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 greats who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 73 days
Yes, former outfielder Wayne Kirby is on most of the 1994/1995 highlight reels wearing his famous #35, but the now coach for the Baltimore Orioles broke into the Big Leagues with the Indians sporting #73 for 21 games in 1991. No matter the number that was on his back, Kirby always looks back on his time with the Cleveland Indians fondly.
“There’s so many memories,” Kirby said. “I can’t pin-place just one.”
Kirby was brought up at the end of that dreadful ’91 season, but he was a regular contributor just in time for the Tribe to break out for their mid-90’s run of success. After spending nine years in the minor leagues, mostly with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kirby was ready for the big time by the time he came up to The Show.
“After the hard work that I put in in the minor leagues,” Kirby remembered, “I finally came up here prepared. I look at some guys who get rushed through the minor leagues and when they get up here they’re not ready. When I got here, I was ready. You hear other guys who have been in the Big Leagues ten or eleven years saying that you belong—that’s a good feeling.”
Kirby played sparingly over his first two seasons, but was an everyday outfielder for the young and talented Indians in 1993. He played in 131 games that season—mostly in right field—and showed off his outstanding throwing arm by leading the league in outfield assists during his first full campaign.
“Yeah, he had 19,” Orioles star outfielder Adam Jones chirped in. “He tells us about it all the time.”
The 19 outfield assists, along with a .269 batting average, 60 RBI, and 17 stolen bases, were good enough to place Kirby fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, only being bested by California’s Tim Salmon, Chicago’s Jason Bere and Boston’s Aaron Sele. Despite Kirby’s solid performance in ’93, he was put in a reserve role for the 1994 season and beyond as the slugging, young phenom Manny Ramirez took Kirby’s regular spot in the outfield. Even in his new role, Kirby continued to thrive right form the very beginning.
“I know the game-winning hit was one of (my favorite moments of my career),” Kirby said. “It’s up there.”
The game winner came on April 4, 1994, as the Indians were hosting the Seattle Mariners for their first game in their new ballpark, Jacobs Field. The Indians came back in the late innings to tie the game that was dominated by M’s ace Randy Johnson for nearly eight innings, only for Kirby to steal the spotlight in the eleventh. With two outs and runners at second and third, Kirby dug in the left-handed batter’s box against Seattle reliever Kevin King.
“Every guy’s dream is to do something good on Opening Day and I did it,” Kirby remembers. “It was a 3-1 fastball and I stroked it down into left field.”
Kirby’s walk-off single is the first of many memories at the Indians’ new home. The new ballpark sparkled in its infancy stage and was the envy of most of baseball.
“When you get called up to the Big Leagues and you get to play, it doesn’t matter which stadium you’re in,” Kirby said. “Coming to the Jake though—back in the day—it was awesome. It was a lot different than the old stadium.”
The walk-off magic was kick-started by Kirby but continued over the next several seasons by his teammates. The Indians rolled through the 1994 season and then dominated in 1995.
“We came back a lot,” Kirby said of himself and his teammates. “It was a team effort. It was 25 men working together. We stuck together and it was a unity. We hit a ton of home runs, we played great defense and it was just fun. There was no score that we couldn’t come back from.”
The mid-90’s Tribe teams didn’t take long to impress the baseball world, but Kirby saw the stretch of domination coming from a mile away.
“Coming out of Municipal Stadium I knew we had a great group of guys. Hungry guys,” Kirby said. “We knew we could hit. John Hart ended up getting the right pitchers for this team and we had the young guys coming. We knew it was special.”
Along with his memorable Home Opener in ’94, a few other memories stick out for Kirby during his time with the Indians.
“Playing in the World Series here was another one. The fans were right up there, too. There’s so many memories.”
The Indians made it to their first World Series in 41 years in 1995 when they were defeated in six games by the Atlanta Braves. Kirby and the young Indians got their first taste of postseason baseball that October and Jacobs Field was the place to be in Cleveland for the better part of the next decade.
“I remember coming out here and watching the seats fill up,” Kirby said of the fans. “They knew that they were going to see a good team—a good product on the field. We had fun while we were doing it. I try to tell all the young guys that. We just had fun—joking but playing the game right. We did all the little, small things to make us win. It was all about winning.”
The Indians continued to win by stringing together six Central Division titles over the next seven seasons. Most of them came without Kirby, however, as he was claimed off of waivers by the Dodgers in June of 1996. Kirby played in the NLDS that fall with Los Angeles—the last postseason appearance in his career.
After spending 1996 and 1997 with the Dodgers, Kirby signed a free agent deal with the St. Louis Cardinals and was then traded to the New York Mets. He played just 26 games in the Big Apple in 1998 and they were the final 26 of his career.
Since retiring, Kirby has returned to the dugout first in the Indians minor league system, then as an outfield/base-running coordinator with the Texas Rangers and currently as first base coach in Baltimore. With coaching taking up the majority of his time, Kirby has little chance to do much else.
“Coaching, raising kids and golf. That’s about it,” Kirby said. “I have three kids. Two girls and one boy. The golf game sucks right now, though…too much baseball.”
A key member of Buck Showalter’s staff, Kirby is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the Bird’s team.
“Bunting,” Kirby said of his duties in Baltimore. “During Spring Training or the regular season, whenever it’s time to work on bunting, I do bunting. I also do base stealing. When the pitchers have to bat during interleague play, I do bunting and base running with those guys. It’s a little bit of everything.”
Doing a little bit of everything sums up Kirby’s career pretty well; starting even way back in high school. Kirby was a standout in every sport that he played, just like his brother, Terry. Terry is a former NFL running back who played a couple of seasons for the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders. He also spent the 1999 season with the Cleveland Browns during their first year back in Cleveland. Despite having two superior athletes at the Kirby dinner table, older brother Wayne did not see any kind of sibling rivalry.
“Not really,” Kirby said. “We both played every sport. Our parents kept us busy. We all had good grades so we were able to play sports. The reason you play multiple sports is because you never know which game you’re going to excel in. We both excelled in all of the sports, so we had a decision to make. He chose football and I chose baseball.”
Still a character in the baseball dugout, Kirby gets some friendly ribbing from his current players but is also very respected.
“Well, I’ve won three Gold Gloves since he’s been here and Nick Markakis has won one,” Jones said with a smile. “I guess I’ll give him some credit.”