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Countdown to Opening Day – 20
Rajai Davis might not have been the longest to wear 20 for Cleveland and was hardly the best to do so, but with one magical swing in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, he permanently etched his name into Indians lore.
The veteran outfielder provided a surprise jolt to the Indians lineup last season and his absence will be felt in the coming season as no player on the roster currently will replace his league-leading 43 stolen bases and electric attitude and effort that he provided the club, both on and off the field during the Indians’ run to the final moments of the 2016 season. His high-flying high-fives with teammates after wins became a common sight as the season went on and the team kept winning. He brought with him years of experience, including years of struggling to latch on to roster spots in the early portions of his career.
The addition of Davis seemed underrated at the time, especially coming off of a season in which one of his greatest assets, his legs on the base paths, had provided just 18 stolen bases for the rival Detroit Tigers despite a career-high eleven triples aided by the vast expanses of Comerica Park. Never a big threat at the plate, Davis was joining the Indians at the age of 35 and appeared to be a bench option with a decade of Major League experience under his belt on some good, but not great, teams.
Instead, Davis saw regular time in the Tribe outfield, platooning in center field with rookie Tyler Naquin while filling in for the injured Michael Brantley in left at other times. While he hit just .249 for the season with a .306 on-base percentage, there was no doubt early on that his legs were fresh and opposing pitchers had to spend a disproportionate amount of time watching his antics at first base. It did not slow him, as he picked off all but six of his 49 attempts on the year. He also gave the Indians a surprising amount of pop, as he hit 23 doubles and cleared the fences a dozen times, four more than his previous career-bests set in 2012 and matched again in 2014 and 2015. When he was on base, he was a prime option for his teammates to drive in, which they did 74 times, the most successful touches of home that Davis could claim in a year.
He added a personal accomplishment during the season when, on July 2 against his former Blue Jays club in Toronto, he hit for the cycle in the Tribe’s 9-6 loss, becoming the first Indians player to pull off the feat since Travis Hafner in Minnesota in 2003.
He made his second career appearance in the postseason when Cleveland opened its series with the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series in October, but he struggled with three strikeouts in seven plate appearances. Those issues continued into the American League Championship Series against Toronto, when he played in all five games, but was 0-for-6 with two more Ks against the Jays. While he was slumping in the playoffs, manager Terry Francona gave him a big vote of confidence and kept him in the lineup against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. He doubled in the Game 1 win before a huge effort in Game 5, when he was 2-for-4 with a pair of singles and three thefts on the bases in Cleveland’s 3-2 loss.
He singlehandedly attempted to win Game 7 himself. After grounding into a double play in the second, lining out in the fourth, and grounding out in the sixth, he stepped to the plate with the Indians trailing 6-4 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning against Chicago closer Aroldis Chapman. The hard-throwing left-hander had come on one batter earlier, giving up an RBI-double to lefty-masher Brandon Guyer and Davis took advantage of the suddenly shaky southpaw, digging out a 2-2 pitch and, in the most improbable of fashions, sending it to the Home Run Porch in left field to tie the game at six all.
As history will tell, the Cubs scored a pair of runs after a rain delay in the tenth inning off of Bryan Shaw, but the Indians threatened in their last ditch efforts after Guyer worked a two-out walk. He moved to second on indifference and Davis drove him home with a liner up the middle to make it an 8-7 deficit. Davis, however, would not get to touch the plate again as Michael Martinez grounded to third to end Cleveland’s hopes of a two-championship year.
The opportunity and experiences in Cleveland may have very well been the highlights of Davis’ eleven-year career, one that started five teams earlier when he was selected in the 38th round of the 2001 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He would also suit up for the San Francisco Giants, Oakland, Toronto, and Detroit before landing in Cleveland.
Davis signed a one-year, $6 million contract to return to Oakland with the Athletics in January. When the A’s come to town from May 29 through June 1 in their only trip to Progressive Field, there is little doubt that Davis will get a raucous ovation, one in which he most certainly deserves.
