The name still sends chills down my spine.
The Indians were two outs away from a World Series title. Two outs from claiming the city’s first major sports title since 1964.
But Jose Mesa couldn’t protect a 2-1 lead, sending the game into extra innings. The Indians failed to score in the 10th or the 11th.
Craig Counsell hit a slow roller that Tribe second baseman Tony Fernandez couldn’t field. Bobby Bonilla went to third. An intentional walk loaded the bases, a fielder’s choice at the plate, and brought up—with two outs…
I was recently reminded of all of this the other day, when the Indians were playing the Tigers and Renteria hit a grand slam in the eighth to send the Tribe to another defeat. Grumbling incoherently about Renteria, my roommate Tyler asked me why I hated the shortstop so much.
A flood of memories back to the 1997 World Series. I was ten years old. It was a lifetime ago. The Cavs were spiraling downward, and the Browns had long been ripped from our city’s heart (Eff you, Art Modell and the city of Baltimore).
But the Indians ruled Cleveland. Ruled it with a frenzy that the city hadn’t seen in ages—certainly not in my lifetime. The Indians WERE Cleveland, and Cleveland loved its Indians.
The franchise turned around in 1994, leading the Wild Card and nipping on the heels of Chicago for the division lead when the strike happened. Figures—the Indians were actually contending for the first time in over 30 years, and the season comes to a crashing halt. Chalk it up to Cleveland bad luck. (Read: The Shot, The Drive, The Fumble, Red Right 88, etc.)
Funny thing is that nothing could stop this Tribe team. In 1995, the Indians went 100-44, winning the AL Central by 30 games. No pennant race needed. A sweep of the Red Sox, a six-game dusting of the Mariners, and the Indians were headed to their first World Series appearance since 1954.
Then, something did stop us: the Atlanta Braves pitching staff in six games. A 99-win campaign in 1996 followed, but the playoff run was short-lived, thanks to umpire face-spitter Robby Alomar and the Orioles.
The team scuffled in 1997, only winning 86 games yet still managing to clinch the division. The Tribe, down 2-1 to the Yankees in the Division Series, won a pair of one-run games to close it out and return to the ALCS. A re-match with the Orioles awaited, which the Indians clinched on Fernandez’s 11th-inning home run in Game Six for a 1-0 Tribe win.
All that stood between the Tribe and World Series glory was the Florida Marlins—a team only in its fifth year of existence. We rejoiced when they beat the Braves, who had won over 100 games, in the NLCS. It was only a matter of time and the city could taste a championship.
Neither team could establish control of the series. The teams split in Miami, and the Indians watched a 7-3 lead in Game Three slide away as the Marlins scored seven runs in the ninth, eventually winning 14-11. The Tribe came back with a 10-3 Game Four win, but another large inning in Game Five by the Marlins—scoring four runs in the sixth—gave them the lead, and an 8-7 win.
Facing elimination, Chad Ogea, the would-be series MVP and hero (2-0, 1.54 ERA, two hits and two RBI) pitched a gem in Cleveland’s 4-1 Game Six victory. The stage was set for a titanic Game Seven.
Fernandez’s two-RBI single gave the Tribe a 2-0 lead in the third. Jaret Wright walked five, but didn’t allow a run until Bonilla touched him for a homer in the seventh to make it 2-1. Paul Assenmacher, Mike Jackson, and Brian Anderson kept the Fish off the board and gave way to Jose Mesa in the ninth.
Mesa nearly won both the Cy Young (second in voting) and MVP (fourth) in 1995, recording 46 saves with a ridiculous 1.13 ERA. He allowed 66 baserunners in 64 innings. He was downright filthy. He came back to earth with a 3.73 ERA in 1996, but rebounded with a 2.40 ERA in 1997, splitting closing duties with Mike Jackson (15 saves, 3.24 ERA).
As soon as Mesa came in to close the game, my dad announced to my mom and myself that “We’ve lost this game,” and went up to bed. To this day I have no idea whether he watched the end of the game upstairs or not, nor have I asked. But that was the prevailing sentiment among Tribe fans with Mesa on the hill that year, despite his good numbers.
Fernandez, who batted .471 in the World Series, is forever remembered for his costly error. Charles Nagy, who won 129 games in his career with the Tribe, will forever have the stigma of giving up that hit to…
The Indians fell in Game Seven, and haven’t been back to the World Series since, despite maintaining some really good ballclubs through 2001, 2005, and 2007. The Marlins essentially disbanded after 1997, then shocked everyone by winning a second World Series in 2003. Florida’s two World Series victories, in just ten years of franchise history, matched the Tribe’s total after what was then 102 years of play in the American League.
For me, it all comes down to one man, and one line drive up the middle.