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Indians Indians Archive Fave Five #4: Indians vs. Yankees, 1997
Written by Jesse Lamovsky

Jesse Lamovsky


There are times you get a feeling- more than a feeling, a premonition- about the outcome of a game before it’s even played. That feeling, that premonition, could be bad- and if you’ve rooted for teams in this town long enough, it’s probably a familiar one. Then again, sometimes it’s a good premonition. Sometimes you just know the Browns/Indians/Cavaliers are going to win, even before the ball is rolled out.  

By my count I’ve had that good premonition twice since I became a Cleveland fan way back in the early ‘80s. The first time came during the 1986 AFC Divisional Playoffs, after the Browns overcame a ten-point deficit in the last four minutes of regulation to tie the Jets and sent it to overtime. The score may have been knotted at 20-20, but I just knew the Browns were going to win. Even Mark Moseley’s shank of a game-winning chip-shot field goal in the first overtime didn’t shake my belief. That’s okay, I thought, they’re still going to win. And sure enough, they did.

My second good premonition came before Game Five of the 1997 American League Division Series between the Indians and Yankees at Jacobs Field. And like that first premonition, it was right on the money.

The 1997 season was a strange one for the Indians. The teams that had dominated the American League in 1995 and ’96 had been radically altered. Albert Belle, the power gear in those monster lineups, had gone to the White Sox in free agency after the ‘96 season, instantly becoming the most hated sports figure in Cleveland not named Art Modell. The dynamic Kenny Lofton was traded to Atlanta for Marquis Grissom and David Justice prior to 1997. Carlos Baerga partied himself out of town midway through the 1996 season, and other significant figures from those juggernauts- Eddie Murray, Paul Sorrento, Tony Pena, Julian Tavarez- were now plying their trade elsewhere.

In their places were new faces and new names. Grissom, Justice, Matt Williams and Tony Fernandez all made their Cleveland debuts in the summer of 1997. Melding these new faces with established Tribesmen like Thome, Ramirez, Vizquel and Alomar proved a painstaking process. On August 13 the Indians were 59-56; just two-and-a-half games in front of the White Sox and three-and-a-half in front of the Brewers in the AL Central, a division they had won by thirty and fourteen-and-a-half games the previous two seasons.

Eventually the real Indians finally stood up. With the lineup clicking and the pitching bolstered by the arrival from the minors of flame-throwing prospect Jaret Wright, Cleveland heated up and pulled away down the stretch, winning the Central by six games over Chicago. But the Tribe’s 86-75 record paled in comparison to the 100-and-99-win extravaganzas of 1995 and ’96. There were plenty of individual stars and the offense was one of the best in baseball- but pitching is the coin of the realm in October, and the Tribe’s hurlers were ranked in the bottom half of the American League.

What’s more, new powers had risen since Cleveland’s pennant romp in 1995. The Tribe had been upset by Baltimore in the ’96 Division Series, and the veteran Orioles were back in ’97 with a club that won a league-best 98 games. The New York Yankees had won their first World Championship in fifteen years the season before, and like the Orioles they looked even more formidable in 1997. With a balanced lineup, a pitching staff that was rock-solid from front to back, and the cool leadership of Joe Torre, the Yanks went 96-66 and, despite finishing second to Baltimore in the AL East, were considered more than capable of winning the whole shooting match for the second consecutive season.

New York’s first assignment was to dispatch the Indians in the Division Series- something they were heavily favored to do. Cleveland got off to a great start in Game One at Yankee Stadium, hammering David Cone for five first-inning runs. But with the Indians leading 6-3 with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the sixth, everything fell apart. After a Rey Sanchez RBI single made it 6-4, Tim Raines hit a two-run bomb off Eric Plunk to tie the score. Derek Jeter came up and hit another homer to give the Yankees the lead. Paul O’Neill then sent all of Gotham into hysterics with another home run, the third straight off the dazed Plunk, to make it 8-6. That score stood, and now New York led the best-of-five series, 1-0.

