*** On the heels of the Cavaliers' oh-so-close run at the NBA title, the Indians are celebrating the 20th anniversary of a ballclub considered one of the greatest in history to not win a World Series title. There will be pregame ceremonies before Friday's and Saturday's games against the Rays. Alumni will raise the American League championship flag before Friday's postgame fireworks show, and they'll attend a reunion event Saturday at Playhouse Square. ***.
Were you there when Jim Thome caught the pop-up that changed Cleveland baseball?
Did you see the word "CLINCH!" in bold type on the scoreboard above the bleachers?
Did you hear the car horns blaring on the downtown streets deep into the night? Did you hug a loved one or a stranger? Did you raise your arms in triumph?
Did you cry?
Did you think about the decades of losing that preceded that out? The Rocky Colavito trade? Ten Cent Beer Night? The rumors about the club moving to St. Petersburg? The Joe Carter/Cory Snyder Sports Illustrated cover? The untimely deaths of Steve Olin and Tim Crews?
Or did you think about all the wonderful moments that had led to this one? The ninth-inning magic that defined the summer of 1995? How fun it was to look at the standings each morning and see the Tribe's lead in the American League Central go up, up, up?
Where were you when the 41-year pennant drought ended?
Did you ever think being an Indians fan could feel so good?
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"It was one of those magical seasons," then-manager Mike Hargrove once said, "when everything we did worked."
The year began, of course, with a most bizarre of Spring Training camps, replacement players filling the clubhouse at the Winter Haven, Fla., complex. The players' strike that had abruptly ended the 1994 campaign threatened to jeopardize '95, too. And for an Indians team seemingly on the cusp of something special, it was a punch to the gut.
"We had Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jim Thome," said then-general manager John Hart, "and instead we're trotting out Larry, Curly and Moe!"
Only in retrospect can we truly appreciate the scouting and swapping successes that built the Indians roster. The farm system produced Belle, Manny Ramirez, Charles Nagy and Thome. The trade that sent Joe Carter to San Diego landed both Alomar and Carlos Baerga. The Indians also got a steal of a deal both for Lofton (from the Astros for Eddie Taubensee) and for Omar Vizquel (from the Mariners for Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson). The finishing touches in free agency were veterans Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser.
All these pieces were ready to mesh into a winner. The Indians just needed the opportunity to use them.
"This is [bull]," infield coach Buddy Bell said aloud one day while watching the replacements go through their drills.
Yep, pretty much.
But baseball's strangest spring reached its merciful end on April 2, when the 232-day strike ended. The real players reported to a condensed camp, with a 144-game schedule set to begin the last week of April.
What nobody could have known was how much damage the Indians would do in that abbreviated time frame.
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The Indians won the AL Central by 30 games. Even more incredible, especially by shortened-season standards, was that they won 27 games in their last at-bat.
On July 16, the Tribe trailed the A's, 4-3, in the 12th inning, when Ramirez came to bat against future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley with a man on and two out. Manny drove the next pitch into the bleachers to give the Indians -- what else? -- a walk-off win, and Eckersley mouthed one word as he watched the ball disappear: "Wow!"
The Tribe inspired that word a lot.
Two days later, Belle had the signature moment of what should have been an MVP season. The Angels had a 5-3 lead, with the dominant Lee Smith coming on for the ninth. But the Indians put runners on the corners with one out, and Smith walked Baerga to bring up Belle.
Big mistake. With a now-standard sell-out crowd on its feet, Belle got a 1-2 hanging slider that he blasted to the picnic plaza in dead center field ("Albert hit it in the pork and beans," Smith would say).
Grand slam. Ballgame.
"That night," said broadcaster Tom Hamilton, "was when you knew that club was really special."
The special season rolled on, propelled by Belle's absurd, 16-homer August. With a league-best 50 homers, 52 doubles and 126 RBIs that year, Belle should have been an easy choice for Most Valuable Player over Boston's Mo Vaughn, but his reputation with reporters preceded him.
Anyway, individual honors paled in comparison to what the team accomplished: 100 wins in a 144-game season. Few remember that the Indians led the AL in ERA (starters Martinez, Hershiser, Chad Ogea and midseason trade acquisition Ken Hill all had terrific years, and Jose Mesa saved 46 games). It's the stacked lineup -- in which the Nos. 7 and 8 hitters (Ramirez and Paul Sorrento) combined for 56 homers -- that stands out, with its 5.83 runs per game average.
