Try to imagine the hopes of a championship-starving franchise in a championship-starved city on the verge of winning it all.
Imagine 49 years of frustration ready to come to an end as the Cleveland Indians get ready to face the Florida Marlins in a winner-takes-all Game Seven of the 1997 World Series.
Imagine a hero trotting to the pitcher’s mound—armed with an explosive fastball and a hard-biting breaking ball—ready to deliver Cleveland’s first championship since 1964.
Now imagine that that hero was just a 21-year old rookie with just eight Major League wins under his belt.
Such was the case for a young Jaret Wright in 1997, as the Indians, the hottest team on the planet, sent Wright, the hottest young pitcher on the planet, to face the Marlins down in Miami. Earlier in the Series, Wright became the youngest pitcher since Brett Saberhagen in 1985 to start a World Series game.
The story was a great one, but certainly not one that followed the script. Wright was a mid-season call up in 1997—one that started as an injury replacement and turned into the ace of the playoff rotation. No one in Cleveland would have believed you as late as June…not even Wright himself.
“No way,” Wright said. “To start the season in Double-A and then to get to the World Series was just fast and furious. It was a ride that I’ll never forget.”
Wright is the son of former Major League pitcher Clyde Wright, a left-handed starter and former All-Star and 20-game winner who spent the majority of his 10-year career with the California Angels. Because of the time spent with his father, Wright was not your typical, intimidated rookie.
“I think being around the ballpark really helped a lot as a kid. I wish I’d have listened to him a little bit more and looked at him as a ballplayer instead of just a dad…I think we all don’t listen enough to our parents.”
At just 21-years old on baseball’s biggest stage, Wright now looks back on his ignorance of the situation as being somewhat blissful.
“I don’t think that you could every completely understand the magnitude of that situation,” Wright said, “but I think that being young definitely helped me to not understand the magnitude of it. I think it’s an advantage. When you’re young, you don’t get your butt kicked too much, your arm feels good, you’re kind of invincible and everything feels good. I really think it helped being so young to not totally understand how big that game was.”
At that point, Wright definitely was not used to getting his butt kicked at any level, including the Major Leagues. After getting promoted in June from AA, Wright pitched 16 games for the Indians and was the winning pitcher in eight of them while sporting a 4.38 ERA. Wright continually kept the Indians in the ballgame as well, as the team won 12 of the 16 games that he started.
During the postseason, the Indians played the role of underdogs to both the Yankees in the ALDS and the Orioles in the ALCS. By this time, Wright had become a major cog in the Indians rotation and broke onto the national scene with his outstanding performance in Game Two of the Division Series in the Bronx.
“I think it was pretty gratifying to beat the Yankees a couple of times in that series. That was something that I’ll never forget,” Wright said.
Wright was the victor in both Game Two as well as the clinching Game Five in Cleveland. The series had seemed doomed at one point, as the Indians had dropped Game One in heartbreaking fashion and Wright struggled to find his command in the first inning of Game Two. After getting an out to start the game, Wright walked the bases loaded and then allowed a double and sacrifice fly to put the Tribe in an early 3-0 hole.
“I think that throughout my career my first inning was probably my worst,” Wright reflected. “In that situation, it’s kind of overwhelming to begin with. You’ve got to kind of get your feet wet a little bit and I’m lucky that I made it through that.”
Wright did settle down and didn’t allow any more runs through the sixth inning. The Indians were able to come back in the game to steal Game Two and eventually the series from the dreaded Bronx Bombers.
“I think that when you’re not a Yankee, you love to beat the Yankees for sure. You want to beat the best and they’re at the top or near the top just about every year.”
After struggling in one start against the Orioles, Wright found more success as the winning pitcher in Game Four against Florida. Being forced with a difficult decision to start Wright or veteran starter Charles Nagy in Game Seven, Manager Mike Hargrove turned the ball over to his rookie for the biggest game in franchise history.
