Daniel Corrigan | March 30th, 2020
When you think of teams dominating a single decade, you think multiple championships. The Steelers in the 70s, the Bulls in the 90s, the Yankees in, well every decade until the 70s.
When you think of the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s, you think what if? They were, objectively, one of the best teams in the history of this game. What do they have to show for it? two world series losses, and now the longest championship drought in the sport.
To be fair, when I say the 1990s Cleveland Indians, I mean the team from 1994-2001. Before the 1994 season, the Cleveland Indians were an absolute joke.
Building a Dynasty
The turn around really started in 1989, when the Indians sent star-outfielder Joe Carter to the Padres for Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga. It was a move that angered many fans until Almoar became an all-star, won the gold glove at catcher, and the rookie of the year in his first year with the team.
Baerga would not share the immediate success that Alomar had in 1990, but would go on to become a three-time all-star with the Indians and also won two silver slugger awards at second base.
The Indians have now built a base for a young, star-studded team. But it was not enough. With Alomar establishing himself as the catcher of the future for the Indians, GM John Hart traded Eddie Taubensee to the Astros for Kenny Lofton in 1991.
Lofton finished second in rookie of the year voting in his first season with the club in 1992. He then became the gold standard (literally) for defensive center-fielders, winning four gold gloves with the Indians.
In the middle of a disastrous 1991 season, Hart also hired Mike Hargrove, who played with the team from 1979-1985 to become the manager of the club. With all the new young talent and the emergence of power-hitting outfielder Albert Belle, the Indians also brought up Jim Thome from the minors in 1991. Even with all this young talent, the Indians still lost 105 games in 1991, the most in franchise history.
In Hart’s first full year with the team in 1992, the Indians improved to 76 wins. The Indians continued to show improvement and add young talent to their team, including bringing up their top prospect, Manny Ramirez in 1993. They would float around .500 until the 1994 season when everything changed.
The Begining of the Dynasty (That Never Was)
The 1994 season is when everything clicked. It was the team’s first season in brand new Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field.) They originally shared Municipal Stadium with the Cleveland Browns, who would move out of town in 1995. With the Cavs being unable to get past the Michael Jordan led Bulls dynasty and the Browns having one foot out the door, Cleveland was starving for a winner.
It just so happened that 1994 was the year the Indians finally became exciting, after four decades of embarrassment.
The Indians were fighting with the White Sox for the AL Central crown all season. On August 12th, the Indians had a record of 66-47, one game out of first in the Central, and leading the Orioles by 2.5 games for the AL Wild Card spot. Unfourtantly they would not play another game that year. In-fact, nobody played again. Due to a player’s strike, the 1994 season was canceled.
The Indians featured the best offense in the league. At the end of the canceled season, the Indians were scoring 6.01 runs per game and led the majors in hits (1,165), runs scored (679), home runs (167), runs batted in (647), batting average (.290), slugging percentage (.484) and total bases (1,946).
They also featured a strong pitching staff. allowing 4.97 runs allowed per game and 17 complete games. The truth is, this team didn’t need a strong pitching staff. The offense was so good, it almost did not matter how much you scored.
1995: The Best to Never Do It
The player’s strike also ran into the start of the 1995 season. 18 games were shaved off the schedule. There would only be 144 games during the 1995 season. Many were wondering if the Indians could replicate their previous season or can live up to the high expectations. Well, the short answer is they did.
The Indians won 100 games in 1995, the most in the majors. They once again dominated opposing pitchers. They led the league in runs scored (840), hits (1,461), home runs (207), runs batted in (803), batting average (.291) and slugging percentage (.479) and struck out fewer than any team with only 766.
The starting rotation featured Charles Nagy, former Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Mark Clark, Ken Hill, and Bud Black. In the AL, They allowed the second-fewest hits (1,261), finishing with the best ERA (3.83), the fewest runs allowed (607), fewest earned runs allowed (554), the most saves (50) and the fewest intentional walks (16).
The Bullpen featured Jose Mesa who finished second in the AL Cy Young voting as a relief pitcher. in 62 games pitched, Mesa held an ERA of 1.13 with 58 strikeouts. He led the league in saves with 46 and held a 3-0 record. But we will get to Mesa a little later.
The Indians had power all over the lineup in 1995. Thome hit 25 HRs and a .314 BA and Ramirez had 31 HRs with a .308 BA. The Indians also got some power from their veterans. Murray had 21 HRs with a .323 BA and Paul Sorento had 25 bombs on the season.
