Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 99 Days
When Indians fans think of the #99, chances are the most frequently recalled one in the 119-year history of the Cleveland franchise was a fictional one.
Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, the juvenile delinquent and the pride of the California Penal League, joined the big screen Indians in 1989 and helped lead the revival of the long-dead franchise, taking his wild flame-throwing right arm to the mound with plenty of success against other American League opponents, with the exception of the rival New York Yankees.
Vaughn and the Tribe got their revenge in a one-game play-in game for the American League East title, as the young hurler struck out the dangerous American League Triple Crown winner Clu Haywood (.341 average, 48 HR, 121 RBI) on three straight heaters before the Indians walked off in the bottom of the ninth on the heroics of veteran catcher Jake Taylor and the hustle of speedster Willie Mays Hayes.
Vaughn’s career was never as successful as his rookie campaign, but thankfully for Tribe fans, his career was limited to the big screen and had no bearing on wins and losses for the actual squad residing in downtown Cleveland, although the Indians of the late ’80’s and early ’90’s may have benefited from a player of his ilk at the time.
As for real life 99s in the history of the organization, just one man has taken the double nine to the playing field. Daniel Robertson, a light-hitting outfielder who spent his final 32 big league games in an Indians uniform during the 2017 season, had the odd honor of filling Vaughn’s shoes.
Like Vaughn, Robertson was a California native, hailing from Fontana before playing collegiately at Oregon State University. He returned home to California in 2008, when he was taken in the 33rd round of that year’s draft by the San Diego Padres.
After toiling in the minors for six seasons, Robertson got a non-roster spring training invite with the Padres in 2014, but he was a camp cut. Later in April that season, he was traded to the Texas Rangers for cash. He made his big league debut that year in the middle of May, appearing in 70 games for the club over the course of the season while hitting .271 with nine doubles, one triple, and 21 RBI while playing all three outfield spots and second base.
He would not survive the year in Texas, however. Following the season, he was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels. He spent the bulk of the following year in the minors, but he did log 37 games of activity with the Halos’ parent club, hitting .280 with 19 singles and a pair of doubles.
He was claimed off of waivers from the Angels by the Seattle Mariners in November of 2015 and split time between Safeco Field and the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma in 2016. He suited up in nine games for the M’s that season.
Robertson was signed by the Indians on November 23, 2016, inking a minor league pact with a non-roster invitation to spring training. He hit well in Arizona, getting 20 hits in 61 at bats (.328), but a strained left hamstring late in camp ended any chance that he had to open the season with the Indians. He started the year at Triple-A Columbus instead, missing a month there on the disabled list, but he got the call after four games with the Clippers to head up I-71 to Progressive Field in the middle of May, when the club lost Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer, and Austin Jackson to injuries, depleting Cleveland’s reserve outfield depth drastically.
Robertson made some under-the-radar contributions to the Indians, especially on the defensive side of the game. That included an impressive performance in his fourth game of the season on May 23, when he used his glove, arm, and bat in an attempt to affect the game’s final score. He tripled in the second inning, but was left stranded as Carlos Carrasco bunted out for the final out of the inning in the interleague contest against the cross-state Cincinnati Reds. He slammed into the Great American Ball Park’s center field wall in the fourth inning to rob shortstop Zack Cozart of extra bases. In the bottom of the eighth with the Tribe up, 8-7, he gunned down Jose Peraza trying to score from second base to end the inning and save a threat against All-Star reliever Andrew Miller.
“That was huge. All game he was awesome,” shared Miller after the game. “That was the game, I think. That was an incredible play.”
He added one big career highlight on June 13 in a home interleague contest against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Already with a single under his belt in three trips, he stepped to the plate with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth against Dodgers reliever Chris Hatcher. Working the count to 2-2, he pulled the sixth pitch of his battle over the wall in left, cutting the Tribe’s deficit to 7-5. Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen came on to strike out Jason Kipnis to end it, but Robertson’s first career home run gave the game some last minute excitement.
While Robertson’s first MLB knock on the 351st plate appearance of his career should have been the nice takeaway moment of the game, the outcome was marred by a two-finger salute by the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig to fans behind the plate after his second inning homer off of Trevor Bauer.
Robertson lasted on the big league roster until June 26, when he was optioned back to Columbus. He was later designated for assignment on August 9 and granted his release, but he re-signed with the club and returned to Triple-A to close out his season. He spent most of 2018 in the minors for the Arizona Diamondbacks, working with their Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, before he was released and inked a deal with the independent Sugar Land Skeeters. He remained in independent ball last year, playing for two different clubs in the American Association.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer