I felt the ghosts of 1997 come out Wednesday.
The Indians now have the dubious distinction of playing in the two most recent World Series Game 7s to go into extra innings – and losing them both. The Indians succumbed last week in the 10th, giving the Cubs their first World Series win since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. In 1997, they lost in the 11th to the Marlins, who were all of four years old – and the first wild card team to win a World Series.
The 1997 World Series remains a blur to me. It was a weird time in my life (which has always been fairly weird, so that should tell you something). I actually had a date the night of the first game. Such scheduling might seem like apostasy now, but it had only been two years since the Indians previously appeared in the World Series. My dating dry spell had been a little longer – and a little more fruitless.
I watched the Indians lose the opener at Campus Pollyeyes with the woman who has forever become known in my storytelling as The Redhead. (True story: We went back to my room and she was looking at the pictures on my wall. She came across the one from my colonoscopy that summer – I told you I was weird – and asked about it. Fully prepared for her to run screaming from the room, I told her. Instead, she said, “Well now I’m mad. I got one of those done and they didn’t give ME pictures.” When I recounted that story to my friends, they told me I had to marry her. It was not to be.)
But like Humphrey Bogart drunkenly berating Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” I remember the wow finish – which left me standing there with a comical look on my face because my insides had been kicked out. (I honestly hadn’t actually watched a minute of it since, until I watched “Believeland” this year). Jose Mesa – who was virtually a sure thing two years earlier – gave up the game-tying run. Charles Nagy, who should have started, coming on in relief. Edgar Renteria. Craig Counsell. It wasn’t the worst I’d ever felt as a Cleveland sports fan – that was when I watched Art Modell celebrate his arrival in Baltimore two years earlier – but it was a close second.
I was planning to blow off classes the next day for the parade. It was not to be. Three months later I started therapy again. I’m not going to tell you it was because the Indians snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but it sure as hell didn’t help.
It’s easy to look at Game 7 this year and see the parallels. Like 1997, it was an extra-innings game. Like 1997, the Indians were poised to celebrate a title – once again, there was plastic sheeting and champagne bottles in the Tribe locker room. And like 1997, there was a reliever that let it get away late.
But also like 1997, the Indians were playing a team with a better record. That 1997 Indians team won the American League Central by default – aided by the second-place White Sox having a fire sale at the deadline. (I was at the Tribune-Chronicle in Warren that summer, and presaging Paul Hoynes, I wrote that the Indians would probably win the division but not make much noise beyond that. Mercifully, there was no Freezing Cold Takes at the time to hassle me). The Marlins were a good team, but not as good as the Cubs were this year.
And that’s the big takeaway from this. The Indians really overachieved, particularly with who they didn’t have contributing in the postseason. Michael Brantley was a non-factor this year. The Tribe was using essentially a three-man rotation without Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar – and the pitching stood up well enough for long enough that nobody noticed the team wasn’t hitting well. They pitched a bullpen game and hit .170, and still shut down the Blue Jays enough to win the American League Championship Series in five. That’s not supposed to happen.
But it did. And then the Indians won three of the first four games. Visions of a second parade in six months danced in our heads. It was not to be. The longer a series goes, the more likely it is that the better, healthier team wins. And this year, that was the Cubs.
It’s also easy to draw the comparison between this year’s Indians and the Warriors team that gave up a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, but I don’t think it’s fair. I think a closer comparison was the 2014-2015 Cavaliers. They ran up against key injuries and a better team. They got to a 2-1 lead in the Finals, but it wasn’t sustainable.
Of course, the tempered warm memories this year will be forgotten if the Indians don’t capitalize. In 1998, the Indians advanced to the American League Championship Series, and held a 2-1 series lead before losing the next three to the Yankees. The Indians didn’t advance to the ALCS again until 2007, when they watched a 3-1 series lead evaporate to the Red Sox.
We watched the Indians make a second-half run in 2005 but fall short of the playoffs. And the year after that ALCS team, the Indians underachieved and then dealt CC Sabathia. The playoffs aren’t guaranteed.
But they weren’t guaranteed for the Indians this year. And given what they accomplished – and the fact that Terry Francona is still at the helm – I still like their chances.
Photo: AP Photo/Eric Draper