"I never saw the '27 Yankees," said Jason Bere, then a pitcher for the White Sox. "But the '95 Indians? Whoa."
By the time the calendar flipped to September, the division title was a foregone conclusion, but that didn't make the clinch any less sweet.
It happened on Sept. 8. The Indians staked Hershiser to a 3-2 lead against the Orioles. With two out in the ninth, Mesa got Jeff Huson to hit a harmless pop-up to foul territory near third base, and Thome caught it in his outstretched glove to cue a celebration more than four decades in the making.
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The Indians' first postseason game in 41 years began on a Tuesday night, ended on a Wednesday morning and will be remembered for a lifetime by those who witnessed it.
Roger Clemens might remember it as the night he was warming up to start for the Red Sox when he heard a voice yelling at him from the Tribe dugout.
"We're going to kill you!" the voice blared.
It was Baerga.
"We were so cocky," Baerga would later say.
The game, twice delayed by rain, was tied at 3-3 after nine. Boston took the lead in the top of the 11th, but Belle answered with a solo shot in the bottom. Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy, aware of Belle's corked-bat incident from 1994, asked the umpires to investigate Belle's bat. Belle glared at the mound, flexed his right bicep and pointed to it, indicating the homer was all muscle. An investigation of the bat confirmed as much.
Who would have thought the hero of Game 1 would not be the muscular Belle but little catcher Tony Pena? It was just after 2 a.m. when Pena came to bat with two out in the bottom of the 13th. He swung at a 3-0 pitch from Zane Smith and smacked it into the left-field bleachers.
"That was a moment I'm never going to forget," said Pena, "and nobody is going to take it away from me."
The Indians would take the series in a three-game sweep, setting up the American League Championship Series against a "Refuse to Lose" Mariners club. The series was tied at two wins apiece going into Game 5. The Indians knew they were in trouble if they lost it at home and had to return to Seattle to face both Randy Johnson and elimination.
Thome didn't let that happen. Down 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth, he took Mariners starter Chris Bosio deep for a two-run home run that gave the Indians a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish.
In Game 6, with the Indians up 1-0 and one on in the eighth, Lofton took over. He reached on a bunt single to put runners on the corners against Johnson, then swiped second base. And when Johnson threw a pitch that got past catcher Dan Wilson, not only did pinch-runner Ruben Amaro score from third, but Lofton came in all the way from second.
The Indians won that game, 4-0, to clinch their first World Series berth since 1954. Tribe legend Bob Feller, then 76, was so swept up in the moment that he rushed the field. A security guard tried to arrest him before realizing who the excited old man was.
That emotion extended to all members of the Tribe. Hart was brought to tears.
"I couldn't help myself," Hart said. "I get choked up talking about it now. You think back to how we acquired all these guys and say, 'Isn't this just amazing? Little Cleveland. Who would have thought?'"
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Maybe the emotion of the run to the World Series sapped the Indians' strength. Or maybe the umpires gave Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery too wide a strike zone. Or maybe good pitching simply beats good hitting.
Whatever the reason, the end result was a Series in which the Indians fell behind, dropping the first two games in Atlanta, and never recovered, losing in six.
The Braves won 14 straight division titles but only one World Series in that span. The lone triumph came against an Indians team that posted one of the 12 highest regular-season winning percentages of all time. Go figure.
And yet, the city of Cleveland threw the Tribe a party anyway. Upon their return from Atlanta, Indians players and coaches boarded a bus to Public Square, where some 50,000 faithful had gathered to greet them and thank them.
Said Thome: "You couldn't have told if we won it or lost it."
The Indians won over the city in a big way. The entire 1996 home slate sold out before Opening Day. A string of 455 consecutive sellouts -- a remarkable figure for one of baseball's smaller markets -- had begun.
The 1995 Central crown was the first of six in a seven-season span for the Indians, and they would come even closer to winning it all in '97, a source of heartbreak all its own as they lost to the Marlins in seven games -- in extra innings, yet. But the '95 club was the best and most dominant of any in the Indians' renaissance. Their lethal lineup scorched baseball's earth like few before it or since.
"We were unbelievable," Baerga said.
They stirred long-slumbering emotions. They made grown men cry, made little kids smile and made people proud of their team and their town.