Our countdown to the kickoff of the 2019 Major League Baseball season returns today, as the earliest start ever (excluding international openers) for all 30 teams will bring players back to the field on March 28. Follow along with Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down the days until Opening Day 2019. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 77 days
When pitcher Jack Armstrong asked the Indians to wear the number seven for his first season in Cleveland in 1992, he found out that it had already been taken by another new member of the organization, similarly acquired via trade in the offseason.
Armstrong decided to try something new, which was a theme to his journey to Cleveland with his first new franchise of his career after being drafted and developed into an All-Star across the state in Cincinnati. Since he couldn’t have seven, he opted for the number twice and became the first and only Indians player to wear the number 77 in an official Major League game.
“I picked it for a lot of little reasons,” said Armstrong to The Plain Dealer during spring training of 1992. “I was born on the seventh of March. My wife’s home address used to be 711. And my son [Marcus] was born on the 14th of February, and seven plus seven is 14. So there seemed to be a lot of sevens floating around. When I asked for number seven, it was already taken. So I picked 77.”
Armstrong entered Major League Baseball with some big expectations. He was drafted in the third round in 1986 by the San Francisco Giants, but opted not to sign. The move paid off, as he became the 18th overall pick by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round of the following season’s draft.
Just over one year later, the 6’5” right-hander was taking center stage at the Astrodome to begin his Major League career with the Reds against the Houston Astros. He would finish his debut year at 4-7 in 14 games with a 5.79 ERA and followed it with a 2-3 record and a 4.64 ERA in nine games the next season.
Things changed in 1990, as he got a regular shot with the Reds and he rewarded them with some impressive results. He became a first-time All-Star that season as the Reds would storm to a World Series victory over the Oakland A’s. He earned the National League’s Pitcher of the Month honor for May and was 11-3 with a 2.28 ERA in the first half, leading the way to a start for the NL in the All-Star Game.
He finished the season 12-9 with a 3.42 ERA in 29 games, including two complete games and one shutout, but he missed some time at the end of the year with a sore right elbow in August and September. He did return for one appearance in October, working three scoreless innings of one-hit baseball in Game 2 of the Fall Classic against the Athletics in what would be the only postseason appearance of his career.
Armstrong, the Reds, and manager Lou Piniella could not replicate their success again in 1991, as they fell to 74-88 and finished fifth in the NL West. Armstrong went 7-13 with a 5.48 ERA in 27 games and was optioned to Triple-A Nashville for a month late in the season.
He found himself packing to head north to Cleveland as part of a four-player trade for Indians starter Greg Swindell in November. He was joined in the move by fellow pitcher Scott Scudder and minor league hurler Joe Turek. Swindell, the Indians’ number one starter, rejected a three-year, $9 million deal and was sent away, despite leading the 105-loss team in innings, starts, complete games, strikeouts, ERA, and lowest walks per nine inning rate by a starting pitcher in 1991.
“I’m not surprised they traded me, but I am surprised it happened so quickly,” Swindell was quoted in the days following the trade in The Plain Dealer. “To me, they didn’t give it a fair shot. If they wanted to sign me, they could have. They didn’t make but one offer. We just said we wanted four years. I’ve been telling people for over a month that I expected to be traded. To me, they didn’t try to sign me. They weren’t willing to go for it.”
Swindell was set to become a free agent following the 1992 season. He was believed to be seeking a four-year deal between $12 and $15 million after making just over $2 million in 1991. The Indians had made a similar move the previous season with starter Tom Candiotti.
“We made Greg an offer that would have made him the highest paid player in Indians’ history,” director of baseball operations John Hart said following the trade. “When he rejected it, the decision was made that we could not sign him and we were not on a sign-Greg-Swindell-at-all-cost mission.
“We were looking for young pitchers. We identified Armstrong and Scudder as two people who could help us in 1992.”
Cleveland pitching coach Rick Adair shared a similar sentiment with reporters during spring training, stating, “We did not trade Greg Swindell for two stiffs. These guys have talent. I’m not taking anything away from Greg Swindell. He’s going to do some good things. But we’ve seen everything we expected from these two guys, and a little bit more.” He later added, “Armstrong is very intelligent. He understands what he’s doing and why. He’s adjusting to the things we’ve suggested.”
The four-pitch pitcher Armstrong (fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup) appeared to welcome the move to Cleveland after the high pressure cooker that was the Queen City. Tension filled the locker room in Cincinnati as the team fell short of its World Series expectations during its attempt to repeat.
“There was a lot of pressure put on a lot of young players to win every game last season with the Reds,” Armstrong shared with The Plain Dealer following the trade. “When you’re young and impressionable, that kind of stuff can get to you. There’s a lot to be said for the kind of continuity and patience Atlanta showed their young pitchers. The Reds put themselves in a position not to do that. A lot of young pitchers and players had difficulty adjusting to their agenda.”
