Tribe Fans Seeking Magic of Old

The old kings of the walk-off were in the house, the bags were juiced, and the script was written in story book fashion for the Cleveland Indians on Saturday night, as the legends of old watched the jinxed (jixed?) collection of the present with an opportunity to do something that their predecessors had done routinely and with ease at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario twenty years earlier.

Unfortunately, that magic of yesteryear did not rub off as the current Indians offense, not even remotely close to the powerhouse lineup of the 1990’s, stranded another small village of base runners and a strikeout by rookie Giovanny Urshela with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning of a three-run game spoiled the celebration of the Indians’ 1995 World Series reunion.

Fans have come out to see some of their favorites don that Indians uniform again in the center of the diamond of the home of the Tribe once known, and still forever for others, as Jacobs Field. A total of 22,811 came out Friday night, only to be topped by the 24,670 to fill Progressive Field with two of its larger home crowds of the season.

The first two games of the weekend set with the Tampa Bay Rays marked the eighth and ninth times the club has toppled 20,000 fans this season. By comparison, the smallest crowd of the 1995 season came on Monday, May 8th, when the 6-4 second place Indians hosted the Kansas City Royals in their second home series of the season, one night after a 17-inning walk-off against Minnesota, their first such win of the year. The Tribe would win that night, 6-2, and after a 10-0 win the next night, would stake a claim of first place they would never relinquish.

Cleveland has a love affair with that team, and it is one that does not appear to be ending any time soon. And who can blame them? For most fans of the feather these days, it is simply the most exciting, electric, productive, and successful period of time in the 115-year history of the Cleveland franchise.

When a team like the 2015 Indians has lofty expectations beset on them prior to the season and the team responds with two and a half months of flat offense, so-so (at best) defense, and a pitching staff that, when it has clicked, has been rewarded with paltry numbers in the good guy’s side of the scoreboard, it is hard to not sit back and dream about how much easier the game looked in 1995.

That team was never out of a game. Now, the team adorning the same name across their chests looks out of a game if down a single run.

What the Indians did throughout the final decade of the 20th century was a thing of beauty. They had good drafts. They developed effectively. They scouted well. They signed quality veteran free agents. They made tough decisions to let go of star and fan favorite players, like Joe Carter, only to watch the rewards (Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga) make the risk worthwhile.

Now, Cleveland is a fan base stuck on the expectations set forth in a time impossible to replicate.

The Browns are back, if in name alone. A chunk of fan spending that was once reallocated to Indians games now has a home on the shores of Lake Erie that is filled, regardless of the quality of the product that takes the field once a week.

The Cavs are beginning their second window of opportunity. The shooting star has returned home, and the King has claimed his court and sent them just two games from bringing the city its first title since 1964.

The city is reviving again, but not quite in the same ways as it did during that “perfect storm” era of the ‘90’s.

Through it all, I hear the complaints. The Dolans are cheap. They traded Cy Young winners in consecutive seasons and got nothing for them. They don’t sign big name free agents and, when they do, they screw it up. “Only in Cleveland” would we celebrate a team that lost in a World Series. But it isn’t just an Indians thing.

How many of you can name guys from the Browns’ playoff runs of the mid-1980’s?

Bernie. Mack. Byner. Webster Slaughter. Reggie Langhorne. Brian Brennan. Ozzie Newsome. Ice Cube McNeil. Hanford Dixon. Frank Minnifield. Felix Wright. Clay Matthews. Marty Schottenheimer calling the shots. The then still-tolerated Art Modell owning the team.

Those with a few more years under their belt than those of my generation can do the same with the Red Right 88 season. A much smaller remaining crowd may be able to recite those who brought home that last championship back in 1964, the end of an amazing era of football in the Forest City that all predates the current Super Bowl period.

What about the Cavs of the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s?

Mark Price. Craig Ehlo. Larry Nance. Hot Rod Williams. Brad Daugherty. Steve Kerr. Head coach Lenny Wilkins.

We remember these guys because they were the best we know, some of the better players to ever suit up and represent Cleveland on the grand stage. None brought home the trophy, the rings, the parade. But we remember them, and we remember them well. Look around Quicken Loans Arena. Their numbers hang from the rafters, and deservingly so.

It isn’t bad to hold on to the past, as long as the future gives you something better to replace it with eventually.

That Indians lineup from 1995 may go down as one of the more feared lineups to ever be placed on a lineup card on a nightly basis.

Kenny Lofton. Omar Vizquel. Baerga. Albert Belle. Eddie Murray. Paul Sorrento. Manny Ramirez. Jim Thome, the second cleanup hitter. Alomar, or for the majority of the first two and a half months of the season, Tony Pena. Mike Hargrove, Grover. Dick Jacobs, greatest owner in baseball history, according to many Indians fans.

