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Countdown to Opening Day – 42 days
Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42 across the game on April 15, 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his monumental breaking of the color barrier. Indians reliever Michael Jackson was one of 13 players who were wearing that number at the time and was allowed to continue wearing it, making him the last to call the number his own for Cleveland.
In 2013, the last of those original 13 players, Mariano Rivera, retired from baseball. Since 2007, the number has returned around the league for one day each year, thanks to the efforts in 2007 of 2016 Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., who wanted to honor Robinson on the 60th anniversary of his debut.
Jackson not only has the honor of being the last to wear the number regularly for the Tribe, but he had some of the best seasons in Cleveland history by a player wearing the number.
By the time Jackson signed with the Indians in the final month of 1996, the 32-year-old right-hander had already put together eleven years of work on the Major League mound with Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and two separate stops in Seattle. He had become a steady and durable middle and late inning reliever and would help manager Mike Hargrove’s pitching staff get the ball to closer Jose Mesa.
Jackson did the job well, pitching in 59 of 71 games in the eighth or ninth innings and four more times in the seventh with two men out in his first year with the club in 1997. When Mesa was on the shelf to start the season, Jackson remained in his setup role, but he was able to earn some saves in a four-week stretch starting at the end of April when Mesa was shelled in two losses and a blown save when he allowed seven runs in an inning of work over two appearances. Jackson earned another stretch of saves beginning at the end of June through July when Mesa again slumped on the mound.
Mesa got himself back together in the second half and was dominant, going 3-0 with 13 saves in his final 39 appearances with a 0.97 ERA. Jackson was able to help set the table, earning ten holds after the All-Star break on the way to a season record of 2-5 with 15 saves, 14 holds, and a 3.24 ERA.
In just the second postseason of his now dozen-year career, Jackson went 1-0 in 13 games with a 0.68 ERA. He struck out 16 and walked five over 13 1/3 innings. Mesa, meanwhile, will be linked to his role in the 1997 postseason forever, as despite a 1-0 record and four saves in the playoffs, he struggled mightily against the Florida Marlins, giving up ten hits in five innings over five games (2.20 WHIP and 5.40 ERA). He allowed the final four runs (all unearned) in the Game 3 14-11 loss, the eighth and deciding run in an 8-7 loss in Game 5, and the devastating tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7.
Mesa earned just one save in 44 games for the Indians in 1998 and was traded to San Francisco in July, while Jackson manned the closer job and earned a career-high 40 saves in 45 chances while controlling the opposition with a WHIP of 0.88 and an ERA of 1.55. The Indians fell to the New York Yankees in the ALCS that season.
It wasn’t as easy for Jackson in his third season in Cleveland, but he still held down the closer’s job and saved 39 of 43 chances. His ERA climbed to 4.06 and his WHIP to 1.25 while earning a 3-4 record, but the Indians returned to the postseason. Unfortunately, the club did not have enough opportunities to go to its closer, bringing him in during the ninth inning of a Game 2 11-1 blowout and to maintain an 11-8 deficit in the ninth of the final game of the series. It would be his last trip to the mound for the Tribe and the last by an individual assigned the number 42 in Indians history, as he allowed back-to-back doubles to Brian Daubach and Nomar Garciaparra to extend the Boston cushion to four runs. Pedro Martinez slammed the door in the bottom of the inning to end Cleveland’s late October hopes.
Jackson returned to the Phillies on a free agent deal in the offseason, but did not pitch for the club as he was out injured. He reappeared in the Majors with Houston in 2001, Minnesota in 2002, and the Chicago White Sox in 2004 before hanging up the glove.
Ninety-four of his 142 career saves came with the Cleveland Indians. He is fifth on the club’s all-time saves list, ten behind Mesa, and is the next name for Cody Allen to surpass on that leaderboard (Allen is currently at 92).
Several other notables wore 42 before Jackson became the last. The late Carlos Martinez, possibly best known as the batter to homer off of Jose Canseco’s head, wore it in 1992 and 1993. Knuckeballer Al Nipper donned it in 1990. Mustachioed Rich Yett spent 1986 to 1989 as one of the longer tenured 42’s in club history. So too did Sonny Siebert from 1964 to 1969, including for his no-hitter in 1966.
The first to wear the number in Tribe history may be a surprise – Bob Lemon, a struggling 21-year-old third baseman for the club, wore it for five games in the weeks preceding his 22nd birthday in 1942. After returning from the war, he wore number six briefly before sporting his much better remembered, and now retired, 21 for the rest of his Hall of Fame career.
Photo: Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images