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 – 20 days
Former Indian Kevin Seitzer may have had to wait until the end of his long career before finally making it to the postseason with Cleveland, but by that time he had already made an impression on Major League Baseball long before.
As a rookie for the Kansas City Royals in 1987, Seitzer – who wore #20 on his back for the entire second half of his career – had one of the greatest seasons by a first year player in the past half century. He played in 161 games, logging an AL-best 725 plate appearances, while batting .323 with 15 home runs, 83 RBI, 33 doubles, eight triples and a league-best 207 hits during his first year. Seitzer was the first rookie to amass 200 hits since 1964, when Tony Oliva of the Twins and Dick Allen of the Phillies both accomplished the feat, and was just the 12th rookie ever to do it. Only Nomar Garciaparra of Boston in 1997 and Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle in 2001 have done it since.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that it wasn’t normal and it was very special because I never came close my entire career to 200 hits again,” Seitzer said with a grin. “I played 161 games and hit .323 with over 700 plate appearances that year and I barely got 200 hits. It was something that I recognized very quickly. There’s a lot of things that have to go right for things like that to happen. It speaks volumes for guys like Ichiro and Wade Boggs that just continued to do it year in and year out. It makes you realize how great of hitters they have been.”
Seitzer’s breakout year placed him second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, as he unluckily finished behind Oakland’s Mark McGwire, who smacked a rookie-record 49 home runs in his debut season. Finishing behind Oakland was something that Seitzer would have to get used to, as his always-contending Royals would finish behind the A’s in the standings every year from 1988-1991, keeping Seitzer out of the playoffs during his entire tenure with Kansas City.
Kansas City would finish in second place twice during Seitzer’s time and would finish in third place once. The playoff shutout doesn’t speak for the talent level in KC, however, as Seitzer played with some of the most intriguing names in baseball history.
“George Brett was maybe the best hitter of all-time,” Seitzer said of his former teammate. “Watching him hit for five years and seeing how hot he could get – like the second half the year he won the batting title when I was playing with him – was amazing. It wasn’t just his ability to hit; it was the way he played the game every day. My first day in the Big Leagues I saw him hit two one-hoppers back to the pitcher and run as hard as he could to first base. That’s an impression that a lot of people don’t realize that George makes on younger players.”
Seitzer also got a front row seat to watch one of the greatest athletes of all-time as well.
“It was awesome. With Bo Jackson, he was probably the best talent I ever saw in a baseball uniform. You always had a chance to see something you’ve never seen before between the lines. He was the total package. He had every single tool you could ask for. He had tremendous power, tremendous speed and a great arm. It was fun watching him play.”
After parts of six seasons in Kansas City, Seitzer was released by the Royals in spring training of the 1992 season. The rebuilding Royals let Seitzer go because the third baseman was on a non-guaranteed contract and Kansas City got off the hook from most of Seitzer’s money. Seitzer was signed by Milwaukee less than a week later and played out a one-year contract with the second place Brewers. A year later he signed as a free agent with Oakland, but was released in July and again signed on with the Brewers. During his second stint with the Brew-Crew, Seitzer finally found another place where he stuck, but also ran into a bit of bad luck.
In a game in 1994, Seitzer was struck in the face by a pitch while playing with Milwaukee and then had the same bad fate occur to him again in 1995. After having his face smashed by two different Major League fastballs, Seitzer started to wear an attachment on his helmet called a C-flap that covered his left cheekbone while batting.
“I got hit in the face twice. I had five knee surgeries so I couldn’t get out of the way very well. After that I just couldn’t move,” Seitzer said of the incidents. “You can’t have any fear when you’re in the batter’s box, but when you know you can’t get out of the way when something’s going to hit you in the face—you start rethinking things. I just decided to wear it for the rest of my career. I never got hit in the head again, but it was something that was more of a safety precaution because of the way my knees were. I figured if anyone wanted to call me a big sissy, if they had been hit in the face twice, then they could call me that. But if you haven’t, a 92 mph fastball where the bones shatter in your head isn’t very fun to deal with.”
The extended earflap obviously didn’t have an adverse effect, as Seitzer wore it for the remainder of his career. Still allowing him to see the pitches clearly and giving him a sense of security, Seitzer and his C-flap made the 1995 All-Star team as the Brewers representative.
“Those are a couple of personal highlights from my career, for sure,” Seitzer said of his two All-Star Games – the first coming during his magical rookie season. “Going and playing in that event is absolutely bone chilling. The guys that you’re walking around the clubhouse with and the guys you play against on that stage…it’s really amazing. You almost say, ‘what am I doing here? I don’t belong’. Thank goodness every team has to have a representative and it was a great highlight for me.”
While Seitzer was having some individual success with Milwaukee – a lifetime .300 career hitter with the Brewers – his teams continued to struggle. In 1996, Seitzer was tired of losing and was thinking about the next chapter of his life before he got some career-altering news.
“I was considering retiring after that season because I was just tired of losing,” Seitzer remembered. “My body hurt, my kids were getting older and I wanted to go home and coach them and have family time.”
