The Greatest Summer Ever: 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 looks back at player #5 Carlos Baerga.

By 1995, Carlos Baerga was an accomplished Major League hitter, a two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner, and perhaps the most popular athlete in Cleveland.  He was only 26 years old, but he had already seen a lifetime’s worth of personal highs and, unfortunately, also team lows.

Baerga came to Cleveland in the 1989 offseason trade with San Diego that brought himself, Sandy Alomar and Chris James to the Tribe in exchange for Joe Carter.  Alomar was thought to be the gem of the Indians haul, but five years after the deal, it was the surprising Baerga that was the best find.

“It’s not that he wasn’t supposed to be very good, (it’s that) he wasn’t fully developed yet,” Alomar said of his longtime teammate Baerga.  “When Carlos got traded here, he was still in the developing process.  He was always a good hitter.  Carlos always could hit.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t a good Major League player; it’s that he wasn’t a good Major League player yet.  When Carlos got traded with me I was like, ‘wow, Carlos Baerga is coming with me and they don’t know how good of a player they’re getting.’  We were excited.”

Carlos began his Major League career with the Indians in April of 1990 as an infielder that split his time between third base and shortstop.  He was the Indians most productive pinch hitter during his rookie season, finishing second in the American League with a .355 pinch-hit average.  In ’91, Baerga became an everyday player, playing both third and second base.  It wasn’t until 1992, Baerga’s breakout year, that he moved permanently to his well-known spot at second.  From then on, all Baerga did was hit.

And hit.

And hit.

He was an average defender, but Carlos became a young superstar with his bat.  Because he was a little overshadowed by the Blue Jays future Hall of Famer (and future Indian) Roberto Alomar, it was easy to overlook how good of a hitter Baerga was becoming.  That is…until you looked at the stat sheet at the end of the season.

In 1992, Baerga batted .312 by accumulating 205 hits with 20 homeruns and 105 RBI.  He was the first American League second baseman ever to have those numbers and only the second ever after Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby.  The 205 hits were the most by an Indian since 1936, when Earl Averill had 232.  For his efforts, Carlos was named to the American League All-Star team for the first time, and was suddenly an MVP candidate.

His season in ’93 was even better.  For the second year in a row, Baerga hit over .300 with 200 hits, 20 homers and 100 RBI, but that year he added 105 runs scored and 15 stolen bases as well.  Baerga was an All-Star for the second straight year and won his first Silver Slugger.  Carlos finished the ’93 season ranked in the top six American Leaguers in average (.321), hits (200), RBI (114), singles (145) and sac flies (13).  Due to the player’s strike in 1994, Baerga didn’t reach all of his milestones for the third consecutive year, but he did still manage to bat .314 with 19 homeruns and 80 RBI for the improving young team.

Despite Baerga’s MVP-like play, the pitching-starved Indians never won more than 77 games nor did they finish higher than fourth place during Carlos’ tenure with the team (excluding the ’94 strike season).  The Indians were young and had a talented lineup, but were never able to put it all together until 1995.  It was during that summer that the Indians team success rose to meet Baerga’s personal success.

The Tribe surrounded Baerga with greatness from the top of the lineup to the bottom.  There was a good mix of young players and veterans, and the Indians instantly became the best team in baseball.  “It was a special time,” Baerga said.  “Dave Winfield and Eddie Murray are already in the Hall of Fame and could be followed by Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Omar Vizquel and Manny Ramirez (certainly) has the numbers (as well).  When you talk about the greatest lineups of all time…that has to be one of them.”

The ’95 Indians certainly performed like one of the all-time great lineups.  They won 100 games that summer out of only a total of 144.  They were the masters of the comeback victory, coming from behind 48 times to win after trailing in the game.  27 of those victories came in their last at bat.  “We believed that we could come back at any time,” Baerga said.  “We used to step on that field and we knew we were going to win that day.  It was something special.  To win 100 games is not easy.”

Baerga certainly did his part making it look easy in the middle of the Tribe order.  Carlos batted .314 for the second straight year and added 15 homeruns and 90 RBI.  He was elected by the fans to start the All-Star Game for the first time and pounded three hits including a double during the Midsummer Classic.  If not for a late inning comeback by the National League, Carlos certainly would have been named the game’s MVP.

