  I don’t expect us to lay down and die.”

“We didn’t get the big hits that they did,” Grissom said in the Sullivan article.  “They came here (to Cleveland) and beat us twice.  I don’t see any reason we can’t go down there and win two.”

“In ’95, having to go to Atlanta down 3-2, we didn’t know what to expect,” Thome said.  “We’re in the same situation now…We watched the Braves celebrate then and it was disheartening to see them win the world championship.”

As the teams headed back to Florida for Game Six, media and fans everywhere were hoping that the teams had left all of the sloppy baseball up in Cleveland with the sloppy weather.  The Indians left town with a team ERA of 6.14 and the Marlins with one of 6.75.  After Florida’s two errors in the ninth inning, the teams had now made a combined 11 miscues in the series.

Scheduled to take the mound for the Fish in Game Six was Kevin Brown—the ace pitcher who had been so dominant all season long, but got roughed up in his Game Two start against the Tribe.  Countering for the Indians was Chad Ogea, the lucky S.O.B. with underwhelming stats that had somehow gotten the best of Brown and the Marlins in that same game.

Ogea was out to prove that his Game Two performance was far more than luck.  As it would turn out, his encore performance was one for the ages and one that would make him an Indian folk-hero for the rest of his life.


Photo:  Al Behrman/Associated Press

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