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.
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When former Indians catcher Einar Diaz was traded away from the team on December 6, 2002, the Tribe pulled off a heist and received one of the greatest sluggers in team history. Travis Hafner, who came along from Texas with pitcher Aaron Myette in exchange for Diaz and pitcher Ryan Drese, eventually became the Indians’ all-time leader with 187 home runs as a designated hitter and is eighth all-time on the franchise’s home run list with 199. It’s clear that the Indians received the obvious upper-hand in the trade, but Diaz was seen at the time to be a solid, everyday starting catcher due to his previous experience with the Tribe.
Over the course of seven seasons with the Indians, Diaz – who wore #2 throughout his time in Cleveland – played in 456 games while batting .259 with 15 home runs and 139 RBI. Not exactly a prototypical catcher, Diaz also swiped 16 bases during his time with the Indians, including eleven during his first year as a regular in 1999. Prior to that, Diaz had played very sparingly for the Major League club as a September call-up from 1996-98.
“Those were the years that we won a lot of games,” Diaz remembered. “We had some good teams until 2002. Those were good years, man. We had fun over there.”
Diaz was signed by the Indians as an 18-year-old infielder in 1990 and he did not start catching until the 1993 season. At that time, the young Diaz was proving to be a solid prospect, batting .299 for the Rookie-Level Burlington Indians. He climbed the organizational ladder until finally making it to the Big Leagues for good in 1999 when regular catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. was injured and Diaz was given his big break.
Diaz made the most of his initial opportunity, batting .281 with three home runs in 119 games in ’99. What were most impressive, however, were Diaz’s abilities behind home plate, as the young catcher showed his excellent skills and cannon of an arm over and over again. During his rookie season, Diaz was able to gun down a very respectable 35% of potential base stealers, just above his career average of 34%. Diaz had become a name to know in Cleveland, and the Panama native was learning all along the way.
“I’m the same as everybody. The language was the main thing,” Diaz said. “Once you learn that, it was fine. It took me two or three years to understand a lot of stuff. (It was tough to communicate with pitchers) when I started. It was my second year as a catcher. I was an infielder and then my second year they changed me to a catcher. That was tough…a different role. We had English class every day. That’s when I understood it easier.”
Diaz returned to his role on the Indians bench for the 2000 season as the legendary Alomar returned from his injury and the Indians just missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 1994. After proving himself to be more than capable in his backup role, Diaz was rewarded the starting job once again in 2001 as the Tribe allowed Alomar to walk via free agency. Diaz started a career-high 134 games that summer while batting a respectable .277 and socking an impressive 34 doubles. Smacking doubles down the third base line had become Diaz’s calling-card, as just a year prior he owned one of baseball’s best pitcher’s by doing exactly that.
“That was the day we had the big fight,” Diaz remembered. “The game was like a four-hour game…I remember that.”
With the dominant Pedro Martinez on the mound for the visiting Boston Red Sox, Diaz laced a double down the third base line, just over the bag to put runners at second and third base with nobody out. Two innings later, he gave the 42,000 fans and Martinez déjà vu when he did it again, going 2-for-2 against the unbeaten flamethrower.
“He was a good pitcher,” Diaz said of Martinez.
During the seventh inning with the BoSox ahead by a 2-0 score, Martinez gave Diaz a reminder that he owned the plate and that he was the best pitcher in the business.
“It’s been a long time,” Diaz remembers, “but that pitch was close to my head and that was the thing. He was a good pitcher at that time, but that was too close to my head. That’s what started the big fight. Then, the next inning he hit Roberto Alomar.”
Martinez ended up striking Diaz out in the seventh inning at bat and stared down the Tribe catcher the entire way to the dugout. He was ejected the following inning for hitting Alomar in the leg. Sandwiched in between the Diaz chin-music and Alomar’s sore thigh was another message that was sent in the top of the eighth as Tribe starter Charles Nagy had plunked Jose Offerman to lead off the inning, protecting his battery mate.
That was how those Indians teams operated. They stuck up for one another and kept the swagger that drove other teams crazy.
“(There were) good guys on that team,” Diaz said with a smile.
The 2001 Indians bounced back from their down year in 2000 to make the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons. It was the last time that Diaz would taste the postseason in his career, but he made the most of it by batting an impressive .313 in a five-game ALDS loss to the Seattle Mariners.
“Both teams were really good,” Diaz said of the ’99 and ’01 squads. “We made it to the playoffs with both.”
After 2001, with catching prospect Josh Bard and super-prospect Victor Martinez waiting in the wings, time grew short on Diaz and he was dealt to the Rangers following a disappointing 2002 season. While in Texas, Diaz was put on the hot seat again to replace a legend just like he did with Alomar in Cleveland, as the Rangers had just parted ways with former MVP Ivan Rodriguez. Diaz felt no pressure in taking over for the two big name catchers.
“Big names and good guys too,” Diaz said. “No pressure, I just went out and tried to do my job. I would do whatever I could to help the team and that’s it. I didn’t think about that, I just wanted to go play, have fun and help out in any way I could.”
Diaz spent one season in Arlington and then served as a backup catcher in both 2004 for the Montreal Expos and then in 2005 for the St. Louis Cardinals. After very limited duty with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006, injuries took their toll on Diaz and the 33-year-old catcher was forced into retirement.
“After I retired, I started working right away,” Diaz said. “It was 2008 and I worked in the minor leagues. I was in extended spring training with Baltimore. After that, I went different places including managing two years in Bloomfield.”
For the 2013 season, Diaz got called back up to the Big Leagues as Orioles manager Buck Showalter named Diaz his “seventh coach” as he became the assistant hitting coach for the slugging O’s.
“I’m the seventh coach, the assistant hitting coach,” Diaz said of his gig. “My role is helping the hitting coach, chatting with the hitters in the cages and throwing batting practice.”
Coinciding with Diaz’s new job assisting the Major Leaguers was a breakout year for the Orioles’ MVP runner-up, Chris Davis. Diaz threw batting practice to the slugger all season including at the All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby, but Diaz takes no credit for Davis’ breakout.
“No, no, no…he did it himself,” Diaz said with a laugh. “He’s very strong and had a hell of a year.”
While Diaz enters his fourth season now in the Baltimore dugout and will do so in a new role, no longer working as the team’s assistant hitting coach but instead serving all aspects of Orioles’ coaching, he still reflects fondly on his seven seasons spent in a Tribe uniform. When the Orioles’ schedule brings him back to Progressive Field, he can’t help but reminisce.
“There’s good memories when you come back here…the good times,” Diaz said. “Those are memories you never forget.”
Photo: Toledo Blade