Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 39
Bob Toth | On 18, Feb 2018
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 – 39 days
The Indians have had plenty of representation on the field in the number 39 during the Jacobs Field and Progressive Field era of their club, but the best years by players in the digits came during some very down and lean years in Tribe history.
Gary Bell joined the Indians as an amateur free agent ahead of the 1955 season. By June of 1958, he was in the middle of the diamond, just 21 years old. Bell put together a solid rookie season, earning 12 wins with a 3.31 ERA. He appeared in 33 games, starting 23 of them, and threw ten complete games on the way to a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting.
He won 16 games the next season and was an All-Star for the Tribe in 1960, but after a 12-16 season in 1961, his role with the club shifted. With a crowded starting rotation featuring Dick Donovan, Pedro Ramos, Jim Perry, Mudcat Grant, Barry Latman, and young phenom Sam McDowell, Bell worked instead late in games more often than not, closing out 37 games and earning 12 saves and ten wins. He remained almost exclusively in the bullpen through the 1965 season before he jumped back into the rotation in 1966, putting up a solid 14-15 season in 40 games (37 starts). He threw 12 complete games with a 3.22 ERA and was back participating in the Midsummer Classic for the second time in his career.
Joe Adcock took over the club for 1967 and saw the bulk of the rotation return (Bell, Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan, Luis Tiant, and McDowell). Bell, the longest tenured player on the Tribe, made three starts in April and five for the club in May with mixed results. After a rough showing on June 3 against Boston, he was traded to the same Red Sox two days later for young first baseman Tony Horton and Don Demeter. It brought an end to three years of speculation that Bell would be on the move, as his name was a frequent one in trade rumors.
“I kind of guessed I’d be traded – everybody did – and I’ve been guessing for three or four years,” said the veteran Bell in The Plain Dealer on June 5, 1967. “But when it happened, I’ve got to admit I was a little shocked.”
“Bell was the guy they always wanted,” Tribe general manager Gabe Paul in the same edition. Boston pursued Bell during the winter meetings and had tried to get Tiant the previous season. “We talked about him and Horton in Boston two weeks ago, but it wasn’t until now that Demeter came into the discussions.
“Dick O’Connell [vice president of the Red Sox] came to town unexpectedly Saturday and we talked during the game. Then we sat down this morning [Sunday] and decided upon the deal before the game.”
Bell jokingly added after the move, “I just hope the Indians continue to hit against me the way they hit for me.”
The new location did Bell some good, as he went 12-8 with a 3.16 ERA in 29 games for Boston and returned to the All-Star Game for the third and final time of his career in 1968. He was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft following the ’68 season and was traded to the Chicago White Sox midway through the 1969 campaign in what would be the final games of his 12-year big league career.
The number made occasional appearances on the mound for the Indians over the next dozen years on the backs of five different hurlers before the team acquired Len Barker in a trade with the Texas Rangers.
Barker was a third round pick by the Rangers in the 1973 draft, but following the 1978 season, he was traded with outfielder Bobby Bonds to the Indians for infielder Larvell Blanks and reliever Jim Kern.
After working almost exclusively as a reliever in his first three MLB seasons with the Rangers, Barker finally got a chance to start regularly with the Tribe. After going 6-6 in his first season with the club in 1979, he put up an impressive 19-12 campaign with a 4.17 ERA while doubling his previous career-best for strikeouts in a season with 187. Working solely as a starter, he led the American League in strikeouts, but also was the league leader in wild pitches.
The next season was a memorable one for the right-hander, despite the strike that cut short the season. He went 8-7 with a 3.91 ERA and was selected to the AL’s All-Star team, but the highlight of his season was on May 15, when he threw just the second perfect game in franchise history (ending a more than 70-year drought dating back to Addie Joss’ perfecto on October 2, 1908) in defeating the Toronto Blue Jays.
The perfect game and no-hitter remain the last ones thrown by an Indians pitcher to date.
Barker was 15-11 the next season with a career-high ten complete games. But after a tough 8-13 start with a 5.11 ERA in 24 games the following season, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves with cash for three players to be named later – Rick Behenna, Brett Butler, and Brook Jacoby – in a move that would help the Indians for much of the rest of the 1980s.
Barker would spend parts of three seasons in Atlanta before signing with the Montreal Expos in 1986, but he missed the season with injury. He returned briefly with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987, going 2-1 in eleven starts, missing much of the year again with injuries before ending his career.
Giovanny Urshela has been the most recent 39 in Indians history, wearing the number in two of the last three seasons for the club. While the door at third base has been wide open for the taking, Urshela’s strong glove work and arm have not been enough to make up for a lacking bat, causing the young corner man to spend more time suiting up for the Columbus Clippers than for the Indians.
Urshela will hope to win the third base position this spring, with plenty of pressure on him. The battle at third will come down to Urshela and his teammate from the state capital, Yandy Diaz. If Urshela does not make the roster, his time with the Indians’ organization may come to an end, as he is out of options. A team in need of a defensive replacement, one who has added several positions to the repertoire over the last couple of years, could call upon Urshela as a bench bat for their club and therefore may snag him off of waivers, if the Indians try to option him to the minors and expose him to the waivers process.
In 148 games split between the 2015 and 2017 seasons, Urshela has slashed .225/.273/.314 with 15 doubles, one triple, seven homers, and 36 RBI. Last season, he played all four non-catching infield positions for the Indians. His five appearances at second base were the first of his professional career.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images