John Hart had completed what Hank Peters had begun. In the late 1980s, working under the anonymity of yet another Indians rebuild, Peters began collecting the building blocks of a true big league powerhouse. He and Hart famously identified a pool of young players who they considered worthy of long-term contracts. The players forfeited free agency in return for multiple years of guaranteed money. The franchise gained some cost certainty and multiple seasons of player control.
Not all of the Indians players during the early seasons of that era actually panned out as ‘core players’. For every Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar, Jr., there was also a Carlos Martinez, a Mark Lewis and a Wayne Kirby.
But of course, they had way more ‘hits’ than ‘misses’. They augmented the roster with veterans, star players on the back end of their careers who plugged holes in the lineup while assuming leadership roles in the clubhouse. The first wave of these vets included pitchers Jack Morris and Dennis Martinez, and position players such as Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield.
To say the formula was effective is to understate the regular-season dominance of those teams. The Indians bludgeoned opponents’ pitching- especially their bullpens- and wrapped up division championships weeks before other teams. It seemed so easy. In a sentiment met with older fans’ incredulity, some Tribe followers actually pined for a closer pennant race. The Indians won the American League pennant in 1995, before taking a step backwards in 1996 with an early playoff exit.
After that season, free agent Albert Belle signed with the rival Chicago White Sox. Hart had begun a new phase in this era of Indians baseball, having already traded crowd favorite Carlos Baerga to the New York Mets in a ’96 deadline deal. With nothing to show for the loss of Belle, Hart took a deep breath, and sized up his center fielder. Kenny Lofton was a human highlight clip, with his speed on the base paths and breathtaking defense. Tribe fans still share YouTube links that show the home run balls that Lofton turned into long fly outs.
But Lofton’s contract would be up soon, and there was no guarantee he would sign with Cleveland. Hart knew that if he lost Lofton, he needed something substantial in return.
In 1997, with spring training winding down in late March, John Hart made a jaw dropping move, one that shocked the fans in Cleveland. He dealt Kenny Lofton.
Not only that; he dealt his center fielder – a player whose fan appeal was evident by his often being referred to by first name only – to the Atlanta Braves. The team that had beaten the Indians in the 1995 World Series. Would he come back to haunt them?
And what about this deal? Departing the North Coast with Lofton was Alan Embree, a diminutive yet hard-throwing left handed reliever. One player coming from Atlanta would be Marquis Grissom, the centerfielder who would replace Lofton. Grissom, whose father had been a factory assembly worker at General Motors (guess what model vehicle he worked on), was in the middle of a long term contract that the Braves wanted to get out from under. Grissom was solid; he could hit some and had some speed.
Justice, whom had been on the disabled list since the previous May, was getting paid a lot of money- fans noted his $6+million salary and wondered why Lofton had to be jettisoned. However, Justice would be the replacement for Belle, both in left field and in the lineup. The pressure to produce was palpable, both on the ‘rebounding’ Indians and on David Justice.
The Indians opened the 1997 season at Oakland, vs. the Athletics. The A’s were an average team by now, in the wake of one of their most recent playoff eras. Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley was long gone, but the roster still boasted the formidable Canseco-McGwire tandem.
The pitching matchup pitted Tribe ace Charles Nagy against Ariel Prieto. The latter was a celebrated Cuban whom had emigrated to Puerto Rico. After pitching poorly for the Cuban national team, he was allowed to leave that country. The A’s selected him near the top of the 1995 amateur draft, and he pitched in the big leagues right away. His career never really got off the ground, but in 1997, he was still getting his shot.
TOP 1st: Well. 1) Lineup upheaval notwithstanding, the Cleveland Indians could still score runs. 2) We were getting the picture on Prieto. While he may well have been a much ballyhooed import, that didn’t guarantee his effectiveness. Mariano Rivera, he was not.
