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Countdown to Opening Day – 77 days
When pitcher Jack Armstrong asked the Indians to wear the number seven for his first season in Cleveland in 1992, he found out that it had already been taken by another new member of the organization, similarly acquired via trade in the offseason.
That player was Kenny Lofton, who would become another one of the legends to wear that digit in Indians history, joining Charlie Jamieson, Hal Trosky, and Al Rosen, to name a few.
Armstrong decided to try something new, which was a theme to his journey to Cleveland with his first new franchise of his career after being drafted and developed into an All-Star across the state in Cincinnati. Since he couldn’t have seven, he opted for the number twice and became the first and only Indians player to wear the number 77 in an official Major League game.
“I picked it for a lot of little reasons,” said Armstrong to The Plain Dealer during spring training. “I was born on the seventh of March. My wife’s home address used to be 711. And my son [Marcus] was born on the 14th of February, and seven plus seven is 14. So there seemed to be a lot of sevens floating around. When I asked for number seven, it was already taken. So I picked 77.”
Armstrong entered Major League Baseball with some expectations. He was drafted in the third round in 1986, but did not sign with the San Francisco Giants. The move paid off, as he became the 18th overall pick by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round of the following season’s draft.
Just over one year later, the 6’5” right-hander was taking center stage at the Astrodome to begin his Major League career with the Reds against the Houston Astros. He would finish his debut year at 4-7 in 14 games with a 5.79 ERA and followed it with a 2-3 record and a 4.64 ERA in nine games the next season, but he would become an All-Star in 1990 as the Reds would storm to a World Series victory over the Oakland A’s. He earned NL Pitcher of the Month honors for May and was 11-3 with a 2.28 ERA in the first half, leading the way to a start in the All-Star Game.
He finished the season 12-9 with a 3.42 ERA in 29 games, including two complete games and one shutout, and threw three scoreless innings in October. He missed some time in August and September with a sore right elbow.
Armstrong, the Reds, and manager Lou Piniella could not replicate their success again in 1991, as they fell to 74-88 and finished fifth in the National League West. Armstrong went 7-13 with a 5.48 ERA in 27 games and was optioned to Triple-A Nashville for a month late in the season.
He found himself packing to head north to Cleveland as part of a four-player trade for Indians starter Greg Swindell in November. He was joined in the move by fellow pitcher Scott Scudder and minor league pitcher Joe Turek. Swindell, the Indians’ number one starter, rejected a three-year, $9 million deal, and was sent away, despite leading the 105-loss team in innings, starts, complete games, strikeouts, ERA, and lowest walks per nine inning rate by a starting pitcher in 1991.
“I’m not surprised they traded me, but I am surprised it happened so quickly,” Swindell was quoted in the days following the trade in The Plain Dealer. “To me, they didn’t give it a fair shot. If they wanted to sign me, they could have. They didn’t make but one offer. We just said we wanted four years. I’ve been telling people for over a month that I expected to be traded. To me, they didn’t try to sign me. They weren’t willing to go for it.”
Swindell was set to become a free agent following the 1992 season. He was believed to be seeking a four-year deal between $12 and $15 million after making just over $2 million in 1991. The Indians had made a similar move the previous season with starter Tom Candiotti.
Both Armstrong and Scudder were projected to be a part of the club’s starting rotation, joining Charles Nagy, Eric King, Rod Nichols, and Doug Jones.
“We made Greg an offer that would have made him the highest paid player in Indians’ history,” director of baseball operations John Hart said following the trade. “When he rejected it, the decision was made that we could not sign him and we were not on a sign-Greg-Swindell-at-all-cost mission.
“We were looking for young pitchers. We identified Armstrong and Scudder as two people who could help us in 1992.”
Cleveland pitching coach Rick Adair shared a similar sentiment with reporters during spring training, stating, “We did not trade Greg Swindell for two stiffs. These guys have talent. I’m not taking anything away from Greg Swindell. He’s going to do some good things. But we’ve seen everything we expected from these two guys, and a little bit more.” He later added, “Armstrong is very intelligent. He understands what he’s doing and why. He’s adjusting to the things we’ve suggested.”
The four-pitch pitcher Armstrong (fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup) appeared to welcome the move to Cleveland after the high pressure cooker that was the Queen City. Tension filled the locker room in Cincinnati as the team fell short of the expectations put on it by its World Series title and the desire to repeat.
