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Countdown to Opening Day – 38 days
There were 38 Cleveland Indians players to wear #38 as their jersey numbers prior to the 2016 season, so if the Tribe’s front office wanted to just be ironic, they could have chosen to never pass out the number again and retire it up in the mezzanine level at Progressive Field.
If they were going to retire #38 – not that they should – the man who deserves it the most is probably former reliever Eric Plunk.
Yes, both Rocky Colavito and Early Wynn sported the number for a short time during their Cleveland years, but both of those Indian greats wore different numbers for most of their Tribe-tenures. Plunk, on the other hand, wore #38 for all seven of his seasons with the Indians, while no other Tribesman wore it for more than five (Joe Smith).
Plunk started wearing the number when he signed as a free agent in 1992 after years in Oakland, a spring training with Toronto and a couple of stints with the Yankees. The lure of the young and talented Tribe was obvious to Plunk from the day he signed.
“Their potential (made me sign there),” Plunk shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night in 2014. “I knew what kind of team that they were. We had a huge, great core of talent.”
The talent was just starting to blossom during the ’92 season and continued to grow as the team moved into the brand-new Jacobs Field in 1994. The Indians became an instant contender with Plunk anchoring the setup role of an outstanding bullpen.
“I really thought we were going to go to the World Series every year,” Plunk said of his Indians’ teams. “It’s as good as any bullpen I’ve ever been a part of. Depth wise, it was probably better than any bullpen I’ve ever seen.”
The Tribe did make it to the World Series twice during Plunk’s stay – once in 1995 and again in 1997. Cleveland ultimately came up short on both Series, making Plunk 0-3 in his career during the Fall Classic. Plunk had also lost the 1988 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a member of the A’s pitching staff.
“When I was in Oakland, we won 104 games and lost to the Dodgers. Basically, they upset us. We were, on paper, a lot better team than they were,” Plunk remembered. “During the ’95 season we knew we were up against the Braves and they had a tough pitching staff. We knew it was going to be tough. The other two times I was in the Series I thought we would win. We never did, though.”
The final time that Plunk pitched in late October was in 1997 when the Tribe came within two outs of the title.
“The 1997 season was a great team. I really thought we were going to win it that time,” Plunk said. “It’s still pretty vivid. That was a fantastic Series, though. It goes down to the 11th inning of Game Seven…how many Series actually do that? It was anybody’s ballgame and it’s still a tough one to swallow.”
Plunk continued pitching for the Indians bullpen into the 1998 season when he struggled through a tough stretch of his career. He was traded to Milwaukee mid-season for former Indians reliever Doug Jones, but left his mark in the Cleveland record books before doing so. Currently, Plunk stands seventh in team history in games appeared in by a pitcher and is tops among traditional relievers. He also stands ninth in games finished and had four straight seasons (1993-1996) with a sub-3.00 ERA and posted his best two seasons in 1995 and 1996 as a member of the Tribe. With so many fond memories made here, Plunk’s trade was a hard pill to swallow for the right-hander.
“It was tough,” Plunk said of the trade. “At certain times, there’s always times that things change. I was having a rough year. My father passed away that year and there were a lot of personal things that were going on. In a lot of ways, sometimes a change like that is good. Make no mistake about it though, it was tough to leave. I had been traded a few times before, but being traded from the Indians was a lot tougher. I had a lot of friends and we had built a home here.”
After the trade to Milwaukee, Plunk got back on track and finished the 1998 season strong. In 1999, however, Plunk struggled to find success – and his command – and posted his worst season since his rookie year in 1986. Plunk retired at the end of the season, finishing his career with a 72-58 record and a 3.82 ERA.
“After I retired I took a couple of years off and did some traveling,” Plunk said. “I then started a construction business and that kept me busy for about five years. I’ve also been doing some traveling, hunting and I try to stay involved in all of the things that I didn’t get a chance to do while I was playing baseball.”
Plunk did eventually get back into the game, however.
“I got a little bit tired of doing (construction) and so I opened up a baseball facility with another ballplayer and then the father of another ballplayer in California. For the past six or seven years we’ve been doing that. It’s like an indoor baseball facility where we give lessons. We have an indoor infield.”
Being back in the game as a former Major Leaguer who played in three World Series, two countries and each American coast, Plunk gets asked the same questions over and over and he always has the same answer to give.
“I’ve been asked the question a ton of where do I feel like I had the most fun playing…it’s definitely Cleveland. I loved playing here and this is as close to a second home as I’ve ever had. I always loved playing here.”
Photo: Pinnacle Baseball Cards