Carter Trade Changed Baseball for Fans in Cleveland

I generally try not to reveal my age to others in any facet of my life, but in composing the following, I had to tip my hand a bit.

This week marks 28 years (!) since the Cleveland Indians dealt fan favorite Joe Carter to the San Diego Padres for two prospects and a bit of a veteran journeyman. It would be the start of great things for the Indians organization – something seldom experienced when a perennial basement-dwelling team trades away its most productive player – but it reshaped my understanding of the game of baseball and made a decade of losing worth it during the glory years of the ’90’s.

As a kid, I was a baseball card collector. I played in a local Hot Stove league. The oddly shaped black Tengen cartridge of RBI Baseball rarely left the Nintendo in my bedroom. Starting Lineup figures of Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, and Carter were often huddled together with similar figures of Cleveland Browns players Bernie Kosar, Hanford Dixon, Frank Minnifield, Webster Slaughter, and Ozzie Newsome (and yes, all these years later, the well-worn figures are still on display in my house, for those wondering).

I was born into a Cleveland sports-loving family. My father had been a lifelong baseball fan and introduced me to collecting cards. His father, who would pass away less than 13 months after the trade of Carter, took to the grave an incredible wealth of stories from working for a time at Municipal Stadium for the Browns and the Tribe. My mother ensured my passion for baseball was filled by getting me to my games and listening to me rattle off stat after stat from the back of my trading cards. Her parents were at Len Barker’s perfect game in ‘81, but they never spoke of it because of my grandfather’s embarrassment for getting locked out of his Lincoln Continental after the game.

At some point, my father was able to get us a tour of the Indians clubhouse. Somewhere lost to time, there was a photo of my brother on my dad’s shoulders in front of the locker of Cory Snyder. I, of course, got my picture in front of Carter’s.

Sometime during the 1989 season, the family took in a late night game at the Stadium. It wasn’t my first game, but it is one that sticks out still all these years later for all of the wrong reasons. I couldn’t tell you who the Tribe played or who won the game, but I know my young heart was crushed by my idol.

After the game, we waited outside of the ball park for a chance to meet the city’s MLB representatives. Pete O’Brien, a first baseman who had joined the club the previous winter in the Julio Franco trade, was the first to stop by. The little card collector that I was, I had a card of him with the Texas Rangers, and he signed it in ink. Reliever Doug Jones, a far more familiar face, also took time to greet the fans and he signed his 1989 Topps card in blue ink with his usual “PTL” inscription after his name.

Carter came out shortly thereafter. Fans screamed for him, but he did not so much look our way and instead remained focused on the path to his vehicle. I was excited to see him up close, but was crushed that I would not go home with an autograph to brag about to my friends and a corresponding story about the time that I met my favorite baseball player.

Jerry Browne stopped by briefly afterwards to say hello to those waiting, but I wasn’t quick enough to get his signature, still dejected by what happened. But I did get one more before we said good night to Cleveland that night, when a young outfielder still pretty new to me stopped by to sign. He was so new that I didn’t have a card of him to sign, but to my luck, my dad had an envelope in his jacket that the 22-year-old could sign “Joey Belle” (and yes, I still have the cards and even the Belle piece of paper).

Carter finished the 1989 season with 35 homers, coming up one short of matching Fred McGriff for the league title. But winning baseball was missing from Cleveland, as the club had just two winning seasons (1981’s 51-50 record in the strike-shortened year and 1986’s 84-78-1 mark) in the just concluded decade of games. With Carter’s free agency coming following the next season, team president Hank Peters had been unable to work out an extension with the star outfielder.

“We want to get it done by the end of October,” Peters was quoted in The Plain Dealer on October 2, 1989. “If Joe doesn’t accept the offer, then our primary option is to trade him.”

