As I claimed in the subtitle, the 1999 Indians may be the best team in baseball history to not win the World Series. They scored over 1000 runs and won 97 games before blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Red Sox in the ALDS, losing the final 3 games by a combined 40-18. But the path to get there was certainly something special.
Prior to the season the Indians made a trade that is still a bit of a head scratcher to this day. They sent outfielder Brian Giles to Pittsburgh in exchange for reliever Ricardo Rincon. The theory was that in order to beat the Yankees you need a dominant left handed reliever to neutralize the advantage they gain from that short porch in right field. Unfortunately, as it turns out, building your roster based around what needs to happen in a single matchup that you might not even get to is an unadvisable decision. Especially when it means trading an emerging star who had firmly established himself as a fixture in the lineup for a second year reliever who was limited to use as a specialist. It would be the equivalent today of if the Cardinals traded someone like Lars Nootbaar for Sam Hentges in a 1:1 swap. Bit of a mismatched deal if you ask me.
It’s moves like this that lead me to make this analysis. Henry Peters deserves the credit for the 1990’s Indians, not John Hart. Hart is credited as the architect of those teams, but it was Peters who made the moves that landed the Indians their excellent core in the 1990’s, and the steady flow of talent that gave such a boost to many a team that claimed to have a solution to our pitching woes. Peters should get much of the credit for 94-98. Hart’s legacy in Cleveland, in my opinion, is primarily continuing to put lipstick on the pig between ‘99 and ‘01 until the cracks in the foundation were too obvious to bear, then he skipped town.
I’m not saying Hart was completely inept, no question he made quite a few good moves during his tenure, merely that he was handed the keys to a Ferrari, and while he didn’t crash it, he drove it for about 10,000 miles with the check engine light on until the engine block cracked, then taking the plates off and leaving it on the side of the road for someone else to deal with. There were French fries all over the floor, coffee stains on the seat, it was a real mess.
As I said, however, not all of Hart’s moves were bad, and he had one last good one up his sleeve. The Indians signed veteran second baseman Roberto “Robbie” Alomar, the brother of catcher Sandy Alomar junior, to a 4 year contract. Alomar responded by turning in 3 fabulous years for Cleveland, both at the plate and in the field, before being traded to the Mets to kick off the rebuild after the 2001 season.
With most of the core from 1998 returning, the addition of Alomar as well as the emergence of everyone’s favorite bigamist (seriously go read about that one) Bartolo Colon was enough to catapult the Indians to a nearly wire to wire first place finish (they lost on opening day and were a game back).
Unfortunately before they’d be able to face the Yankees, you know, that team they SO BADLY needed Ricardo Rincon for, there was the trifling matter of the Boston Red Sox and Pedro Martinez to contend with first. After jumping off to a 2-0 series lead, Boston blew Cleveland’s doors off for 3 straight games and sent the Indians home, including a 12-8 win in game 5 in Cleveland that saw the Indians score 8 runs in the first three innings before an injured Pedro Martinez came in and pitched 6 hitless innings, ending their season.
The Indians were quickly becoming the “best that never was” while the Yankees won their third title in 4 years, effectively ending any notions of the Indians being the “team of the decade”
They had won 5 division titles in a row, and would’ve had 6 if it weren’t for the strike shortened ‘94 season. Little did they know that this group only had one division title left in them, in 2001 but would miss the playoffs entirely in 2000. Little did they know that after the ‘01 season a total rebuild would see them fall entirely out of relevance in the American league central for 6 years. After winning 6 division titles in 7 years, they’d only win 2 in the next 14. Nothing lasts forever, but the 1999 season marked the last of the truly great years in the 90’s.
Jim Thome, Robbie Alomar, and co. plus a bunch of stiffs can usually navigate you somewhere close to a division title so it still took 3 years before the wheels really came off, but ‘99 was the last true year of the Indians run of dominance, in my opinion.
Join us tomorrow as we kick off the new millennium in what had become unfamiliar territory, second place.