Twenty years ago Saturday, the jewel on the lake hosted baseball’s best and brightest as all gathered to partake in the 68th edition of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
Cleveland was the site of the Midsummer Classic, hosting the game for the first time since setting a new All-Star record crowd at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium in 1981. The venue changed, but the crowd that came out in support of the game was treated to a historic effort from one of its hometown boys.
The city had already played host to an All-Star Game in February, when the neighboring Gund Arena helped the NBA celebrate its 50th anniversary. The star-studded contest saw the East defeat the West, 132-120, but the hometown Cavaliers were represented by just one of their players, Terrell Brandon, as the team would fail to make the playoffs in the spring after a steady five-year run.
The Indians, meanwhile, were playing through the 1997 campaign after a first round exit in the previous October’s playoffs against the Baltimore Orioles. As first half action wrapped up on July 6, the Indians were 44-38, three and a half games up on the opposition in the American League Central. They had held the top spot in the division for all but one day since May 18, the last day of the season’s schedule that they would find themselves at the .500 mark. Rumors circulated in the days heading into the All-Star break about potential moves the Indians may investigate for a playoff push for a third straight season.
The Indians were represented well in the dugout as All-Star skipper Joe Torre of the New York Yankees elected to bring along Tribe manager Mike Hargrove to assist in the coaching duties. It was Hargrove’s second trip as a coach and third in his post-playing career after leading the AL team in 1996. He was joined by team trainer Jimmy Warfield, who also held the All-Star trainer role in 1981.
David Justice was selected as one of the starting outfielders for the squad and was the fourth-leading vote getter in the league. Justice, however, was sidelined with a hyperextended elbow and was on the disabled list, so the Indians’ lone All-Star selection was held out of the action despite wanting to play in the game.
When the reserves were selected the following day, the name of Sandy Alomar was called to back up Texas’ Ivan Rodriguez. The Indians backstop finished 108,953 votes behind Pudge, but was on his way to his fifth All-Star Game (1990, 1991, 1992, 1996) while riding a 30-game hitting streak, the longest in baseball since Chicago Cubs rookie outfielder Jerome Walton hit in 30 straight in 1989. It was the second-longest streak by a catcher.
“This is probably one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve ever had,” said Alomar in the July 3 edition of The Plain Dealer of his All-Star selection. “You have to have a great year to get picked by the manager, because there are so many players for him to pick from.”
If anyone deserved to go, Alomar was a clear-cut choice. He was playing through a healthy season and putting up career numbers, slashing .375/.408/.608 (87-for-232) at the break with 23 doubles, eleven homers and 44 runs batted in.
“I think Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez deserved to be picked,” said Alomar, “but it’s tough when you have to have a player from each team. Thome and Manny got caught behind guys having monster years.”
His opinion on Thome would be correct, as the slugger would later join him on the team, named a reserve to replace Justice. Thome would also replace Alomar in the Home Run Derby.
The All-Star Game would be the fourth that Alomar would suit up alongside his brother, Roberto Alomar, who had been selected for an eighth appearance. But the game had a different meaning for the Alomar brothers, who had lost their grandmother late the previous week. The elder Alomar had a different feeling about his participation in the game after not being selected by the fan vote, but instead being selected by Torre for his high level of play, a special achievement award if you will.
Given the circumstances, Alomar’s contribution to the game was all the more fitting.
An estimated 97 million viewers watched on TV and a Jacobs Field record crowd of 44,916 crammed into the fourth-year home of the Tribe. The game had some early memorable highlights, including Colorado’s left-handed hitting Larry Walker comically flipping his helmet around and taking up residence in the right-handed batter’s box in the second inning after a pitch from towering Seattle left-hander Randy Johnson got a little too close for his comfort on a joking gesture from the Big Unit. The two had a lengthy (but positive) history with one another after coming up in the Montreal farm system together.
Johnson’s Mariners teammate, Edgar Martinez, started the scoring in the contest with a solo homer in the bottom of the second inning off of Atlanta’s Greg Maddux, working in his second inning as the game’s starting pitcher. Martinez was the first designated hitter ever voted into an All-Star Game.
The score remained 1-0 in favor of the American League when Alomar entered the game in the top of the sixth in a slew of moves made by Torre to insert backups into the action.
The National League tied things up in the top of the seventh. In his first All-Star at bat, Javy Lopez of the Braves took Kansas City’s Jose Rosado deep to become the eleventh player to homer in his first All-Star at bat. More importantly, it set the stage for the late inning heroics of Alomar.
Thome made his All-Star Game debut in the bottom of the seventh, leading off the inning against San Francisco left-hander Shawn Estes, in the midst of a career year and a first-time All-Star himself. Thome grounded to short pinch-hitting for Martinez before New York’s Bernie Williams drew a walk. Another Mariners representative, Joey Cora, flied to left for the second out of the inning to bring Alomar to the batter’s box. While at the plate, the potential go-ahead run Williams would advance to scoring position on a wild pitch by Estes, but it would not matter as Alomar would drive a 2-2 pitch 403 feet to the left field bleachers for a most improbable home run.
“I felt like I was flying,” said Alomar the next day. “I’ve never run the bases so fast on a home run.”
The loud and steady ovation from the loyal local crowd brought Alomar out for a well-deserved curtain call as the fans showered him with a chant of “MVP MVP”.
The American League would hold on for a 3-1 win.
Alomar, deservingly so, was selected by the media as the game’s Most Valuable Player. In doing so, he became the first player ever to win the award at his home ball park and the first Indians player to receive the honor. His home run was the first by an Indians player in the annual exhibition since 1959, when Rocky Colavito accomplished the feat.
“This is a dream I don’t want to wake up from,” said Alomar. “You probably only get one chance to play an All-Star Game in your home stadium.”
“Sandy is the guy who stayed,” said General Manager John Hart, in reference to Alomar’s opportunity to leave via free agency the previous offseason before the club re-signed him. “There’s a lot of warm feelings for him here. He just lived every kid’s dream who has ever worn a uniform. He hit a dramatic home run to win the All-Star Game in his hometown.”
Hargrove shared with the Associated Press that the story book ending was not lost on the players as well. “When Sandy went to the plate,” Hargrove recalled, “Paul O’Neill turned to me and said, `If all things were fair, Sandy would hit a homer to win the ballgame.’ Two pitches later, he did it.’
Photo: David I. Andersen/The Plain Dealer