Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 13: Catching Up With Joel Skinner

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 – 13 days

In a short-sighted world, a man who dedicated a huge chunk of his long baseball career to the Cleveland Indians organization will, unfortunately, likely be remembered forever for a single, widely criticized moment.

The fact that former Indians catcher Joel Skinner played for the Indians, played hurt for the Indians, spent two decades either as a Minor League Manager or a Major League Coach for the Indians, and was the Interim Manager for a young, improving Indians ball club just doesn’t seem to matter in the eyes of some Tribe fans.

The only thing that matters to those people is the fact that Skinner didn’t wave Kenny Lofton home in Game Seven of the 2007 ALCS in Fenway Park…and he should have.

“Yeah, probably,” a miffed Skinner said, “but I can’t worry about that. I’ll take the hit if that’s what people want to write about.”

With the series tied at 3-3 and the Indians trailing 3-2 in the game, Lofton was at second base with one out after reaching on an error. Franklin Gutierrez bounced a 1-2 pitch just fair over the third base bag and the speedy Lofton was held at third by Skinner, the third base coach. The ball caromed oddly way out in front of former Indian Manny Ramirez in left and the Indians did not tie the game when it probably could have been. On the next pitch, third baseman Casey Blake grounded into a 5-4-3 double play and the inning ended with a zero in the run column.

With the fabric of the game changed, Boston went on to score eight more runs and won the game with an 11-2 laugher. They had won the series and eventually won their second World Series in four seasons. The Indians, meanwhile, went home ringless for the 59th consecutive season.

“That’s just baseball,” Skinner added.

If anyone knows baseball, it’s Skinner.

Skinner—who wore #13 for the Indians in 1989—played all or parts of 14 seasons professionally from 1980 to 1994. He then coached for two decades in the Cleveland organization, even spending time as the Tribe’s Interim Manager after Charlie Manuel was fired during the 2002 season. Skinner spent some time with the Oakland Athletics as their Bench Coach and served as the Manager for the Charlotte Knights, the AAA affiliate for the Chicago White Sox, for the past four seasons.

He will continue in the White Sox organization in 2016 as he takes over the managerial title at Class-A Advanced Winston-Salem.

“From the player development side, there’s nothing better as a Minor League Manager than sending a guy to the Major Leagues for the first time,” Skinner said of his favorite part of managing in the Minor Leagues. “That’s always a great joy for a manager. I had the honor to be with guys like John McDonald, Russell Branyan, Sean Casey and Marco Scutaro coming up through the Minor Leagues. All those kinds of things carve spots in your heart.”

Prior to his coaching career, Skinner spent parts of nine seasons in the Major Leagues, spending time with the White Sox and Yankees before being traded to Cleveland in 1989. Getting traded, at that point, was no big deal for the veteran catcher and it worked out for the best.

“It was the second time I had been traded in my career, so I knew the drill,” Skinner said. “It was just leaving one team for another. Looking back on it, there’s always more people to meet and all that goes with it. I enjoyed playing in New York and I also enjoyed and ended up raising my family in Cleveland. I still live there, so it was definitely a blessing in disguise at the time. Being able to work with their organization for over 20 years was very pleasing.”

Prior to his stint on Lake Erie and in the Bronx, Skinner got to learn from one of baseball’s all-time best. Skinner had a chance to watch and learn as a backup for the White Sox Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk.

“As a young player coming up with the White Sox – and I was always a very visual kind of player who learned by watching – just watching the way he went about his business and how he did things. He was a taller catcher, so that always helped me see different techniques that he had. It wasn’t much of a verbal thing as much as it was me just shutting up and watching.”

After getting traded to the Indians, Skinner battled a shoulder injury for the remainder of his playing career. The injury ultimately cut his playing time short, but Skinner doesn’t look on getting hurt as a curse and feels fortunate that he is healthy today.

“As a player I was fortunate enough to get parts of ten years in the Big Leagues,” Skinner proclaimed. “I had the one injury where I hurt my arm and it just wasn’t something that I was ever able to come back from. I was very blessed that the rest of my body was fine and I was able to play as long as I did at the catching position. My knees are fine and the rest of my body is fine, it was just the one career-ending injury where I blew out my shoulder. That was a big part of my game behind the plate was controlling the running game, but I have no regrets. It was just something that didn’t allow me to play up to the standards that I had set for myself as a player.”

Despite last appearing in a Major League game in 1991, Skinner stuck around in the Indians Minor League system and on their disabled list until the ’94 season. By that time, the shoulder injury had become too much for the veteran catcher.

“My last year playing was ’94 and I had an agreement with Mark Shapiro, Dan O’Dowd and John Hart that I would go to Spring Training and see if I could play anymore,” Skinner recalled. “I went to Charlotte, which was the AAA affiliate at the time, with the likes of David Bell, Albie Lopez and that group, and I realized right around the middle of May that I needed to turn the page on the professional playing career and that’s when I started working on the player development side.”

Skinner’s playing career may have been over, but his journey through professional baseball was still in its infancy. He was immediately hired by the Indians and worked in their Minor League system through 1999 before getting promoted back to the Majors for the 2000 season. He got a front row seat as Cleveland watched a perennial AL Central powerhouse get torn apart after the 2001 season and then rebuilt over a three-year span. Skinner lists that team’s first success in the 2005 season as his favorite memory from the coaching box.

“That was a lot of fun watching that team come together,” Skinner said. “The 2005 season was real exciting because they had torn that team apart in the early 2000’s to retool it. To see those guys come together, like Grady Sizemore, that was a whole lot of fun.”

Skinner remained with the Cleveland coaching staff through 2009 and was hired by Oakland to be their bench coach in 2010. In 2011, Skinner went back to Charlotte to manage the Knights – the team he used to play for in the minors. To this day, he stays in close contact with the man who taught him so much about the game he has taken a life from – his father, Bob Skinner, who also spent over 20 years in Major League Baseball as a player and manager.

“It’s nice for anyone to pick up the phone and talk to Pops to just talk about life experiences, but having one with so many years in the Major Leagues was just that much nicer,” Skinner said. “As a young player growing up I had that little bit of an added advantage. It never goes away, though. To this day I still talk to him about stuff on the phone and everything is going well.”

One topic of conversation that isn’t on the forefront of Skinner’s mind, however, is that of returning to manage in the Major Leagues after getting just a small sample size during the 2002 season. Skinner went 35-41 with the rebuilding Tribe, but was passed over when Cleveland hired Eric Wedge in the offseason.

“I always look at the game from the standpoint of, ‘What am I doing today?’ That’s where I direct my energy,” Skinner said. “It’s always been that way as a player or in the player development side of things. I just always set myself in the situation of whatever I need to do today. Obviously, it’s something that I’ve had a taste of, but it’s not something that I go to bed thinking about.”

With a life packed full of baseball, Skinner has little time for anything else but his family.

“Besides raising a family of four? That and coaching has filled my docket. The kids are all out of the house now.”

As Skinner continues his baseball successes at the Minor League level, he looks back fondly on his time with the Indians organization…even if a lot of fans can only remember one night in October of 2007.

“It’s a situation and that’s the sport itself,” said Skinner. “When you’re out there on the field, some things go your way and some things don’t. That’s how I look at it. Like I said that night, from where I was, I should have sent him, but I didn’t. You can’t take it back.”


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