On September 8, the Indians clinched the American League Central Division and finished the year a record 30 games ahead of the second place Kansas City Royals.  They followed by sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS and outslugged the Seattle Mariners in six games of the ALCS.  The Tribe was then matched up with the National League Champion Atlanta Braves in the franchise’s first World Series appearance in 41 years.  With the Braves having home field advantage due to it being an odd-numbered year (home-field advantage used to switch back and forth between the leagues), the Indians lost the first two games in Atlanta and were coming home for game three in an 0-2 hole.  Baerga, who was playing on a swollen ankle and was limping around in an air cast prior to game two, was 0-8 in the series and made the final out in both of the first two contests.  The Tribe looked to their hobbled leader to rebound and give the team its first World Series win since 1948.

Game three of the 1995 World Series was the first Fall Classic game ever to be played at Jacobs Field.  The date was October 24, and it was a brisk 49° that Tuesday night on the shores of Lake Erie.  The ballpark was packed with 43,584 fans just dying to see their Tribe win and give their magical season a pulse.  Falling to a 0-3 deficit is a death sentence for almost any sports team.  It was up to pitcher Charles Nagy to keep the Indians alive, and the Braves countered with their longtime starter, John Smoltz.

Nagy’s first World Series appearance started out rocky, as he gave up a two-out double to rookie Chipper Jones in the first inning.  Veteran Fred McGriff followed by lacing a single into right field, scoring Jones and giving Atlanta an early 1-0 lead.  The Indians were very quick in answering Atlanta’s run.

Centerfielder Kenny Lofton led off the game for the Indians by grounding a single back up the middle.  Vizquel followed by scorching a line drive down the right field line, forcing Braves right fielder and future Indian David Justice to pick up the ball all the way in the corner.  With Lofton and Vizquel off to the races, Justice fired the ball to the cutoff man with Lofton having already scored and Omar standing at third with a game tying triple.  Baerga then strode to the plate hoping to give the Indians an early lead.

Carlos grounded the second pitch of the at bat over to McGriff at first base, scoring Vizquel and giving the Indians a 2-1 lead.  The Tribe had a 1-0 lead in game one and a 2-0 lead in game two, so it was up to Nagy and the rest of the Tribe staff to hold the advantage.

Nagy did his part, as he settled into a bit of a groove and shut down the Braves in order in both the second and third innings.  The Indian bats added some insurance in the bottom of the third with the rally being ignited again by the top of the Tribe order.

Lofton led off the inning with a line drive deep to Atlanta centerfielder and another future Indian, Marquis Grissom.  Grissom fielded the ball cleanly, but with his back to the infield.  Lofton raced into second with a double, bringing up the night’s earlier hero, Vizquel.  Vizquel laid down a bunt to move Lofton to third and act as a sacrifice, but Omar had placed the bunt so well down the third base line that he was able to beat it out for a single, bringing Baerga up with runners at the corners and nobody out.

Carlos lined a single over the infield into left, scoring Lofton and moving Vizquel to second.  It was Baerga’s first World Series hit, his second RBI of the night, and broke a 0-9 spell at the plate.  Another struggling batter, Albert Belle, followed Baerga with a single of his own that scored Omar and made the Tribe advantage 4-1.  Tribe DH Eddie Murray followed with a strikeout, but Jim Thome was able to draw a walk to load the bases and Atlanta manager Bobby Cox pulled Smoltz from the game after only two and a third innings.  Braves reliever Brad Clontz escaped the jam by getting Manny Ramirez to ground into an inning-ending double play.

Nagy held the 4-1 lead through the fifth, with only one Brave reaching second base in the process.  He gave up a run in the sixth, however, when McGriff continued his hot hitting by rocketing a liner over the right field wall for a solo homerun.  The Braves got another run back in the seventh, this time on a solo shot from Atlanta DH Ryan Klesko on the first pitch of the inning to make the score 4-3.  Meanwhile, Clontz and Kent Merker (another future Indian), shut out the Tribe through the sixth inning.  With their three-run lead now cut to one, the Tribe turned back to the top of the lineup to get another rally going and add some insurance in the bottom of the seventh.

