I know Cleveland has often been the subject of my ridicule – and it’s deserved. But there was a time in my life when I dabbled in Cleveland Indians baseball. Admittedly, as an early teenager it was hard not to get sucked into the 1996-2000 Cleveland Indians. I studied tape of Manny Ramirez’s swing and tried to model my offensive approach after him; hitting to all fields. Plus the Reds were floundering and the Tribe was in the playoffs every year.
The height of this crush was the 1997 Indians. No team ever came so close without actually delivering. Which brings about the question: would it be better to have never even made it to this spot at all? It might have been.
But it’s easy to forget how close the Indians actually were. That’s what I realized as I wasted about three hours yesterday breaking down this game and revisiting the agony of that night all over again. I was so heartbroken over it I actually cried after the game as Charles Nagy sat on the mound in disbelief.
Everyone who watched this game remembers Edgar Renteria’s game-winning, flip single into centerfield that scored that little no-talent ass clown Craig Counsell. Everyone remembers Tony Fernandez’s error that set everything up, including him being the scapegoat you remember.
But watch the top of the ninth inning. The Indians have a chance to go up 3-1 and make Jaret Wright the hero forever. Except Renteria goes to the plate on a sharp ground ball hit to him instead of going for the double play, nailing Sandy Alomar Jr. (who didn’t attempt to slide) at the plate. If Renteria doesn’t go home with that ball – if he tries a double play there to end the inning and the Indians get that third run – they end up World Champions.
Then make sure you watch that agonizing bottom of the ninth where the Marlins tie the game on Counsell’s sacrifice fly. Jose Mesa allows a flip single to Moises Alou. Then he strikes out Bobby Bonilla. They’re so close you can feel it. People were popping champagne in Cleveland by this point. Bob Costas frames the moment so eloquently to try to make you forget it’s Cleveland and Florida playing on the game’s grandest of stages.
The camera pans to Mike Hargrove; and he appears to be talking to himself. Going through every little situation in his mind. By this time he surely knows what is to come. He hangs his head after a few moments, before the camera focuses closely in on Jose Mesa; who is about to blow the save in the biggest game of his life.
On a 1-2 count; after relying on exclusively fastballs to get ahead of a light hitting catcher Charles Johnson, Mesa actually does the smart thing. He throws a slider on the outside part of the dish. It’s a pitcher’s pitch. Johnson slashes it into right field to an actual hustling Manny Ramirez. Bob Costas tells us the obvious – that there’s no play – and Alou slides into third. The slide has begun itself. The toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube. Cleveland is going to blow this now, it’s just a matter of how.
The camera shows Mesa, looking exhausted already. It then goes quickly to Hargrove who is wearing an expression mixed of panic and anguish. Then you see him. One of the smallest World Series heroes there ever was. It’s Counsell. The rookie out of Notre Dame. His awkward and memorable stance not fully evolved into what it would just yet. He still looks like a kid Craig Counsell and not the Counsell you probably remember bouncing around towards the latter part of his career.
Grover is rocking and nodding his head. He’s telling himself that this is really happening, but this can’t be happening. We were two outs away. We’re still two outs away. But exactly that – this has already taken on a life of it’s own and the dream is over by now. Young Jim Leyland adjusts his glasses. Counsell slashes a ball on a line to right field. It looks like it could be over right there. It’s probably one of the hardest balls he’s ever hit in his life. But no, they will play on at least a little longer. Somehow, Manny Ramirez is there and he’s waiting on it. Ramirez makes the catch lazily jogging after it somehow; just as he always seemed to be able to do. But game seven of the World Series is tied.
And here we are, some 16 long years later. The Indians have never gotten that close again. No Cleveland team has been that close in fact. And we press on in our lives, with the lives of many whose hope was lost that night at Joe Robbie Stadium already ended. We all wonder if Cleveland will ever get another shot. But as the days go on and we are further apart from the actual moments within this game, it’s easy to forget how close Cleveland actually was to really winning it all. So close that even watching this noir, you almost find yourself hoping for a different outcome for them. Even though it’s inevitable.