While the offseason has been historically slow and the winter has crawled along at an even slower pace, we at Did The Tribe Win Last Night look ahead to the warmer days of the 2018 season by remembering Tribe players past and present.
Countdown to Opening Day – 68 days
Last season, the Cleveland Indians’ outfield was filled up primarily with platoon players (Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer) and somewhat unproven commodities (Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte) around a star returning from injury (Michael Brantley). The same can be said again in 2018 (adding in young, somewhat unknown quantities in Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen to the mix), but that was not the case back in the late 1980’s, when each of the first two men to wear the number 68 on the diamond for the Tribe were blocked behind a large number of other proven players manning the grass at Cleveland Stadium.
The Indians broke in all sorts of new high numbers during the final few years of the 1980’s decade as the club struggled to find both an identity and success on the field. In 1988, the number 68 made its first appearance in the regular season lineup for the Tribe as outfielder Scott Jordan wore it for seven games after a September call-up that year. He had one single and one RBI in ten plate appearances in his only action at the Major League level in his career, so if you forgot about him or never even heard of him, do not be too hard on yourself.
Jordan was the Indians’ fourth round pick in 1985 and got the call in 1988 from Double-A Williamsport after hitting .254 for the Bills in 129 games. He was released after the season and signed with Houston, playing at their Double-A and Triple-A affiliates to wrap up his professional career in 1989. The former two-time Georgia Tech team MVP was inducted to the school’s Hall of Fame the next year.
In March of 1989, the Indians dealt from their outfield depth and acquired the second man to wear 68 for the club when they received outfielder Turner Ward and catcher Joel Skinner from the New York Yankees for outfielder Mel Hall in March.
Cleveland ended the 1988 season with Hall, Joe Carter, and Cory Snyder as regulars in the outfield. Carmelo Castillo served as an occasional fill-in as the trio started the majority of the games in the Tribe outfield.
Hall, however, let his off-the-field drama pack his bags from Cleveland. He was arrested in 1987 for stealing money from the apartment of a woman in Texas, but charges were dropped. In the offseason following the 1988 campaign, his name was one of several prominent Cleveland athletes to appear in the black book of an alleged madam working out of the city.
When asked about the negative publicity surrounding the matter, Hall was quoted as saying, “I’m in there with two all-pros,” referring to the two Browns players mentioned in the unpleasantness.
With outfielder Dave Winfield facing back surgery, the Yankees acquired the career .281 hitter Hall from the Indians to fill the void. When asked if he had ever envisioned himself in pinstripes, the left-handed hitter replied simply, “Yeah, in prison.”
Given how the future played out for Hall, there is plenty of irony in his statement.
As for the Indians’ return for a man who donned pinstripes longer than anticipated, Cleveland acquired the young prospect Ward and the light-hitting Skinner, whose claim to fame with the club would come nearly 20 years later as the team’s third base coach in a base-running decision questioned by many still to this day.
Ward was set to head to Triple-A Colorado Springs to play center field for the Sky Sox, but those plans changed quickly when he was injured in an intrasquad game in Tucson, Arizona. While sliding trying to make a catch, he broke his fibula and dislocated his right ankle. The injury required surgery.
“Turner lost the ball in the sun and tried to make a sliding catch,” director of player development Dan O’Dowd said when the club announced Ward’s injury. “But his right ankle got caught under him just as he started to slide. It was a bad injury.”
He appeared in 34 games at the minor league level for the Tribe that season, but was a non-factor for the Major League club. The Indians finished the season 73-89 and had dealt Castillo shortly after the Hall trade, using Brad Komminsk, Dion James, Dave Clark, and offseason addition Oddibe McDowell to fill the hole in the outfield next to Carter and Snyder.
The outfield puzzle was no less clear heading into 1990, especially after Carter was dealt to the San Diego Padres a year ahead of his pending free agency. Joey Belle, Chris James, Dion James, Komminsk, Candy Maldonado, Snyder, and Mitch Webster all were on the MLB roster. The Toronto Blue Jays were sniffing around the Cleveland depth as they looked for a fourth outfield option to pair with George Bell, Mookie Wilson, and Junior Felix, but nothing transpired.
Ward returned to Colorado Springs as the Triple-A club’s center fielder and played well, eventually moving to right field when the Indians acquired center fielder Alex Cole from San Diego. Belle had started the season in the Majors but was optioned because of a lack of playing time (and some issues revolving around a lack of intensity from the young outfielder). Belle had, over the course of the beginning of the season, accidentally hit a bat boy with his helmet after striking out, was benched or removed from games three different times, and knocked a notebook out of the hand of a reporter after being asked about his error in the outfield that had led to three unearned runs. The relocation for Belle did not exactly fix the problem – he also got into swearing matches with a fan in Colorado Springs and showed a lack of hustle.
After the Sky Sox were eliminated from the minor league playoffs, the Indians purchased the contract of Ward and added him to the roster. He hit .348 for the Tribe while playing right field, driving in ten runs in 14 games of action.
The strong showing did not carry over in the spring, when he was expected to win the right field job as one of ten different outfielders in camp. Instead, he needed a strong finish to even leave Arizona with the club. The struggles returned in the regular season, however, and after hitting .230 with 16 singles, seven doubles, and just five RBI in 40 games in his new and more appropriate number 20, he was optioned to Triple-A.
The Jays needed pitching and the Indians needed hitting. The Indians were also unwilling to pay Candiotti what he wanted, which was a trend with Cleveland starting pitching around that time.
“If I was a fan, a real loyal Cleveland Indians fan, I’d be upset,” Candiotti was quoted in The Plain Dealer on June 28, 1991. “The players change year in and year out here. It’s hard for Cleveland fans to relate to the players.
“I’m more frustrated than anything. I really legitimately wanted to stay here. I don’t know how many times I let the front office know. This trade was done purely because of economics.”
Ward spent parts of the 1991-1993 seasons with the Blue Jays with moderate success. He was selected off of waivers by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1993 and played in 102 games for the club in his first of three seasons there. He joined the Pittsburgh Pirates for the 1997-1999 seasons, playing in a career-high 123 games with nine homers and 46 RBI in 1998 while literally running through a wall at Three Rivers Stadium, but was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks during the 1999 season. He remained with that club through 2000 and spent his final 17 Major League games with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2001.
He returned to the game as a coach in 2006 in the Pirates organization and then later with the Diamondbacks. He was the assistant hitting coach in Arizona in 2013 and later became the team’s hitting coach. He joined the staff of another former Indians outfielder when he was named hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers and their new manager, Dave Roberts, ahead of the 2016 season.
Michael Aubrey put on the number 68 for the club in 2008, becoming the third and most recent Indians player to do so. A first round pick in the 2003 draft (11th overall) out of Tulane University, the first baseman spent just 15 games with Cleveland after climbing through the farm system, hitting .200 with two homers and three RBI in 50 plate appearances. After 57 games with the Columbus Clippers in 2009, he was purchased in June by the Baltimore Orioles and later played 31 games for their Major League club, hitting .289 with four homers and 14 RBI in what would be his final big league season. He spent 2010 with their Triple-A club at Norfolk and signed that offseason with the Washington Nationals, playing 89 games for Syracuse in his final professional action.
While not common in Cleveland, the number 68 has seen its fair share of use across Major League Baseball. It appeared on the diamond for ten different teams in 2017.
Photo (Ward): baseball-birthdays.net