At the 1997 trading deadline, the Indians were in first place in the American League Central Division – barely.
The team was off July 31 – a Thursday – and holding on to a 2 ½ game lead over the Brewers. Less than two years removed from a World Series appearance, the team looked markedly different. Gone from that team were Eddie Murray, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Paul Sorrento, and Dennis Martinez, in addition to Albert Belle, who’d signed in the previous offseason with the White Sox.
Chad Ogea and spot starter Brian Anderson were on the disabled list, and Orel Hershiser had a strained groin muscle. The Indians’ biggest deal at the deadline was the acquisition of John Smiley. But they benefited mightily from a deal made by their Central Division rivals in Chicago.
Twenty years later, the deal is still known as the White Flag Trade. The White Sox dealt starting pitchers Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin and reliever Roberto Hernandez (no, not THAT one; the other one) to the Giants for a package of minor league prospects. White Sox General Manager Ron Schueler said they weren’t conceding the season, but he had been contradicted a day earlier by owner Jerry Reinsdorf, after the White Sox dealt Harold Baines to Baltimore. “Anyone who thinks this White Sox team will catch Cleveland is crazy,” Reinsdorf said.
Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston referred to it as the Great Chicago Fire Sale, and said were Bowie Kuhn still commissioner, he might have voided the trade, like he did with Charlie Finley’s fire sale of Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to Boston and Vida Blue to the Yankees 20 years earlier. But the (acting) commissioner was Bud Selig, who just happened to own the team in second place behind the Indians and in front of the White Sox.
Reinsdorf softened his message after Alvarez, Darwin, and Hernandez were dealt. “We had a chance to pick some quality young players,” he said. “I love it.”
In fact, Indians General Manager John Hart said the team had inquired about Alvarez. “I felt we offered more than what they got from the Giants,” Hart said in the next day’s Plain Dealer. “But my gut feeling was that they really didn’t want to deal with us.”
Hart noted that the White Sox traded players who were nearing the end of their contracts and heading toward free agency, and having gotten burned with Belle leaving the previous winter, he could totally understand.
The Indians remained unable to get out of their own way, going 3-6 in the nine days after the trade. It wasn’t until the middle of August that they started to separate themselves from the pack, after a team meeting. “The gist of the meeting was that we didn’t have to win 100 games,” Matt Williams said. ”All we had to do was be in first place at the end of the season. In the playoffs, anything can happen. Any team can beat any other team on any given day.”
And that’s exactly what happened. They finally clinched their third straight Central Division crown on September 23 of that year – and got hot just in time for one of the most memorable playoff runs in team history.
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