Ghosts of 1996 Loom for this Year’s Indians

Last week, before the American League Division Series began, I told a co-worker that I was worried. I know, we should be past these neuroses. The Cavs’ championship was supposed to have eased the misery of being a Cleveland fan, and the Indians had won 22 games in a row to take the American League’s top seed. The team had ended the season playing the kind of ball we all knew it was capable of.

And yet…

“I’m kind of getting a 1996 vibe from this team,” I said.

Now, the standard disclaimers apply here, and let me go a step farther: I would love nothing more than to be wrong about this. Hopefully, this piece becomes outdated in 24 hours and we’ll all have a good laugh about it.

But you have to admit, the similarities are pretty striking. Let’s hope the results aren’t.

We call 1995 the greatest summer ever, and the 1997 postseason gave us 18 crazy nights, but the 1996 season is kind of the forgotten one for Tribe fans when it comes to thinking about those teams of the late 1990s (Case in point: The starting rotation included Jack McDowell. Come on, be honest: Did you remember that?), mostly because of the finish. But up until then, it was regarded as a more than worthy heir to the 1995 team.

As the 1996 season dawned, optimism was high for the Indians, who were picked by Sports Illustrated to win the World Series, even with questions about the team’s hunger – although Albert Belle suggested the Tribe could have multiple 20-game winners and smash the team’s record of 111 wins in a season. “The sky has never been this blue,” Bud Shaw wrote in the Plain Dealer before the season started.

It was a mirage. Belle was his truculent self, straining his relationship with the team. Carlos Baerga, one of the 1995 team’s mainstays, was dealt to the Mets (part of the return was Jeff Kent, on whom the Indians couldn’t quite capitalize). A lingering injury to free agent signing Julio Franco made the Indians deal Jim Poole to the Giants for Mark Carreon to spell Franco at first base – a position Eddie Murray had no urge to play (at the time, Jim Thome was the Indians’ regular third baseman, a role that wouldn’t change until the following year, when the Tribe acquired Matt Williams and moved Thome to first base). Murray was dealt, back to Baltimore.

But the Indians still won 99 games, the most in baseball. It remains the only time in team history the Tribe had the most wins in baseball in two consecutive years. Belle followed up his 50-homer season in 1995 with another 48. The Indians would meet the Orioles in the American League Division Series. The Birds were making their first playoff appearance since winning the 1983 World Series. Although the Indians had home field advantage in the series, the first two games would be played in Baltimore before the last three in Cleveland – which turned out to be fortuitous for the Orioles, who loaded the bases in the sixth in Game 1, holding a 4-3 lead. Charles Nagy was relieved by Alan Embree, who was struggling in the role largely filled the year before by Poole. Embree surrendered a grand slam to Bobby Bonilla, blowing the game open.

In Game 2, the Orioles pushed three runs across in the bottom of the eighth of a tie game for the win, sending the Indians back to Cleveland in an 0-2 hole. Baltimore had hit five home runs in the two games in Camden Yards.

The Tribe responded gamely in Game 3, including a Belle grand slam (his last hit in a Tribe uniform) in a 9-4 win that would let them live to fight another day.

The Indians took a 4-3 lead into the top of the ninth of Game 4, and it looked like they’d survive. Jose Mesa had given up two singles, but with two outs and a 1-2 count, Roberto Alomar singled home the game-tying run. Mesa got Rafael Palmeiro to strike out to end the inning. The Tribe got runners to second and third in the bottom half of the ninth with two outs, but Kenny Lofton struck out and the game went into extra innings.

Mesa came out to pitch the 12th – the first time in three years he’d pitched as many as three innings in a game – and Alomar led off with a home run to take the lead. It was the only run the Orioles could push across, but it was enough. Randy Myers had a 1-2-3 bottom of the 12th, and the Indians lost the game – one in which they’d struck out 23 batters – and the series.

“They didn’t lose to a better baseball team,” Shaw wrote in the next day’s Plain Dealer. “They lost to a team playing better baseball.”

And so in 1996, like in the years after the Indians’ three previous World Series appearances (and the year after their next one), the Yankees went to the World Series, meeting and dispatching the Braves. The Bronx Bombers were in full ascent, and stymied the Indians just as they had in the 1950s, advancing to four of the next five Fall Classics, including once dispatching the Indians in the 1998 American League Championship Series.

There is some consolation in the postscript: The Indians and Orioles met again the following year, this time in the American League Championship Series. The Orioles led wire-to-wire, finishing with 98 wins to take the American League East and the AL’s top seed. The Indians, meanwhile, limped to the Central crown – thanks in part to the White Sox running up the white flag – with 86 wins, the fewest by any AL playoff team.

So what happened? The Indians won the series and advanced to the World Series – proving how fickle baseball can be. Or maybe not. In 1997, like the year before, the Indians ended the season with a loss to a wild card team – including a blown save by Mesa.

Photo: Sports Illustrated cover, 4/1/1996

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