The Cleveland Indians' Star-Studded '90s MLB Dynasty That Never Was

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterOctober 24, 2016

Indians fans sit dejectedly in Pete and Dewey's Planet in Cleveland after the Cleveland Indians lost the World Series 3-2 to the Florida Marlins in an extra-inning game early Monday morning, Oct. 27, 1997 in Miami. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
TONY DEJAK/Associated Press

Thirteen-year MLB pitcher Brian Anderson grew up in Northeast Ohio, living the history and living the heartache.

The local sports teams never won, and the losses could be excruciating. He was a 15-year-old kid watching what Clevelanders will always call The Fumble, the Earnest Byner fumble that cost the Cleveland Browns a chance at the Super Bowl in 1988.

"I was kicked out of the living room because my mom didn't want my negativity," Anderson said. "When it was over, through my tears, I told her, 'I will play on the first Cleveland team that wins a championship.'"

Nine-and-a-half years later, it was coming true. The Cleveland Indians were in the 1997 World Series, Anderson was on the team, and the morning of Game 7 he reminded his mother of his long-ago promise.

"This is happening," he said. "We're going to win the World Series tonight."

They didn't win. They haven't won. Since that night in Miami, when Jose Mesa couldn't hold a ninth-inning lead and Edgar Renteria's 11th-inning single off Charles Nagy made the Florida Marlins champions, the Indians haven't been back to the World Series.

Not until now.

The 2016 Indians celebrating ALCS victory in style.
The 2016 Indians celebrating ALCS victory in style.Elsa/Getty Images

They begin the 2016 World Series Tuesday night at home, carrying a title drought that has reached 68 years. It shouldn't have, but it has.

It should have ended two decades ago, when the Indians were among the best teams baseball has seen. They averaged 94 wins a year and nearly six runs a game over a five-year span. They had 44 players who made All-Star teams at some point in their career.

Three of them are already in the Hall of Fame (Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield and Roberto Alomar), at least two more will likely get there (Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome), and at least two were headed there but got sidetracked by health or other issues (Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez).

They had future managers (Dave Roberts, John Farrell, Bud Black and Torey Lovullo), others who could be managers (Vizquel and Sandy Alomar) and a future general manager (Ruben Amaro). The front office spun off executives who would make it big elsewhere (Dan O'Dowd, Josh Byrnes, Paul DePodesta, Ben Cherington and Neal Huntington), and the coaching staff spun off future managers (Buddy Bell and Charlie Manuel).

They sold out 455 consecutive games, a major league record later eclipsed by the Boston Red Sox. They had such a following on the road that security people would usher them through the back door of hotels, like a rock band or a president. They had a celebratory parade after a World Series they lost.

They had big numbers and big personalities.

"That was magical," Vizquel said. "It was amazing. Every time you came to the park, it was electrifying."

The Indians of the late '90s had everything—everything except the ring you get when you win it all.

"It doesn't take anything away from what we did," Vizquel said. "But it left a deep pain inside."

**

That pain has never left. Even as the players, coaches and executives from those teams prepare to root for the Indians to win this World Series, they can't bear to watch the last one they competed in.

"When the outcome changes, I'll watch it," Sandy Alomar said. "I've watched it seven times, and the outcome never changes. I'm really proud of what we accomplished, but you're going to be scarred forever."

Mike Hargrove, the manager then and an Indians adviser now, feels the same way.

Until the ninth inning of Game 7, the 1997 World Series went well for the Indians.
Until the ninth inning of Game 7, the 1997 World Series went well for the Indians.PAT SULLIVAN/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Why would I want to see it?" he said. "I lived it. A fan asked me in spring training the next year how long it took me to get over that game. I said as soon as it happens, I'll let you know. Just a few weeks ago, someone came up to me and asked the same thing. I said as soon as it happens, I'll let you know."

To a man, they feel they should have won, at least in '97 and maybe in other years too. To a man, they look back and believe they were as good as any team they met, including the New York Yankees teams that won four World Series in the span where the Indians won none.