Peters had a self-imposed deadline of November 1 to ink Carter to an extension, but he was also trying to fill the vacant managerial seat last filled by interim skipper John Hart. Hart was one of four candidates for the gig, joining Mike Hargrove, Rene Lachemann, and John McNamara. Lou Piniella was interested, but he was under contract as a broadcaster with the New York Yankees and owner George Steinbrenner would not grant Peters a chance to talk to him (Steinbrenner turned around days after the Indians’ hire of McNamara and allowed Piniella to interview with the Reds, where he was hired and led Cincinnati to a World Series championship in 1990).

The Indians had offered Carter an extension the previous winter, reportedly extending a five-year, $9.6 million offer. Carter declined, went to salary arbitration before the ’89 season, and won the highest single-season salary in Indians history, per the November 1, 1989, edition of The Plain Dealer.

Thoughts were that Carter was eager to test the market and to find a new home of his choosing. Fueling his desire to leave, he had reportedly been upset with the front office after the firing of former hitting coach Bobby Bonds. During the 1989 season, he disagreed with the front office’s policy of not having wives of players on charter flights and ripped the state of the Stadium as well as the booing fans in town. It all came to a head in early November when Carter turned down a three-year, $7 million tender from the Tribe, leading Peters to end negotiations with his slugger.

“The reason I turned down the multiyear contract had nothing to do with money or the organization,” Carter was quoted in The Plain Dealer on November 3, 1989. “The money was better than the multiyear deal they offered me last season. I just wanted to see what is out there for Joe Carter in 1990.”

Peters did not comment on Carter’s decision but instead prepared a statement for the press.

“Based on Joe’s decision, we have broken off contract negotiations on a multiyear contract. Due to Joe’s position on that matter, and to protect the club from a loss of a player of his stature, we intend to explore trade possibilities immediately.

“We feel that Joe has been a very important player for the Cleveland Indians through the years, and along with our fans would like to keep him here for the remainder of his career. However, baseball’s reserve system provides him with certain rights that he could exercise at the conclusion of the 1990 season. Thus retaining him for the 1990 baseball season with full knowledge of his possibly leaving the Indians following the 1990 season is not a sound business move and dictates the necessity of exploring trade possibilities.”

Carter hit the pro ranks in 1981, when the Chicago Cubs selected him second overall in the draft. He spent just over three years with the organization before they sent him to Cleveland in 1984.

Plenty of rumors would circulate about Carter, especially during the November general managers’ meetings from Palm Springs, California. The Red Sox confirmed their interest, but reports of Carter and Brook Jacoby for Ellis Burks and Wade Boggs would not come to fruition. Boston’s Vice President and General Manager Lou Gorman expressed a reluctance early to give up the center fielder Burks and later eliminated Boggs from a potential move. Another rumored deal paired Carter for Mike Greenwell, and later added in shortstop Jody Reed.

Kansas City was an intriguing option for Carter, a native of Oklahoma City who attended Wichita State University in Kansas and made his home near KC. The Royals were reportedly willing to move outfielder Danny Tartabull, catcher Mike Macfarlane, and pitcher Charlie Leibrandt, but Cleveland had its sights on Kevin Seitzer and Jim Eisenreich. The Indians were thought to be highly interested in a package from St. Louis that included outfielders Tom Brunansky and Vince Coleman, but Brunansky’s no-trade clause blocked Cleveland from prospective deals. San Francisco was said to be offering a package of young prospects while Minnesota’s package was thought to include outfielder Dan Gladden and prospects. The California Angels had discussed outfielder Devon White, utility man Johnny Ray, and pitcher Kirk McCaskill. Toronto offered reliever Duane Ward, infielder Manny Lee, and outfielder Junior Felix, but the Indians were interested instead in Tony Fernandez.

San Diego was also in the mix, offering one of catchers Benito Santiago or youngster Sandy Alomar, Jr., pitcher Dennis Rasmussen, and one prospect out of a grouping that included Joey Cora, Jerald Clark, and Thomas Howard. Another pitcher, Greg Harris, and position player Chris James, also saw their names come up later in the discussions.