It was a devastating defeat, and things didn’t get any better early in Game Two. Almost out of desperation, Mike Hargrove named Jaret Wright as his starter- and the jittery kid wasted no time falling behind. Three walks, a double and a sacrifice fly gave New York a 3-0 first-inning lead. But Wright settled down, shutting out the Yankees the next five innings and giving Cleveland’s offense a chance to respond- which it did. A five-run fourth gave the Indians the lead, a two-run homer by Matt Williams in the fifth solidified it, and the Tribe was on its way to the 7-5 win that snarled the series at a game apiece as the action moved to Jacobs Field.

Game Two looked like nothing more than a temporary reprieve. Charles Nagy, Cleveland’s Game Three starter, had long been a Yankee whipping boy, and he stayed uncomfortably in that role as New York regained the series lead with a 6-1 thrashing. Joe Torre’s lineup kayoed Nagy in the fourth, and Tribe killer Paul O’Neill put it away with a grand slam off relief man Chad Ogea. New York starter David Wells, another Tribe killer, cruised to a complete-game five-hitter, and the Indians were now one game away from elimination.

At this point the Indians were just about out of lives. New York had racked up nineteen runs in three games against the mediocre Tribe pitching staff, while Cleveland had done little offensively aside from those two five-run innings in Yankee Stadium. The Indians looked simply outclassed by the reigning World Champions, who seemed destined for an ALCS rematch with the Orioles in an East Coast battle that had the networks salivating.           


altThrough seven-and-two-thirds innings of Game Four, the Indians complied meekly with the script. Run-scoring hits by O’Neill and Cecil Fielder gave New York a 2-0 first-inning lead. Yankee starter Dwight Gooden, meanwhile, was superb. Aside from a solo home run by David Justice, the former Mets superstar was virtually untouchable. With the bases empty and two outs in the eighth New York still led 2-1. Mariano Rivera, who took over the closer’s job from John Wetteland and rang up 43 saves in 1997, was now on the hill. That was when Sandy Alomar changed the entire complexion of the series, picking out a 2-0 fastball and depositing it over the right field wall to tie the game at 2-2.


And with that, I had my revelation. The Indians are going to win this game, I thought. Then, right behind, came the next thought: They’re going to win tomorrow night, too. One inning later Omar Vizquel hit a rocket up the middle that glanced off the leg of Ramiro Mendoza and rolled into left-center field, plating Marquis Grissom with the winning run. Premonition number one had come to fruition.

Game Five would be played the following evening. Usually I’m a nervous wreck, a miserable SOB in the hours leading up to a Cleveland playoff game in any sport. Not on this sunny October day. I was cool as a cucumber, telling everyone I could collar not to worry- the Tribe had this one.  It was one thing to be confident, but what I felt was beyond confidence. It was surety.

Finally it was game time on Monday night, October 6, 1997. (I was out of work at the time, so it might as well have been Friday for me.) Rookie Jaret Wright, the winner of Game Two, versus Andy Pettite, the loser of Game Two. Wright wasn’t brilliant, but he managed to wriggle out of trouble early, getting Tino Martinez to pop out with two on and two out in the first and inducing a Joe Girardi double-play ball with two on and no out in the second. Unable to come up with the clutch hits that would become their trademark in the late ‘90s, New York stranded four runners in the first three innings.

Clutch hitting gave Cleveland the lead in the third inning. With two on and two out, Manny Ramirez belted a two-run ground-rule double. Matt Williams then rolled a single into left field to score Ramirez and make it 3-0. One inning later a Sandy Alomar double and a Tony Fernandez sacrifice fly made it 4-0, and I was ready to discuss the matchups with the Orioles in the upcoming American League Championship Series.