Belle became the first player to hit 50 HRs and 50 Doubles in one season, a shortened season at that. Belle led the AL in runs scored, home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and total bases, and STILL didn’t win the MVP award. The distinction went to Mo Vaughn of the Red Sox.
Now, Belle was the best player in baseball that season, not up for debate. But he lost the award because he was a d-bag. The media hated him because he was just flat-out not a likable person. He was nasty towards the media, he would destroy clubhouses, and there is the hilarious story of stealing back a corked bat from the umpires dressing room in 1994. But enough about Belle.
The one downfall of Alomar’s career was injuries. He only played in 66 games in 1995 and still hit .300 and put out a decent year for the limited playing time. Tony Pena, who joined the team in 1994, was the team’s primary catcher in 1995 which leads us to the Indians’ first playoff game since the 1954 World Series.
Pena hit a 13th inning walk-off HR in game one of the ALDS against the Red Sox to win 5-4. The Indians won game two 4-0 and completed the sweep at Fenway with an 8-2 game three victory.
In the ALCS, the Indians took on the Mariners, who were in the postseason for the first time in franchise history and led by mega-star Ken Griffey Jr.
The Mariners took game one at the Kingdome 3-2. Two Manny Rameriz home runs secured a 5-2 game two victory for the Indians and tying the series at one heading to Jacobs Field.
The Mariners came into Cleveland and took game three 5-2 to put a ton of pressure on the Indians. However, the Indians won the next three games to advance to the World Series. led by Hershiser who won ALCS MVP with a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings pitched and won both of his starts in games two and five.
The Indians took on the Atlanta Braves in the World Series who defeated the Reds in the NLCS.
The Braves made a late-game comeback in-game three to take the lead in the eighth. The Indians immediately answered back with an Almoar RBI double in their half of the eighth and forced game three to head to extras. In the eleventh inning, the Indians came up victorious with an RBI single by Murray.
The Braves took game four 5-2 with another late-game rally to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. After a game five win by the Indians to send the series back to Atlanta, the Indians failed to score a run in game six and lost the World Series 4-2.
The Indians scored only 19 runs on 35 hits throughout the series and had a team batting average of .179, well below the offensive production the team had in the regular season.
The 1995 Indians were known for two things. Winning at home and walk-off wins. The Indians went 54-18 at Jacobs Field and had 12 walk-off wins, all of which came in extra innings.
1997: Off Nagy’s Glove
in 1996, the Indians held the best record in the majors for the second straight year with 99 wins. However, they fell in four games to the Orioles in the ALDS. But, the 1996 season provided this awesome moment.
The team lost some of its identity in 1997 and the pressure to win with this stacked roster was suddenly much higher.
The Indians traded Lofton and pitcher Alan Embree to the Braves for Marquis Grissom and David Justice. Justice became the team’s primary DH as the Indians traded Murray back to the Orioles in the middle of the 1996 season. They also traded Baerga to the Mets for Jeff Kent (who was flipped the next season) and Jose Vizcaino. The Indians filled Baerga’s spot at second with former gold-glover, Tony Fernandez.
The biggest blow came when Belle bolted to the White Sox in free agency and became the highest-paid player in baseball with a 5-year $55 million contract. The Indians suddenly lost two of their top players and 2/3rds of their outfield in Belle and Lofton.
Even with losing these key players, the Indians still had young talent all over the field, especially at starting pitcher. The Indians brought-up top prospects Jaret Wright and Bartolo Colon to anchor the back-end of the rotation.
The Indians had a disappointing regular season with only 86 wins. Thankfully, they were in a weak AL Central and beat out the White Sox by six games to win their third-straight division crown and would take on the defending champs, the New York Yankees.
The Indians jumped out to a 5-0 lead in game one. However, four HRs by the Yankees led them to a late-inning comeback win to take game one. In game two, the Indians were the ones who needed a comeback of there own. Seven runs scored in the fourth and fifth led the Indians to a 7-5 win, tying the series heading back to Cleveland.
After a 6-1 game three victory for the Yankees, the Indians were on the brink of elimination, and it was not looking good heading into the eighth in game four.
The Yankees brought in the most dominating force out of the bullpen in the history of the game, Mariano Rivera.