“We’ve talked a lot to San Diego,” Peters said in the days leading up to the Winter Meetings. “They’re one of the prime clubs we’re talking to, but a deal has not been structured. We’ll meet with them again in Nashville.”

At one point, Peters shared with the media that 22 of the 25 teams in the Majors had tried to trade for the slugger, but teams dropped out of the running believing that Carter would not sign a multi-year extension with them while instead preferring to test the market. The list was cut down to six viable clubs as the meetings started from Tennessee in the first week of December and it did not take long for Peters to find his match.

The Padres would win the competition in the end, coming to a conditional agreement with the Indians on December 5. With the veteran All-Star Santiago in tow behind the plate, one of San Diego’s top prospects, Alomar Jr., was expendable, even after having just been named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. He was thought to be the centerpiece of the deal, with the Indians preferring to go with the potential and the youth of Alomar over the established Santiago. Alomar was just 23 and his style of play had been compared at times to Johnny Bench, a lofty expectation for the towering son of former big leaguer Sandy Alomar.

Also included in the deal was the veteran James, a right-handed hitter who could play third base and both corner outfield spots. Carlos Baerga, a 21-year-old switch-hitting infielder, also came to Cleveland in the deal as the surprise prospect of the bunch. His name had not been included in early rumors, with the belief that the Padres were more willing to deal from their minor league outfield depth that included Clark and Howard.

The deal was contingent on Padres’ manager and general manager Jack McKeon inking Carter to an extension. While Carter was believed to be looking for four years and $12 million, he settled on a three-year, $9.2 million extension with a partial no-trade clause and the deal was consummated. Carter was a Padre, and my earliest favorite Indians player was no more.

Being snubbed by Carter as a kid didn’t lessen the sting when he was traded away. Little did I know that while Cleveland was trading my favorite ball player away (for reasons that made much more sense as I got older), the deal would bring far more excitement and happiness to the city in the long term. The “Indians Uprising”, once suggested by Sports Illustrated (with Carter and Snyder on the April 1987 cover), was coming as the Tribe would pull itself out from the magazine’s cover jinx and erase its status as a league laughingstock by relying on Alomar and Baerga as two of the more significant pieces of its rebuilding process.

There was plenty of uncertainty in town heading into the 1990 season, however, before the good times arrived. Doc Edwards had been let go at the tail end of the ’89 season, replaced by Hart. McNamara was hired to replace the interim Hart, but losing ways continued for the club. His Tribe went 77-85 in 1990 and he was cut loose after a horrific 25-52 start to the 1991 season. Hargrove, a candidate for the managerial spot after the 1989 season, replaced McNamara on the bench and fared just slightly better in his half of the year, going 32-53.

Back-to-back 76-86 seasons under Hargrove were the results of the 1992 and 1993 seasons, but things were due for a big change in 1994. Cleveland was unveiling its new gem, Jacobs Field, and the young team, aided by veterans Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray, ushered in a new era of winning baseball just off of the shores of Lake Erie. Young players like Albert Belle, Jim Thome, and Manny Ramirez were blossoming into legitimate weapons around Alomar and Baerga, and other players traded for over the years, like Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel, also found themselves integral to the development of the young ball club.

The strike cut short what could have been an exciting final two months of the schedule in ‘94, but Hargrove’s Indians would become a force to be reckoned with the following year, beginning a run of six division titles in a seven-year span. It included six trips to the postseason and a pair of World Series berths, ending in 1995 a 41-year playoff drought.

As for Carter, he went on to some good things, too. After one season in California, he was traded to Toronto with Sandy’s brother, Roberto Alomar, for McGriff and Fernandez. The Blue Jays would make the playoffs for the third time in franchise history in 1991 and would win the World Series in both 1992 and 1993. Carter’s series-ending three-run walk-off home run off of Philadelphia’s Mitch Williams in Game 6 of the ’93 series made him a legend for our friends to the north.

Photo: Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

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