The Greatest Summer Ever: Sandy Alomar, Jr.

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 #17 Sandy Alomar, Jr.

December 6, 1989 will forever be one of the most important dates in Cleveland Indians history.  It was a date that started the change toward the best times that the franchise has ever seen.  Before this date, the Indians had been a terrible baseball franchise.  They were probably the worst franchise in the Major Leagues…maybe the worst in all of sports.  The Tribe was the poster child for the joke of Cleveland being known as “the mistake by the lake”.  They had not sniffed the postseason since 1954 and had barely contended in any summer since then.  The Indians were lousy.  Rotten.  Terrible.  Awful.  Losers.

In the late 80’s, the Indians had a group of players that were about as exciting as a colonoscopy.  Cory Snyder was a decent hitter with thunderous power and a ton of strikeouts, Brook Jacoby was an okay infielder with an okay bat and Doug Jones was a closer who couldn’t break a pane of glass with his fastball but was without question the team’s best pitcher.  There was really only one player on the Tribe that sparked any real excitement on the lakefront.  Joe Carter was an All-Star caliber player who had a 30-30 season in 1987 and was coming off a career high 35 homeruns in ’89.

The problem with Carter was that he was due to be a free agent following the 1990 season and was in prime position to cash in.  The money-strapped Indians did not have the funds to sign their best player, and even if they did, Carter would have certainly left for greener pastures anyways.

This forced Indians general manager Hank Peters to trade the unhappy Carter to a contender and try to get the best return package that he could.  He found a lot of suitors for the power hitting right hander as Kansas City, Boston and California reportedly all came to the winter meetings with Joe-Carter-on-the-brain, but on December 6, the San Diego Padres gave Peters an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

San Diego received Carter in exchange for third baseman/outfielder Chris James, infielder Carlos Baerga and catcher Sandy Alomar Jr.  James was a 27-year old starting caliber player and Baerga was a 21 year old infielder with a promising bat, but Alomar was the reigning Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year.

James ended up having a solid season in 1990 and Baerga showed some flashes that year of his greatness-to-come, but the real haul in the Carter trade was Alomar.  Sandy took the American League by storm by batting .290 with nine homeruns and 66 RBI.  While Sandy’s bat was solid, it was his defense that was the most impressive.  It was not uncommon to see Alomar throw base stealers out from his knees and his handling of the pitching staff seemed well beyond his years.  Alomar started at catcher for the AL All-Star team, won a Gold Glove and was named AL Rookie of the Year at the end of the season.

With Alomar, Baerga and young prospect Albert “Joey” Belle, the Indians nucleus suddenly seemed far more exciting than it had in previous years.  Alomar appeared to be the glue that would hold this young group into contention for the next decade.

Alomar’s body, however, had something to say about that.  Sandy missed a lot of time in 1991 with hip and shoulder injuries, and he seriously injured his left knee in 1992.  A back injury sidelined him for most of the ’93 season and Alomar was suddenly known for being good (he made the All-Star team in ’91 and ’92 as well) but very injury-prone.

Meanwhile, the Indians kept adding more pieces.  Belle and Baerga turned into All-Stars.  Kenny Lofton was traded for and youngsters Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez were called up to the Majors.  Charles Nagy was turning into a star and the Tribe signed solid veterans to fill out the rotation.

In the offseason of ’94 the Indians signed veteran catcher Tony Pena to back up Alomar because Sandy’s body couldn’t be trusted to last a full season without injury.  He stayed healthy for most of the ’94 campaign, but still visited the DL for the fourth straight season.  Pena batted a solid .295 for the Tribe in ’94 and the Indians felt comfortable with him filling in for Alomar if he sustained another injury in 1995.

Sure enough, in spring training of ’95 Alomar sustained another knee injury that would sideline him nearly until the All-Star break.  It must have been terrible for Alomar to see his woeful Indians turn into baseball’s best team, when all he could do was sit and watch all of his teammates having the time of their lives from the disabled list.  Alomar, determined to contribute to the magical season, returned from the DL on June 29 to face the Twins in Minnesota, going 1-3 with a walk and a sacrifice bunt.

Alomar’s bat heated up with the summer months and with more and more playing time.  14 games into his injury-riddled season, Alomar was hitting over .400 and while the injuries had somewhat taken their toll on his catching ability, Alomar had his old form back at the plate.

Playing every day through the months of July and August brought Alomar’s batting average back down to “human level” and after an August 22 loss to Toronto Sandy’s batting average had dipped below .300 for the first time in about two months.  The dip did not last long because on August 25 Sandy had his biggest game of the season.

The Indians were hosting the Detroit Tigers that Friday night in front of a sold out Jacobs Field.  The game featured Tigers starter C.J. Nitkowski going up against the Indians Ken Hill.  Both starters started the game well, setting down the opposition scoreless in the first inning.  Both starters lost their shutouts, however, in the second inning.

Tiger legend Lou Whitaker led off the top of the 2nd for Detroit with a single off of Hill.  A fly out and a strikeout followed, but left fielder Milt Cuyler scorched a triple to centerfield, scoring Whitaker, and giving the Tigers a 1-0 advantage. The Indians were quick to answer back in the bottom half though.  Albert Belle, celebrating his 29th birthday in style, blasted a leadoff homerun on a 2-2 pitch from Nitkowski evening the score once again.  The score remained tied at one until the bottom of the fourth.