To understand the magnitude of what happens next, you need to hear this stat about Rivera. In his career, he pitched 141 innings in the playoffs and had a 0.70 ERA. That’s 11 runs scored in the 32 playoff series that he pitched. For reference, there have been more people to walk on the moon (12) than have scored in the playoffs off Rivera (11).
With two outs in the eighth, Alomar sent a 2-0 pitch over the right-field wall to tie the game at two.
In the ninth, Vizquel sent a Ramiro Mendoza pitch off his glove and into left field, scoring Grissom, and sending the ALDS to game five (for some reason in Cleveland.)
Wright would pick up his second victory of the series to send the Indians to the ALCS to face off against the team that eliminated them the year before, the Baltimore Orioles.
The Indians were shut out in game one but went on to win the next three games, including two straight walk-off wins in games three and four to come within one game of the World Series.
The Orioles were able to take game five in Cleveland to stay alive and send the series back to Baltimore down 3-2. In game six, the Indians, once again in extra innings, defeated the Orioles 1-0 due to a Fernandez HR to right that sent them back to the World Series.
The Indians took on the Florida Marlins who were in their first postseason in franchise history.
The teams traded wins throughout the entire series. The Marlins winning games one, three, and five and the Indians winnings games two, four and six.
The Indians won game six in Florida to force game seven. Hargrove, who was celebrating his birthday the night of game seven, was faced with, what I imagine has to be the hardest decision to make, the task of choosing who would take the mound for game seven. It was Nagy’s turn in the rotation, but Hargrove decided to have Wright start the game.
Wright was undefeated in the postseason and was regarded as the future ace for the Indians. He continued to dominate the postseason, throwing 6.1 innings and allowing only one run.
Wright even set up the Indians’ only runs of the game. In the third, Wright sacrificed Thome to third and Grissom to second, where they would both score later after a Fernandez single.
Heading into the ninth, the Indians brought in Mesa with a 2-1 lead to close out the game, and secure the Indians’ first World Series since 1948.
The Ninth Inning
Charles Johnson slapped a 1-2 fastball into right putting runners at the corner with still only one out, putting Mesa in one hell of a spot, needing a strikeout or groundout to stop Alou from scoring from third.
With the game on the line, Craig Counsell drove a low, inside fastball into deep right. Ramirez caught it for the second out but it did not matter. Alou scored easily, the game was tied, and Mesa blew the save.
After being set down in order, the Indians sent Mesa back out to start the tenth. After giving up back-to-back singles, the Indians brought in Nagy, who was scheduled to start the game. Nagy was able to get out of the jam and push the game into the eleventh.
Nagy once again took the mound in the eleventh with the score still tied at two. Bonilla started the inning off with a single and was nearly doubled off after a Gregg Zaun bunt attempt was popped up.
With one out and Bonilla at first, Counsell sent a ground ball to Fernandez at second that should have ended resulted in an inning-ending double play.
With runners at the corners and only one out, Nagy intentionally walked Jim Eisenreich to load the bases and set the force-out anywhere. Nagy got Devon White to hit a grounder to Fernandez who elected to throw home instead of going for the double play.
There are now two outs in the eleventh inning of game seven. The bases are loaded with Edgar Renteria at the plate. Renteria sent a 1-0 pitch up the middle right at Nagy, but just out of his reach.
1998-2001: The Cleveland Curse Lives On
After the heartbreak of 1997, the Indians re-signed Lofton and added former Cy Young winner, Dwight Gooden. In the middle of the 1998 season, the Indians traded Mesa, and lost another piece of this “dynasty.”
The Indians once again benefited from a weak division and won their fourth consecutive AL Central crown with only 89 wins. They led the division for the entirety of the season, the only time in franchise history that feat was accomplished.
The Indians entered 1998 in win-now mode. Their young stars were heading towards free agency and historically, the Indians don’t spend money. They still had the lethal lineup and a good, but not dominant rotation. They were craving a true ace to bring everything together.
There was an agreement in place to send Colon, Wright, and prospects to the Expos to send Martinez to Cleveland. The Indians balked (pun intended) and took Wright off the table due to his dominating 1997 playoffs and tremendous upside. Martinez was sent to Boston, and the Indians lost out on the best pitcher in the game.
The Indians were back in the ALCS in 1998 to face the Yankees. They lost in six games and squandered another year with this roster.
The 1999 season brought hope back to the city. They signed Roberto Alomar to play second, and Ramirez had a career year, driving in 165 runs, the most by any player since 1938.
