The Greatest Summer Ever: Building on ‘94

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at the idea of picking up where the 1994 team left off.

Around almost all of Major League Baseball, the 1995 season started with anger, disinterest and animosity. The 1994 baseball season had stopped abruptly on August 12 because of a player’s strike and the playoffs and World Series were cancelled on September 14. Fans across America were outraged at the greed of the players, the greed of the owners and the overall attitude that money was everything.

In Cleveland, however, the 1995 season was welcomed with open arms as the young and exciting Indians offered the city hope, excitement and an electricity that the suffering sports town had not seen since the Cleveland Browns of the mid to late 1980’s.

The Tribe was coming off of a 1994 season where they prematurely “finished” one game behind the Chicago White Sox in the newly formed American League Central. At the time of the stoppage, they were also 2.5 games ahead of the AL East’s Baltimore Orioles sitting in the catbird seat to become the American League’s first ever Wild Card team.

“We were dominant,” third baseman Jim Thome said.  “We had a dominant team and we were ready to win. Then. Right there. We had an aura about ourselves–a confidence that you couldn’t teach. We all wanted to be great and we fed off of each other.”

The fans of Cleveland came in droves all throughout the summer of ’94 to the Indians’ games. Even as the impending strike cast a huge shadow on the season during the last home game on August 4, a sell-out crowd of nearly 42,000 packed the ballpark as the Tribe defeated the Tigers. It was hard to blame them. Not only were the Indians were finally in position to field the first playoff team that Cleveland had had since getting swept by the Giants in the 1954 World Series, but they also had a dominating young lineup and a brand new ballpark that had just opened up that summer as the team moved out of the cavernous, run-down Municipal Stadium into the sparkling gem that was Jacobs Field.

“Coming out of Municipal Stadium I knew we had a great group of guys–hungry guys,” outfielder Wayne Kirby said.  “We knew we could hit.  (General Manager) John Hart ended up getting the right pitchers for this team and we had the young guys coming.  We knew it was special.”

“Obviously coming into a new, state-of-the-art facility affected all of us players,” first baseman Paul Sorrento said.  “We were all pumped.  It was kind of like the perfect storm.  We had a good nucleus of players and then they just added veterans who had been around and knew how to win. They taught us how to win and it was great.”

The Indians young, exciting lineup was anchored by a trio of superstars in Albert Belle (.357 BA, 36 HR, 101 RBI), Carlos Baerga (.314, 19, 80) and Kenny Lofton (.349, 12, 60 SB). They had an amazing duo of young talent in Thome (.268, 20, 62) and Manny Ramirez (.269, 17, 60) and a future Hall of Fame veteran in Eddie Murray (.254, 17, 76) to help guide them. The awesome lineup led the Tribe to a 66-47 record when the season stopped, including a franchise record 18-game home win streak. The team of comeback kids with a never-say-die attitude had opened up wide eyes all around baseball, the city of Cleveland and even some of those on the team, itself.

“I didn’t realize until ’94 how good of a team that we had,” pitcher Julian Tavarez said.  “Everybody was talking about how we were going to win the World Series.”

“We knew in ’94 that we had a special team,” starting pitcher Charles Nagy added.  “We were vying for the Wild Card and the Central Division that year when the strike came.”

“We had guys that were gamers and never gave up,” Sorrento said of himself and his teammates that had a flair for late-inning heroics.  “It speaks to the type of offense we had–we could score five or six runs really quickly. We just kept chipping away and chipping away.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the American League to take notices, and the opposition within the division especially could sense that something special was happening in Cleveland.

“They were so good at everything,” Kansas City Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza said.  “They fielded the ball well–¦that was an underrated thing about that team. They could hit and score, but they fielded the ball very well. I swear, Kenny Lofton caught everything. Unless it was 30 feet over the fence, he was going to catch it–he was that good.”

“I remember playing the Cleveland Indians in 1994,” Chicago White Sox pitcher and ’95 Indian Paul Assenmacher recalled. “They were such a good up-and-coming team.”

While the rest of the baseball world was bitter about the strike, the Cleveland Indians and their long-suffering fans were beyond ready to forgive.

“I think that when the strike hit in ’94 we were ready to win,” Thome said. “I think that’s what actually made our ’95 team better–the fact that we didn’t get to finish our business in ’94. It definitely started the whole renaissance here in Cleveland.”

“When we finished in ’94, I thought there was a lot of promise for ’95,” catcher Sandy Alomar added.

“It was just a matter of getting back on the field,” Nagy said.

It took until April 2 and a threat of using replacement players for the ’95 season for the owners and players to come to an agreement, so the start of the 1995 was delayed by almost a month. The Indians exciting roster couldn’t wait to get down to Winter Haven, Florida to get the delayed camp started.

“I think that everyone was just so excited when that was over and we rushed down to Spring Training,” Nagy said.

“We started ’95 so confident, because we came so close in ’94,” Baerga said.  “We said, let’s finish it off and that’s what happened.”

On April 27, 1995, the Indians finally played their first meaningful game in 259 days–an 11-6 victory in Arlington, Texas over the Rangers. The upstart Tribe put their foot on the gas pedal and never let up, building off of the momentum that the team had gained from their “what-could-have-been” 1994 season.

“Once we got the season going in ’95,” Tavarez said, “that was it.”

The Indians 1995 journey that had started back the year before was a freight train that would end up flattening the rest of the American League. The Tribe rolled to a 100-44 record and won the Central Division title by a record 30 games and the franchise’s first pennant since the ’54 season.

“It was a special time,” the longtime Indian, Baerga said.  “Going through the bad times and then to have the good times with something very special.  We went from losing 100 games (in 1991) to turning it around and winning 100 games.  It was good.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the league to realize who the alpha-dog was either, as the runners-up in the AL Central, the Royals, packed it in early.

“At the end of ’94, just before it ended, we had a good run when the strike hit,” Gubicza remembered.  “I think we won 14 of the last 15 games that year and we were thinking, ‘Okay, we’re in a pretty good position.’  The next year, Cleveland got off to a great start and we got off to a slow start and we felt like we were eliminated in the month of April. We were thinking that maybe we could sneak in there as a Wild Card. We knew once we fell behind like that that we weren’t going to catch them.”

Photo: The Plain Dealer

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