The Great Missed Opportunity Series continues with the Cleveland Indians. Which team that fell short could have been the most loved team in the franchise’s modern history?
For a franchise filled with frustrations and a tortured sports fan base, finding a single year to represent a great missed opportunity for the Indians was a daunting task. There were so many to choose from.
Now according to my own ground rules, the year of the great missed opportunity had take place in the Wild Card era, so all heartbreak before 1995 was eliminated.
And the team could not have lost the World Series. This had to be a team that fell short of even winning the pennant. So the obvious choice of 1997, when the Indians blew a 9th inning lead of Game 7 of the World Series, could not be picked.
There was still an abundance of choices.
The 1996 squad that was upset by an inferior Orioles team was one.
So was the 1999 Tribe who blew a 2-0 Division Series lead to the Red Sox.
The 2000 Indians had a better record than the eventual World Champion Yankees but failed to make the playoffs as they finished behind the White Sox and the wild card Mariners.
The 2001 Indians blew a 2-1 Division Series lead (and a lead in the potential clinching Game 4) to the Mariners.
In 2005, Cleveland was eliminated by a single game on the final day of the season.
In 2007, they had a 3-1 ALCS lead with CC Sabathia pitching Game 5 at home, but the Red Sox stormed back to win.
And just last year, they finished one single game behind the Tigers, settling for a Wild Card Game loss to Tampa.
Of all of those years, 2007 seemed like the obvious choice, especially considering Cleveland would probably have beaten the streaking Rockies in the World Series, giving the city their first title since the 1964 Browns won the NFL.
Instead my mind goes back to 1998. That year’s near miss might have eluded your memory, which makes it even more painful.
The Indians were coming off the crushing 1997 World Series loss to Florida, but were still the best team in the AL Central.
Kenny Lofton returned to the team after one season in Atlanta and seemed back at home. Matt Williams left for Arizona but was replaced by the capable Travis Fryman. And Dwight Gooden was added to the rotation.
The team still had firepower from Manny Ramirez, who clubbed 45 homers and finished with a .976 OPS. Jim Thome, David Justice, Richie Sexson, Brian Giles, Mark Whiten and David Bell all added to the attack. Omar Vizquel was still the best defensive shortstop in the game and Sandy Alomar still a capable catcher.
Gooden joined a rotation that included Charles Nagy, Bartolo Colon, Dave Burba and Jaret Wright. They did not resemble the Braves, but they kept the team in the game and put up impressive win totals.
And the goat of the 1997 World Series, Jose Mesa, lost his job and was sent off to San Francisco with Mike Jackson filling in as closer admirably.
Manager Mike Hargrove saw his team start the season winning their first six games. They never once fell out of first place. As it turned out, they finished the 1998 season as the only team in their division with a winning record, easily clinching with a 9 game edge over the White Sox.
They dropped 7 of their last 10 games, but by then they had clinched and were coasting to the Division Series where they faced a star studded Boston Red Sox team.
Pedro Martinez, Mo Vaughn and Nomar Garciaparra all came up big in the opening game, an 11-3 Boston win.
When Doc Gooden was ejected during the Red Sox 2 run first inning rally, it looked like the Indians were going to fade out weakly.
But David Justice drove in a run in the first and three more in the third and Burba threw 5 1/3 innings of relief, salvaging an Indians split.
When the series moved to Fenway, the Indians worked around the productive bats of Vaughn and Garciaparra to take Game 3, 4-3.
With the prospect of facing Martinez in Game 5, the fourth became a must win for the Indians as well as the Red Sox. Garciaparra’s homer made it 1-0 and the Red Sox kept that lead into the 8th inning.
But the normally reliable Tom Gordon faltered in the 8th, allowing a 2 run double by Justice to take the lead. The Red Sox put runners on the corners in the 8th, but Cleveland survived and Jackson clinched the series in the 9th.
As spirited a series win as that was, few gave the Indians much of a chance against the 114 win New York Yankees in the ALCS.
And true to expectations, the Yankees took the opener with a five run first inning and a 7-2 final.
But remember the Yankees were eliminated the previous year by Cleveland. And the one World Series Joe Torre had won at that point came in 1996, a year where the Yankees had avoided the Indians after they were upset by Baltimore.
The Indians were still the defending American League Champions and they were not fazed by the game 1 defeat. Game 2 was a tight 1-1 affair that went into extra innings. In the 12th inning and pinch runner Enrique Wilson on first with nobody out, Travis Fryman pushed a bunt up the first baseline.
The throw eluded Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch covering first, who felt interference should have been called. While he protested (and famously blew a bubble) he never called time and Wilson stumbled all the way around the basepath to give the Indians a 1-0 lead.
(Despite post season heroics in 1998, 1999 and 2001, Knoblauch never lived down that play in many Yankee fans’ eyes.)
Lofton drove in a pair of insurance runs and the Indians won 4-1.
Back in Jacobs Field for Game 3, the Indians capitalized on the momentum. Thome’s second inning homer wiped out an early Yankee lead and Wilson drove the go ahead runs in the same frame.
Andy Pettitte let up homers to Ramirez, Thome and Whiten in the fifth and the Indians cruised to a 6-1 victory and seemed to be in control of the series.
Another win and they would have the mighty Yankees and their 114 win season on the brink. In Game 4, they would face Orlando Hernandez (El Duque), the mysterious Cuban pitcher who had not pitched in the Division Series and was making his post season debut.
The Indians put 2 on in the first inning, but failed to score as Jim Thome’s bid for a 3 run homer fell short.
El Duque settled down and threw 7 shutout frames and the Yankees tied the series 4-0.
In Game 5, still in Cleveland, the two teams seemed ready for a slugfest. The Yankees scored three in the first but Lofton answered with a lead off homer. But both Jaret Wright and David Wells settled down. The Indians threatened to take a lead in the 8th but Mariano Rivera got a 5 out save to nail it down.
Facing elimination, the Indians looked demoralized, falling behind 6-0 in Yankee Stadium. Then they rallied in the fifth, as Jim Thome’s grand slam made it a 6-5 game.
They would never take the lead and the Yankees would go on to clinch 9-5 and make quick work of the Padres in the World Series.
Alas, the Indians were the only team to challenge the Yankees and how close they came in Games 4, 5 and 6 to pushing them to the brink.
If Thome’s flyball carried in the 4th game or the Indians had rallied in the 5th game, the story of the 1998 post season would have been much different.
If the Yankees fell 3-1 to the team that had eliminated them in 1997, would they have comeback? If the Indians took a 3-1 lead, could anyone stop them?
Had Cleveland made it to the World Series, would they have topped a strong San Diego club? If they did, the bad taste of 1997 would have been washed away.
In fact they would have been a team that won 3 pennants in 4 years, winning one. The city of Cleveland would have had its title and fan favorites like Thome, Vizquel, Alomar, Nagy, Lofton and Ramirez would have been big parts of the title.
The entire sports culture of Cleveland would have been altered to this day. The biggest critique of LeBron James announcing his signing with the Heat via an ESPN special was it seemed cruel to Cleveland fans who so need a title.
The Indians squad of the 1990’s would have its crowning achievement and any other short comings could be brushed aside.
Replay that Game 4. All of those home runs Thome hit in his career would seem so much sweeter had that ball made it out of the park.
A great missed opportunity for a franchise (and city) that has no shortage of them.