The 1997 Cleveland Indians October Turnaround

After literally decades of being a disastrous baseball team, the Cleveland Indians had finally exploded onto the national consciousness in 1994. The Indians were in playoff contention when the strike that ended the season hit. One year later, the Tribe went 100-44 in a truncated season and reached the World Series. In 1996, Cleveland posted the best record in the American League before losing a hard-fought Division Series to the Baltimore Orioles.  Cleveland wasn’t over the top to its first World Series title since 1948, but they were getting there.

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That’s what made much of the 1997 season kind of a disappointment for the good people on Lake Erie. Cleveland was still loaded with talent, but it didn’t seem to all click. The offense had a pair of mid-twentysomethings by the names of Jim Thome at first base and Manny Ramirez in left field. That’s over 1,100 career home runs of talent in its prime. David Justice was a solid veteran at DH and hit 33 home runs. Sandy Alomar was one of the game’s best catchers and shortstop Omar Vizquel was perhaps baseball’s best man with the glove.

The pitching staff wasn’t great, but at the height of an era where we now know so many hitters were medically juiced up, it was tough for pitchers to look great. Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove had enough to get by, with 38-year-old warhorse Orel Hershiser winning fourteen games, Charles Nagy winning fifteen and then breaking in a couple young kids in 24-year-old Bartolo Colon and 21-year-old Jaret Wright.

Whether Cleveland was the best team in baseball was a fair subject of debate. There shouldn’t have been a debate about whether they were the best in an American League Central with a declining White Sox team and the Milwaukee Brewers, in their final year as an AL franchise.

A race is exactly what the AL Central got though, as Cleveland started 12-13 and were still three games back of Milwaukee on May 12. Later that month, the Indians caught a little fire, winning five straight and then taking two of three from the Orioles, who were looking like a contender again under the leadership of Davey Johnson. Cleveland quickly turned the standings around and led by four games on May 28.

Even though neither Chicago nor Milwaukee set the world ablaze, Cleveland could never really shake loose in the division race. Their lead ranged from 2.5 to 4 games all the way to early September, and had Chicago not inexplicably thrown in the towel and become a trade deadline seller, who knows how tight the race might have gotten. As it was, Cleveland was able to pull away and win the AL Central by six games, although at 86-75, the 1997 team didn’t have the dominant feel of recent seasons.

Cleveland would be an underdog right out of the gate in the playoffs. The New York Yankees had won the World Series the previous year and gone 96-66 this time around. And they weren’t even the best in the AL East—that honor went to Baltimore, who’d captured 98 games. If Cleveland did somehow manage to knock off New York in their Division Series matchup, and if somehow Baltimore lost, the fourth team in the mix was Seattle—who had Randy Johnson heading up the rotation, Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime in center field and a young Alex Rodriguez at short. In other words, if Cleveland pulled an upset and got the breaks, they’d still have to play a team with arguably the best lefthander, best centerfielder and best shortstop in the history of baseball.

The playoff opener in Yankee Stadium didn’t do a lot to quell any misgivings in Cleveland. The Indians got off to a blazing start, staking Hershiser to a 5-0 lead in the first inning. But the veteran pitcher, who’d dominated October for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, couldn’t hold the Yanks down. The lead was chipped to 6-3 in the fifth, and then in the sixth inning, New York got three successive home runs by Tim Raines, Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill.  The Yanks took the opener 8-6 and when they immediately tagged Game 2 starter  Jaret Wright for three runs in the bottom of the first in Game 2, the 1997 playoffs appeared to have a short shelf life for Cleveland.

But something happened on the way to oblivion. Wright settled in, and for the next five innings he held the Yankee bats scoreless. By the fourth inning, Cleveland had put its second five-run inning of the young series on the board, with four straight two-out hits from Justice, Alomar, Thome and Tony Fernandez. Then third baseman Matt Williams tacked on a two-run shot. It was a stunning turn of events and the 7-3 win set the series back to Cleveland for the final three games knotted at 1-1.

The era of good feeling seemed to dissipate, as New York lefthander David Wells dominated Saturday’s Game 3, going the distance with a five-hitter and winning 6-1. Hershiser came back for Cleveland in Game 4 and even though he pitched much better, it looked like it wouldn’t be enough. The Yanks got quality work from their own veteran of the late 1980s, Dwight Gooden. The former Met pitcher had been on the wrong side of Hershiser’s 1988 dominance and when he handed a 2-1 lead to the bullpen, it looked like a little revenge might be forthcoming.