Alomar led off the frame with a ground ball to shortstop Dwight Smith.  Even though he had just entered the ballgame in the top of the inning, Smith was able to handle the hot shot by Sandy and fire it to first for the first out.  Lofton followed by working a walk off of Merker and Vizquel moved Kenny to second with a groundout to second base.  With two down and Baerga at the plate, Lofton saw an opportunity and took it.  Lofton stole third on the second pitch of Baerga’s at bat, which is a dangerous and risky move with two outs.  The gamble paid off, however, as Baerga grounded a single through the hole between short and third, scoring Lofton and making the Tribe’s lead 5-3.  The single may or may not have scored Lofton if he was still standing at second base, but after the steal it was a certainty.  For Baerga, it was his second hit and third RBI for the day, officially breaking him out of his slump.

Now given a two-run cushion, Tribe skipper Mike Hargrove elected to send Nagy back out for the top of the eighth inning.  It is a decision that would prove costly as Charlie surrendered a leadoff double to Grissom, followed by an RBI single to Luis Polonia to cut the Tribe lead back to one.  Hargrove then turned the game over to the bullpen that rarely let him down in 1995.

Paul Assenmacher entered the game with nobody out and allowed Polonia to steal second base.  He then lost Jones after he worked the count full and walked him to put the go-ahead run at first.  McGriff put a scare of a lifetime into the Indians and their fans when he lifted a fly ball deep to the warning track in center, but Lofton was able to make the catch.  Both runners ended up advancing on the fly out, and now the two very meaningful runs were in scoring position.  Justice followed by grounding a ball up the middle that Baerga was able to get a glove on, but was unable to make the play.  The ball scooted into centerfield scoring both Polonia and Jones, giving the Braves their first lead of the night at 6-5.  The play was scored an E-4, and Assenmacher was removed from the game after not getting an out.  Right hander Julian Tavarez was able to get a double play to get out of the inning without any further damage.

Down by a run in the bottom of the eighth, the Indians needed a run in the worst way.  Thome popped out to start the inning, but Ramirez was able to follow by working a walk.  First baseman Paul Sorrento moved Manny to third when he singled through the right side, and Hargrove replaced Sorrento with pinch runner Wayne Kirby.  The longtime Indian Alomar then strode to the plate, and stroked the biggest hit of his career up to that point.

On the first pitch, Sandy grounded the pitch from Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers (yet another future Indian) between McGriff and the first base bag.  Ramirez scored easily and Kirby raced to third.  Alomar ran into second base standing up and pumped his fist, having tied the game back up at six.  “I (knew that I) had to hit against the closer and (that) he was going to attack right away,” Alomar said.  “You want to get one swing in on a closer before there are two strikes.  He just happened to throw a pitch over the middle/away part of the plate and I just went with it.  It went over first base and down the line and we tied the game.  It was exciting to give us a chance in that game.”

Wohlers intentionally walked the red-hot Lofton to load the bases, which was the fifth of six times that Kenny would reach base during the game.  “My job is to try to get on base,” Lofton said.  “I don’t care if I get on base by an error, walk or hit, my job is to get on base and let the guys behind me do their job.  You had Omar hitting behind me, then Carlos and Albert, so my job was to just get on base.  In game three, I just knew that if I got on base those guys were going to get me in.”

Lofton’s plan didn’t exactly work this time though, as Wohlers got Vizquel to strike out swinging on three pitches and Baerga came to the plate with a chance to be a hero.  Carlos’ heroics would have to wait, however, as he grounded out to second.

With the score tied at six, Hargrove turned to his closer Jose Mesa to pitch the ninth.  Mesa struggled somewhat, getting into a jam by allowing a single and a walk with two outs in the inning.  Fresh into the game, first baseman Herbert Perry made the defensive play of the series when Jones scorched a grounder down the first base line.  Perry reached back in a last-ditch effort and snared the short hop before it scooted into right field to certainly give Atlanta the lead.  The crowd at Jacobs Field erupted in cheer as Perry tagged first base and gave the Tribe a chance to win the game in the bottom half of the ninth.

Wohlers, however, was able to shut down the Tribe in the ninth and sent the game into extra innings.  Mesa was able to answer by setting Atlanta down scoreless in the tenth, and Wohlers did the same in the bottom half.  Remarkably, Hargrove sent his closer back out into the game for the eleventh and Mesa set down the Braves 1-2-3 in that frame as well.  This took the game into the bottom of the eleventh, where Baerga had a shot to redeem himself from his eighth inning groundout.