But not so fast. After going twelve consecutive innings without a run, the Yankees finally got on the board in the fifth on a two-run single by Bernie Williams. One inning later Mike Stanley (yet another Yankee who always seemed to tattoo Cleveland pitching) led off with a double and rode home on a single by Wade Boggs. Now it was 4-3, and Jaret Wright’s night was done. New York hadn’t gone 1-2-3 in a single inning, but the Tribe still clung to the lead.

The remaining three innings were high drama. Derek Jeter led off the seventh by lashing a single off of Mike Jackson. Lefty specialist Paul Assenmacher came in to face Paul O’Neill, who had been white-hot the entire series. O’Neill drilled a hard shot in the hole between first and second. It looked like a sure base hit, one that would likely allow Jeter to go all the way around to third with nobody out. Instead Jim Thome- not a terrible fielder but hardly the spiritual descendant of Vic Power at first- made a diving stop and fired to second to force the runner. Assenmacher then coaxed an inning-ending double-play ball out of Bernie Williams and the Indians still led.

New York continued to storm the barricades in the eighth. Back-to-back hits by Charlie Hayes and Boggs put two Yankees on with two outs. Once again they couldn’t come up with the big hit. Jorge Posada grounded out to the pitcher and the Indians were now three outs away.

Jose Mesa, who had come on strong and gotten his closer’s job back in the second half of the season, was on to shepherd the narrow lead through one more inning. The late ‘90s Yankees were legendary for their patience at the plate, but there was none of that for the desperate New Yorkers in this inning. Tim Raines swung at the first pitch and hit a ground ball to the right of second. Tony Fernandez ranged over, backhanded the ball and fired to first- one out. Jeter took a strike, swung at the second pitch and hit a harmless roller to third. Matt Williams fielded, threw- two out.

Now it was up to Paul O’Neill, a raging competitor and wonderful clutch player for whom I had an undying man-love. More than once I longed for a trade that would bring O’Neill to Cleveland. Wasn’t happening- New York would have just as soon dealt the Statue of Liberty for the BP Building, Peabody’s and a West Side housing project to-be-named-later. So O’Neill remained in pinstripes, in which he absolutely murdered Indians pitching. The Ohio native hit .421 in this series with seven RBI’s, striking out not once.

Again swinging at the first pitch, O’Neill drilled a curving drive to deep right-center. Off the bat it looked like a mere gap-shot, but this ball carried, hitting the wall on the fly. Marquis Grissom fielded the ball cleanly off the barrier and came up firing. Omar Vizquel took the throw, but his swipe tag missed and O’Neill made it into second with a head-first slide. Once again the Yankees had a man in scoring position with a chance to turn the game around.

That brought up Bernie Williams, who in contrast to O’Neill had suffered through a woeful series. The high-stepping Williams had just two hits in the five games, stranding a boatload of runners in the process. Mesa threw a first-pitch fastball and Williams popped it up harmlessly to left field. Brian Giles camped under the ball and put it away, and that was it. Cleveland had won, 4-3, and with it the series over the heavily favored Yankees- just as I thought they would the instant Sandy Alomar’s drive cleared the barrier in right the night before.

In retrospect the win seemed not just improbable, but impossible. New York racked up twelve hits on the night, including at least one base knock in every inning. There were Yankees littering the base-paths all evening. Yet thanks to Jaret Wright, the bullpen, some timely hitting, a great defensive play by Jim Thome- of all people- and some uncharacteristically impatient play from the Pinstripes, the Indians were moving on. A frustrating, up-and-down season had suddenly turned magical. In the words of Tom Hamilton, Cleveland now had an October to remember.

Game Five of the 1997 American League Division Series remains my favorite Indians game for two reasons. One: they beat the Yankees. Not the bloated, pitching-poor Yankees of 2007, but the lean-and-mean late ‘90s dynasty that won four World Championships in five years- the vintage Yankees. O’Neill, Williams, Jeter, Posada, Wells, Cone, Pettite, Rivera. For a Cleveland team, this was a takedown for the ages.

And two, because of that good premonition. 

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