April 23, 2014

15 Years Ago: The Team Of (Almost) Destiny

Strap in folks, this is a long one……

I love Twitter for so many reasons. It’s my source for news, sports, comedy, etc. I am a Twitter junkie no doubt. I feel like I’ve read so many articles and stories that I would have had no clue existed if not for my timeline.

Then there are the stats or the pieces of history that you can be alerted to. Take two days ago for example. Our buddy from Indians.com Zack Meisel tweeted out that it was exactly 15 years ago Monday that Tony Fernandez hit a 10th inning, solo home run off of Baltimore reliever Armando Benitez in Game six of the 1997 American League Championship series, vaulting the Indians into the World Series for the second time in three years.

I smiled for a second, thinking about where I was during one of the seminal moments in Tribe history. I was a Senior at the University of Kansas, sitting in the apartment of a buddy who at the time I felt like was my good luck charm. I had watched each big win during that playoff with him, despite the fact that he had no dog in the fight. I was a man on an island out in Lawrence, the lone die hard Indians fan on campus. These playoff games were torture for me not being able to watch them with my brother or father or even any of my friends from Cleveland, spread throughout the country.

I bought three bottles of cheap champagne before the ’97 playoffs. I planned on cracking one open after each series victory on my way to my first championship.

I cannot believe that playoff run was 15 years ago. Everyone loves and remembers that 1995 group much more fondly than perhaps any in Tribe history, but the ’97 Tribe is my favorite of all the teams of the Hargrove era.

People tend to forget that this team had started a bit of a transition. Gone were Albert Belle (left as a free agent after the ’96 season), Carlos Baerga (traded to the Mets during in ’96 for Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino), Eddie Murray (the slow down had begun and he was traded to Baltimore in July of ’96), top set up man Julian Tavarez (sent to SF after the ’96 season), and Dennis Martinez (left as a free agent after ’96).

On top of it a few days before the ’97 season would begin, GM John Hart rolled the dice and dealt free-agent-to-be Kenny Lofton and left-handed reliever Alan Embree to the Atlanta Braves for Marquis Grissom and David Justice. Hart had already replaced Kent and Vizcaino (sent to SF with Tavarez) with veteran gold glove third baseman Matt Williams and moved Jim Thome across the diamond to first. Closer Jose Mesa missed the early part of the season dealing with a messy off the field legal issue and the newly added Mike Jackson took over the closer role temporarily before settling into the eighth inning role.

The rotation had nobody close to an “ace.” It was the Hart way; out-slug your opponent and close it out with a strong bullpen. They mixed and matched starters all year after staples Orel Hershiser and Charlie Nagy (thanks to the injury of supposed top end guy Jack McDowell).  Only Orel and Charlie made more than 30 starts. You had the team trading for John Smiley and Jeff Juden. Guys like Jason Jacome and Terry Clark made starts. Chad Ogea would grab a rotation spot, as would a pair of untested rookies Bartolo Colon and the 21-year old who started the season in AA and wasn’t even supposed to make an appearance. His name was Jaret Wright.

The team took some time to gel, but in the putrid AL Central, 86 wins was more than enough to win a third consecutive division title. The close-knit group took off late in the season with a tribute to one of their veteran leaders, Thome. In a late August show of solidarity on his birthday, the entire team hiked their red socks up the way Thome did. Baseball players are extremely superstitious and since the move worked, they stuck with it the rest of the way. Good fortune seemed to follow them all the way into October.

They trailed the defending champion New York Yankees two games two one and were trailing by a run heading into the bottom of the eighth of game four at Jacobs Field when Sandy Alomar Jr. stepped to the plate. The man who had a 30-game hitting streak earlier in the season and was the All-Star Game MVP, continued his incredible 1997 by taking the great Mariano Rivera deep for a game-tying, series changing home run. It’s one of the greatest moments in the long history of Indians baseball. Omar Vizquel’s ninth inning RBI single would send the Tribe into a decisive Game five.

The Indians took that game 4-3 behind the right arm of the rookie sensation Wright and stellar pen work from Jackson, Paul Assenmacher, and Mesa and headed to Baltimore for a shot at another World Series. Incredibly, the Game Five win over the Yankees was the only series clincher in Jacobs/Progressive Field history. Think about the moments Indians fans have been robbed of. In 95 they won series clinching games in Boston and Seattle. In 97, both came on the road in New York and Baltimore. In 98, the series clincher happened on Boston and in 2007, Paul Byrd led the Tribe to the ALCS with a win in New York.