The game went exactly to plan for eight and one half innings, as Wright dominated the Marlins and had a 2-1 lead when he exited the game in the seventh inning. Closer Jose Mesa was unable to lock down a ninth inning save and an 11th inning run—aided by an error from second baseman Tony Fernandez—denied the Indians their third World Championship.
As time has passed on the Indians last World Series game, the sting of the moment still bites hard at the Cleveland fans. For Wright, however, time has healed all wounds.
“It doesn’t sting at all,” Wright said. “I mean, it would have been nice to win, but time goes on. I look at it like this; I was very fortunate to just even be there. I had a chance to play in a Game Seven. As time goes on, you’ve got to let that stuff go…Going to the World Series was something phenomenal. Those are great memories.”
After the ’97 World Series, Wright quickly became baseball’s hottest commodity. Every team in the league wanted the young right-hander and several were willing to pay top-dollar to get him. Rumored trades that would have brought Cleveland the likes of Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson were supposedly nixed by General Manager John Hart when Wright’s name was demanded.
In hindsight, any one of those trades would have worked out better than the reality of what happened. Wright pitched a solid 1998 season by winning 12 games, but injuries started to take their toll on the pitcher and he was never the same player afterwards.
“I think (injuries) affected me a lot,” Wright remembers. “Any time that you have surgery on anything it’s never the same after that. Essentially, you’re relearning everything. You relearn how to throw and have command. I was fortunate to make it through those injuries and to still get to play afterward, so I’m glad that happened.”
At just 23, Wright struggled through the 1999 season with an ERA of 6.06 and then made just a combined 22 starts for the Tribe from 2000 to 2002. He was granted free agency after ’02 and signed on with the San Diego Padres that winter. Wright was thankful for the fresh start that awaited him, but was also frustrated at the injuries that spoiled his last few seasons in Cleveland.
“It was absolutely frustrating,” Wright said. “If you can’t do your job at the level that you want to do it, it will drive you crazy. But it also taught me a lot of perspective about the game and life.”
Wright was put on waivers in August of ’03 and was claimed later that month by the Atlanta Braves for their postseason stretch-run. Wright was a success coming out of the Atlanta bullpen that September and then resurrected his career in 2004 in the Atlanta rotation in large part to the Braves legendary pitching coach: Leo Mazzone.
“He was huge for my career. I owe him a lot,” Wright said of Mazzone. “He took a chance on me coming off of my second surgery and coming from San Diego. I just relearned a lot of stuff and I could pitch again. He built a lot of confidence in me and I benefitted from it for the rest of my career.”
Mazzone is widely regarded as one of the greatest pitching minds of recent memory and he turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Wright.
“For me and him it was just the right place at the right time with his philosophy of down and away,” Wright said. “Everybody says it, but I don’t think I was ready to hear it when I was younger. It was just the right place and the right time.”
After his 15-8, 3.28 resurgence in Atlanta, Wright signed a massive deal with his previously-hated Yankees for the 2005 season. He struggled with injuries again in ’05 and then worked a somewhat-healthy-but-mediocre 2006 season afterwards. In 2007, the Yanks traded Wright to the Baltimore Orioles, where he finished his Major League career after just three games with the Birds.
After unsuccessfully trying to hook on with the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 32 in 2008, Wright officially retired from baseball. Reflecting on his career nowadays, no one moment sticks out as a favorite, but one magical month stands above the rest.
“I couldn’t pick a favorite,” Wright said. “In ’97, those were all the greatest memories, for sure. Those were great times for me.”
Currently, the Southern Cal native has moved back home where he is just trying to be a dad for a while.
“The last few years I’ve been enjoying my family. I’ve got four little kids,” Wright said. “I’ve been coaching them and have been doing a lot of surfing. We’re living in Southern California.”
Coming up on a decade after his 11-year career ended, Wright will always consider himself to be a member of the team that gave him his first Big League shot.
“Absolutely I consider myself an Indian,” Wright said. “I loved it here and I look at it like I grew up here. I was so young. You kind of make mistakes and learn, but I grew up here. It definitely has a place in my heart…that’s for sure.”
Photo: The Plain Dealer file photo