The year in 1997 sports was one of long-sought redemption, be it an individual, a college program or a professional organization. Teams and players that had gone through frustrating searches for championships began breaking through.
*Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson had built the Wildcat program from the ground up, just as he’d done with Iowa before that. In spite of three previous trips to the Final Four, Lute had never cut down the nets. In 1997, he did, as his Arizona team made history in ousting three #1 seed en route to the crown.
*The Michigan Wolverines have a proud football tradition that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, but it had been 1948 since they won an national championship. An undefeated season and Rose Bowl win made them co-national champs, along with Nebraska.
*The Detroit Red Wings had a cast of players that had made a recent habit of coming up short in the NHL playoffs, most notably in 1996, when they had a record-setting regular season, and then lost to the Colorado Avalanche. The Red Wings took their revenge in 1997, knocking out Colorado and then beating the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Stanley Cup.
*And perhaps no redemption was sweeter, more long-sought or more celebrated on the national stage, than that of Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway. At the age of 37, he’d never won a Super Bowl and his teams suffered blowouts in their three previous tries. In a year where everyone expected them to be blown out by the Green Bay Packers, the Broncos delivered.
*Jim Leyland had become a respected baseball manager with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but suffered some agonizing losses in the National League Championship Series in the early 1990s. In later years, Leyland would go on to the Detroit Tigers, win two American League pennants, but never the World Series. In between Detroit and Pittsburgh, Leyland managed the Florida Marlins, and in 1997, he got his ring, as they won a seven-game World Series with the Cleveland Indians.
There was more to the world of 1997 sports. Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to another NBA championship. Two legends retired, as Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith said goodbye–Osborne with a co-national title and Smith with a Final Four trip. In baseball, Larry Walker and Tony Gwynn each made late summer runs at hitting .400 before coming up short.
The ultimate story of 1997 sports though was redemption. The links below provide more detail on the stories above. This One’s For John: The 1997 Denver Broncos Finally Climb The Mountaintop The 1997 Arizona Wildcats Slay Three Giants Magic In Motown: The 1997 Detroit Red Wings & 1997 Michigan Football The 1997 World Series: Seven Games & Then Some The 1997 NBA Finals: How Jordan Willed The Bulls Past The Utah Jazz
The Marlins, in their fifth year of existence, had come out of nowhere to make the playoffs as a wild-card. The Indians had posted the American League’s best record over the previous two years, but struggled to win a weak division in 1997, before they returned to form in October.
Florida and Cleveland each upset the favorites in their respective leagues, the Marlins beating the Atlanta Braves in six games, and the Indians doing the same to the Baltimore Orioles. In recent years, teams seeded as low as third or fourth in their league making it to the World Series has become par for the course, but that was not the case in the baseball world of 1997.
This was only the third year of the three-round postseason format and the previous two years had seen three #1 seeds and one #2 seed advance to the Fall Classic.
The Marlins were managed by Jim Leyland who had already enjoyed great success in turning around the Pittsburgh Pirates and would later do the same with the Detroit Tigers. The ’97 Marlins had quality veterans in Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou, and they had outfielder Gary Sheffield and starting pitcher Kevin Brown at the prime of their careers. The Marlins had young talent in shortstop Edgar Renteria and pitcher Livan Hernandez.
Cleveland was stacked offensively. Manny Ramirez, David Justice, Jim Thome and Matt Williams all hit more than 25 home runs, and Thome, Ramirez and Justice all had on-base percentages over .400. Sandy Alomar tacked on a .324 batting average and 21 more home runs. It was enough to offset more mediocre pitching, with a 38-year-old Orel Hershiser joining Charles Nagy and Bartolo Colon in the rotation.
It was youth vs. experience in Game 1, as Hernandez and Hershiser met in Miami. Youth won out. In a 1-1 game in the fourth inning, Florida broke through with a three-run homer by Alou on an 0-2 pitch and the Marlins took the opener 7-4. They would hand the ball to 16-game winner Brown the next night, and a chance to put the Series firmly under control.
Cleveland got clutch pitching from Chad Ogea though, to keep the game 1-1 into the fifth. And even though power was the Indians’ offensive game, they used three singles and a sac bunt to produce one run, and then a two-RBI base hit from infielder Bip Roberts to open the game. The following inning, the Tribe added cushion in a more familiar manner–Alomar’s two-run bomb sealed a 6-1 win.
The Series went to Cleveland for the middle three games, and Game 3 would the best example of a “great bad” baseball game. It was tied 7-7 in the ninth, and tension was in the cold Ohio air. Then a train wreck took place. Florida hit four singles, drew two walks, another intentional walk, while Cleveland committed three hours, and the Marlins’ scored seven runs in the top of the ninth.
More amazing though, was that they nearly gave it all back. The Indians used two walks, two singles and a double, scored four times and were a hitter away from bringing the tying run to the plate when the game mercifully ended 14-11.
Ramirez hit a two-run homer in the first inning of Game 4 and Cleveland got an easy 10-3 win to tie the series back up. They led Game 5 in the sixth inning by a 4-2 score with Hershiser and Hernandez again matching up. Once again, the Marlins broke the veteran. Sheffield singled, Bonilla walked and Alou hit a three-run homer. The lead grew to 8-4, though once again Cleveland rallied furiously in the bottom of the ninth, closing to 8-7 and bringing Alomar to the plate as the winning run. He flew out to right.
The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates were the last team to win a World Series by taking two straight on the road, and that’s the challenge that now awaited the 1997 Cleveland Indians. Ogea was again an unlikely hero. He pitched five solid innings, and also beat Brown with his bat, getting two hits and two RBIs. Indians’ manager Mike Hargrove had a quick hook and pulled Ogea in the sixth, but with the 4-1 win, Cleveland had gotten a seventh game.
Tony Fernandez hit a two-out, two-run single for Cleveland in the third, and the 2-0 lead stood up until the seventh. Bonilla homered to make it a one-run game, but in the ninth, the Indians still held a 2-1 edge.
Alou singled to start the inning, and then Charles Johnson hit another single to right, enabling Alou to make it to third, where he scored on a sac fly by Craig Counsell. Game 7 of the 1997 World Series was going extra innings.
The game went to the 11th, and Bonilla singled. Counsell then hit a routine grounder to Fernandez at second that he just completely misplayed, allowing the winning run to get to third with one out. It’s a demonstration of how cruel baseball is.
Fernandez had hit an extra-inning home run in Baltimore to win the American League pennant, he had his team’s only two RBIs in this game, he was hitting .471 for Series and either he or Ogea would have already been named Series MVP had the Tribe just gotten three outs in the ninth. Now Fernandez’ error had put his team up against it.
Fernandez gave himself a chance at redemption with one out and the bases loaded, when he fielded a groundball and got a force out at home. Now it would take a hit to end the game. That’s what Renteria delivered. The 20-year-old shortstop singled back through the middle and the Marlins had won the World Series.
Hernandez was named Series MVP for his two wins over Hershiser, but the 5.27 ERA posted by the Florida pitcher makes it clear the offense, rather than the starting pitcher, won Games 1 & 5. A better choice would have been Alou. He finished with a .387 on-base percentage, a .714 slugging percentage, hit three home runs and started the rally that saved the Series in the ninth inning of Game 7.