The Tribe Has Options for Players to be Honored at Progressive Field

With the election this past week of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza to the Hall of Fame, it is an opportune time to ask the question – who should the Cleveland Indians consider honoring at Progressive Field?

Seven former Indians players have been previously honored, either in number or statue or both. Four have had their uniform number retired – Earl Averill, Lou Boudreau, Mel Harder and Bob Lemon. Jim Thome has a statue in his honor, and both Bob Feller and Larry Doby have been memorialized with both a statue and their number retired. What is significant is that of these seven stars of Cleveland Indians history, only Thome played in a single game after the 1958 season. Therefore it is time to consider some players of the more recent eras to be honored at Progressive Field.

In order to narrow the field of worthy candidates, I will impose two criteria. First, to be considered the player must have played for the team while it bore the moniker Indians. Second, the player being considered for the honor of a statue or having his number retired must have played at least 5 seasons for the Tribe. These criteria help us eliminate at least four worthy candidates, all Hall-of-Famers; Nap Lajoie, Joe Gordon, Roberto Alomar and Frank Robinson.

It would be easy to make an argument for the enshrinement of all of these stars, but many of their greatest moments in baseball did not take place in an Indians uniform.

Setting the parameters was easy. Now the more difficult task, figuring out who should be considered. I will examine the top options by decade starting with the 1960’s and going through the 2000’s. From each decade I’ll narrow the field to two candidates, ideally the top pitcher and hitter. Finally, I will collect the ten top candidates and cut it down a selection for a statue and a selection for number retirement.

On the pitching side of the sixties, two names jump to the top of the list, Sam McDowell and Early Wynn. I am grandfathering Wynn in this decade, as he only played the 1963 season with the Indians as he closed out his Hall-of-Fame career, but played the bulk of his Indians career in the 1950’s (1949 – 1957). He won 20 games four times during his Cleveland tenure, with an overall record of 164-102. He is ranked fifteen amongst all-time Indians players in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) with 39 and he went to three consecutive All-Star games from 1955-57 before departing for the south side of Chicago. McDowell also ranks comparably to Wynn with an all-time team WAR of 41 placing him 14th all-time for the Tribe. He led the American League in strikeouts five times during his career with Cleveland. The 1970 season was the pinnacle where he managed his fifth All-Star appearance with the Tribe and finished the season with a league-leading 305 innings pitched and 304 strikeouts to back a 20-12 record.

Third baseman Max Alvis tops a short list of sixties hitters to consider that also includes Joe Azcue and Tito Francona. Alvis is the strongest candidate of this group, earning All-Star nods in both 1965 and 1967, following his return from a bout with spinal meningitis that knocked him out for the ’64 season. He hit 111 homers in his Indians career over 951 games. The Immortal Azcue, as he was nicknamed, caught at least 76 games for the Tribe each year from 1963 – 1969, earning a trip to the midsummer classic in 1968. Tito, the father of current Indians manager Terry, played six seasons on the shores of Lake Erie, but they were the peak of his career, including an All-Star berth in the 1961 season. All three are interesting candidates, but none are likely to push past players of later decades, or even the ones of past decades who have yet to be honored. This dearth of top notch hitters leaves me with the two pitchers, McDowell and Wynn, as the most viable candidates of the sixties.

Two well-remembered batsmen, Andre Thornton and Mike Hargrove, lead the hitters of the seventies (Hargrove as he started his career in a Cleveland uniform in 1979). Another worthy of consideration is the Marion Mule, catcher Ray Fosse, whose budding career was arguably derailed by the punishing hit he took from Pete Rose in the 1971 All-Star game. Both Fosse and Hargrove are likely fondly remembered by longtime Indians fans, but it is Thornton who was both a fan favorite and a top performer for the team. He played ten years with the Tribe after being acquired from the Montreal Expos for infielder Jackie Brown. He made two All-Star teams as an Indian, and mashed 214 home runs and 749 RBI over 1,225 games. Finally, you can’t discuss Indians hitters of the seventies without Buddy Bell. The current White Sox executive honed his tools for the Tribe through his age 26 season with an All-star appearance in 1973. If there had been sabermetric analysis then, the Indians might have benefited by keeping in Cleveland the eventual four All-Star performances and six Gold Gloves he earned in Arlington following the trade for Toby Harrah.

