The offseason heading into 1997 saw some major roster turnover in Cleveland. Some of the key pieces of the ‘95 and ‘96 team would not return in 1997. Of all the departures, none were more devastating to Cleveland fans than Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. Belle had become one of the top players in the entire game and was hitting free agency. He was, rightfully so, seeking to become one of the games highest paid players, and that’s just what he did. The Chicago White Sox signed Belle to a, then record, 5 year $55 Million Dollar contract. Belle struggled in the first year of his contract with Chicago but had a monster season in 1998 driving in a career high 152 runs. He would opt out of the last three years of his deal and sign with Baltimore where back problems would cut his career short. Lofton, on the other hand, was still under contract for 1997, but questions about the Indians ability to resign him loomed. The extensions they’d signed young players like Jim Thome to were starting to hit the years where they were becoming expensive, signing a star like Lofton to the type of money he was worth just wasn’t feasible. The Indians found a trade partner for Lofton in the Atlanta braves with a blockbuster deal sending Lofton to Atlanta in exchange for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. While Justice was nothing less than a hell of a player, and Grissom was solid, losing Lofton was a major morale blow to a clubhouse that was already growing frustrated with how things had been managed in 1996. The good news, though, was that more reinforcements were on the way.
Julio Franco left in free agency, leaving first base open again. Rather than acquiring a new first baseman the Indians chose to move Jim Thome from his customary spot at third over to the other corner and traded for one of the best power hitters in the game, Matt Williams. Williams was not only a major power threat, but a Gold Glove caliber fielder at the hot corner. While losing Belle and Lofton was certainly a huge blow, replacing them with Justice, Grissom, and Wililams certainly helped to ease the sting.
Unfortunately, 1997 got off to a slow start. After bludgeoning the Angels 15-3 early in the year, the Indians dropped 4 of their next 5 and fell to 6-9. Things didn’t really improve much from there as they hovered around .500 until mid June. Thankfully a relatively weak American League Central Division kept them falling behind (a common theme over the next 25 years or so). It took a while for the right lineup configurations to gel, and the rotation to get going, but the Indians played well enough to remain in first place by a slim margin in August. Then, on August 27th, David Justice suggested that for Jim Thome’s birthday the entire team should wear the high socks Thome was known for, that night they blew the Angels out 10-4, so they kept wearing the high socks! They won again the next day. Suddenly the Indians, who had struggled to find any momentum all year, ripped off a stretch of 8 wins in 11 games. The socks obviously being the cause, they chose to keep wearing them high all the way through the playoffs, and into the World Series.
A large part of the Indians’ late season resurgance was the emergence of top pitching prospect Jaret Wright. While some of Wright’s dominance has been overstated and mythologized, he was certainly a stabilizing force in a rotation that only really needed to hold you to 3-5 runs in order to win.
After a thrilling ALDS against the defending champion New York Yankees (it was certainly nice to get that monkey off their back after 40 years) that went down to the wire, the Indians beat the Orioles in 6 games to make their second World Series in 3 years, playing the expansion Florida Marlins, only in their 4th year as a franchise.
After winning a crucial Game 6 to stay alive, the Indians found themselves in the situation every little kid who has ever picked up a baseball bat dreams of. Game 7 of the World Series. Jaret Wright got the start and pitched 6 solid innings, giving up a single run. The Indians carried a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning when disaster struck. Jose Mesa came in with a chance to close out the Marlins and give Cleveland their first world series since 1948, and their first championship in any sport since 1964. 2 quick singles, a sac fly, hearing Bob Costas say “and game 7 of the world series is tied” and suddenly 1997 became just another in a long line of Cleveland sports implosions. Remember, the Indians hadn’t been good in a long time, but Cleveland fans were growing accustomed to heartbreak. Whether it was the Drive, the Fumble, the Shot, Red Right 88, you name it. Cleveland fans had experienced every heartbreaking way to lose a key game you can imagine, but never in the last moments of a championship game like this one. The Marlins walked it off on a 2 out single by Edgar Renteria that went right past the outstretched glove of Charlie Nagy, and suddenly 1997 had ended in heartbreak.
It would be nearly 20 years before Cleveland would find themselves in the world series again, a constant reminder to never take success in baseball for granted, “we’ll be back” is not a guarantee.
However, with 3 straight division titles, 2 pennants in 3 years, and a team that still had Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and David Justice, with emerging pitchers Jaret Wright and Bartolo Colon, it certainly felt as though Cleveland had as good of a chance as anyone to repeat as American League champs in 1998
More on that tomorrow...