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Countdown to Opening Day – 45 days
Of the 23 former Cleveland Indians to don the #45 on their back, no player wore it longer – or better – than former southpaw reliever Paul Assenmacher.
In Assenmacher’s five seasons with the Tribe, the team won five American League Central Division titles and went to the World Series twice. Assenmacher pitched in more games than any other Indian over the club’s most successful half-decade stretch and smiles bigger when looking back on his time in Cleveland than any of his other four Major League stops.
“I would say that this is the spot where I had my most enjoyable years,” Assenmacher recalled in an interview for Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “Going to the ballpark every day when it is sold out…you really don’t appreciate that until you’re out of the game. Now I look back and realize how special of a time it really was. My Cleveland memories are the most memorable ones.”
Assenmacher, a soft-tossing lefty, was already a nine-year veteran when he signed on with the Tribe in 1995 and was just what the doctor ordered for the generally inexperienced, right-hand-heavy, fireballing Indians bullpen. To make matters even more beneficial, the Tribe signed Assenmacher away from and weakened what was their biggest rival of the 1994 season.
“I was with the White Sox the year before and when the season ended, the Indians weren’t far behind us,” Assenmacher remembered. “You could just see them getting better. The ballpark was nice and I just kind of fell into a great thing.”
Besides a great overall team, one of the forgotten great things that Assenmacher found himself in the middle of was a dominating bullpen. Assenmacher joined the likes of veteran relievers Eric Plunk and Jim Poole as well as breakout stars like Jose Mesa, Julian Tavarez and Alan Embree to form the league’s most dominant ‘pen.
“We had an unbelievable closer that year in Jose Mesa,” Assenmacher said. “Julian Tavarez, nobody knew much about Julian coming into it, he had a great sinker going that year and was dynamite. Eric Plunk too, he had some great seasons in Cleveland.”
The Indians dominated the regular season and into the World Series in 1995 and the members of that dominant bullpen got great seats to watch one of baseball history’s best lineups.
“We had a great view from the outfield of watching our guys beat up on the other teams. We just had to keep the game close and we’d have a good chance to win.”
Assenmacher did more than his share of keeping the games close, as the lefty didn’t allow an earned run until June in 1995. He continued his success into the postseason, as he posted one of the more memorable relief appearances in Tribe history during the ’95 ALCS.
In Game Five of the tied-up Championship Series against Seattle, the Indians were clinging to a 3-2 lead with Mariners at the corners and one out in the top of the seventh. Future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. was coming up to bat with the slugging Jay Buhner and Tino Martinez on deck and in the hole. Manager Mike Hargrove summoned Assenmacher to face the left-handed Griffey and he struck him out for the second out of the frame. Hargrove then stunned everyone by leaving Assenmacher in to face the right-handed Buhner, but the veteran lefty continued his dominance and struck out the second straight All-Star to end the inning.
“They had Tino Martinez, another lefty, on deck. I could see the situation where he might want to take me out, but geez, I just struck out Ken Griffey,” Assenmacher said with a laugh. “Grover must have said, ‘Hey, Paul is on a roll tonight!’ So he left me in and I happened to throw some good pitches to Buhner and struck him out. I faced Tino the next inning and then he brought in Plunky. “
The Indians won the pivotal game and eventually the series before dropping the World Series to Atlanta in six games. The Tribe made it back to the Fall Classic two years later, but they lost a heartbreaking seventh game in extra innings to the Florida Marlins to end a miraculous playoff run. The sting of coming so close to winning a title still sits with Assenmacher.
“It’s tough. In any sport, when you get that close, you never know if you’re going to get another opportunity,” Assenmacher said. “I’ve lived down in Atlanta and they have had so many opportunities and only won it once – unfortunately against us in ’95. You wish the outcome would have been different for us and mostly for the fans, but we gave the fans a good run. It was a good opportunity. Overall, it was a great season still.”
Assenmacher pitched for the Indians for the next two seasons before retiring in 1999. The Tribe never made it back to the World Series, so Assenmacher finished his 14-year career 0-2 on baseball’s biggest stage.
Prior to his time with Cleveland, Assenmacher started his career in Atlanta in 1986 before getting traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1989. Assenmacher was traded to the New York Yankees in July of 1993 before getting flipped again to Chicago – this time with the White Sox – just prior to the ’94 season. Assenmacher then signed his only free agent contract with the Tribe the following season.
Since retiring, Assenmacher has moved back to where it all began in Atlanta and continued to be involved with the game of baseball.
“I help coach a high school baseball team in Atlanta called St. Pius,” Assenmacher shared at the time of the interview. “I’ve been doing that for about the last ten years. It’s been a lot of fun. We had a good season last year.”
Outside of baseball, Assenmacher is a husband and father and just tries to love life.
“I try to get out on the golf course as much as possible, but the high school season runs about four and half months, so I’m pretty busy with that.”
Photo: Rick Stewart/Getty Images