On the pitching side of the ledger the 70’s yield several notable candidates. Len Barker just barely qualifies as he was traded to Atlanta during his fifth season with the team. Large Lenny gets noted here primarily for the perfect game he pitched against Toronto on May 15, 1981, also the only year he was named to an All-Star squad. Rick Waits‘ 74 wins are second-most amongst all Cleveland southpaws. Acquired from Texas in 1975 as part of a package for Gaylord Perry, Waits has continued his baseball career as a pitching coach, most recently with the Seattle Mariners. Both Gaylord Perry and his brother Jim pitched for the Tribe in the seventies, but Gaylord did not reach the minimum five season cutoff, and Jim’s excellence for Cleveland was in the first few years of the sixties. So I will go with Waits as the seventies hurler. This means the 1970’s give us Thornton and Waits.

The eighties brought a number of significant franchise players to Cleveland, though not all of them rose to fame while wearing a Cleveland jersey. The most significant is Albert “Joey” Belle, who debuted in 1989 and went on to mash 242 homers as an Indian, good for second all-time on the team leader board. His peak season was 1995 in the midst of five consecutive All-Star appearances.

Three other names that rise to the level of notice are Brook Jacoby, Joe Carter and Julio Franco. In nine years with the Tribe, and two All-Star appearances, Jacoby hit 120 home runs with 524 RBI. Franco spent more time in a Cleveland uniform than any other, though he did don the duds of eight different major league teams. As an Indian he amassed 530 RBI, a .297 batting average and garnered a second place finish for Rookie-of-the-Year in 1983. Finally, Carter, snagged by the Tribe as part of the trade that sent Rick Sutcliffe to the Cubs, spent six years in the Cleveland outfield totaling 150 home runs, 530 RBI and adding 126 stolen bases. Unfortunately before he broke out, he was dealt to San Diego for several players who went on to anchor the elite 1990’s Indian teams, and he went on to have his peak years with Toronto.

The two principle eighties pitchers for consideration are Tom Candiotti and Doug Jones. Candiotti spent seven of his 16 years in a Cleveland uniform, and played his final season for the Tribe. He had a 73 and 66 win / loss record, with a 3.62 ERA and 764 strikeouts in over 1,200 innings pitched. Not too shabby, but perhaps not quite enough to get a nod for greater recognition. Jones is a step above Candiotti. Jones also pitched seven seasons for the Tribe earning three All-Star selections. He is second on the All-Time team leader board for saves with 129. He notched 27 wins and a 3.06 ERA as part of the Indians teams that began the rise from the also ran status of the seventies and eighties, to the teams that dominated the American League Central division with the onset of divisional play. In examining the eighties then, our best candidates are Albert Belle and Doug Jones.

The 1990’s is the decade where the real challenge appears, as the team was dominant for more than half of the decade, and featured a number of significant star players who helped the Tribe to dominate. Choices include fan favorite Jim Thome, already honored with a statue, as well as Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Omar Vizquel and Manny Ramirez. Let’s examine this cohort by looking at a comparison of their triple-crown stats as Indians. I’ll include games played to give a sense of longevity with the team.

Player G HR RBI Avg.
Baerga 941 104 565 .299
Lofton 1276 87 518 .300
Ramirez 967 236 804 .313
Thome 1399 337 937 .287
Vizquel 1478 60 584 .283

This short list offers a very strong collection of offensive performances. Clearly just by these metrics, Thome is significant. Further examination reveals that Vizquel had nine of his eleven Gold Glove awards as an Indian, Thome had three All-Star appearances and a Silver Slugger while with the Tribe, and Ramirez had four All-Star appearances and three Silver Sluggers and ranks at the top of the All-Time Cleveland Leader Boards for both slugging and OPS. Lofton appeared in the All-Star game five times in a Cleveland uniform, and earned four Gold Glove awards as well, while Baerga earned three All-Star nods and two Silver Sluggers as an Indian. Perhaps this collection of added information does not clear up the picture.

