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75 Years and Counting: The Story of the 1994 Cleveland Indians

We’ve finally arrived

Cleveland Indians Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Oh thank god, we’re finally here, the Jacobs Field era. From here on out it’s nothing but good baseball and seasons I at least remember. This will be the last season that I wasn’t alive for, I was born in January of ‘95, but man am I excited to finally be in the “good part” so to speak. The 70’s kinda sucked the life out of me if I’m being honest, my goodness that was bleak. Before I jump into the ‘94 season I do want to preface, somewhat, with the fact that there’s just no way I’m going to be able to cover everything with these teams. There are just so many well documented and unbelievable stories about the 1990’s Indians, and they’ve all been told so many times. If I were to try and cover even 10% of what’s out there I’d be turning in 10,000 word epistles on each year. There’s a reason sportswriters have been able to write entire books on this era of Cleveland baseball. I don’t think this is the place for me to try and mimic that, instead I’m going to do what I’ve done with the rest of the entries in this series, try and capture the biggest macro level narratives, talk about notable players, and try and give a sense for the ebb and flow of the season itself. So with that said, let’s kick things off with the 1994 offseason.

The 1993 Indians were a team of young stars on the rise. With stars like Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, and Kenny Lofton already fully entrenched in the lineup, Jim Thome breaking out at the end of the year, and a young phenom named Manny Ramirez still waiting in the wings, the Indians front office saw their contention window opening. Only instead of trying to kick the can down the road hoping the division title would fall into their lap, they chose to kick the front door in and take it. On December 2nd, 1993 the Indians announced the signing of aging, but high profile free agents, pitcher Dennis Martinez, and DH Eddie Murray. While Murray would scuffle somewhat in ‘94, Martinez was stellar from the outset. Between the two of them they gave an otherwise young team some much needed veteran leadership. 2 established veterans still playing at a high level, both with world series rings was exactly what the team needed.

The final piece of the puzzle would be put into place a few weeks later on December 20th when the Indians traded Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson to Seattle for a relatively unheralded shortstop named Omar Vizquel. Vizquel was coming off the first of what would be 9 consecutive Gold Glove seasons. While he had zero power to speak of, his stellar defense as well as solid contact, on base, and baserunning skills made him a valuable component to the winning formula in Cleveland. While I wouldn’t have batted him second if I were making the lineup as Mike Hargrove insisted on doing, a team with the offensive firepower of the ‘90s Indians was able to absorb the offensive deficiencies of Vizquel, caring far more about his stellar defense at shortstop.

Oh yeah, and they had a brand new ballpark to play in! They kicked off the 1994 season against Seattle and their ace Randy Johnson, who nearly no hit the Indians in the first game at Jacobs Field. He carried the no-hitter into the 8th inning when Candy Maldonado led off with a walk, and Sandy Alomar squeaked a single through the right side of the infield. Manny Ramirez came up to the plate, having made the team out of spring training despite a disappointing end to the ‘92 season for him, and roped a double to left field, scoring Maldonado and Alomar all the way from first to tie the game at 2. In extras the Indians conceded a run in the 10th, responded with an RBI fielders choice with the bases loaded by Vizquel (this is why we don’t bat him second). Wayne Kirby ripped a single to left to give the Indians a walk off victory in their first game at Jacobs Field, a scene that would become incredibly familiar over the next few years as heart stopping comebacks and last at-bat wins became the norm in Cleveland.

Aside from the thriller to open the year, the Indians got off to a relatively slow start for a team expecting to contend, finding themselves at 14-17 after their first 31. They shut out the Tigers 2-0 the following day and kicked off an absurd hot stretch that saw them play their next 37 games at a blistering 28-9 pace. A 10 game win streak during that stretch saw them take first place, but after leveling out somewhat, Chicago reclaimed first place with Cleveland sitting just on their tail in the newly formed American League Central division.

But towards the end of the year, the Sox began to cool off as Cleveland heated up and it started to look like a question of when, not if the Indians would catch them when the unthinkable happened.

On August 12th 1994, the Major League Baseball Players association went on strike after a serious of failed negotiatons with the league over the expiring collective bargaining agreement. There were too many factors to outline here, but this would go on to be the longest strike in Major League history as not only did it wipe out the remainder of the regular season, but the world series, and 18 games the following year. Two world wars and two global pandemics have happened since the first world series was officially established as the permanent method of crowning the champion of Major League Baseball in 1905, none of those led to the cancellation of the World Series (yes the first one was in 1903, but they didn’t permanently establish it til ‘05).

Labor disputes, collective bargaining, none of that mattered to the Cleveland faithful who had just watched their first viable season in 40 years get wiped out by stalled negotiations. The ‘94 strike was a major black eye on the face of baseball, but thankfully Cleveland would come out of it stronger than ever. More on that tomorrow.