Nitkowski dug his own grave that inning by walking the leadoff man, Baerga, on four pitches.  He followed that up by throwing four more balls in a row to Belle, putting Indians at first and second with nobody out.  Eddie Murray followed with a short fly out to right field, and Nitkowski’s wild inning continued when he hit Ramirez with a pitch to load the bases.  Herbert Perry batted next and broke the tie when he flew out to future Indian and centerfielder Chad Curtis for a sacrifice fly, giving the Tribe a 2-1 lead.  This brought up Alomar with a chance to break the game open for the Indians.  Alomar was unable to widen the lead, however, as he grounded to short to end the inning.

Hill, meanwhile, had really settled into a groove.  He retired the Tigers in order in both the fifth and sixth innings and gave the Indians a chance to tack on some insurance runs.  The red-hot birthday boy was happy to oblige.

Tiger manager Sparky Anderson went to his bullpen in the bottom of the sixth, calling on right hander John Doherty.  Doherty got Baerga to lead off the inning by grounding out to Whitaker, but he was not so lucky when Belle strode to the plate.  After falling behind in the count 2-0, Doherty grooved a pitch to Belle that Albert planted deep into the left field bleachers for his second homerun of the night.  The Tribe now had a 3-1 lead, but the lead would not last long.

Tribe manager Mike Hargrove left Hill in to pitch the top of the seventh, but Hill struggled.  Hill allowed a one out single to future Indian Chris Gomez and followed that by walking Juan Samuel.  Two batters later, Tiger pinch hitter Franklin Stubbs tied up the score by lacing a double into center, scoring both Gomez and Samuel.

The Indians were able to match the Tigers two runs in the bottom half of the inning.  Alomar led off the inning by lacing a single up the middle off of Doherty to set up a sacrifice situation.  Alvaro Espinoza followed with a perfect bunt, advancing Alomar to second base.  Lofton moved Alomar to third when the speedster legged out an infield single and then moved into scoring position himself when he stole second base.  Omar Vizquel then worked a walk, bringing Baerga to the plate and running Doherty from the game.  Tiger reliever Brain Bohanon came in and quickly allowed Baerga to double down the right field line, scoring both Alomar and Lofton.  The Tribe had their two-run lead back at 5-3 and Hargrove decided that it was time to turn the ball over to his awesome bullpen.

Paul Assenmacher relieved Hill in the top of the eighth and struck out the only batter he faced, lefty Bobby Higginson.  Eric Plunk then came into the ball game and allowed another future Indian, Travis Fryman, to bring the Tigers back to within one by hitting a shot onto the homerun porch.  Plunk and Alan Embree were able to hold onto the one run lead for the rest of the eighth, allowing Hargrove to go to his record-setting closer, Jose Mesa.

Five days earlier against the Milwaukee Brewers, Mesa recorded his 37th save in 37 tries to set a Major League record for most consecutive saves to start a season.  With Mesa now sitting at 38 and having got the first two batters out in the inning, it was a certainty to the sellout crowd that “Joe Table” would slam the door shut on the Tigers and the Indians would walk away with a 5-4 win.  Then the impossible happened.  Curtis sent the first pitch that Mesa threw to him deep into the Cleveland sky and over the right field wall for a homerun.  The streak was over…Jose Mesa blew a save.

With the score now tied at five, the Indians and Tigers headed into extra innings.  Indian Julian Tavarez and Tiger Mike Christopher seemed to be battling each other, as both relievers held the opposition scoreless through the middle of the eleventh innings.  In the bottom of the eleventh, Anderson turned to his bullpen again, this time going with the hard throwing Felipe Lira.

Lira retired the first batter he faced, Paul Sorrento, by striking him out looking on three pitches.  As Sorrento walked back to the dugout, Alomar was walking up with visions of ending the game.  After working the count to 1-1, Alomar got a pitch that he could handle and smacked it deep toward the left field wall.  He had hit the ball so hard, that it was unclear if it had enough loft on it to clear the fence or not.  The ball clanked hard off of the railing on the homerun porch, over the yellow line and good enough for a walk-off homer.  Alomar circled the bases to a roaring crowd that had just seen their Indians improve their record to 74-35, the best record in baseball, and shrink their magic number to clinch the Central Division down to 17.  When Alomar reached the plate, he found his teammates waiting at the plate and ready to beat on the top his helmet in a style that had become so famous throughout the summer of 1995.

Alomar’s hot hitting continued for the rest of the season.  Sandy finished the season batting exactly .300, which was the first time he had eclipsed that mark in his career.  Sandy was also a big contributor in the playoffs, as his one-out double down the right field line in game three of the World Series gave the reeling Indians new life and tied the score in the bottom of the eighth inning.  The Tribe went on to win that game in extra innings, their first win in a World Series game since 1948.

After 1995, Alomar played five more seasons with the Tribe.  Sandy was still plagued somewhat by injuries, but he had his best season in 1997 when he led the Tribe to the World Series.  After the 2000 season, Alomar signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox.  Over the next seven seasons, Sandy played sparingly with the White Sox, Rockies, Rangers, Dodgers and Mets until he retired following the 2007 season at age 41.

As a great teacher of the game of baseball, Alomar got his first coaching position as catching instructor for the New York Mets for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.  In 2010, Sandy returned home to Cleveland to become a coach for former Manager Manny Acta’s staff.

Sandy Alomar Jr. was inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame in 2009.  He was a six-time All-Star for the Tribe, a Gold Glove winner, the 1990 Rookie of the Year Award winner and the 1997 All-Star Game MVP.  Sandy played 11 very memorable seasons for the Indians after the Tribe got him in the “trade that started it all”.  It may have been just another Wednesday for most of the world, but for the Cleveland Indians franchise, December 6, 1989 was one of the most important dates in club history.

Tomorrow:  Tony Pena

Previous Entries:

#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea

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