If we look at WAR for these five players they fall out in rank order as follows; Lofton 48.5, Thome 47.9, Vizquel 30.0, Ramirez 29.9, Baerga 19.7. That produces a different perspective on this group, with Lofton jumping out ahead of Thome. If we just consider those two then, since their gap in WAR is more than 15 over their nearest competitors, I am going to give Lofton the edge because of higher WAR and the fact that Thome already has a statue in his honor. So I’ll choose Kenny Lofton to represent the nineties hitters.

For pitching, the cream of the crop, when scanning Cleveland rosters, is Jose Mesa and Charles Nagy. Joe Table toiled seven years in the Cleveland bullpen, ranks fourth on the All-Time saves list with 104, and holds the highest single season total in that category with 46 in 1995. Nagy pitched for the Tribe every single year of the nineties, with his only appearances in the majors not in a Cleveland uniform coming with five starts for the Padres in 2003. He is tenth on the All-Time Cleveland wins list with 129, and made three All-Star appearances as an Indian. Both were significant factors in Cleveland’s success during the decade, but I’ll give the edge to Nagy in joining Lofton as my best options.

Finally, we get to the 21st century. It may be a bit early to begin thinking about any of these players for team honors, but it won’t be far off that they should be considered. The three names that are under consideration are Grady Sizemore, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. All of them played significant roles for the team, but I am going to limit myself to the eight players which I have already chosen.

The hitters selected are Andre Thornton, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. Representing the hurlers are Sam McDowell, Early Wynn, Rick Waits, Doug Jones and Charles Nagy. They present an interesting and recognizable collection of star players from Indians history. I’ll start with the options for statuary and then I will finish off with retired numbers.

For the honor of a statue, no name immediately jumps to the forefront. You can argue for Early Wynn on the basis that he is already a Hall-of-Famer and deserves to be honored. He was inducted to Cooperstown in 1972 and other Tribe players in the Hall of Fame have already been recognized in some way, namely Averill, Feller and Doby. Kenny Lofton also could be worthy of a statue. He led the team in WAR four times during the peak run of the nineties. It might be a bit early for this type of honor, but you can make the argument that without Lofton, that team does not dominate the AL central the way that it did. In addition to all the other numbers mentioned previously, he scored 975 runs as an Indian, topping 100 runs scored in six season from 1993 – 2000. Since Wynn already has HoF honors, and the Indians have yet to recognize his achievements a statue outside Progressive Field seems the best way to go, so Early Wynn gets my vote for the next honoree in statuary.

For uniform retirement, the competition is deeper. Wynn, Nagy, Lofton and McDowell all have strong cases for being so honored. For these it always seems better to have the retired player present, so this eliminates Wynn who passed away in 1999. This leaves a difficult choice. Do you go with McDowell, whose name is scattered across the organizational pitching leader boards, but comes from an era that fewer and fewer fans may remember, or do you go with more recent players? Both Nagy and Lofton identify as Indians, and though Lofton played for a number of other teams his peak performance was in Cleveland and was the only organization where he played more than one year in the majors. Going back to WAR, Lofton has a strong argument with his 48.5 nearly lapping the 25.1 of Nagy, and beating out the 42.3 of McDowell. This puts Kenny Lofton out front and makes him my choice as the next Cleveland Indian whose number should be retired.

So Early Wynn and Kenny Lofton rank as my choices for recognition at Progressive Field. This is not to say that there are no other players who are fondly remembered and deserving of such an honor. It is likely that Jim Thome will have his number retired at some point in the not so distant future, perhaps if he is enshrined in the halls of Cooperstown once his opportunity comes around in 2017. If I was in the marketing department for the Indians I would think about spacing out honors for Nagy, McDowell, Thome and perhaps several others over the course of the next decade.

Of course if you want to add more fuel to the fire you can always go back and look at the list of hall of famers I noted at the beginning and really complicate matters.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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