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 player #24 Wayne Kirby.
When a player finishes fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, logic says that the player is supposed to turn into a starting caliber player. The only problem with this logic, however, is that sometimes you have All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers blocking your way from ever being a full time starter again after your superb rookie season.
Such was the case for Wayne Kirby, who finished only behind Tim Salmon, Jason Bere and Aaron Sele in the 1993 Rookie of the Year Award standings. Kirby had a very solid rookie season, batting .269 with 6 homeruns, 60 RBI and 17 stolen bases batting primarily in the number two slot in the batting order. He also led American League outfielders with 19 assists. Kirby seemed to have the makings of a solid everyday right fielder. The Tribe could have done a whole lot worse than writing Kirby’s name in the outfield everyday with budding star Kenny Lofton and All-Star Albert Belle. To the people whose only focus is on the Major Leagues, Wayne Kirby seemed to have earned his spot. To those paying attention to the Triple-A Charlotte Knights, however, there was a right fielder that was eight years younger and drawing comparisons to the late Roberto Clemente.
Wayne Kirby was a good baseball player, but youngster Manny Ramirez could hit the cover off of the baseball. Ramirez, the Indians first round pick in the 1991 draft, was a prospect that comes around an organization once every quarter century or so. Everybody in the Tribe organization knew that Manny was destined for greatness, so when Ramirez made the Indians opening day roster in 1994 it spelled the end of Wayne Kirby’s days as an everyday player.
Kirby still had a fine season in ’94, batting a career best .293 while still stealing 11 bases and playing solid defense in his part-time role. Kirby will forever have his place in Jacobs Field lore for driving in the game winning run off of Seattle pitcher Kevin King in the 11th inning of the first game ever at the new ballpark. It seemed like Kirby was the perfect fourth outfielder on a club full of budding superstars.
The 1995 season, however, saw a decline in Kirby’s playing time. He played in 101 games that season, but only started 36 of those. The majority of Kirby’s starts came in July when Lofton went on the disabled list for an injury. He was still manager Mike Hargrove’s favorite option to come off the bench to pinch hit or pinch run, but Kirby was not the same player that the team was used to seeing in the previous two seasons.
There were flashes, however, that Kirby was still a productive ballplayer. Kirby’s best game of the season came June 12 at Jacobs Field in a classic pitcher’s duel that featured Charles Nagy of the Indians and Kevin Brown of the Orioles, two of the American League’s best pitchers. After two scoreless innings, Nagy worked himself into a bit of a jam in the top of the third. After getting Manny Alexander to groundout to Omar Vizquel, nine-hitter Curtis Goodwin lined a single to centerfield. Baltimore leadoff hitter (and future Indian) Brady Anderson batted next and drew a walk, forcing Goodwin to second. The following batter, Jeffery Hammonds, struck out, but there was still danger lurking in the on-deck circle. With All-Star Rafael Palmeiro at the plate, Goodwin and Anderson worked a double steal off of Nagy putting runners at second and third with two outs. Nagy, a groundball machine, got Palmeiro to ground the ball to the Gold Glove shortstop Vizquel, but Omar uncharacteristically threw the ball past first basemen Paul Sorrento, giving the O’s a 2-0 lead.
The two run lead did not last long, as Kirby led off the bottom of the third with a triple to center field. Lofton hit next and grounded the ball back to Brown, who held Kirby at third and recorded the first out of the inning. Vizquel batted next and brought Kirby home with an RBI groundout to first. This made the score 2-1.
Kirby’s big day did not end with just a triple and a run scored. The next inning, the Tribe struck again with a leadoff single from Belle, followed by an Eddie Murray double to the left-centerfield gap that tied the game. Jim Thome followed with a popup to third and Brown struck out Paul Sorrento after that. Tony Pena drew a walk putting runners at first and second with two outs, again bringing up Kirby. Kirby lined a single back up the middle scoring Murray, moving Pena to second, and giving Cleveland a 3-2 lead. After an infield single by Lofton loaded the bases, Brown walked Vizquel to force in the Tribe’s third run of the inning and fourth of the game.
Baltimore designated hitter Harold Baines hit a solo homerun off of Nagy in the top of the sixth inning that cut the lead to 4-3. That was the last bit of good news for the Birds that day as Nagy shut them out in the seventh inning, Paul Assenmacher worked a 1-2-3 eighth, and Jose Mesa slammed the door shut with a 1-2-3 ninth inning for his 15th save of the season. The Tribe now sat in first place with a 31-11 record, 7.5 games ahead of the second place Kansas City Royals.
Kirby’s stats for the 1995 season were somewhat of a disappointment. Kirby batted only .207 in ’95 with 1 homerun, 14 RBI and 10 stolen bases. He made the postseason roster and appeared in 11 playoff games for the Tribe. Kirby started game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Seattle Mariners, filling in for MVP candidate Albert Belle in left field who had injured his foot. For the playoffs, Kirby had two base hits in seven at bats with one sacrifice bunt.
Kirby was brought back to the Indians for the 1996 season but was put on waivers following a June 14 game in the Bronx against the New York Yankees. Kirby was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers later that month, and made the postseason for the second straight year as the Dodgers lost to the Atlanta Braves in the ’96 National League Division Series. After playing the 1997 season in Los Angeles, Kirby signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1998 season. That relationship did not last long, as the Cardinals traded Kirby in June of ’98 to the New York Mets. Having batted only .194 in 26 games for the Mets, Kirby was released in September of 1998. He would never again play a Major League game.
Wayne Kirby seemed to have such a bright future after his 1993 campaign. He truly was victim of a numbers crunch in Cleveland. He did not possess the talent of All-Star players like Belle, Ramirez or Lofton, and his playing time diminished because of the talent that the 1995 Indians possessed. Because he was not playing regularly, Kirby was never really able to get on the right track in 1995.
Kirby rejoined the Cleveland Indians organization in 2002 as a coach for the Lake County Captains. He moved up through the organization, coaching for the Kinston Indians in 2004 and the Akron Aeros in 2005. After spending 2006-2010 as a coach in the Texas Rangers minor league system, Kirby made it back to MLB as the first base coach for the Baltimore Orioles in 2011.
Photo: Craig Jones/Getty Images