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 – 46 days
Although former relief pitcher Aaron Fultz played only one of his eight Major League seasons with the Indians, he and the team certainly made the most of his time there.
During what would turn out to be the final season of his career, Fultz – who wore #46 on his back during his tenure with the Tribe – worked as a key member out of the bullpen for the 2007 season. A veteran of seven seasons and four Major League teams, Fultz saw opportunity right from his first visit.
“I came up here for a visit,” Fultz said. “Playing against them, you always respect them, but when I came up here for my visit I really liked the area. I met the coaching staff and I thought it was the best fit.”
Fultz fit in right from the start. He worked in 49 games and posted a 2.92 ERA for Eric Wedge’s eventual division champions that season.
“Obviously, we had a really good year that year,” Fultz said. “We had very good chemistry. The bullpen was great. We had a good year on the whole as a bullpen. Several guys had good years. The starting staff was phenomenal. Fausto Carmona (Roberto Hernandez) and CC Sabathia were great and then Jake Westbrook, Paul Byrd and Jeremy Sowers or whoever else filled in that fifth spot were all very solid.”
The Indians rode that ‘solid’ pitching staff throughout the regular season and into a Division Series showdown with the Wild Card winning New York Yankees. The Tribe took the first two games of the series at home and then dropped Game Three in New York before clinching the series in Game Four.
“Obviously, you always want to win a playoff series, but beating the Yankees is always fun,” said Fultz, who worked a scoreless inning in the 8-4 loss of Game Three. “I don’t care who you are, they’re still the Yankees. They’re supposedly the cream of the crop and always have been, so it’s extra special beating them.”
After taking down the Evil Empire, a showdown with the Boston Red Sox was set up. The Red Sox and Tribe tied for baseball’s best records at 96-66 and the winner would get a date with either the 90-win Arizona Diamondbacks or the 90-win Colorado Rockies. It turned out that it was red-hot Colorado who would eventually sweep through the NLCS.
“We did feel like, even though the Rockies had had a good run,” Fultz said, “that whoever won that series was going to win the World Series fairly easily. “
The Tribe took a 3-1 series lead with the eventual Cy Young winning Sabathia, 19-game winner Carmona and the former All-Star Westbrook scheduled to start Games Five, Six and Seven. Boston, however, was able to take all three games to eliminate the Tribe and then swept the Rockies to become World Champions.
Even with a 3-1 lead, Fultz never thought that the team felt anything was clinched.
“You don’t take anything for granted at that point, especially against a team like Boston. They just came back and got us.”
During the exciting playoff run to Game Seven of the ALCS, Fultz was basically a non-factor even though he had a spot on the roster. During June of that season, Fultz was hurt and missed the entire month of July. The time off did not do well for the man who had a 1.71 ERA at the time of his injury and the pain never really went away, either.
“I tore a muscle in my ribcage,” Fultz remembered. “I can still feel it now, actually. It made a big difference. My velocity never really came back after that. It made it a lot tougher to pitch.”
Fultz posted a 4.50 ERA from his August return until the end of the season and lost a lot of innings to rookie Jensen Lewis, who was called up to take his place on the roster. Because he never really returned to form, Fultz worked only one game in each of the Indians’ two playoff series. Upon his return, his role also turned into that of a LOOGY, or a situational left-hander.
“Early on in my career, I definitely wasn’t just a lefty-on-lefty reliever,” Fultz said of his new role. “I was a long guy and then I was a setup guy. The last two years of my career I was a lefty specialist…if that’s what you want to call it. Either role in the Big Leagues is good though.”
The rib injury lingered into the following Spring Training and Fultz was never able to return to form before the Indians released him on March 28, 2008.
“To be blunt, I know my pitching sucked the following spring training,” Fultz said. “I had a high ERA and I was just really bad that spring.”
Fultz spent the next year signing on and being released from the Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds. He was never able to make it back to the Major Leagues, however, and the 2007 season with the Indians ultimately proved to be his last. His mop-up work in Game One of the ALCS also proved to be the last outing of his career, as Fultz walked the only two men he faced and never got to go back to the World Series where he had been earlier in his career.
Fultz’s first and only taste of the Fall Classic occurred in 2002 when he was a member of the San Francisco Giants bullpen.
“There’s really no difference between the World Series and any other playoff game, but in the playoffs all you want to do is win,” Fultz said of his October experiences. “It’s the only thing that matters. It’s more immediate and more fun.”
He worked in two games in the ’02 Series as the Giants fell to the champion Anaheim Angels in a classic seven game series. Fultz feels that the 2007 Indians would match up well with the 2002 Giants, although he feels that they would have ultimately fallen short.
“That would be a tough one,” Fultz guessed. “I’d probably say the Giants (would win) just because they had more experience and more veteran players. We had a really great group of guys in Cleveland in ’07, but we had Barry Bonds in ’02. That right there makes a big difference. We had a really good team in both years, but I’d have to take the ’02 team even though the pitching was better in ’07.”
Bonds was in the middle of a string of four straight National League MVP Awards being won and was just one year removed from breaking the single-season home run record. Never a huge hit with the media or visiting fans, Fultz never found Bonds to be a bad teammate.
“He kind of stayed by himself but I don’t have anything negative to say about him,” Fultz said of the home run king. “He was always good to me and my kids when they came to the ballpark. He was great to me, but he’s not a guy you’d talk to a lot or hang out with very often. But he was good to me.”
Since retiring from the game in 2009, Fultz has turned to coaching to keep him close to the game that he loves.
“Coaching is pretty much it,” Fultz said. “I started an academy where I’m from and I coached there, but I’ve been in pro ball for three years now. I’m still just all baseball.”
Fultz currently serves as the Pitching Coach for the A-level Lakewood BlueClaws, who are an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Fultz spent the 2005 and 2006 seasons with the Phillies before signing on in Cleveland for ’07.
Fultz is enjoying his new gig and feels a little like he is giving back to the game.
“Seeing it click for the guys,” Fultz said of his ballplayers, “seeing them improve and knowing that I had a part in it is the best part.”
While Fultz doesn’t dwell on the injury or rapidness of his career decline, he still remembers his time in Cleveland fondly—even though he feels it should have lasted longer.
“Unfortunately, a lot of us were gone in ’08. It kind of fell apart,” Fultz said. “We just had a great group of guys, though. The chemistry we had in ’07 was important to our success.”
Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images