So on to Baltimore the Indians went for what was the greatest playoff series that any Indians fan under the age of 60 has still ever seen. Every game was hotly contested. The great moments were everywhere.

After losing game one in Baltimore, the Indians didn’t want to face the challenge of needing four wins in the last five games to get to the World Series. The Tribe fell behind 4-2 and once again badly needed late inning magic to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Sitting in that same apartment in Lawrence, I had that sinking feeling. But then I looked up and I saw Benitez on the mound.

Fr those who recall, Armando Benitez was a tantalizing physical talent. He threw a 100 MPH fastball and had a temper to match it. He was also a stubborn head case who rarely wanted to use a secondary pitch. A year earlier, Belle hit an eighth inning grand slam off of him in Game three of the ALDS in Cleveland. Lightning was about to strike twice.

Still trailing by two in the eighth, Grissom, who had a very uneven year at the plate while taking over center field from the fan favorite Lofton, cracked a three-run home run to give the Indians an improbable come from behind win.

I remember going absolutely berserk. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. That is when I had my first inkling that while the ’97 Indians were probably the least talented team of the “Era of Champions,” they were becoming the team of destiny.

Little did I know they were just beginning.

Because of the 2-3-2 ALCS format, I was lucky enough to be able to fly home for the weekend games of the series. I had to be there. What I was about to see where still to this day my two greatest live Cleveland sporting events (I was not at the LeBron buzzer beater in 08 vs Orlando, and yes, it topped the ’07 Boobie for three-fest ECF clincher vs Detroit for me).

Game Three of the ALCS was a later afternoon start which the tricky Jacobs Field shadows played a huge roll. Mike Mussina and Orel Hershiser put on one of a playoff pitching performance for the ages. Mussina K’d 15 Indians in seven innings while Hershiser held the Orioles scoreless on four hits. The Indians took a 1-0 lead in the seventh on a Matt Williams RBI single.

In the ninth, closer Jose Mesa who at the time we had all loved as a guy who rarely failed to do his job gave up a leadoff single before getting a groundout. Brady Anderson then lifted a lazy fly ball to center. Grissom looked up and couldn’t find the ball in the early evening October sky. It landed behind him, allowing the Orioles to tie the game on a complete fluke.

That play was Cleveland at its finest. Our lows are lower than your lows.

We soldiered on to extra innings where both teams had chances to win the game. I literally was ill sitting in stands. Or should I say standing. We never sat during those extra innings. The tension in the stadium was unlike anything I can ever remember.

The Orioles loaded the bases with two out against Juden in the 11th before Tribe reliever Al Morman K’d Rafael Palmeiro to end the inning (That’s right – in extra innings of a playoff game, Hargrove had no choice but to use Juden and Morman). In the bottom of the frame, the Indians put runners on second and third with nobody out before O’s manager Davey Johnson called for closer Randy Myers. Myers somehow wiggled his way out of it thanks to a stellar defensive play from Third baseman Cal Ripken on a Kevin Seitzer line drive and a bases loaded, two-out K of Sandy.

Then in the 12th, a team of destiny moment arrived. Grissom walked with one out. Fernandez, hitting right-handed against the lefty Myers, lined a single to fit and an aggressive Grissom sprinted to third and was just safe in front of the throw. In a daring move, Tribe manager Mike Hargrove, a guy who had been so used to sitting around and waiting for the three-run homer of the past four seasons, called for Omar Vizquel to lay down a squeeze bunt.

Vizquel squared and whiffed on the pitch. Baltimore Catcher Lenny Webster literally let the ball hit off of his glove and didn’t make an attempt to pick it up as Grissom ran past him to score the game winning run. Webster, Myers, and Johnson came out to argue, but it was to no avail. Replays would show that Vizquel’s bat narrowly missed the ball. The Indians won 2-1 and took a 2-1 series lead. I’ve never been more emotionally drained after a sporting event in my life.

Again, can you say Team of Destiny?

A night later, we were back for more drama. Wright was bombed for back to back to back homers early, was chased after three innings, and it looked like the Orioles would tie the series at two. However, the pesky 97 Wahoos never gave up. They eventually took a 7-5 lead with a four run fifth. Mesa would end up blowing a one run lead in the ninth on a walk and two singles. Again, while I had that ill feeling, the magic happened.

