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Countdown to Opening Day – 62 days
The Cleveland Indians broke out the number 62 in the strike-shortened 1995 season when they signed free agent relief pitcher Jim Poole in mid-March. While he is easily the longest tenured and most successful Tribe player to sport the number, his claim to baseball immortality comes instead courtesy of one unfortunate pitch late in October in 1995.
Indians fans can remember it well, because it ultimately spelled the end of the first postseason run by the club since 1954.
Poole was one of two lefty options for manager Mike Hargrove out of his bullpen that season, teaming with southpaw Paul Assenmacher in the Tribe’s efforts to shut down left-handed hitters. He appeared in the first game of the American League Division Series that season, entering the game at Jacobs Field in the 11th inning while set to face two lefties (Mike Greenwell and Lee Tinsley) and the right-hander sandwiched in between them, Tim Naehring. The righty made Poole pay, homering to left to break a 3-3 tie. Albert Belle would knot it back up against Rick Aguilera to lead off the bottom of the 11th, getting Poole off of the hook, and Tony Pena would win it in the bottom of the 13th with his memorable and majestic blast to the bleachers.
Poole’s work in his second appearance, the fourth game of the American League Championship Series versus Seattle, was far less stressful despite his opposition. The Tribe was up 7-0 in the top of the eighth, and Poole retired Ken Griffey Jr. with a groundout before striking out Edgar Martinez and Tino Martinez.
Poole worked a perfect seventh in the 4-3 loss in Atlanta in Game 2 of the World Series, but would not have that same postseason success in Game 6 in a move that Hargrove probably still regrets to this day.
The Indians had forced a sixth game in the championship bout with a win two days earlier in the finale at Jacobs Field for the season. Dennis Martinez gave Cleveland four and two-thirds innings of scoreless baseball, but four hits and five walks had made it a difficult 82 pitches for the veteran right-hander. Poole was called upon by Grover in the fifth with runners on first and second and two outs for dangerous left-hander Fred McGriff.
Poole sat McGriff down swinging on three pitches.
In the top of the sixth, Poole’s spot in the lineup was set to bat second. The catcher and eight hitter Pena singled to center to lead off the inning and Hargrove left Poole in to sacrifice the runner to second, despite having just one plate appearance (1990 – Double-A San Antonio) to that point on his stat sheet for his entire professional career. On the 0-2 pitch, he popped up his bunt attempt in foul territory to the first baseman. A fielder’s choice and a second pop out in foul territory ended the threat.
It would be their last.
Poole, having not been lifted in the top half of the inning, remained in to face the left-handed hitting David Justice and Ryan Klesko to lead off the home half of the sixth. Justice had hit .241 with more walks than strikeouts against southpaws in 1995, with seven of his 24 homers and 23 of his 78 RBI for the year coming against them. He saw a 1-1 pitch to his liking, and the rest was history as the ball exited the playing field and gave the Braves the only run that they would need. The tandem of Tom Glavine and Mark Wohlers limited the Indians to just the one Pena hit, and the series and season were over.
After his sacrifice gone wrong on the biggest stage of all, Poole would get eleven more plate appearances in his career. He went 1-for-8, with three sacrifices successfully completed, two strikeouts, and a double for the Giants in 1998.
The lefty Poole entered the pro ranks after his selection by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 draft. Just two years and six days after signing with the club, he was already suited up for the Dodgers, making his debut on June 15, 1990, a memorable one by striking out the first and only batter he would see on the night, San Diego Padres future Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn.
His stay was not long in L.A., as he appeared in 16 games without a decision and was traded in the offseason to Texas with cash for a pair of minor leaguers. While his stay in L.A. was short, his stay with the Rangers was even shorter. After five games and his first Major League save, the Baltimore Orioles claimed him off waivers.
He had some ups and downs with the Orioles over the next few seasons, remaining in Maryland through the strike-shortened 1994 season while posting one of his better career seasons for the O’s in 1993.
The 1994 season treated him poorly before the strike, as he had a 6.64 ERA and a 2.12 WHIP through 38 games. Following the season, he became a free agent and joined the Indians in March while becoming a big contributor to the relief pitching staff, going 3-3 that season with a 3.75 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 42 games. He was dealt in early July of 1996 with cash to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder/first baseman Mark Carreon but after two seasons back on the west coast, he was released by the Giants on July 15, 1998, and re-signed with the Indians a week later. His numbers were not great over a dozen appearances, but he appeared in six games in the postseason, striking out two Red Sox in one inning over two games in the ALDS and striking out two more Yankees in one and one-third innings over four games in the ALCS loss.
In the offseason, he signed with the Phillies, but was released late in August of 1999 and once again returned to the Indians days later. He started the 2000 season with the Detroit Tigers and moved on to the Montreal Expos in May before re-signing one final time with the Indians after his release in June. He did not appear at the big league level, however, as he made just ten appearances at Triple-A Buffalo to conclude his professional career.
Poole has not left the game of baseball in the rearview mirror after his playing career came to a close in 2000. He has spent time working as an instructor with Grand Slam Sports Center in Johns Creek, Georgia, and has been an assistant varsity baseball coach and pitching coach for the Johns Creek High School Gladiators since the program began in 2009.
Photo: MLB Photo file