"I loved those guys," said John Hart, the Indians general manager who later ran the Texas Rangers and now is president of baseball operations of the Atlanta Braves. "I wish I had a team like that all the time. I still do feel the scar of '97, but I am at peace."

**

To fully understand what the 1990s Indians were, you have to remember what the franchise and the city were like before they came around.

The franchise had gone 41 years without playing in the postseason, and from 1969-93 the Indians won more than 81 games in a season just once—84 during the 1986 season. Most years, they didn't come close to that.

"In 39 of those years, they were out of the race by the Fourth of July," longtime Indians announcer Tom Hamilton said, exaggerating only slightly.

They played in a cavernous, mostly empty rat-infested stadium, in a city known for a polluted river that once caught fire. The city and the stadium were alternately derided as the Mistake by the Lake.

Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1992
Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1992Getty Images/Getty Images

It all changed in the mid-1990s. Jacobs Field opened in 1994, a beautiful ballpark in a city finally showing life. The NFL's Browns departed for Baltimore a year later, leaving a rabid fanbase to embrace the rapidly improving Indians.

They had a winning team, one that embodied everything Cleveland wanted to be.

"They knew they were good, they weren't afraid to tell you they were good and then they'd go out and prove it," Hamilton said. "I think that's why Cleveland loved that team. It was the first time Cleveland was the big bad bully."

**

Even in 1992 and 1993, the Indians spoke among themselves about walking and talking and running the bases like champions. When they did start winning, it didn't take long for other teams to resent the talk and the look.

"I think the team was despised by everyone else in the game," said O'Dowd, the assistant general manager. "No one likes a bully. But it was so much fun from my standpoint."

"Other teams may not have liked us," Hargrove said. "But I guarantee you a lot of those guys wanted to play for us."

Carlos Baerga getting taken out on a play at second base.
Carlos Baerga getting taken out on a play at second base.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Bob Tewksbury, then pitching for the Rangers, said something about the Indians lacking discipline. A few days later when it came time to take the team picture, the Indians took one the regular way and another with players in every stage of dress and undress.

Hargrove has both versions on his office wall.

"They talk about those Oakland A's teams of the 1970s that fought among each other and went out and won," Hargrove said. "I think our team was a little like that. It was their world up until about 6:30, and then it was mine. They were grown men, and they acted like grown men—most of the time."

When they didn't, Hargrove took care of it in his own way.

Sometimes, he did it with humor, like the time the clubhouse manager told him Belle was breaking too many dinner plates.

"Get paper plates," Hargrove responded.

Sometimes it took more.

"John Hart paid me the ultimate compliment when he said, 'Mike Hargrove had the ability to walk into a clubhouse in total chaos and 15 minutes later have everyone singing 'Kumbaya,'" Hargrove said.

"I don't think Grover ever gets the credit he deserves," said Buddy Bell, Hargrove's bench coach in 1994-95. "There were some egos in that clubhouse. But those guys came to play every night."

They were better defensively than many people remember, and they weren't just power hitters. In 1999, the year the Indians became the first team in 50 years to score 1,000 runs, they led the league in stolen bases and sacrifice bunts.

They could create runs, but they could also bludgeon their opponents. From 1995-99, the Indians won a major league-high 62 games by at least eight runs.

"It wasn't even the varsity against the JV," said Bell, who was 7-24 against the Indians in his two-plus seasons managing the Detroit Tigers. "It was the varsity against the junior high."

**

There were big egos and big names—"lots of energy, lots of testosterone," as Bell puts it—but two of them stand out.

There was Belle, the intense competitor who scared even his own teammates. And there was Ramirez, the kid who could really hit but was just as liable to leave teammates shaking their heads.

Both were high draft picks, Belle in 1987 and Ramirez four years later. Belle got into trouble in college at LSU and also in the minor leagues with the Indians, twice disappearing during games.