It was in August of 1996, an hour and a half before the second trade deadline, that Seitzer was traded from the mediocre Brewers to the first place and defending American League Champion Indians.
“It was basically the highlight of my career,” Seitzer said. “All I’d ever wanted was to be able to play in the postseason. In Milwaukee we weren’t doing very well and to be able to go from where we were to first place and know we’re going to the postseason was the highlight of my whole career.”
Not often during the Indians’ glory days of the 1990’s did their offense need a spark, but the Tribe was coming off of their magical 1995 season and expectations were unrealistically off-the-charts for the ’96 squad. Even though they won an AL-best 99 games during the 1996 season, the Tribe seemed to play sluggishly in June, July and August before Seitzer arrived in the trade that sent Jeromy Burnitz to the Brewers. The club was lacking some veteran leadership, as pitcher Dennis Martinez spent much of the season on the disabled list and DH Eddie Murray had been traded to Baltimore.
Seitzer proved to be just the man for the job.
“Hitting behind Kenny Lofton and in front of Jim Thome for most of that time was one of my favorite memories,” Seitzer said. “Kenny and I had our own little signs when we’d put hit and runs on…I’d give him a chance to steal bases and we tried to set the table for the guys hitting behind us in the middle of the order. That was one of my highlights. I hit behind Willie Wilson and in front of George Brett when I first came to the Big Leagues, and then to get to do it again…it was one of my top memories from here.”
Rejuvenated by playing for a World Series contender, Seitzer made the most of his short time with the 1996 Tribe as he batted .386 in the month of September and drove in 16 runs in just 22 games. The Tribe clinched the division within weeks of his arrival and Seitzer finally got to taste the postseason after a decade of coming up short.
“When you get a chance to go to the postseason and play on a team like the one we had here – it was the perfect ending to my career.”
In a strange playoff format for the 1996 season, the AL’s best Indians had to open on the road to face the Wild Card winning Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. The O’s took the first two games before eventually winning Game Four and ending Seitzer’s and the Indians’ dreams far too early. Not having enough postseason success fueled Seitzer’s fire to come back for one more season in 1997.
The Indians once again rolled through the American League Central Division to their third title in a row and went on a rampage in the playoffs. With Seitzer mostly coming off of the bench as a role player, the Indians eliminated both the Yankees and the Orioles on their way to their second World Series in three years. The Tribe took the Marlins to extra innings in Game Seven before being eliminated in heartbreaking fashion.
“It’s something that has been a burr in my saddle ever since 1997,” Seitzer remembered. “It’s something that I want to be able to get past and get that ring…to finish off something that we were so close to getting that year. It was probably the best team I had ever played on. We had a great staff and a great lineup. We just came up short.”
Seitzer never got the chance for redemption as a player, as he retired with a career .295 batting average following the 1997 playoffs. Still looking for a ring, Seitzer eventually jumped into coaching – holding jobs as the hitting coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays.
Seitzer was hired as the hitting coach for the Atlanta Braves following the 2014 season.
“My favorite part is that you still get to compete every day like you did when you played, but it’s on a different level,” Seitzer said of coaching. “When you’re working with 13 guys at a time it’s very rewarding when you’re able to help them. It also gets a little frustrating at times when you can’t. While going through the ups and downs of a 162 game season, it’s fun to be able to put your fingerprint on guys’ careers.”
Seitzer still uses the bitter end of the 1997 season as fuel for his coaching fire.
“During my first year with Toronto, when we had our meeting in Spring Training, I explained to the team how that has been my driving force. Since I retired I’ve wanted to get back into the game, be a coach, get back to the postseason and win a championship.”
In addition to coaching, Seitzer is also involved in the Kansas City community, as he and a former teammate spend a lot of time and energy giving back.
“Mike Macfarlane and I have an indoor baseball facility in Kansas City and we’ve been doing that since 1996,” Seitzer said of Mac-n-Seitz Baseball and Softball. “We’re working with and coaching kids. We’ve got travel teams and a big academy, a 47,000-square foot complex for baseball and softball. We do lessons, camps and have memberships, but we pretty much pour into kids. After we retired we loved the game and loved kids and we wanted to give back and try to make a difference in their lives. We’re still doing it now, actually. I just get to be a hitting coach during the summer.”
In addition to making impressions on kids in the KC area, Seitzer took particular interest in a couple of youngsters who made it professionally.
“It’s awesome,” Seitzer said. “My son is in Double-A and I have a stepson that pitched four years in the Royals organization. He recently retired. It’s really cool and fun to watch—being able to look back and see the differences that you made in your own kid. Even now, I look at his at bats and tell him, ‘here are some adjustments you need to make’. It’s fun…we still have a great relationship.”
The son who is currently still playing is Cameron Seitzer, a prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. In spring training of 2014, Seitzer got to watch his son hit a home run from the Blue Jays dugout, but knows what will happen if the father-son duo ever met in the regular or postseason.
“I’ve got to pull against him,” Seitzer said with a laugh. “Hopefully it will happen.”
Photo: Score Baseball Cards