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The Indians will honor a former number 20 from the long history of the franchise this year when Frank Robinson is immortalized outside of Progressive Field with a statue in his honor.
Robinson was at the end of the line when the Indians acquired him in September of 1974 from the California Angels for Ken Suarez, Rusty Torres, and cash considerations. The 39-year-old former National League Rookie of the Year, 1961 NL MVP, and 1966 AL MVP and World Series MVP had been selected to the 12th All-Star Game of his career earlier that season in what would be his final such nod.
Robinson would make it into 15 games for the Indians that season, hitting .200 with a pair of homers and five RBI.
He would take the field as a player for the Indians just 100 times in his three seasons with the club, but it was the significance of his hiring as the team’s manager ahead of the 1975 season that made his time in Cleveland so instrumental. With it, he became the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball history when he replaced Ken Aspromonte as the Indians skipper.
He made his first game as a player-manager even more memorable when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning while in the lineup as the team’s designated hitter. The date was April 8, 1975, and the Indians were hosting the New York Yankees in their home opener. With the baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the widow of Jackie Robinson, Rachel, in attendance at Cleveland Stadium, Robinson drove a fastball low and away over the wall in left off of Doc Medich to give the Indians a 1-0 lead. Cleveland would give up the lead before chipping away with runs in the second, fourth, and sixth to win 5-3 while giving Robinson an even more memorable managerial debut.
“Any home run is a thrill,” shared Robinson after the game [as quoted in the April 9, 1975, edition of The Plain Dealer], “but I’ve got to admit, this one was a bigger thrill.
“[General manager Phil Seghi] suggested to me this morning, ‘Why don’t you hit a homer the first time you go to the plate?’ I told him, ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’”
He penciled his name on the lineup card 49 different times in 1975 as he hit .237 with a .385 on-base percentage with five doubles, nine homers, and 24 RBI for the year.
Robinson played sparingly in 1976, appearing in 36 games on the year and just two games in September. His final at bat seemed fitting though as he took on his former Orioles team and entered via an eighth inning pinch-hit appearance for Frank Duffy with runners on first and second and one out and his Tribe trailing 3-1. He delivered an RBI-single to left to score Joe Lis, but a double play ball ended the threat and the O’s held on for the one-run win.
He concluded his 21-year playing career with a .294 average and .389 OBP with 586 career home runs. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 1982.
His managerial tenure in Cleveland was brief. He led the club to a 79-80 in 1975 and another fourth place finish the next season with an 81-78 record. But off to a 26-31 start in 1977 and no longer playing the game, he was replaced at the helm by Jeff Torborg, who went 45-59 and the Indians finished fifth with a 71-90 record.
He returned to Baltimore and was a coach for the organization for three years before taking over as the manager of the San Francisco Giants from 1981 to 1984. He went back to Baltimore as a coach from 1985 to 1987 and took over for manager Cal Ripken Sr. early in the 1988 season. Baltimore would go 54-107 in his first season, but he took the club to a second place finish with an 87-75 record the following season. The O’s slipped back to 76-85 the next year and, after a 13-24 start in 1991, his time in the Baltimore dugout ended.
He got another chance a decade later when he was named the manager of the Montreal Expos for the 2002 season. He spent three years in Canada and accompanied the club when it relocated to Washington, D.C., spending two more years there before calling it a career at the age of 71 with a managerial record of 1,065-1,176 in the big leagues.
Robinson was inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame last season.
Other notable 20’s in Indians history: Sam Zoldak (1948-50), Ray Narleski (1954-58), George Hendricks (1973-74), Rick Manning (1981-83), Otis Nixon (1984-87), Jeromy Burnitz (1996), Kevin Seitzer (1996-97), Steve Karsay (1998-2001), Karim Garcia (2002-03), Victor Martinez (2003), Ronnie Belliard (2004-06), David Dellucci (2007-09)
Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images