New York had one of the best bullpens in the business, thanks to the work of their new closer. They’d given the job to young Mariano Rivera and he racked up 43 saves with a 1.88 ERA. Rivera would enter the game in the eighth inning to nail the Cleveland coffin shut. But with two outs, Alomar connected with a home run that tied the score. Then in the ninth, Indian centerfield Marquis Grissom singled, was bunted and over and hustled all the way home on an infield hit by Vizquel.

It set the stage for a decisive Game 5 on a Monday night, a rematch of the Wright-Pettite matchup from Game 2. After four games of mostly living on the edge, it had to be a relief for Cleveland fans to the be the ones off to a fast start, as a two-run double by Ramirez keyed an early 4-0 lead. But Pettite settled down and the Tribe couldn’t extend the lead. New York started grinding back. Bernie Williams hit a two-run single in the fifth and one inning later the lead was cut to 4-3. It was tension time in Jacobs Field, and three times New York would put the tying run in scoring position. The last was in the ninth when Paul O’Neill hit a screaming double to right field with two outs. But Cleveland closer Jose Mesa finished the job and the Indians returned to the American League Championship Series.

Baltimore held serve in dispatching Seattle three games to one, so we had a rematch of last year’s playoff series. The roles were reversed, as now it was Baltimore with the expectations that came with being the favorite. The Orioles had good pitching, with Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Jimmy Key all sporting ERAs better than the best of the Cleveland staff.

The Birds also had a deep bullpen, with Randy Myers—whose 1997 numbers exceeded Rivera’s in closing the door. There was offensive firepower in Brady Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro. There was a lot of leadership in 36-year-old Cal Ripken at shortstop. And when the series opened in Camden Yards, the one thing there wasn’t was any runs for Cleveland. Erickson threw eight shutout innings, Myers slammed the door and with a 3-0 loss in Game 1, once again, no one expected much from the Tribe.

For the second series in a row, Cleveland not only lost an opener, but they were in trouble in Game 2. A two-run homer by Ripken had given Baltimore a 4-2 lead they held into the eighth inning. With two on and two outs, Grissom stunned the Camden crowd with a home run that gave the Indians a 5-4 win. Once again, a series had pivoted as it headed to Jacobs Field.

The next two games were a display of breath-taking baseball. Mussina and Hershiser battled each other in a brilliant Game 3 pitcher’s duel. A RBI single by Williams gave the Tribe a 1-0 lead in the seventh, but in the ninth Anderson tied it with a one-out double. Mesa might have blown the save, but he stranded Anderson on second and the game stretched to 12 innings. Grissom was on third with one out. Vizquel turned to bunt and a mixup behind the plate allowed the ball to get away and Grissom to come home with the winning run.

One day later the runs were more in abundance. An early 5-2 lead by Baltimore was wiped out when the Tribe got a run in the fourth and then took the lead with four in the fourth. Grissom was again in the middle of the action, with a two-out, two-run single. Once again though, Baltimore rallied in the ninth, scoring twice and evening it at 7-7. This time extra innings weren’t necessary. Alomar drove in Ramirez with an RBI single in the ninth. Cleveland was one game from the pennant.

After all the drama of Games 3 & 4, the Indians bats went quiet and only two runs in the ninth prevented them from being shut out in a 4-2 loss. Although they led the series, they still had to get a win in Camden Yards, which at that time rocked like few places in baseball. Game 6 proved to be another pitcher’s duel. Cleveland could muster only three hits, but Baltimore kept missing its chances. The game went to the 11th inning. Finally, Tony Fernandez hit a home run, the Orioles had no response and Cleveland had the American League pennant.

Grissom was named ALCS MVP, although it must be noted that he only had a .292 on-base percentage for the series and one of the key events he was involved in—the Game 3 winning run—was more a defensive failure than anything else. Manny Ramirez, on the other hand, had a .444 on-base percentage, a .619 slugging percentage and could be found at almost any key moment in the series. It’s Manny that deserved this honor.

But no one in Cleveland was worried about that. They had won their second pennant in three years, taking out the powers of the AL East in the process. The elusive World Series title wouldn’t come—they dropped a heartbreaking seven-game series to the Florida Marlins. But the 1997 Cleveland Indians deserve a special place in the team’s lore—they weren’t the best team of those the organization put on the field during the halcyon years of 1994-2001. They were just the one who delivered a myriad of clutch performances throughout the American League playoffs.