“There was a lot of pressure put on a lot of young players to win every game last season with the Reds,” Armstrong shared with The Plain Dealer following the trade. “When you’re young and impressionable, that kind of stuff can get to you. There’s a lot to be said for the kind of continuity and patience Atlanta showed their young pitchers. The Reds put themselves in a position not to do that. A lot of young pitchers and players had difficulty adjusting to their agenda.”
Financial disagreements also led to some tough feelings for Reds players, as Armstrong had walked out of spring training prior to the start of the 1991 season after the Cincinnati front office renewed his contract at $215,000. The renewal process gave all power to the team and zero bargaining power to the player. Armstrong was attributed as saying he would “rather work for $30,000 a year on a tuna boat” when he departed the training camp.
In March, before playing in an official game for the Indians, Armstrong was one of nearly a dozen players to come to terms on a multi-year contract extension, buying out some arbitration time, a process the Indians championed in the 1990s and continue to use today. The Indians inked Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, Mark Whiten, and Nagy on three-year deals with options for a fourth. Armstrong was one of six to sign two-year deals with a third-year option, slated to make $800,000 in the second year of the deal and $1.65 million in the 1994 option year.
“It’s been an exhaustive process, but this gives us an opportunity to keep these young players in Cleveland,” general manager Hart said after news of the signings. “I tip my hat to Dick Jacobs. We put this plan in front of him and he stepped up to the plate. He said, “If you can get it done, do it.””
Armstrong ended camp as the number three starter in the Tribe rotation. After losing three of his first four starts, he earned the win on May 5th in an 8-6 slugfest that marked his fifth straight game giving up at least one homer. The five earned runs allowed were a season high (to be topped in his very next start), but stood firm for the win.
He would not earn another win until June 16th, eight starts later. He followed his second American League win by losing six consecutive games and headed into the All-Star break with an abysmal 2-12 record and a 5.40 ERA. Home runs were an issue, as he gave up 16 in his first 18 starts.
After losing his 13th game of the year, Armstrong lost his starting spot and would pitch in relief for a month before re-entering the rotation to replace Dave Otto. After four more starts and a 1-2 record in that stretch, including five home runs scattered over two of the starts, he was back to the bullpen for his final six appearances of the season.
He finished the season 6-15 with a 4.64 ERA in 35 games (23 starts). The rebuilt and younger Indians club finished the year 76-86 and in fourth place in the AL East in manager Mike Hargrove’s first full year at the helm.
Baseball’s 1992 expansion draft was set to follow the season and Armstrong did not make the cut of the 15-man list of players who were allowed to be protected from a list of 105 eligible in the organization.
Armstrong was taken in the second round by the Florida Marlins with their 20th selection overall. The new NL East club also took outfield prospect Darrell Whitmore in the first round, while the Colorado Rockies selected pitcher Denis Boucher with the last pick of the third round.
“Jack failed as a starter for us but pitched exceptionally well out of the bullpen,” Hart said following the draft. “Yes, we had concerns with what we were going to do with him next year, but it still stings a little to lose him. If we had a choice, we would have gotten Jack through so we could have taken a look at him for one more year. But we wanted to protect our young pitchers. We wanted to get at least two of our young pitchers on the staff next year. Can we find someone to replace Jack as a 2-13 starter? I certainly hope so.”
Armstrong was the Marlins’ number two starter, but his struggles mirrored his one season in Cleveland as he finished 9-17 with a 4.49 ERA in 36 games (33 starts). His option was not picked up and he signed with the Texas Rangers in the offseason. He appeared in just two games for the Rangers in 1994, losing one, but missed the majority of the season with a rotator cuff injury to his right shoulder that landed him on the 60-day disabled list.
The Indians brought him to spring training for a seven-day trial in 1995 to check on his health and discussed a split contract, paying him different rates if he were pitching in the Majors or minors, but he never suited back up for the Tribe. In fact, he was out of baseball altogether until 2000, when he emerged at the age of 35 with the Marlins’ High-A affiliate in four games, then played 31 games for Newark (Independent League) in 2001 and 2002, making the league’s All-Star game in his first season there.
He will always have his World Series ring and a starting nod in the 1990 All-Star Game to look back upon fondly. He will also have the less exciting legacy as the first of the 77s in Tribe history, and still the only one to date.