Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 38
Bob Toth | On 19, 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 – 38 days
Thirty-nine players have worn the number 38 for the Indians, most recently reliever Joe Smith in his return to Cleveland last season.
Plenty of big names in franchise history have spent a spell in the number for the Tribe, including a pair of Hall of Famers – Bob Lemon (1941) and Early Wynn (1963) – and another legend in club history in Rocky Colavito (1955-57).
None of the players to don it since Wynn are Cooperstown bound, but that does not mean that they have not made some important contributions in Tribe history. The best have come from a pair of relievers – the aforementioned Smith, and 1990s right-hander Eric Plunk.
Plunk took over the number in Cleveland in 1992, following three other pitchers who had worn it the previous years – Keith Atherton, Cecilio Guante, and Shawn Hillegas. He was fresh off of a two and a half year stay in the Big Apple with the New York Yankees, where he had worked primarily in relief, but had made 15 starts for the Bronx Bombers. He had a camp invite with the Toronto Blue Jays prior to joining the Indians, but was a roster casualty at the end of Spring Training. He had started his big league career with three and a half years out in Oakland.
Plunk saw good things happening in Cleveland when he elected to head to the shores of Lake Erie.
“Their potential (made me sign there),” shared Plunk in a 2014 interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “I knew what kind of team that they were. We had a huge, great core of talent.”
After seeing part-time work in the starting rotation in four of his first six seasons at the MLB level, Plunk would work exclusively in the Indians bullpen and became a workhorse for the club. The Tribe pulled themselves out of the depths of the AL East in 1992, finishing fourth, but put together a similar finish that resulted in a sixth place position at the end of the 1993 season. Plunk earned nine wins in relief during his first season in town and posted a 2.79 ERA with 15 saves in a career-high 70 appearances for Mike Hargrove’s club in 1993.
Everything would change in Cleveland in 1994, as the Indians were inching closer to challenging in the new AL Central and in the new Jacobs Field before the strike ended their charge. Plunk with 7-2 with three saves and a 2.54 ERA in 41 games as one of the primary options on Hargrove’s staff. The following season, he went 6-2 with a 2.67 ERA in 56 games for the Indians as Plunk made his return to the World Series (following his 1988 trip with the A’s in their loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers).
“I really thought we were going to go to the World Series every year,” said Plunk of the Indians teams that he was a part of. “It’s as good as any bullpen I’ve ever been a part of. Depth wise, it was probably better than any bullpen I’ve ever seen.”
Plunk would be part of two different World Series teams in Cleveland, but the results were the same as the Indians came up on the short end of the championship series each time.
“When I was in Oakland, we won 104 games and lost to the Dodgers. Basically, they upset us. We were, on paper, a lot better team than they were,” said Plunk. “During the ’95 season, we knew we were up against the Braves and they had a tough pitching staff. We knew it was going to be tough. The other two times I was in the Series, I thought we would win. We never did, though.
“The 1997 season was a great team. I really thought we were going to win it that time. It’s still pretty vivid. That was a fantastic Series, though. It goes down to the 11th inning of Game Seven…how many Series actually do that? It was anybody’s ballgame and it’s still a tough one to swallow.”
Plunk hovered in the mid-50s for appearances in each season from 1995 through 1997, posting strong ERAs in the mid-2s in the first two of those years before his numbers plumped to 4.66 in 1997. He made 37 trips to the mound in 1998, but with a 3-1 record and a 4.83 ERA, he was sent to Milwaukee for former Tribe closer Doug Jones.
“I was having a rough year,” said Plunk of his 1998 trade. “My father passed away that year and there were a lot of personal things that were going on. In a lot of ways, sometimes a change like that is good. Make no mistake about it though, it was tough to leave. I had been traded a few times before, but being traded from the Indians was a lot tougher. I had a lot of friends and we had built a home here.”
He made 26 relief appearances for the Brewers that year and another 68 the following season, but was done after 1999 with 14 years of big league service under his belt.
It would be another eleven years before the number would return to the mound with regularity, with outfielders Ryan Ludwick and Franklin Gutierrez occupying it for much of the first decade of the 21st century. This time, it would Smith, a heavily-utilized, side-winding, ground ball specialist who came to town as part of a three-way trade in December of 2008 with the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners. Gutierrez landed in Seattle in the massive 12-player swap, while the Indians landed Smith and utility man Luis Valbuena.
Smith took up Gutierrez’s number and looked to build off of an impressive showing the previous year, when he worked 82 times in relief for the Mets in just his second year in the Show. Injuries slowed him down in his first season in Cleveland, as he made just 37 appearances, and the next season he spent a chunk of time at Triple-A Columbus and worked in 53 games for the Tribe.
By 2011, Smith found his stride. He matched Rafael Perez with 71 outings for manager Manny Acta and he served as a seventh and eighth inning bridge with setup man Vinnie Pestano to closer Chris Perez. Smith earned 16 holds and posted a 2.01 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP, easily the best of his career to that point.
He was back doing heavy late inning work for the Tribe in 2012, again leading the staff in appearances with 72. His 21 holds and seven wins were also a career-high. With a new skipper in Terry Francona in place for the 2013 season, he still saw plenty of work, earning six wins, a career-best 25 holds, and the first three saves of his big league career while providing the Bullpen Mafia with a 2.29 ERA.
The Indians were bounced in the one-game American League Wild Card Game loss to the Tampa Bay Rays and the free agent Smith cashed in on a three-year, $15.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
The new home treated Smith kindly in his first season on the west coast. He posted a 1.81 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP in 76 appearances while earning 15 saves. His impressive performance was not replicated, however, as his ERA jumped to 3.58 in 2015 while working in a setup role. After starting the final year of his deal with the Angels in 2016, he was sent to Chicago and joined the Cubs for the stretch run, earning a ring against his former club.
He signed with Toronto to start last season, but he was again on the move at the trade deadline, acquired by his former Indians club. He appeared in 21 games in the final two months of the season with a 3.44 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP and he made four hitless, scoreless outings in the ALDS against the Yankees. A free agent again after the season, he signed with the world champion Houston Astros to bolster their already solid relief corps.
Other notables to wear #38 in Tribe history (39 in total): Chuck Workman (the first in 1941), Steve Gromek (1941-42), Ray Mack (1944), Thurman Tucker (1948-51), Jose Santiago (1954), Frank Funk (1960-62), Steve Kline (1974), Eddie Perez (2002), Shaun Marcum (2015), Chris Gimenez (2016)
Photo: 1994 Pinnacle baseball card