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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 25, 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.


Sometimes in sports unexpected things happen.

Moments occur that just couldn’t have been imagined; they make your jaw drop and hit the floor.  You compose yourself long enough to mutter out the words, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

Then there are other moments that aren’t really surprising at all…just incredible.

They happen over and over so often that they become routine…but still your jaw hits the ground because of how incredible the moment was.  Your jaw once again hits the floor and you compose yourself for long enough to say, “I can’t believe that Omar just did that again.”

Both of these scenarios played out perfectly for the Indians in Game Six of the 1997 World Series.

The Tribe’s backs were against the wall.  Win and live to play another day.  Lose and go home.

“We’ve certainly been in this position before,” Indians Manager Mike Hargrove said in a Sun Sentinel article by Randall Mell.  “This team has faced a lot of adversity throughout the season and in the postseason and has come out playing hard.  So I expect nothing less.”

The Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians were back in Miami, ready to play in baseball weather.  The three games in Cleveland were extremely cold, exhausting and sloppy, so the teams were ready to get back to normal weather.

“All of us love warm weather, especially playing baseball,” Marlins catcher Charles Johnson said in a Paul Sullivan article from the Chicago Tribune.  “I’m looking forward to taking BP (batting practice) in shorts and getting out of this cold weather.”

The Marlins had come to Cleveland and bullied the Indians, taking two out of three games.  They now led the series 3-2 and were only one victory shy of their first title in their franchise’s brief, five year history.

The Marlins turned the ball over to their ace, Kevin Brown to shut down the Indians and clinch the championship for Florida.  Brown had been dominant all season long, but was roughed up by the Tribe offense in Game Two, surrendering six runs in defeat.  Brown would have to match up once again against Chad Ogea, the Indians right hander who had pitched the game of his life defeating the Marlins ace just six days earlier.

What the Indians and Marlins couldn’t have expected, however, was that Ogea’s Game Two performance was just the opening act to a legendary Game Six.

The game started out normally, with Brown retiring the side scoreless in the first and Ogea setting the Marlins down in order in the bottom half.  It was the top of the second where things became unique.

Brown allowed Matt Williams to reach first on an infield single to lead off the inning, then walked Jim Thome and got Sandy Alomar to fly out.  Brown then pitched around eight-spot hitter Marquis Grissom to face Ogea and force the Tribe pitcher to swing the bat with the bases loaded.  Ogea battled Brown to a 2-2 count, then slapped at an outside pitch.

The ball sliced into right field for a line drive single.  Williams scored easily and Thome hustled all the way around from second to give Ogea a two-RBI single and give himself a 2-0 lead.  Brown kicked the dirt in frustration and Pro Player Stadium fell silent as the Marlins had just gotten burned by an American League pitcher.

Ogea, who was the first pitcher since Oakland’s Mike Moore in 1989 to drive in two runs in a World Series game, high fived first base coach Dave Nelson as the visitors’ dugout pointed out and smiled at their starting pitcher.

“I think the last time I had (a hit) was in high school,” Ogea said in a Jason Reid article from the Los Angeles Times.  “I was just trying to go up there and make contact.  It was fun.”

“All the hitters were sitting around the dugout laughing at me,” added Ogea in a Jack Curry article from the New York Times.  “When I got back, Brian Giles told me I looked really locked in.”

Bip Roberts followed Ogea’s big hit by grounding into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.  Ogea followed up his offense by throwing up another zero in the bottom of the second, but was aided by a brilliant catch that Grissom made on a Jeff Conine fly ball into centerfield.  The Indian hitters then went back to work in the third.

Omar Vizquel led off the frame by scooting a double into right field to kick-start the Indian rally.  Omar then stole third base and was brought home when Manny Ramirez lifted a fly ball deep enough for a sacrifice fly and made the score 3-0 in favor of Cleveland.  The three runs seemed to be plenty for the cruising Ogea.

Chad set down the Marlins scoreless in the third and then in order in the fourth.  Brown matched him with a 1-2-3 top of the fourth, but then had to face his nemesis at the plate to lead off the fifth.

