Join Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to Opening Day!
Countdown to Opening Day – 33 days
The number 33 has a curious place in Indians history. It has been worn by a handful of prolific sluggers, generally outside of their glory years on the diamond, and at other times was on the backs of some of the better pitchers on the roster through the 1960s.
It may be unfortunate that a number linked to some great hitters was tarnished some over the last few years after being claimed by Nick Swisher. The large sum of money given to the one-time free agent, returning from the Big Apple to his former Ohio stomping grounds, may go down as one of the worst expenditures in the long history of the Indians franchise. To be fair, injuries took the wind out of Swisher’s sails and the pressures of being a cleanup hitter in the Tribe’s lineup were expectations he never was able to live up to fully. Now, Swisher has formally hung up the cleats after brief time in Atlanta and back in the minors with the New York Yankees last season and will assume the full-time roles of father and husband before his inevitable sports media career begins.
Prior to Swisher, fans trying to recall some of their favorite seasons in recent Cleveland memory may recall a pair of forces in the lineup that both contributed to playoff teams.
When the Indians added former National League Rookie of the Year David Justice to the fold in 1997, it united them with the man whose solo homer in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series was the final nail in the Indians’ championship hopes that season. He wore 33 for the club, as the number 23 that he wore for his first eight seasons in the Majors with the Atlanta Braves was already on the back of ageless wonder Julio Franco, who was in his second stint with the club. When Franco was released by the Indians in August, Justice switched to his old 23.
Justice hit a career-best .329 with 33 homers and 101 RBI and was named to the American League All-Star team in 1997, the only time he represented an AL squad in his career. He hit .185 in the World Series with the Indians, his fourth championship series of his career. He drove in four, all five of his hits were singles, and he walked six times while striking out eight times in 33 plate appearances.
Eddie Murray is probably the better remembered 33 in recent Tribe history, thanks to his role in the resurgent Tribe’s return to the postseason promised lands in 1995 after their 41-year layoff.
“Steady Eddie” came to Cleveland in 1994 at the age of 38 to provide veteran experience and leadership to a very young, but dangerous, Indians lineup. Working as the club’s first baseman and designated hitter, he hit .254 his first season in town with 17 homers and 76 RBI in 108 games. When play resumed in 1995 after the strike, he posted his second-best single-season batting average with a .323 mark in the middle of the Tribe’s lineup, adding 21 homers and 82 RBI. He spent the first half of 1996 with the club, hitting .262 with a dozen homers and 45 RBI, but was dealt to Baltimore for pitcher Kent Mercker.
While these two had a bit more success with the Indians, plenty of other recognizable sluggers also took the 33 as their own during brief stops in Cleveland.
Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon were both beloved members of Terry Francona’s World Series drought-ending team in Boston in 2004. But by the time they came to Cleveland, they were in their twilight, as Damon hit .222 in 64 games and would never play in the MLB again, while Nixon hit .251 in 99 games and played in only eleven games for the New York Mets the following season before calling it quits.
Remember 22-year MLBer Harold Baines? The former six-time All-Star came to town in 1999 after making his final Midsummer Classic with the Baltimore Orioles. He was on a career-best chasing pace to begin the year with the O’s, but was traded to Cleveland on August 27 for a pair of minor leaguers. He hit .271 over his 28 games with the Indians and drove in 22 runs, but Cleveland was knocked out of the postseason after coughing up a two games to none lead in the American League Division Series to the Red Sox.
What about the brief experiment with Cecil Fielder in 1998?
In 1989, Fielder was out of the Majors and playing in Japan. He hit .302 with 38 homers and 81 RBI for Hanshin and returned to the Majors in 1990 with the Detroit Tigers. There, his career was revived as he put on a home run display for the ages. He hit 51 homers in his first season back, then surpassed the RBI total he amassed in 1990 with one more in 1991 to give him a career-best 133. He hit at least 28 homers in seven consecutive seasons, but by the time he came to Cleveland, the Cecil show was coming to a close.
Released by the Anaheim Angels during the second week of August after a disappointing .241 average with 17 homers and 68 RBI in 103 games, he joined the Indians a few days later. The experiment was short-lived; he hit .143 in 14 games and struck out 13 times in 37 plate appearances before getting his walking papers a month later.
Ron Kittle spent a year in Cleveland in 1988, looking to get back to his big fly days of the early years of his career. An All-Star and American League Rookie of the Year in 1983, he once hit 35 homers and drove in 100 runs in his first full season in the Majors. He hit .258 for the Tribe at the age of 30, hitting 18 homers and eight doubles while driving in 43 runs before moving back on to the Chicago White Sox organization, the club with whom he had his best professional seasons previously.
Then there was Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. He came to Cleveland in the middle of September in 1974 for two players and cash and wore 33 for the first time in his career. It was just a short-term number for him, as he would be in his old number 20 by 1975 as the Indians player-manager when All-Star outfielder George Hendrick switched from 20 to 21.
Robinson played 21 seasons and slugged 586 homers before landing in Cooperstown and, in 2016, in the Indians’ own Hall of Fame. He will have a statue erected in his honor at Progressive Field later in the 2017 season.
Hitters with pop have claimed the number all the way back to 1940, when one of the earlier Indians power hitters, Jeff Heath, was said to have worn it for a portion of his playing career. He spent ten of his 14 seasons in Cleveland and was an extra base hitting machine at some points of his early career. He hit .343 with 31 doubles, a league-leading 18 triples, 21 homers, and drove in 112 in 1938. He mirrored those numbers again for the Indians in 1941, when he made his first of two career All-Star teams and hit .340 with 32 doubles, 20 triples, 24 homers, and a career-best 123 RBI.
While the number has been used sparingly by pitchers over the last three decades, it did see a steady and strong dozen-year run on the mound beginning in 1958 when Jim “Mudcat” Grant started wearing it.
Mudcat spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland and posted a career 67-63 record during his time with the club. He was an All-Star in 1963, his sixth season for the Indians, and won as many as 15 games for the team in 1961. He was dealt to the Minnesota Twins in June of 1964 and led their staff with a 21-7 record in 1965 on the way to his second and final All-Star team.
Luis Tiant got his call to the Majors a month after Grant was traded and began his 19-year career. He went 10-4 in his first season and went 21-9 with a league-leading 1.60 ERA and nine shutouts in 1968, when he also posted a 0.87 WHIP and made his first Midsummer Classic trip. After leading baseball with 20 losses, 37 homers allowed, and 129 walks the next season, he was traded after the season to the Twins in a six-player deal. He topped the 20-win mark three times as a member of the Red Sox and made All-Star teams with the club in 1974 and 1976.
Robbie Grossman wore the number with the Tribe last spring training and Tom Gorzelanny took ownership of it during the season, but after a 21.00 ERA in seven games, he was released midseason.
Main photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images