As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 75 days
In the late 1980’s and into the early 1990’s, the Cleveland Indians made an interesting habit of breaking in some seldom-used numbers throughout the history of baseball on the backs of some of their young call-ups late in the season.
As was the case with catcher Tom Magrann, who broke the number 76 in during the final month of the 1989 season, pitcher Mike Walker did the same the previous season for the Indians, becoming the first recorded player to wear 75 on the diamond in a Major League game.
Unlike Magrann, who was on his third club and had significant time logged in the minor leagues before his debut, Walker was at the tail end of just his third professional season when he joined the Major League roster.
Walker was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Brooksville, Florida. He was drafted out of high school by the Montreal Expos in the 14th round of the 1984 June amateur draft, but did not sign, instead taking the mound for Seminole Community College’s team in Sanford, Florida. He was selected with the 15th pick in the 1985 January draft (secondary phase) but again did not sign with the Expos.
The Indians selected him in the second round of the 1986 January amateur draft (regular phase) after their selection of local product Jeff Shaw. Walker signed with the club in mid-May and the 19-year-old starting pitcher was headed off to Burlington, North Carolina, in the Appalachian (rookie) League.
The right-hander was 4-6 with a 5.89 ERA in 14 games, including 13 starts and one complete game. He moved into the Class-A level for 1987, spending time with the club’s two affiliates there, Waterloo and Kinston, while posting a combined 14-7 record with a 3.47 ERA in 26 starts. He followed the season by being named to the club’s 32-man Instructional League roster, managed by Mike Hargrove, for their 39-game season out of Twin Lake Park in Sarasota, Florida.
His strong showing in the minor league circuit earned him another promotion for the 1988 season, as he began at Williamsport in the Eastern League. He appeared in 28 games, including 27 starts, and finished with a 15-7 record and 3.72 ERA while throwing three complete games.
As if his young minor league career had not started off well enough, he got the call in early August to pitch for the club in an exhibition game at Cooperstown against the Chicago Cubs. Just 21 years old, he allowed a first inning homer to future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, then settled in for five scoreless innings after. He returned to Williamsport and finished with the Eastern League’s high win total for the season.
He was invited to join the Indians for the month of September, but was not originally scheduled to be added to the active roster. He looked good enough while working out with the Major League squad that the organization decided to get him onto the roster and into action before the end of the season. He appeared in three games, making his debut in a shaky long relief role on September 9 against Boston in a 7-4 loss. He worked two and one-third innings, striking out two and walking four, but not allowing a hit.
He made his first MLB start in a tough luck loss on September 15, striking out five, walking four, and allowing three runs on six hits in six innings in a 3-0 loss to Toronto. He was hit hard in his final appearance of the year two weeks later, as he allowed four runs on two hits with two walks and retired just one batter in the seventh inning of a 12-0 loss to the first place Red Sox.
He went to camp with the Tribe in 1989, but was cut and optioned to Colorado Springs, his first experience at the Triple-A level.
“I’ve expected it for the last couple of days,” said Walker in a story in The Plain Dealer. “They told me I’ll go to Colorado Springs and start, so I’m happy.”
The Indians were looking for Walker to add some complementary pitches to his arsenal, which was said to be just a fastball and forkball at the time. Then Indians manager Doc Edwards was still optimistic about the 22-year-old Walker’s future, saying, “I was not disappointed in Walker. I still think he’s going to be a very good pitcher in the big leagues. When he comes back to big-league camp, he’ll have his feet on the ground.”
Walker spent the season in Colorado, going 6-15 with a 5.79 ERA in 28 starts. He threw four complete games, but his walk rate jumped while his strikeout rate dropped notably. He hit a career-high 14 batters and added a dozen wild pitches to go with a 1.70 WHIP.
Spring training 1990 was delayed a month by the lockout, but Walker was optioned to Triple-A at the end of March. After a 2-7 start with a 5.58 ERA in 18 games, including a dozen starts, he was optioned to Canton-Akron, the club’s new Double-A team, but was promoted after one start to the parent club and switched to the far more usual number 48. The stay with Cleveland was thought to be short, only so that Charles Nagy could stay fresh with a minor league start during the All-Star break, but it remained longer as Walker replaced the ineffective knuckleballer Al Nipper in the rotation. He remained a part of the staff until mid-September and finished the Cleveland portion of his season with a 2-6 record and a 4.88 ERA.
With the exception of five games with the Indians in 1991, he spent the remainder of that season at Double-A Canton-Akron as the club converted him to relief. He made one start and 44 relief appearances there, finishing with a 9-4 record, a 2.79 ERA, and eleven saves. Following the season, he was released and signed with the Detroit Tigers, spending the season in the minors.
He re-signed with the Indians for spring training in 1993, but was cut at the end of camp and later signed with the Chicago Cubs, where he played for his former hometown and saw regular work in the Cubs bullpen, going 1-3 with a 3.22 ERA and his first MLB save in 1995. He was cut by the Philadelphia Phillies before the start of the 1996 season, but signed on with Detroit again, earning his first and only American League save while posting no record, an 8.46 ERA, and a 2.06 WHIP in 20 games for the Tigers.
He spent the 1997 and 1998 seasons at Triple-A Indianapolis (Cincinnati Reds affiliate) and returned to the Tribe in 1999, making 29 relief appearances and earning a pair of saves for their Triple-A Buffalo affiliate in his last pro action.
Walker’s name popped up in 2004 when he was named the Parks and Recreation Director in his Florida hometown of Brooksville, a position he still holds today, per the city’s website. He was also the director of the Hernando Youth League.
To this day, Walker remains the only Indians player to ever don the 75 on his back in a game and is one of just ten players to do so. Barry Zito has worn it the longest, spending 14 seasons with it, while Paco Rodriguez (Los Angeles Dodgers) was joined by Zito (Oakland Athletics) in wearing it during the 2015 season.
Photo: 1989 Bowman card via amazon.com