Ogea slapped the first pitch that he saw in the fifth down the right field line, past Conine and into foul territory.  The Tribe pitcher lowered his shoulder and chugged past first and into second safely with a stand up double—his second base hit of the game.

As the Tribe dugout again clapped in appreciation, Tribe Hitting Coach Charlie Manuel may have summed up the situation perfectly.

“Sometimes luck helps,” the future Indians manager joked in the Curry article.

Ogea, who had now become the first pitcher to get two hits in a World Series game since Toronto’s David Cone in 1992, gave credit to Indians bench player Kevin Seitzer for helping him with his approach.

Seitzer told Ogea to “stay back” on pitches and start his swing as Brown rocked into his windup.  Ogea credited Brown’s velocity also, saying that all he needed to do was react to fastballs and not worry about any off-speed or breaking pitches.  Of the eight pitches that Ogea saw that evening, all eight were fastballs.  The rest of the Indians lineup then made sure that Ogea’s second hit did not go to waste.

Roberts followed Ogea with a single of his own, moving the tired pitcher to third.  Vizquel then lifted a fly ball to center, but it was not deep enough to bring the slow footed Ogea home.  Ramirez then followed suit with Vizquel, but Manny’s ball was plenty deep enough to score Ogea and make the score 4-0 Indians.  When Roberts got caught stealing second, it gave Ogea only enough time to get a quick drink of water before having to make his way back out to the mound.

“I got kind of gassed running the bases,” Ogea said.  “When you don’t usually run the bases, it’s absolutely different for you.”  It indeed seemed to make a slight difference, as Ogea allowed a run the following inning for the first time all game.

Moises Alou and Charles Johnson started the inning with back-to-back singles before Craig Counsell grounded into a fielder’s choice.  Darren Daulton then pinch hit for Brown and came through with a sacrifice fly that scored Alou and cut the Indians lead to 4-1.

With Brown now out of the ballgame, relief pitcher Felix Heredia locked up the Tribe hitters in the top of the sixth.  Ogea then started the bottom half with a walk and was pulled in favor of Mike Jackson, who would be bailed out of a jam by his magical Gold Glove shortstop.

With Gary Sheffield on first, Jackson retired Bobby Bonilla on a pop fly before walking pinch hitter Jim Eisenreich.  Alou then grounded to second base, moving both Sheffield and Eisenreich up a base to put them both in scoring position.  With the possible tying run at the plate, Jackson dug in to face Johnson, the Marlins catcher.

Johnson watched the first pitch sail wide for a strike before bouncing a sure-single toward the hole between short and third.  With two outs, the base runners were off on contact and would score on any kind of hit to the outfield.  The ball bounced past Williams at third and into the outfield grass.

Vizquel, the four-time Gold Glove winner ranged far to his right, dove, reached out as far as he could and the ball stuck in the webbing of his glove.  Omar sprung to his feet in the blink of an eye and fired a strike across the diamond to Thome at first.  The ball landed in Thome’s glove a split second before Johnson could touch the bag and the inning was over.  Pro Player Stadium fell silent in awe as another hitter was robbed by the greatest defensive player ever to don a Cleveland uniform.

“I was getting a drink of water when the ball was hit,” Hargrove said in a Murray Chass article from the New York Times. “I looked up in time to see Omar make the play, and I almost choked.”

It wasn’t just the outstanding athletic play that Vizquel made that was so special…it was the timing of the play.  Omar had made amazing plays after amazing plays during his four year tenure in Cleveland, but none like that were in a possible World Series elimination game.  Vizquel referred to his work of art as “the most important play I ever made in my career.”

“That had to feel better than hitting a home run,” Seitzer said in a Michael Weinres article from the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.  “If that ball goes through…”

Seitzer was cut off just by thinking of the possibility.  If the ball scooted into the outfield Sheffield and Eisenreich would have both scored and brought the Marlins to within one run at 4-3.  Florida would have had all of the momentum and Cleveland would have had all of the pressure in the world on their shoulders.

But they didn’t.

Instead, Vizquel made everyone around the stadium and in front of their television’s jaws drop as he retired Johnson on a play that Weinres called “among the best ever.”  Everyone was surprised at Vizquel’s athleticism…except for Omar, of course.

