It’s hard to believe, but we are less than three weeks away from the first pitches of the 2019 Major League Baseball season. Today, we at Did The Tribe Win Last Night continue our countdown to Opening Day. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 20 days
A baseball pioneer passed away in February, when the world lost trailblazer Frank Robinson at the age of 83.
Robinson’s incredible career, which included stops with the Cincinnati Reds, the Baltimore Orioles, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the California Angels, and lastly with the Cleveland Indians, had all of the necessary prerequisites required of a Hall of Fame resume. His 21-year playing career included a National League Rookie of the Year award in 1956, an NL Most Valuable Player honor in 1961, a Triple Crown season on the way to an American League MVP award in 1966, 14 trips to the Midsummer Classic, an All-Star Game MVP, a World Series MVP during one of his five trips to the Fall Classic (bringing home two rings in 1966 and 1970), and 586 home runs.
But for all of his accomplishments as a player, he is just as remembered for opening up a new door in the game of baseball in 1975, when he debuted as the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball history while serving as the player-manager of the Indians. He served in the role for Cleveland from 1975 to 1977, memorably hitting a home run in his first at bat of the ’75 season as player-manager against the New York Yankees. He later went on to manage the San Francisco Giants, the Orioles, and both the Montreal Expos and Washington Nationals, winning 1,065 games from the dugout.
Robinson was at the end of the line when the Indians acquired him in September of 1974 from the California Angels for Ken Suarez, Rusty Torres, and cash considerations. The 39-year-old had been selected to the final All-Star Game of his career earlier that season. Robinson appeared in 15 games for the Indians that season, hitting .200 with a pair of homers and five RBI.
He took the field as a player for the Indians just 100 times in his three seasons with the club, but it was the significance of his hiring as the team’s manager ahead of the 1975 season that made his time in Cleveland so instrumental. He replaced Ken Aspromonte as the Indians skipper and, in his first game as a player-manager, he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning as the team’s designated hitter. The date was April 8, 1975, and the Indians were hosting the New York Yankees in their home opener. With the baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the widow of Jackie Robinson, Rachel, in attendance at Cleveland Stadium, Robinson drove a fastball low and away over the wall in left off of Doc Medich to give the Indians a 1-0 lead. Cleveland would give up the lead before chipping away with runs in the second, fourth, and sixth to win 5-3 while giving Robinson an even more memorable managerial debut.
“Any home run is a thrill,” shared Robinson after the game [as quoted in the April 9, 1975, edition of The Plain Dealer], “but I’ve got to admit, this one was a bigger thrill.
“[General manager Phil Seghi] suggested to me this morning, ‘Why don’t you hit a homer the first time you go to the plate?’ I told him, ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’”
He penciled his name on the lineup card 49 different times in 1975 as he hit .237 with a .385 on-base percentage with five doubles, nine homers, and 24 RBI for the year.
Robinson played sparingly in 1976, appearing in 36 games on the year and just two games in September. His final at bat seemed fitting though as he took on his former Orioles team and entered via an eighth inning pinch-hit appearance for Frank Duffy with runners on first and second and one out and his Tribe trailing 3-1. He delivered an RBI-single to left to score Joe Lis, but a double play ball ended the threat and the O’s held on for the one-run win.
He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 1982, receiving 370 votes on the 415 ballots (89.2%).
His managerial tenure in Cleveland was brief. He led the club to a 79-80 mark in 1975 and another fourth place finish the next season with an 81-78 record. But off to a 26-31 start in 1977 and no longer playing the game, he was replaced at the helm by Jeff Torborg, who went 45-59 and the Indians finished fifth with a 71-90 record.
Robinson returned to Baltimore and was a coach for the organization for three years before taking over as the manager of the San Francisco Giants from 1981 to 1984. He went back to Baltimore as a coach from 1985 to 1987 and took over for manager Cal Ripken Sr. early in the 1988 season. Baltimore would go 54-107 in his first season, but he took the club to a second place finish with an 87-75 record the following season while winning the AL Manager of the Year award. The O’s slipped back to 76-85 the next year and, after a 13-24 start in 1991, his time in the Baltimore dugout ended.
He got another chance a decade later when he was named the manager of the Montreal Expos for the 2002 season. He spent three years in Canada and accompanied the club when it relocated to Washington, D.C., spending two more years there before calling it a career at the age of 71 with a managerial record of 1,065-1,176 in the big leagues.
Robinson’s credits, in addition to his Hall of Fame induction in 1982, also include having his number retired by three separate organizations (becoming just the second player ever to be honored so, following Nolan Ryan). The Orioles retired Robinson’s 20 in 1972 and he was one of the first members of the club’s Hall of Fame, joined by longtime teammate Brooks Robinson in 1978. The Reds made him a member of their Hall of Fame in 1978 and retired his number in 1998. The Indians inducted him into their Hall in 2016 and retired his number in 2017. He is also a member of the Nationals Ring of Honor, selected in 2015.
He has also been recognized with three different statues in his honor (2003 at Great American Ball Park, 2012 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and 2017 at Heritage Park in Progressive Field).
When the Indians retired Robinson’s 20 in May of 2017, it became the first number since Bob Lemon‘s 21 was de-listed by the organization in 1998. In addition to Lemon’s number, the numbers 3 (Earl Averill), 5 (Lou Boudreau), 14 (Larry Doby), 18 (Mel Harder), 19 (Bob Feller), and 42 (Jackie Robinson) were retired prior to Robinson, and the 25 of Jim Thome was retired last season.