The Tribe batted around in the first. Grissom got things started with a line out to left field. SS Omar Vizquel followed with a liner of his own, to center field for a single. On a 2-1 pitch to 1B Jim Thome, Omar stole second. Thome worked a full count before earning a walk. Then, on the 1-0 pitch to 3B Matt Willliams, Vizquel broke for third- the throw was there, but 3B Scott Brosius booted the ball. Williams walked to load the bases.
David Justice stepped up, and sent a ground ball to second that forced Williams. Vizquel scored on the play. RF Manny Ramirez and 2B Julio Franco then each singled in a run.
On the 2-1 pitch to DH Kevin Mitchell, Prieto let loose a wild pitch (is there a good alternative to the overused verb, ‘uncorked’?). With first base open, Prieto issued the intentional pass to Mitchell. With the bases loaded again, C Sandy Alomar was next, with an RBI infield single to the shortstop.
Marquis Grissom then crushed a deep fly ball to left-center field… that stayed in the yard. Inning over. Kind of a crappy start for Oakland, with their presumptive ace allowing four runs on four hits. Three of the runs were unearned, but on none of his 42 first inning pitches did he inspire confidence. 4-0 TRIBE, MIDDLE OF THE 1st.
BOTTOM 1st: SS Tony Batista, Brosius and RF Jose Canseco went groundout-strikeout looking-groundout. Nagy was behind in the count on all three, but escaped. 4-0 TRIBE, END OF 1st.
The pitchers settled in over the next couple innings.
BOTTOM 3rd: ON an 0-1 pitch, CF Ernie Young belted a drive to deep right-center off Nagy. 4-1 TRIBE, END OF 3rd.
TOP 4th: Mitchell answered. He hit the first offering from Prieto for a home run to left-center. Vizquel eventually lined a two-out single to left, and promptly stole second. Thome doubled him home. 6-1 TRIBE, MIDDLE OF THE 4th.
BOTTOM 4th: Brosius tagged Nagy’s first pitch for a triple. After a Canseco strikeout, McGwire grounded out to short to score Brosius. DH Geronimo Berroa (who would join the Indians in 1998) swatted a homer to left. 6-3 TRIBE, END OF 4th.
BOTTOM 5th: Nagy coughed up the lead. 2B Scott Spezio doubled to center with one out. C George Williams struck out. So did Batista, who reached on a wild pitch. Franco compounded the trouble with his error on the play- Spezio scored. Nagy then got behind in the count to both Brosius and Canseco- walking them both. Big trouble for the Tribe pitcher, with McGwire due up. The 1B hit Nagy’s first pitch for a double to left, tying the ball game. 6-6, END OF 5.
The score remained tied for the next couple innings.
TOP 7th: Thome led off with a walk. After a Matt Williams strikeout, David Justice stepped in. He clobbered a 2-2 Billy Brewer pitch to right for a two-run homer.
It was a tone-setter. Back in Cleveland, the home fans smiled and cheered. Replacement for Albert Belle? Yes, this will do. 8-6 TRIBE, MIDDLE OF THE 7th.
BOTTOM 7th: Eric Plunk (a maligned figure in Cleveland for a couple tough outings in the playoffs- but a reliever who did his job more often than not) took care of the heart of the A’s order. He allowed a couple singles, but retired the side without any runs scoring. 8-6 TRIBE, END OF 7.
Oakland scratched out a run in the 8th, and Thome hit a bomb in the 9th, and the Indians won a slugfest in the opener, 9-7.
David Justice would hit three home runs during the first week of the season for the Indians. His ovation when introduced at the home opener was among the loudest of the day. He made the All Star team that summer- it was held in Cleveland; it was the game in which Sandy Alomar, Jr. was named the game’s MVP. Lingering elbow and knee injuries dictated he be used as the DH for much of the middle of the season, but his hitting was a key to the Tribe’s third straight division title. He won several awards in 1997, including a Silver Slugger award and Comeback Player of the Year. In the American League MVP voting, Justice finished fifth.
Yep, Albert Belle was gone. So was Kenny Lofton. But this David Justice guy? He was going to work out just fine.
Sources: baseball-reference.com; The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia, Schneider.