"[General manager] Hank Peters called me in and said we've got to release Albert," O'Dowd said, remembering the fallout from one incident. "I said, 'Hank, we can't do that. He's the only prospect in the system.'"

They kept him, they knew him, and when he snapped they learned to deal with it.

"I remember one time we had a new guy on the team," said Mark Wiley, the pitching coach. "Albert struck out, and when he went down the tunnel [to the clubhouse] there was an explosion. He threw bats through walls. The new guy looked stunned and said, 'What's that?' The other guys said, 'That's just Albert.' And they went back to watching the game."

They saw quite a show. Belle's numbers in 1995 were ridiculous: 52 doubles and 50 home runs in a lockout-shortened season that ran just 144 games. Even more ridiculous: He didn't win the Most Valuable Player award that year, finishing second to Boston's Mo Vaughn.

Belle had an intensity that often crossed into anger, but he could really hit.
Belle had an intensity that often crossed into anger, but he could really hit.JOHN G. MABANGLO/Getty Images

"I'm convinced Mo Vaughn won the MVP because he had a better personality," Amaro said. "I mean, c'mon."

Belle was a force, a physical force.

"Albert was our Lawrence Taylor, the linebacker who destroys the quarterback," O'Dowd said.

Too often, he would destroy other things, and his personality landed him in trouble. Hart remembers spending much of the 1995 World Series answering questions about Belle's pregame confrontation with NBC reporter Hannah Storm, a tirade that MLB eventually punished with a $50,000 fine. Teammates would look on in wonder, but many would keep their distance.

"The one guy who could say something to him without getting his brains beat in was Kenny Lofton," Amaro said. "The rest of us were scared of him."

That's not completely true. A few others describe warm relationships with Belle and say he could be a different person altogether away from the park.

"I played golf with Albert, and the only person throwing a club was me," Hamilton said.

Belle batted cleanup for the 1995 Indians, in a lineup so deep that Ramirez regularly batted seventh (and still drove in 107 runs). Two years later, after Belle left for the Chicago White Sox via free agency, Ramirez was batting third or fourth.

Ramirez would eventually leave as a free agent too. He would have disciplinary issues of his own.

His issues in Cleveland were more innocent, more amusing. He was the "Baby Bull," the kid who showed up in the big leagues just after his 21st birthday seemingly born to hit. He worked at it and studied it and was as good at it as anyone.

"Best hitter I've ever seen, bar none," said Hart, who has been in professional baseball since 1982. "I'll tell you where he had a Ph.D. He had a Ph.D. from MIT in the batter's box."

He would do funny things, like asking two Indians beat writers if he could borrow $60,000 to buy a motorcycle or walking through the clubhouse, grabbing teammates' clothes and putting them on. He once carried a broken bat up to the plate and hit a home run with it.

"I asked him why he used it if he knew it was broken," said Sheldon Ocker, who covered the Indians for the Akron Beacon-Journal. "He said, 'I liked that bat.'"

Other times, Ramirez would amaze his teammates by hitting a home run with one bat, then discarding it and choosing another one for his next at-bat.

Manny Ramirez and Charlie Manuel in 1995
Manny Ramirez and Charlie Manuel in 1995MONICA M. DAVEY/Getty Images

"It was like raising a kid," said Manuel, the Indians hitting coach.

It was, and the Indians were like a family—a wild and also wildly talented family.

They had Murray, the older brother who could keep everyone in line with just a look and a finger wave. They had Thome, the cousin everyone likes ("Arguably the nicest guy on the planet," Matt Williams said). They had Carlos Baerga, the mischievous younger brother who kept everyone loose.

"We had so many guys who had things a perfect ballplayer should have," Vizquel said. "If you won or if you lost, you were always happy."

**

For the most part, the Indians won.

They were American League Central champions five consecutive years. They beat Randy Johnson in Game 6 to go to the 1995 World Series and survived draining playoff series with the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles to get back to the World Series in 1997.