The team was so good, you remember some of the bench guys – Pena, Alvaro Espinoza, Herbert Perry, Wayne Kirby, Ruben Amaro, future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.

The pitchers? Often overlooked for their role in the success. Charles Nagy. Dennis Martinez. Orel Hershiser. Paul Assenmacher, Eric Plunk, and Jose Mesa.

You remember the wins and the incredible feats of strength.

The first walk-off. Lofton singles in Ramirez in the 17th to end a six and a half hour Sunday matinee.

Sorrento capping an eight-run comeback with a walk-off winner deep to right, shocking Toronto, 9-8.

Ramirez’s walk-off shot off of Dennis Eckersley. “Wow”.

Belle’s blast off of another future Hall of Fame closer, Lee Smith. The grand slam landed somewhere amongst the trees of the Davey Tree Picnic Plaza. Later, in a separate game against Boston, a point to a biceps. Muscle.

Thome, grabbing a pop up in foul territory, left arm thrust into the air. “And the season of dreams has become a reality. Cleveland, you will have an October to remember!” – Tom Hamilton, legend.

Pena, the unlikeliest of heroes, sending the weary American League Division Series crowd home in the early hours of a new day in the club’s first postseason game since 1954.

Lofton going from second to home on a passed ball in the American League Championship Series with Randy Johnson on the mound.

Lofton was arguably the best leadoff hitter in the game. He hit .310 and swiped 54 bags to lead the AL for the fourth straight year. His 13 triples also were a league best and his defense earned him his third straight Gold Glove Award

Vizquel hit .266, but knocked in 56 runs and picked off 29 bases, both career bests. He had ten sacrifice hits and added in ten sac flies, a surprising number from the light-hitting shortstop whose expertise was not necessarily hitting the ball in the air. In the field, his personal highlight reel helped pull in his third straight Gold Glove.

Baerga made his third All-Star team and hit .314, his fourth straight season over the .300 mark. He drove in 90 runs, facilitated by the two men in front of him, and aided by the fear put in opposing pitchers by the next man up.

What didn’t Belle do? Career high 52 doubles and 50 homers, giving him 103 extra base hits in one strike-delayed season. His .317 average and .690 slugging were some of the best of his 12-year career. In addition to making his third straight All-Star team, he was robbed of the Most Valuable Player award by Mo Vaughn, a travesty that could have ended the club’s on-going MVP drought dating back to Al Rosen’s win in 1953.

The 39-year-old Murray was hardly done with his career. He hit .323, the second-best mark of his 21-year Hall of Fame career. He hit 21 homers, 21 doubles, and drove in 82 behind Belle.

Sorrento smashed 25 home runs, a career high, in 104 games and turned the power into a multi-year contract with Seattle following the season.

Ramirez, just 23 years old, hit .308 with 31 homers and 107 RBI after finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1994. He made the first of many All-Star teams in his lengthy and much-discussed career.

The 24-year-old Thome was just in his second full season in the Majors after spending parts of three seasons of his early 20’s getting more regular play in Triple-A. He set new career highs in pretty much every offensive category possible, hitting .314 with 25 homers and 73 RBI…as the eight-hitter!

Alomar hit a career-high .300 after returning from a knee injury that was thought to end his season. He hit ten homers and drove in 35.

Nagy and Hershiser each posted identical 16-6 records. Martinez was 12-5 with a 3.08 ERA and led the staff with three complete games and two shutouts. Mark Clark went 9-7, Chad Ogea was 8-3 with a 3.05 ERA, and late season acquisition Ken Hill went 4-1 in a Tribe uniform. Julian Tavarez won ten games, in relief, and Mesa was 3-0 with 46 saves and a 1.13 ERA.

Why do we love them? For most of us, they were the best we have ever seen in a Cleveland uniform. In the next few years, the Indians neighbors at the Q may just give us another set of legends immortalized in the lore of the city forever. Until then, these Indians own that crown for this generation, and deservingly so, even if they didn’t get to bring the actual hardware home.

These players warrant the honor and earned the right to be remembered, just as the legends of 1954, 1948, and 1920 should be, but often fall through the cracks of time, lost to dusty books on a shelf somewhere instead of in the forefront of our thoughts. What makes the 1995 team that much more recognizable was the sustained success they had throughout those glory years, even if they couldn’t bring the title home.

They will hold the mantle until one day, Cleveland gets its due and a new set of legends joins them in immortality. Hopefully that club will come soon, with its own magic, guided under Terry Francona.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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