Financial disagreements also led to some tough feelings for Reds players, as Armstrong had walked out of spring training prior to the start of the 1991 season after the Cincinnati front office renewed his contract at $215,000. The renewal process gave all power to the team and zero bargaining power to the player. Armstrong was attributed as saying he would “rather work for $30,000 a year on a tuna boat” when he departed the training camp.
In March, before playing in an official game for the Indians, Armstrong was one of nearly a dozen players to come to terms on multi-year contract extensions that bought out some arbitration time, a process that the Indians championed in the 1990s and continue to use today. The Indians inked Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, Mark Whiten, and Nagy on three-year deals with options for a fourth. Armstrong was one of six to sign two-year deals with a third-year option, slated to make $800,000 in the second year of the deal and $1.65 million in the 1994 option year.
“It’s been an exhaustive process, but this gives us an opportunity to keep these young players in Cleveland,” general manager Hart said after news of the signings. “I tip my hat to Dick Jacobs. We put this plan in front of him and he stepped up to the plate. He said, ‘If you can get it done, do it.’”
Armstrong ended camp as the number three starter in the Tribe rotation. After losing three of his first four starts, he earned the win on May 5th in an 8-6 slugfest that marked his fifth straight game giving up at least one homer. The five earned runs allowed were a season high (to be topped in his very next start), but he stood firm for the win.
He would not earn another win until June 16th, eight starts later. He followed his second American League win by losing six consecutive games and headed into the All-Star break with an abysmal 2-12 record and a 5.40 ERA. Home runs remained an issue, as he gave up 16 in his first 18 starts.
After losing his 13th game of the year, Armstrong lost his starting spot and would pitch in relief for a month before re-entering the rotation to replace Dave Otto. After four more starts and a 1-2 record in that stretch (including five home runs scattered over two of those starts), he was back to the bullpen for his final six appearances of the season.
He finished the season 6-15 with a 4.64 ERA in 35 games (23 starts). The rebuilt and younger Indians club finished the year 76-86 and in fourth place in the AL East in manager Mike Hargrove’s first full year at the helm.
Baseball’s 1992 expansion draft was set to follow the season and, after his poor showing in his AL debut season, Armstrong did not make the cut of the 15 players who were allowed to be protected from a list of 105 eligible in the organization.
Armstrong was taken in the second round by the Florida Marlins with their 20th selection overall. The new NL East club took Indians outfield prospect Darrell Whitmore in the first round, while the Colorado Rockies selected Tribe pitcher Denis Boucher with the last pick of the third round.
“Jack failed as a starter for us but pitched exceptionally well out of the bullpen,” Hart said following the draft. “Yes, we had concerns with what we were going to do with him next year, but it still stings a little to lose him. If we had a choice, we would have gotten Jack through so we could have taken a look at him for one more year. But we wanted to protect our young pitchers. We wanted to get at least two of our young pitchers on the staff next year. Can we find someone to replace Jack as a 2-13 starter? I certainly hope so.”
Armstrong was tabbed to be the Marlins’ number two starter, but his results mirrored his one season in Cleveland as he finished 9-17 with a 4.49 ERA in 36 games (33 starts). His option was not picked up by Florida and he signed with the Texas Rangers in the offseason. He appeared in just two games for the Rangers in 1994 (losing one) as he missed the majority of the season with a rotator cuff injury to his right shoulder that landed him on the 60-day disabled list.
The Indians brought him to spring training for a seven-day trial in 1995 to check on his health and discussed a split contract, paying him different rates if he were pitching in the Majors or minors, but he never suited back up for the Tribe. In fact, he was out of baseball altogether until 2000, when he emerged at the age of 35 with the Marlins’ High-A affiliate in four games, then played 31 games for Newark (Independent League) in 2001 and 2002, making the league’s All-Star game in his first season there.
A dozen years after his big league career came to a close, Armstrong was back in the news again. This time, he spoke out loudly against a dirty, scandalous time in the storied history of Major League Baseball.
“It’s time to call the rats out,” shared Armstrong in a December 8, 2007, story in The New York Daily News regarding his participation in the George Mitchell report, an investigation into the use of steroids and other performance enhancers in the game. “The guys who did this are cheaters – and that’s the bottom line. They are people who made tens of millions of dollars doing something they weren’t supposed to do, at the expense of guys who were doing things the right way.
“I’m not evangelistic about steroids,” he said. “I just want it to stop. I’m glad they’re doing something about it, that they’re getting serious about it. What happened in the past is in the past. Let’s work on getting it better from this point on.”
In his post-playing days, Armstrong worked as a personal trainer and a private pitching instructor before he was hired in August of 2017 as the head baseball coach at The Benjamin School (Palm Beach, Florida). There, he had the opportunity to coach his son Kris (a shortstop and switch-pitcher) in his senior season. Another son, Jack Jr., was drafted twice, but saw arm issues bring his professional career to an early end.
The elder Armstrong will always have his World Series ring and a starting nod in the 1990 All-Star Game as fond reminders of his playing days, as well as his willingness to shine a light on a dark spot in the game’s history in the Mitchell Report. He will also have the far less exciting legacy as the first of the 77’s in Tribe history, and still the only one to date.
Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
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