July 28, 2014

Alex Cole: Tribe’s Real Life Willie Mays Hayes? Reliving Yesteryear

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Commonly, major league baseball teams come up with some reasons for their fans to believe—some points of interest which they hope will cause the fan base to buy tickets, however contrived they may seem. The Cleveland Indians have boasted various mantras over the years – official or otherwise. The current #TribeTown qualifies. For some reason, I recall: “Come Alive with the Tribe in ’75.” Of course, there is the ever-handy, “We Will Spend When the Time is Right.”

Back in 1991, the franchise was listing. They’d recently wilted under the national media’s expectations of playoff contention. Hank Peters was the president of the Tribe; he’d previously enjoyed success at the helm of the late 1970s/early 1980s Baltimore Orioles. Peters was beginning to put some of the pieces in place which would set the Indians on a path to success. These moves would prove crucial in the transition from Cleveland Stadium to the new ballpark ‘at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario’.  

In 1991, Peters’ marketing focus included center fielder Alex Cole.

Cole was a small, lightning-fast slap hitter. He’d been an eleventh-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1984, though they’d failed to sign him. The St. Louis Cardinals then chose him in the second round of the 1985 draft. He was noted for his ‘Vince Coleman-type speed’. His defense was horrible, but the Cardinals really seemed to favor those fast runners, hoping they would develop as singles and doubles hitters (but as I ask my National League buds: why did that league always seem to want to build offenses designed not to score much?). After about six years in the Cardinals’ system, they dealt him to the San Diego Padres before the 1990 season. On July 11 of that season, Cole was picked up by the Indians in a midseason trade with the Padres for catcher Tom Lampkin. (Don’t worry, me neither.) Cole didn’t play in his first game until July 27, yet he finished fourth in the American League in stolen bases with 40. He was caught stealing just nine times. He also hit at a .295 clip. 

One game in particular in 1990 helped to capture the imagination of Tribe fans:

Wednesday, August 1. A home game against the Kansas City Royals. Greg Swindell vs. Mark Davis. The Tribe was, well, listing at 48-56, eight games out of first place. The Royals had a similar record.

Swindell yielded a run in the top of the first. (This was not the game in which he gave up a narrow lead while with the offensively-challenged Tribe, and declared in frustration, “It’s over.”) And the stage was set for the birth of a cult hero. In front of 12,000+ home fans, Alex Cole opened the game with a walk. With left fielder Mitch Webster sitting on a 2-1 count, Cole stole second base. Webster flew out, and on the first offering to second baseman Jerry Browne, Cole stole third. Browne worked the count to 3-1, then lined a double over the head of Cole down the third base line. A 1-1 game.

In the bottom of the third, Alex Cole was hit by a pitch with one out. He swiped second, but the Tribe failed to drive him home.

Both pitchers settled down. They were eating up scoreless innings until the bottom of the fifth. That was when shortstop Tom Brookens doubled after first baseman Jeff Manto had struck out. On a 1-0 pitch, Alex Cole grounded a single to center field, scoring Brookens. On the 1-1 pitch to Webster, Cole stole second again. Webster doubled him home on the next pitch. For good measure, Browne drove in Webster with a sac fly to center. 4-1 Tribe after five.

In the seventh, Cole hit a line drive single to left, before stealing second. He was stranded there.

But the four runs were all the support Swindell needed. He pitched into the eighth inning, when he allowed singles by Gerald Perry and Danny Tartabull to start the inning. Manager John McNamara removed Swindell in favor of the Tribe’s star closer Doug Jones; the Royals then went flyball/flyball/flyball to end the threat. Jones set the Royals down in order in the bottom of the ninth to secure his 28th save.

The line on Alex Cole was 2 for 2, a walk and a hit-by-pitch, with an RBI and two of the Indians’ four runs scored. And a whopping five stolen bases off of Royals pitching and catcher Mike McFarlane. The five steals was a new Cleveland Indians record. 

Alex Cole Baseball CardSo, entering the 1991 season, everyone was pumped up about Alex Cole- from Hank Peters, to McNamara, to the fans on the street like me. Cole was our Willie Mays Hayes from the recent movie, Major League. He also wore goggles with huge lenses which made him look like a big bug. Peters had decided to move the outfield wall back at the Stadium, to ‘take advantage’ of Cole’s speed (the centerfield portion of the wall was also heightened). Unfortunately, this would backfire as the Indians only hit 22 home runs at home that season. Joey Belle hit 28 homers in 1991; only 8 of those came at home.

In spring training of that 1991 season, Alex Cole tripped exiting the batter’s box on an infield chopper, and separated his shoulder. In hindsight, the proverbial carriage had turned into a pumpkin, the shark had done been jumped. Cole’s steals total shrunk to 27, and he was thrown out 17 times. He continued to play sub-par defense, and he had a habit of getting picked off base.

By 1992, the Indians had traded left-handed catcher Eddie Taubensee to the Houston Astros for a center fielder named Kenny Lofton. Lofton was another fleet-of-foot outfielder who had a penchant for stealing bases of his own.

(They were determined to find their Willie Mays Hayes, weren’t they? This Lofton was a basketball player—he’d been the sixth man on the Final-Four Arizona Wildcats, and had hardly even played baseball in college. How good could this guy be?)