“I’ve done it before,” said Vizquel in Weinres’ article.  “If I made a play that I’ve never done before, maybe that would surprise me.”

Omar acknowledged that Johnson’s lack of speed was a contributing factor, however.  “Maybe if it was another guy, maybe I don’t throw the ball,” he said in the Chass article.  But I knew he was running.”

Jim Leyland, the Marlins’ manager, agreed.  “The guy who hit it is the one guy who couldn’t beat it out.”

Regardless, Johnson’s lack of speed or not, Vizquel turned in another gem on baseball’s biggest stage.  The play stands up with Willie Mays’ catch, Brooks Robinson’s diving stops and Kirby Puckett robbing a homerun at the Metrodome.  It was that spectacular.

Keeping ahold of their 4-1 lead, the Indians cruised for the remainder of the ballgame.  Jackson loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh but was able to wriggle out of the jam without any damage.  Paul Assenmacher worked a scoreless eighth and Jose Mesa did the same in the ninth as the Indians evened up the series at 3-3, setting up a winner-take-all Game Seven the following night.

The heroes were clearly Ogea and Vizquel, as the two hit and fielded the Tribe’s way to play another day.  Vizquel’s defensive ability should have shocked nobody, but Ogea’s big stick took everybody by surprise.

“To me, that was the key to the game,” said Grissom in the Reid article, “Chad had been swinging the bat pretty well in batting practice, but I was still surprised. I think we all were.”

“I think Chad is available to pinch-hit in Game 7,” pitcher Brian Anderson joked in the Curry article.

“I don’t think Chad will ever look like a hitter,” Roberts said.  “He sure pitched a great game.  We’ll take his bat tonight, but the pitching is what got us through.”

“I felt I had good command tonight…Not in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen,” Ogea said of his incredible night and 2-0 record in the Fall Classic.

The Marlins, however, were not quite as thrilled with Ogea’s heroics.

“Those two base hits I gave up to Ogea,” Brown, whose record fell to 0-2 against Ogea and the Indians, said, “that really killed us.”

Ogea may have killed the Marlins for one night, but they certainly were not dead in the water.  The Indians had the momentum but they also had the pressure of winning a deciding game on the road.  The Indian players let no signs of pressure show, though.

“We’ve been down in the playoffs again and again, so we knew we could come down here and win,” Grissom said in the Reid article.  “Nobody in this clubhouse ever doubted that.  There’s just something about this team that makes us play better when we’re against the wall.  Now, this is going to be fun.”

“Our clubhouse is loose and relaxed,” Vizquel said.  “We’re not worried, we’re looking forward to (Game Seven).  We don’t feel any pressure, the pressure is on them.”

Perhaps what Vizquel did not think about, however, was the weight of a 49 year old curse that was hanging over their heads.  The Indians had not won a World Series since 1948 and no Cleveland franchise had won a championship since 1964.

To pitch the biggest game in either franchise’s history, the Marlins elected to go with veteran lefthander Al Leiter.  Leiter was hit hard in Game Three, but was not helped by his team’s shoddy defense.  The Indians decision was far less easy.

Hargrove was under the spotlight for his indecision to start either veteran Charles Nagy on full rest or the rookie Jaret Wright on short rest.  Nagy had struggled through the playoffs except for one great start in Baltimore and Wright was just the opposite.  Jaret had a 3-0 record in the postseason including a Game Four victory in Cleveland over the Marlins.  It was his ability to bounce back that made Hargrove ultimately choose to side with Wright and skip the spot of the former All-Star Nagy.

With the pitching matchup all set, both teams were ready to rumble and put an end to “the series no one wanted”.  Storylines were aplenty, as the Marlins were looking to become the fastest expansion franchise to win a championship and the first Wild Card team to do so as well.  The Indians, meanwhile, were hoping to break a nearly half-century drought and finally bring a World Series trophy back to Northeastern Ohio.

“I’ve been in three of these, but I’ve never been to a seventh game,” Grissom said in a Claire Smith article from the New York Times.  “I’m going to be pumped.  It’s fun.  It’s all fun.”


Photo:  The Associated Press

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