Little did he know it at the time, but outfielder Rajai Davis did the 20 proud during its final trips to the diamond during the 2016 season. His heroics in Game 7 of that season’s World Series nearly brought an end to the Tribe’s excruciatingly long title drought. One magical swing in the eighth inning of the deciding game brought the score to a tie and permanently etched his name into Indians lore.
The veteran outfielder provided a surprise jolt to the Indians lineup during the 2016 season. He led the league with 43 stolen bases and his electric and infectious attitude and effort helped spark the club. His high-flying high-fives with teammates after wins became a common sight as the season went on and the team kept winning. He brought with him years of experience, including years of struggling to latch on to roster spots in the early portions of his career.
The addition of Davis seemed underrated at the time, especially coming off of a season in which one of his greatest assets, his legs on the base paths, had provided just 18 stolen bases for the rival Detroit Tigers despite a career-high eleven triples aided by the vast expanses of Comerica Park. Never a big threat at the plate, Davis was joining the Indians at the age of 35 and appeared to be a bench option with a decade of Major League experience under his belt on some good, but not great, teams.
Instead, Davis saw regular time in the Tribe outfield, platooning in center field with rookie Tyler Naquin while filling in for the injured Michael Brantley in left at other times. While he hit just .249 for the season with a .306 on-base percentage, there was no doubt early on that his legs were fresh and opposing pitchers had to spend a disproportionate amount of time watching his antics at first base. It did not slow him, as he picked off all but six of his 49 attempts on the year. He also gave the Indians a surprising amount of pop, as he hit 23 doubles and cleared the fences a dozen times, four more than his previous career-bests set in 2012 and matched again in 2014 and 2015. When he was on base, he was a prime option for his teammates to drive in, which they did 74 times, the most successful touches of home that Davis could claim in a year.
He added a personal accomplishment during the season when, on July 2 against his former Blue Jays club in Toronto, he hit for the cycle in the Tribe’s 9-6 loss, becoming the first Indians player to pull off the feat since Travis Hafner in Minnesota in 2003.
He made his second career appearance in the postseason when Cleveland opened its series with the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series in October, but he struggled with three strikeouts in seven plate appearances. Those issues continued into the American League Championship Series against Toronto, when he played in all five games, but was 0-for-6 with two more Ks against the Jays. While he was slumping in the playoffs, manager Terry Francona gave him a big vote of confidence and kept him in the lineup against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. He doubled in the Game 1 win before a huge effort in Game 5, when he was 2-for-4 with a pair of singles and three thefts on the bases in Cleveland’s 3-2 loss.
He single-handedly attempted to win Game 7 himself. After grounding into a double play in the second, lining out in the fourth, and grounding out in the sixth, he stepped to the plate with the Indians trailing 6-4 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning against Chicago closer Aroldis Chapman. The hard-throwing left-hander had come on one batter earlier, giving up an RBI-double to lefty-masher Brandon Guyer and Davis took advantage of the suddenly shaky southpaw, digging out a 2-2 pitch and, in the most improbable of fashions, sending it to the Home Run Porch in left field to tie the game at six all.
As history would tell, the Cubs scored a pair of runs after a rain delay in the tenth inning off of Bryan Shaw, but the Indians threatened in their last ditch efforts after Guyer worked a two-out walk. He moved to second on indifference and Davis drove him home with a liner up the middle to make it an 8-7 deficit. Davis, however, would not get to touch the plate again as Michael Martinez grounded to third to end Cleveland’s hopes of a two-championship year. It marked the last time the 20 ran off of the field for the Indians, but Davis did the number proud.
Davis spent last season with the Tribe, but he did so in the number 26. He is now in camp with the New York Mets on a minor league contract with a non-roster invitation.
Other notable 20s in Tribe history: Sam Zoldak (1948-50), Ray Narleski (1954-58), George Hendricks (1973-74), Rick Manning (1981-83), Otis Nixon (1984-87), Jeromy Burnitz (1996), Kevin Seitzer (1996-97), Steve Karsay (1998-2001), Karim Garcia (2002-03), Victor Martinez (2003), Ronnie Belliard (2004-06), David Dellucci (2007-09).
Photo: Bettman Archive
Miss out on our other Countdown pieces? Check out more Indians history below.
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 90 – Adam Cimber
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 76
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 75
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 62
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 61 – Dan Otero
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 60
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 59 – Carlos Carrasco
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 58 – Neil Ramirez
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 57 – Shane Bieber
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 56 – Cody Anderson
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 55 – Roberto Perez
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 54
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 52 – Mike Clevinger
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 51
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 49 – Tyler Olson
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 48
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 47 – Trevor Bauer
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 46 – Jon Edwards
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 45 – Adam Plutko
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 44 – Nick Goody
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 43
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 42
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 41 – Carlos Santana
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 40
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 39 – Oliver Perez
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 38 – Eric Haase
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 37
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 35 – Ben Taylor
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 34
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 33 – Brad Hand
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 32
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 31 – Danny Salazar
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 30 – Tyler Naquin
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 28 – Corey Kluber
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 26
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Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 22 – Jason Kipnis
Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 21