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Countdown to Opening Day – 88 days
If you have a hard time remembering who Rene Gonzales was or when and where he played, don’t fret. His stay in Cleveland was short, but in his time on the shores of Lake Erie, he earned a special claim to fame by becoming the first Cleveland player to don the number 88 on his back in a Major League game.
Gonzales was entering his tenth season when he landed in Cleveland for the 1994 strike season, having already logged some mileage in the air while a member of the Montreal Expos (1984, 1986), Baltimore Orioles (1988-1990), Toronto Blue Jays (1991), and California Angels (1992-1993). He embodied the traits of your everyday bench guy, a light-hitting middle infielder, but one who had seen more regular playing time over the previous two seasons for the Angels plugging holes all across the diamond for California managers John Wathan and Buck Rodgers.
He returned to spring camp with the O’s in 1994, but was cut prior to the start of the season and signed with the Indians on a minor league contract. After getting some time with their Triple-A Charlotte club, his contract was purchased by the Indians as the club optioned rookie pitcher Chad Ogea to Triple-A and designated pitcher Tom Kramer for assignment. He was hitting .258 at the time of the call and was thought to be able to help relieve some of the struggles of Mark Lewis and Jim Thome while giving the club another option at shortstop for the injured Omar Vizquel, who was out with a sprained MCL in his right knee.
The 32-year-old saw his first action 31 games into the season, entering the game as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning of a 2-0 Tribe win. That would be the manner of use he would see from Indians skipper Mike Hargrove, who used the versatile Gonzales just four times in a starting role for his improved roster that season.
He appeared in eight games in May, making one start. His month of June was a bit more productive, especially on the first day of the month.
Dennis Martinez, who was dealt to the Expos by the Orioles in exchange for Gonzales following the 1986 season, was on the mound for the Indians on that day and allowed two runs (one earned) on eight hits over nine innings. The Angels tandem of Phil Leftwich and Bob Patterson had held the Indians to a similar two runs over the first nine innings and the game went to extras at the brand new Jacobs Field, just 48 games old.
Gonzales entered the game in the tenth inning at first base, replacing Ruben Amaro, who had pinch-run for Paul Sorrento in the bottom of the ninth after a leadoff one-out double. Jose Mesa made it a dicey tenth, allowing back-to-back one-out singles to put runners on the corners, but he induced a double play grounder from Chili Davis to keep the game knotted at two.
In the bottom of the frame, Wayne Kirby singled to lead things off against Patterson, but was forced out at second on a grounder by Carlos Baerga. Mike Butcher took over in relief and allowed a single to Albert Belle, and the ensuing error by the left fielder allowed both runners to move into scoring position. Eddie Murray was intentionally walked, which brought number 88 to the plate with a chance to win it.
Five pitches later, Gonzales trotted to first with the game-winning walk-off walk and Butcher pitched a cooler from the Halos dugout out onto the field. It was the Indians’ seventh win in eight games in extra innings for the season after going 2-12 the season before. They improved to 16-7 in their new home and had won five straight.
Gonzales worked in 12 games in the month and even landed on red warmup t-shirts worn by some of the players on the team recognizing the group of bench players on the club who were being referred to as the “Suspect Group” (including Gonzales, Amaro, Alvaro Espinoza, Kirby, Candy Maldonado, and Tony Pena). But playing time soon dwindled with Vizquel back in the lineup and Gonzales ranked as the second utility guy on Hargrove’s bench. He went a span of 18 games between appearances and wrapped up with two July games before being designated for assignment to make room for relief pitcher Larry Casian, whom the club had claimed off of waivers from Minnesota.
He passed through waivers unclaimed and accepted his assignment to Charlotte, never to appear in another game with the Indians. He became a free agent following the strike season and returned to the Angels, again sporting his number 88. He wore the same the following season with the Texas Rangers, but tried the number 28 in his final two big league games in 1997 as a member of the Colorado Rockies.
When Gonzales went to camp with Baltimore in 1994, he ran into a bit of a conundrum, as one of the three Major League players to ever wear 88 on the field up to that date was Paul Carey, who had done so for the Orioles in 18 games in 1993. Carey eventually switched to 77 in favor of Gonzales, but when the veteran was cut, the number was available again. As it would turn out, Carey would spend his season in the minors, and 88 would not be worn again in Baltimore until 1999, when Gonzales’ former teammate in Cleveland, Albert Belle, claimed it in his name.
Gonzales is one of two Indians to wear the number in franchise history, as reliever Josh Outman wore it in his 31 games for the club in 2014. A total of 12 players have worn the digits in MLB history through the 2016 season; the last was Kyle Blanks for the Texas Rangers in 2015.
Main photo: 1995 Pacific Collection trading card