The Greatest Summer Ever: Catching Up With Carlos Baerga

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 we catch up with former second baseman Carlos Baerga.

Everybody in Cleveland loves to talk about the 1995 Indians, but nobody lights up when reminiscing like former second baseman Carlos Baerga does.

“It was a special time,” Baerga said.  “When you talk about the greatest lineups of all time…that has to be one of them.  You can go (from) base to base…we had the best.”

Not only did Baerga’s team have the best talent on the field, he fondly recalls the amazing chemistry that the ’95 Tribe had as well.

“We were like a family,” Baerga remembered. “We used to get to the ballpark every day at 1:00 just because we liked to be together.  We would talk about what we wanted to do during the game and how we wanted to attack that pitcher.”

It seemed that nearly every game plan that was made worked, as the Indian hitters didn’t just attack opposing pitchers…they annihilated them. The Indians won 100 of a strike shortened 144 game schedule in 1995 behind a booming offense, but things hadn’t always been so easy for Baerga-led teams in the five years prior to ’95.

“It was a special time,” Baerga said of the pennant-winning Tribe. “Going through the bad times and then to have the good times with something very special.  We went from losing 100 games to turning it around and winning 100 games.  It was good.”

The 100-loss team came in 1991 when the team dropped a franchise record 105. It was Baerga’s first full season in the Major Leagues as a regular and the talent was obvious from the start. Baerga primarily played third base at the start of his career and almost immediately moved into the middle of the lineup. In 1991, Baerga was one of a few bright spots by batting .288 with 11 homeruns in his first real shot. The breakout season came just about a year after one of the most important trades in franchise history that brought Baerga to Cleveland from the San Diego Padres.

“When they told me that I got traded with Sandy Alomar and Chris James for Joe Carter, it was something special,” Baerga said. “A lot went through my mind. I went to spring training, but I never thought that I was going to make the team because Jerry Browne was coming off of a good year. We also had Brooke Jacoby and Felix Fermin, so I thought that I was going back to AAA, but they gave me the opportunity.”

Being a young, up-and-coming player on a young team comes with its own challenges, but so does the culture-shock of playing in Cleveland in April. The Puerto Rican native soon realized that he was no longer at home, nor was he in the sunshine of Southern California, either.

“My first game was snowed out against the Yankees. It started snowing in the fifth inning. I had never seen a ballpark full of snow. I’ll never forget that.”

Obviously turning into one of the Indians key pieces for the future, Baerga used the resources that he had available to help him find his way as a professional.

“The manager must have seen something in me and wanted me to be there,” Baerga said of John McNamara. “The confidence that that gave me helped me to become a good player.  He taught me how to prepare myself. He taught me how to be a professional. He helped me a lot.”

In addition to his first Big League skipper, Baerga also turned to one of the team’s few veteran leaders as well.

Candy Maldonado taught me a lot about how to respect this game and to play hard every day.  You can’t take anything for granted. You have to be ready to play every day. They told me to watch the great players from the other teams; to watch them take batting practice and see what makes them great.”

Baerga continued to grow as a hitter and moved to second base by the 1992 season. The team also continued to grow and improve—Baerga’s improvement playing a gigantic part.

By that time, Baerga was firmly secured in the third slot in Manager Mike Hargrove’s batting order and he made his first All-Star team in ’92. He batted .312 and knocked a career-high 205 base hits that summer while driving in 105 runs and hitting 20 homers. His encore season in 1993 proved to be almost identical, as Baerga hit .321 with 21 homers, 114 RBI and notched 200 base hits again. Baerga became the first second baseman in American League history to accomplish those statistics in back-to-back seasons and was just the second in Major League history as well.

“Getting 200 hits with 100 RBIs and a .300 batting average is hard to do,” Baerga said. “Nobody in the American League had ever done it before, just Rogers Hornsby. For me to be able to do that was something very special.”

Another special moment occurred in April of 1993 when Baerga made history again. In the seventh inning of a game at Yankee Stadium, the switch hitting Baerga hit a homerun from both the left and right handed batter’s box. Baerga was the first and still-only Indian to ever homer twice in the same inning, but he also became the first Major Leaguer to ever do it from both sides of the plate.

“The two homeruns in the same inning was special because it was against the Yankees, which was a team I wanted to beat all the time,” Baerga said. “When I hit the second one, I never knew it was a record. There were so many great switch hitters before me like Eddie Murray and Mickey Mantle, I figured one of them had done it. It was special. I got the two balls after the ball game, and they put it on the scoreboard and I thought, ‘Wow, I just did something no one has ever done before.’”

Becoming a switch hitter is no easy feat for any player and Baerga credits his father for coming up with the idea.