The '95 team lost to the Atlanta Braves in six games, batting just .179 as a team against a Braves pitching staff that matched up with them particularly well. The '97 team had that ninth-inning lead against the Marlins, but the Indians will always believe they should have had a bigger lead with all their hard-hit balls early in the game.

They'll always wonder if they could have done more with a true No. 1 starting pitcher. They had Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez at the end of their careers, and Bartolo Colon just at the beginning of his. CC Sabathia, who would go on to win the Indians' first Cy Young since 1972, was drafted in 1998 but didn't debut in the big leagues until 2001.

Bartolo Colon would go on to win a Cy Young with the Angels, but in the 1998 playoffs with the Indians, he was still a 25-year-old kid.
Bartolo Colon would go on to win a Cy Young with the Angels, but in the 1998 playoffs with the Indians, he was still a 25-year-old kid.BETH A. KEISER/Associated Press/Associated Press

"We had really good pitchers, but we didn't have a big monster," said Wiley, the pitching coach.

They tried. The Indians lost out to the Toronto Blue Jays when they pursued Roger Clemens as a free agent after 1996. They made offers for Pedro Martinez when he went from the Montreal Expos to the Boston Red Sox in a trade a year later. The Expos wanted both Colon and Jaret Wright (who had just started Game 7 of the World Series), and as Hart said, "I just couldn't do it."

The following summer, they went right to the July deadline trying to get Johnson from the Mariners but again balked at the asking price (Colon, Brian Giles and one other player).

**

They still should have won. They were still just two outs away on that Sunday night in South Florida 19 years ago this week, when Craig Counsell's sacrifice fly off Mesa tied the game and Renteria's 11th-inning single won it.

Sandy Alomar was catching that night. Soaked in sweat from the Florida heat, he went to the clubhouse late in the game to change jerseys.

"They had the trophy there and the plastic over the lockers," he said. "I was so disappointed to see that. The game's not over yet."

Hamilton had gone to the clubhouse to prepare for postgame interviews, while his partner Herb Score called the ninth-inning play-by-play.

"They were wheeling in the stage, and I turned to [PR man Bob DiBiasio] and I said, 'Bobby, this doesn't feel right.' He said they do this every year. They have to. I'll tell you one thing, that plastic comes down a lot quicker than it goes up."

It was all set. Indians starter Chad Ogea was going to be the unlikeliest of World Series MVPs for his two wins over Kevin Brown. The wait for a championship was going to end at 49 years.

Then came the sacrifice fly. The trophy was wheeled out of the clubhouse, right in front of the Cleveland television reporters waiting to cover the celebration.

"There was a sinking pit in my stomach," said Matt Underwood, an Ohio native who then worked at Cleveland's Channel 5 and is now the Indians' television voice.

Hart had grudgingly left his seat in the stadium, summoned downstairs to join owner Dick Jacobs for the trophy presentation. He and Jacobs watched the ninth inning in the bowels of Pro Player Stadium, staying right there until the Renteria single that ended their best chance at a championship.

Sandy Alomar Jr. (right) walks off after crushing Game 7 loss.
Sandy Alomar Jr. (right) walks off after crushing Game 7 loss.JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

"You talk about a bad hour," Hart said. "But when we lost, Dick just shook my hand and said, 'Another great year.' We went in the clubhouse and watched the players walk in. They were all in tears. Dick shook everyone's hand and thanked them. I did too."

The run of great years would continue, but those Indians would never win a World Series. Most of them would move on, to retirement or to other teams, but they would always hope another group of Indians could finish what they never could.

"Even to this day, I want Cleveland to win," Manuel said last week. "I like the coaching staff there, but I want them to win for Cleveland. I want it for the city. I always thought we should have won 2-3 World Series. It's absolutely unreal that we didn't win a World Series."

They didn't win in 1995 or 1997, and the Indians lost in the playoffs in 2001, 2007 and 2013. For 19 years after 1997, the franchise never did make it to another World Series.

Not until now.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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