Lofton and Cole played a few games in the outfield together in 1992.  

One such game in 1992 was on May 3 at the Stadium. Charles Nagy vs. Chuck Finley and the California Angels. The season was only a month old and the Tribe was already eight games out. The attendance was announced at just under 8,000 for this Sunday matinee.

Nagy was sharp to begin the contest, striking out four in the first two innings. Alex Cole had led off the game for the Tribe by pulling a line drive single to right. After a flyout by shortstop Mark Lewis, Cole stole second base on a 1-0 count to second baseman Carlos Baerga. The rally stalled.

In the top of the third, the Angels broke through with two runs on four hits. One of the hits was a single to right by Lee Stevens, who by 2002 would be the ’principal’ in the Indians’ trade of Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew to the Montreal Expos. The Expos would also send the Tribe three prospects- unknowns Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips.

In the home half of the third, a Lofton groundout preceded a single up the middle by Cole. With Lewis up, Cole stole second on the first pitch, and then took third on the second pitch. On the third pitch, catcher Lance Parrish allowed a passed ball, and the Tribe was on the board. Speed kills.

Each team scored in the fourth. In the bottom of the fifth, Lofton lined a single over short. Cole beat out a bunt single but Kenny was thrown out trying to go first-to-third. The Tribe failed to score.

In the seventh, with the game knotted at three, Alex Cole led off. (It is unclear whether the catcher Parrish received professional counseling after his frightful third inning.) Cole beat out a grounder to short, and once again stole second and third on the first two pitches to Mark Lewis. Incredibly, Cole was thrown out at the plate by Chad Curtis following a short fly to right off the bat of Baerga.

But that was five stolen bases by Alex Cole, tying his own team record. (He would come to the plate again in the bottom of the ninth, and draw a walk- advancing to second on Defensive Indifference. The Angels had taken a commanding lead in the top of the inning off of Derek Lilliquist and Ted Power. Ex-Tribesman Scotty Bailes was credited with the win for the Angels.). 

Alex Cole’s shortcomings, coupled with the promise of Kenny Lofton, prompted the Indians to trade Cole on July 4, 1992. The Tribe shipped him to Pittsburgh for Tony Mitchell. (Don’t worry, me neither.) Cole would eventually be taken in the Colorado Rockies’ expansion draft, and be their starting center fielder during their inaugural season. He would later latch on with the Minnesota Twins and then the Boston Red Sox before playing in his final major league game in 1996.

Kenny Lofton would become a core member of the fine 1990s Cleveland Indians teams. He was the player several teams had hoped Alex Cole could be. Lofton even stole five bases in a game himself for the Tribe, in 2000.

Alex Cole continued to play in the independent baseball leagues after his time in the majors. Regrettably, he eventually ran afoul of the law and spent some time in prison (once reportedly getting arrested in the Bridgeport, Connecticut baseball clubhouse). 

Cleveland Indians fans remember him fondly, as he once was a reason to believe.

***

Sources: The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia, Russell Schneider; baseball-reference.com game accounts, Wikipedia, The New York Times

  • W C

    I remember when they remodeled the Stadium outfield in the offseason based on two months of work by Alex Cole. Boston had its “Green Monster.” We had “the Blue Ant.”

  • dwhit110

    I always thought Lofton was Willy Mays Hayes (and Belle of course was Cerrano).

  • dwhit110

    I always thought Lofton was Willy Mays Hayes (and Belle of course was Cerrano).

  • mgbode

    Hey, I was one of those 8000 at the Nagy v. Finley game. Sunday matinees in RF were habitual for my family those seasons (fun times and that means my family alone accounted for 0.1% of attendance that day).

    Always loved the quirkly Alex Cole. The goggles, the baffling bad routes to balls he took in the OF (and sometimes made up for with his speed), the stolen bases, and the general flair he seemed to play with made some absolutely terrible teams a bit more enjoyable. Always will have fond memories of his time with the Tribe.

  • saggy

    i can still see that stupid wall in center field. The Blue Midget.

  • humboldt

    Someone needs to real quick photoshop a word bubble over Cole in the first picture, reading: “The American Express Card: don’t steal home without it”.

    Alex Cole…he really was our warmup Kenny Lofton, wasn’t he? I remember getting on the field at the Stadium for a kids day promotion and Alex Cole showing us how to field a ball. He did not appear terribly interested in the proceedings but played along

  • Harv 21

    He could do about one thing: run. Alas, his attention span wasn’t so great. I remember a home game when the opponent had a runner on second in the top of the first inning, one out. Lazy fly ball to Alex, he caught it, put his head down and trotted to the dugout. His teammates screamed as the runner scored.

    That’s right. He lost track of the outs just the third batter into a game. Good times.

  • scripty

    It was absurd how they did the OF that year 1991. It was a generously listed 420 or 424′ (IIRC) and had the double high fence. The gaps were outrageous.

  • Greg Popelka

    You guys remember the OF wall better than I. I do recall that moving ghe fence backfired. Hank Peters did a lot right, though, and paved the way for John Hart to build those 90s teams.