“My father wanted me to be in everyday player,” Baerga said. “He told me, ‘I want you to hit from both sides.’ You have to practice so hard from both sides. It was very hard on me to become a switch hitter. A righty who can hit .300 against a right-hander…I’d just have to pat him on the back.   (In the Majors) you’re facing really good pitching.”

With Baerga’s talent growing at such a rapid pace, General Manager John Hart decided to lock up his young star for the long term early in his career. It was a similar philosophy that Hart had used with his other young, core pieces as the Indians “Blueprint for Success” was firmly in place.

“John Hart made the young players happy,” Baerga said. “When you have a multiyear contract, you can block out all of that other stuff and just concentrate on playing. It takes the pressure off of us. It was a commitment from the organization to the players. We said, ‘Ok, we’re signed, now let’s go have fun and win some games.’”

The wins really started to pile up for the young Tribe in 1994.

By the time the infamous player’s strike hit in August of ’94, the young Tribe was just one game behind of the Central Division leading White Sox. When the playoffs and World Series were cancelled in September, it just left the hungry Indians even hungrier leading into 1995.

“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.”

Hart and Hargrove’s bunch rolled through the regular season and into the playoffs in 1995, first taking care of the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS and then the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS. The thunderous lineup met their match with the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame starting pitching trio in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, but the immediate future was so bright for the ultra-talented Indians.

“We made things easy on Mike Hargrove,” Baerga said. “With our lineup, he didn’t have to manage the hitters, he just needed to manage the pitchers.”

The ’94 and ’95 teams made an amazing habit of coming from behind to win ballgames, as the ’95 team won over one quarter of its games in that fashion. They also had a knack for having walk-off wins—particularly walk-off homeruns in dramatic fashion. The team never quit, as they knew they had the talent to come back from any score.

“When you are in the big leagues, you have to think that way,” Baerga said. “Whether you are facing the Yankees or Seattle, everybody has a great team.  It was so special what we had.  Every time we stepped on that field we felt like we could win. And it wasn’t just the nine players on the field…our bench was unbelievable, too.”

After the 1995 World Series loss to Atlanta, Baerga’s production began to fall off. Baerga battled some knee issues in 1996 and was shockingly traded mid-season to the New York Mets as the Tribe was on their way to a second consecutive division title. Baerga floundered for the Mets for the rest of the ’96 season and then bounced back somewhat in 1997 by batting .281. Baerga’s power had all but disappeared, however, as the second baseman never again reached double digits in homeruns. Baerga was let go by the Mets after a poor 1998 season and became a journeyman player for the rest of his career.

Baerga signed on with the St. Louis Cardinals prior to 1999, but was released before the end of spring training. After spending time in the Cincinnati Reds minor leagues, he hooked on with the Padres again before being purchased by the Indians in August. He played 22 games for the still-winning Indians, batting just .228 with one homerun.

After the Indians early playoff exit in ’99, Baerga signed on briefly with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2000. After being released again before spring training let out, Baerga took his dwindling talents to an independent league and then to the Korean Leagues for the next two seasons. By 2002, he was ready for a Major League comeback, but he never got a regular job in the Big Leagues again.

Baerga became an effective super-utility player for the Red Sox in ’02 and then came out of nowhere to post a .343 batting average in a part-time role for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2003. He spent the ’04 season in Arizona as well, before playing his final games for the Washington Nationals in 2005. Baerga officially retired after 14 years with a .291 career batting average.

Now at 46 years old, Baerga still misses playing the game he loved so much and looks at the game today differently than it was even when he played not-so-long-ago.

“I miss it a lot,” Baerga said. “Especially now, I always try to tell the players, if you have one good year you can make a lot of money. The ballparks are all beautiful nowadays. They’ve got it all.”

Baerga’s career may not have ended like he wanted it to, but his play in Cleveland was stellar enough to land him the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame as a part of the class of 2013.

“It’s very special,” Baerga said.  ““I knew that I had the ability to play the game, but to be in the Hall of Fame—no matter where—you have to be good.  You have to put up numbers. It is an honor to be a part of the Indians Hall of Fame.”

Missing the game, Baerga recently stepped back into the dugout and has his sights set back on the Majors.

“A few years ago, the Indians invited me out to spring training. From that, I said I’d really like to be on the field again. The next year, I was one of the coaches for the national team in Puerto Rico. From there, they asked me to be a manager in Puerto Rico and I also got to be a coach for the World Baseball Classic. I’ve decided that I’ve liked being back in baseball again, and I’d like to manage or coach in the big leagues.”

Another reunion in Cleveland is never off of the table, as Baerga knows where his heart lies and already serves as an ambassador for the organization.

“I’ve stepped away from the field for a couple of years and now I am back. I want to be here.”

Photo: Gus Chan/The Plain Dealer

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