Alejandro Pena replaced Wohlers to face Baerga and the two battled to a full count.  On the ninth pitch of the at bat, Baerga shot the ball deep into the right field gap for a leadoff double, setting the Indians up for their first win of the series.  Sensing victory, Hargrove pulled Baerga out of the game in favor of pinch runner Alvaro Espinoza.  With Belle, Murray and Thome due up, the Indians needed just one single to do the job.

Cox wanted nothing to do with Belle, who was coming off a season in which he hit three walk-off homers and intentionally walked the Tribe’s cleanup batter to face the future Hall of Famer Murray.  Eddie lined Pena’s first pitch over the head of the second baseman into right center field and Espinoza chugged for home plate.  The throw from the outfielder was off line and Espy slid into home safely, giving the Indians new life in the Fall Classic.  The Atlanta players walked off the field in disappointment as the Tribe’s dugout and bullpen poured onto the field to mob Espinoza and Murray.  The Tribe was still down two games to one in the series, but as NBC announcer Bob Costas put it on the telecast, the Indians were “back in the World Series!”

There were so many heroes for the Indians in their game three thriller.  Nagy pitched well enough to win, Lofton reached base six times, and Sorrento, Alomar and Murray all had huge hits, but the biggest hero was Baerga.  Carlos drove in runs in the first, third and seventh innings and had three hits, including the double that started the game winning rally in the eleventh.  Tribe fans had been waiting for Baerga to break out of the slump that he was in during the two games in Atlanta, and Carlos came through in a big way when his club needed him the most.

The Tribe ended up winning game five behind the strong pitching of Orel Hershiser, but the victory was sandwiched between two losses that proved to end the Indians magical season.  Baerga ended up batting .292 for the playoffs with one homerun and nine RBI.  No game was bigger for Carlos or the Indians than his performance in game three of the World Series.

After 1995, something mysterious happened to Carlos Baerga.  Heading into the ’96 season, Baerga was one of the best hitters in the game of baseball, the “toast of the town” in Cleveland and a consistently clutch performer.  In 1996, however, Carlos suddenly lost whatever it was that made him such an outstanding baseball player.

Baerga struggled through 100 games for the Indians in ’96 batting only .267, the lowest average since his rookie season.  The Tribe front office saw something different in Baerga and traded the fan favorite along with Espinoza to the New York Mets in exchange for Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino.  Tribe fans were shocked and outraged that the franchise would trade a player that was putting together a Hall of Fame type career up until the ’96 slump.

Whatever the Indian organization saw in Baerga was deadly accurate, however.  Baerga struggled mightily during his two and a half seasons with the Mets and never again reminded fans of the outstanding hitter that he once was.  Baerga signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals in ’99 but was released before the start of the season.  He then signed on with the Cincinnati Reds and never played a game for them either as he was released in June.  Baerga then caught on and played in 33 games for the San Diego Padres before being purchased by the Indians in August for a heartwarming but unproductive homecoming at the end of the 1999 season.

Baerga did not play Major League Baseball in the 2000 or 2001 seasons, but he did play some for a Korean team during the ’01 season.  Baerga was signed in 2002 to play for the Boston Red Sox and spent the next four seasons as a somewhat productive pinch hitter in Boston, Arizona and Washington.  Carlos retired for good after the 2005 season.

It’s hard to say what exactly happened to Carlos Baerga.  From 1990-95 he was the Indians best player and one of the best players in the game of baseball.  His stretch from ’92-95 was one of the best stretches by a second baseman in history.  He accumulated so many big hits for the Tribe during that stretch, who would have thought that it would have come to such a peak during the magical summer of ’95, then come crashing down so hard?

Tomorrow:  Kenny Lofton

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
#17 Sandy Alomar
#16 Tony Pena
#15 Eric Plunk
#14 Paul Sorrento
#13 Paul Assenmacher
#12 Omar Vizquel
#11 Charles Nagy
#10 Orel Hershiser
#9 Julian Tavarez
#8 Eddie Murray
#7 Jim Thome
#6 Dennis Martinez

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