The Indians won 99 games, another division crown, and led the league in most offensive categories again.
The Indians went up 2-0 against the Red Sox in the ALDS, one game away from their third consecutive ALCS appearance. But in true Cleveland sports fashion, they lost three straight games and were eliminated from the postseason. It especially hurt that Martinez picked up the win in game five
A New Decade
The Indians for the first time since 1993 (I am not counting 1994), were not AL Central champions, finishing second behind the White Sox and failed to make the playoffs with a 90-72 record. In an unpopular move, the Indians let go of Hargrove before the season and hired Charlie Manuel to manage the team.
In 2001, the Indians returned to the top of the AL Central with a 91-71 record. However, the Indians lost Ramirez to the Red Sox and Alomar Jr to the White Sox in free agency. The Indians lost in five games to the Mariners in the ALDS, effectively ending the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s.
A New Era
The Indians finished third in the AL Central in 2002 with a 74-88 record and would not reach the postseason again until 2007.
Jim Thome signed a six-year, 85$ million with the Phillies after the 2002 season. Thome stated that the Phillies were much closer to a championship than the Indians. A washed-up Thome would return to the Indians in August of 2011 to give the Cleveland faithful something to cheer about in a lost season.
Omar Vizquel played with the Indians until 2004 when he signed with the Giants in free agency. Vizquel wrote a book about his playing career (while he was still playing,) that criticized Mesa’s performance in game seven of the 1997 World Series. Mesa was not pleased and vowed to hit Vizquel every time they faced off. Mesa intentionally hit Vizquel a couple times before the league had to step in.
Kenny Lofton signed with the White Sox at the end of the 2001 season. He would return to Cleveland via trade in 2007 to help the Indians come within one game of the World Series. The Indians took a 3-1 lead over the Red Sox in the ALCS, before former Indian, Manny Ramirez and the Red Sox won three straight elimination games, went to the World Series, and swept the Colorado Rockies.
Manny Ramirez rejected a seven-year $119 million contract from the Indians after the 2000 season. He instead, signed an eight-year $160 million contract with the Red Sox and won two World Series championships in 2004 and 2007.
Jaret Wright‘s career never took off after the 1997 postseason. Wright dealt with chronic shoulder pain in his throwing arm his entire career, and never reached his full potential. The Indians decided not to re-sign Wright after the 2002 season, and he signed with the Padres, bouncing around the league for the rest of his career.
Charles Nagy was the Indians’ workhorse for the entire 90s dynasty. He spent his final few years in Cleveland on and off the DL and played one final season with the Padres in 2003.
Albert Belle would only play four more years in the league after leaving the Indians. He was an all-star with the White Sox in 1997 and was forced to retire in 2000 after signing a massive contract with the Orioles due to a hip injury.
The Indians of the 1990s fielded fours HOFers (Thome, Murray, Dave Winfield(sorta), and Roberto Alomar.) A couple others who should be in the HOF (Vizquel, Lofton, Ramirez, and Belle.) They won an average of 94 games from 1995-2001 and had 44 (!!!) players that have made all-star teams at one point in their careers.
It’s hard to believe that a team this talented, at every position, never won it all. They were so much better than everyone else. They had it all. Except for a World Series. I was born in 1998 and have no memory of any of these players playing for the Indians, other than Thome and Lofton at the end of their careers.
I never knew these teams. They never won so why would I? But, the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s are talked about in this town like they were gods. Even today, 25 years after the 1995 team, they are loved in this town. From June of 1995 to April 4th, 2001, the Indians sold out a record (now owned by the Red Sox) 455 games in-a-row. That’s how much they were loved.
I could only imagine being alive and having memories of these teams during the 1990s. They were so much fun, they were so good, they were so close. The only way I know of these teams is the highlights on youtube, and they are awesome. They won’t be remembered by the average baseball fan because they have nothing to show for their dominance. But in Cleveland, they will be remembered forever.
Questions and comments?
Follow Us on Twitter @thescorecrow
Follow Us on Reddit at u/TheScorecrow
Follow Us on Facebook at The Scorecrow
Follow Us on Instagram at The Scorecrow
Facebook Group where you can read and post articles at The Scorecrow
Reddit Group where everyone can post without fear of being banned at The Scorecrow
Follow Daniel Corrigan on Twitter @Corrigan_Tweets
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images