Alomar, who carried this team for most of the year, singled in the game winning run (off of Benitez) for a 8-7 win. I can still see Manny Ramirez pointing towards the crowd as he came home. Two nights with more drama than a Sopranos episode. Talk about a well timed trip for me. The 45,000 plus who joined me will never forget what they saw or the feelings they had. It was incredible.

After losing a potential series clincher at home in Game five to Scott Kaminiecki, the Indians headed back to Baltimore for another classic.

Nagy got the ball from Hargrove for this one while the Orioles countered with Mussina on short rest. Once again, the Indians could not touch him. They could only muster one single hit in eight innings against the Baltimore ace, who K’d 10. Meanwhile, the Orioles seemed to have runners on base every inning against Nagy, but the ground ball machine continued to get the big double-play balls to get out of trouble. In seven innings, he got four of them. Four! The Orioles had nine hits and walked three times and hadn’t scored.

Once again, you had a tie score in the late innings. The Indians pen was superb while Mussina was crushing. It wasn’t until the 10th when Fernandez’s homer broke the scoreless tie. It can still see Tony mouth the words “thank you” after he hit the pitch. I scared the crap out of my buddy’s neighbors with the loud screams and my run through the parking lot after Fernandez’s jack.

Mesa put two men on in the bottom of the 10th before striking out Roberto Alomar looking. It was sweet revenge for Mesa who had been taken deep by Robbie a year earlier in extra innings, eliminated the Indians in Game four of the ALDS in Cleveland. The team of destiny was heading to the World Series. I popped that second bottle of champagne and went out and celebrated.

I prefer to end the piece right here on a high note. I loved that gritty 97 bunch. DJ, Grissom, Matty Williams, Thome, Manny, Sandy, Omar, and the legend of Jaret Wright. The back end of the pen featuring Jackson, Paul Assenmacher, Mesa, and in the playoffs, Brian Anderson.

In a roundabout way, I am saying that I wish I hadn’t been reminded that it was 15 years ago that the Indians had the most memorable of World Series runs to me. It seems like it happened just yesterday. I remember it all so vividly. I wrote this entire piece without the use of google or added information. I’m telling you, I remember it all cold. What’s sad is that those salad days are so long ago. It also means I’ve been out of college for 15 years, also sad for different reasons.

I’ve watched a ton of playoff baseball over the past few weeks. Seeing moments like the Jayson Werth walk off homer in Washington or the incredible Cardinals comeback a day later or the Oakland game four comeback to force a Game five against the Tigers makes me pine for October baseball in Cleveland.

I want these moments to happen for our baseball team, for our city, for me. Hopefully we can get some of that back under new skipper Terry Francona.

(Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

  • mgbode

    “I bought three bottles of cheap champagne before the ’97 playoffs. I
    planned on cracking one open after each series victory on my way to my
    first championship.”

    I blame you for that loss now. Thanks for jinxing us.

  • mgbode

    “I bought three bottles of cheap champagne before the ’97 playoffs. I
    planned on cracking one open after each series victory on my way to my
    first championship.”

    I blame you for that loss now. Thanks for jinxing us.

  • mgbode

    and thanks for the rekindling the good memories about that team. that was a fun team to root for (outside of Justice)

  • mgbode

    and thanks for the rekindling the good memories about that team. that was a fun team to root for (outside of Justice)

  • dwhit110

    If only YouTube existed in the MLB world and you could link to some of the moments you mention (like Sandy Alomar smacking that game tying homer off of Rivera in the 8th… one of my favorite moments… along with Belle crushing the game tying homer in Game 1 vs Boston two years prior and pointing to his bicep when the Red Sox confiscated his bat to have it checked for cork.)

  • Harv 21

    Forgot how great the Orioles series was. Always considered the Seattle series in ’95 tenser and more drama filled but maybe that’s because the Seattle series featured so many stars in their primes on both teams.

    Have zero memory of Al Morman. Nothing.

  • Natedawg86

    Wonder if TD still has that last bottle…

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Ah the good old burn and crash days it seems like so long ago now. One stud starter is all that may have stood between them and possibly one maybe two championships. Most likely one but hey as long as we’re all dreaming!

  • mgbode

    if it were me, then it would not have survived the post-Mesa tirade

  • mgbode

    ah, you are referring to the Jaret Wright for Pedro swap that John Hart reportedly turned down.

  • CBI

    I’d like to see a YouTube video of Jason Grimsley climbing through the heating ducts to change that bat out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.huyghe Kevin Huyghe

    That would be actually pretty cool… refusing to open it until we got that “third” series win…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamie.pieh Jamie Pieh

    great article, I was a junior in high school during the 97 playoffs, and watched every single pitch. Sandy’s homer off mariano is game 4 of the alds I say is the biggest homer in the history of the franchise.

  • maxfnmloans

    In 1998 I waited on Dave Justice at Champps in Lyndhurst. Lousy tipper. $3 and change on a $40ish tab

  • http://twitter.com/tompestak Thomas Pestak

    I just realized that I was at the series clincher against the yankees – 13 years old, and was at the Boobie 3/shot clock broken series clincher. Both times, everyone flooded the streets and strangers hugged. I can’t even imagine what would happen in Cleveland if any pro team won a title and clinched in Cleveland.

  • Garry_Owen

    Thanks, TD. I really enjoyed this summary.
    Indeed, this is the only concise knowledge of that post-season that I have. I missed the ENTIRE ’97 post-season. I was stationed in Korea at the time, and spent 45 straight days in the field without so much as the luxury of a shower, let alone a TV or radio. I only knew that we lost the World Series because my buddy somehow figured out a way to telephone me in the field, over military radios, to rub it in – on my birthday. That’s it. My whole recollection. For the first time, I’m now sorry that I missed it all.

  • mgbode

    I’m not surprised. I’ll bet he hit little kids and mocked the elderly as well (I never forgave him for ’95 if you cannot tell).

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    I was at the game for the LeBron buzzer-beater against Orlando (flew up for an extended weekend), and the scene was just like the one you described. The energy in the streets afterward was incredible then, and is almost impossible to describe now. The town might spontaneously combust if we ever clinch a title.

  • Ben
  • Dave G.

    I really enjoyed the author’s perspective here remembering Oct ’97, as I was just out of college and about to move to New Jersey to begin my first job. I was fortunate enough to attend both the Alomar HR game as well as the Vizquel/Webster Squeeze game. Those were such great moments and I too remember them as if they just happened. I packed myself up and moved to NJ the same day as Game 1 of the World Series, which turned into an incredibly miserable week.

  • http://twitter.com/KevinBresnahan Kevin Bresnahan

    Thank you. Fantastic.

  • Die Hard Cleveland Fan

    Great article that brought back so many great memories! I was a freshman at the University of Toledo in 1997, and remember watching that game in the dorm with a bunch of other Cleveland fans. Immediately after Tony Fernandez hit that home run we piled into a buddies car and drove to Cleveland to party the rest of the night away in the flats (fake id’s!!) not even knowing we won until we turned on the car radio. What a great night!

    I was fortunate enough to be at a number of great Cleveland sporting events over the years, and the three you mention all come to mind. I would rank the Boobie 3 to beat Detroit and win the Eastern Conference Championship as the best sports nights in Cleveland that I have ever been a part of. I will never forget the party outside Gund Arena. Huron Street was packed with people hugging, and high fiving. We had a number of cheap bottles of champagne waiting in the car, which was parked on the roof of the parking garage directly across the street from the arena on Huron. We sprayed champagne all over everyone on Huron from the roof top!

    The LeBitch buzzer beater against Orlando was amazing, and the fans downtown partied late into the night, but no way does that compare to winning the Eastern Conference Championship at home in front of a raucous Cleveland crowd.

    The Sandy home run game was awesome, and I do remember the fans going crazy outside of the Jake, but in no way did it compare to the scene outside following the Detroit game.

    Another game that comes to mind that I was at was the OT win over the Jets in the 1987 NFL playoffs! That was another amazing time to be in downtown Cleveland (I was a little kid and still remember it like it was yesterday).

  • WFNY_DP

    I remember where I was for this game: working as a writing tutor in the Mount Union writing center, but not really working and instead being out in the hall watching on the campus center TVs. When Fernandez went deep, people were running up and down spontaneously high-fiving.

    I always felt so horrible for Fernandez considering all he did that season–including the homer–that a 4-time Gold Glover booted that ball in Game 7 of the Series.

  • http://twitter.com/ejmaroun EJMaroun

    I have Zapruder style footage of the shot against Orlando. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sK7V0CpBj7o&feature=plcp