Greatest Teams Never to Win a World Series in the Past 30 Years-95 Indians
The 1995 baseball season does not get a hint of credit.
Shadowed by the 1994 players strike, where the season ended on it and ending what many viewed was a great year to that point in baseball, many fans were put off. Of course, they were put off by the players and what the fans felt was the spoiled brat players just wanted to get a few extra bucks away from the owners. So to begin the season (albeit late as the players struck a deal as the season was about to begin with replacement players) there were plenty of empty seats and a careless mentality among the fans. And rightfully so.
But the 1995 season had some great moments. The Rockies opened a gem in Coors Field. The Angels were rolling out west. The Braves had an influx of great youth that came up. You had Nomo-Mania happening in Los Angeles. You had a good young shortstop in Seattle named Alex Rodriguez. And then in September, Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak in dramatic fashion with a home run to catapult him in the record books.
But probably the biggest feel-good story of the year was what happened in Cleveland.
The Indians were baseball's laughingstock. In fact, how the Cleveland Browns are now, is what the Cleveland Indians were back then. And you could make an argument the Tribe had it worse. From 1969-1993, the Indians only had 3 winning seasons with 84-78 being their best run in 1986, never finishing a full season less than 10 games out, and only finishing higher than 4th one time. They played in cavernous, ugly, Cleveland Municipal Stadium AKA the Mistake by the Lake. And everything was just brutal. Probably the best highlight from the Indians at this point was when they made a movie about them and their futility, and how they were able to turn it all around with a bunch of misfits. Of course we know that movie to be Major League. But even then, it seemed like a fantasy for Indians fans. Disney's Cinderella may have been more of a realistic movie to them.
Anyway, things started to turn in the early 90's as Cleveland started to build from within, establishing a strong farm system and sticking to the plan. In 1991, the Tribe lost 105 games, as it seemed like the futility would continue. But the farm was getting better and they had a good young slugging outfielder in Albert Belle, starting to roll. The Tribe went form 57 wins to 76 in 92, adding two more to the team, a speedy young outfielder from the Astros who could get on base and play defense in Kenny Lofton and a second baseman who could hit in Carlos Baerga. While this was going on, the Indians had gotten the finances to build a new stadium, away from their monstrosity that had been long obsolete.
2 years later in 1994, with Lofton, Baerga, and Belle leading the way, Jacobs Field opened to rave reviews. The Tribe went from the outhouse to the penthouse with baseball stadiums. The Tribe wasn't done either with their farm system. Adding to the ones who were there, the Tribe brought in a young third baseman in Jim Thome and another outfielder to go along with Lofton in Belle in Manny Ramirez. Both of them having strong power, even then. Cleveland also added a few veterans to show the young stars the way, trading for defensive wizard Omar Vizquel to play short and Eddie Murray to play DH for the Tribe. Baseball life in Cleveland in the mid 90's was bright and it seemed like in one big swoop, all the futility was made up for by these teams prior was made up in 1994 and 1995.
The strike did not faze the Tribe or their fans. Cleveland had sold out every game in 1994 and 1995. The fans were looking for a winner big time in Cleveland. And heading into the 1995 season, a lot of hope was for the Tribe to make it happen.
And what the Indians fans got, was probably unexpected as the Tribe DOMINATED their foes. With baseball practically starting a month later than normal, Cleveland picked apart their foes in the AL Central early and often while smacking around their old AL East foes in the process. By mid-June Cleveland had an 8-game lead on the division, and continued to throttle everybody they saw. By early September, the Indians won the division with ease. Think about that for a a minute: a 144-game schedule and they clinched it in early September. It was an impressive feat. And better, the last day of the season the Tribe won their 100th game. In a 144 game season. People forget how DOMINANT the Tribe was.
SO WHAT MADE THEM GREAT? The offense. During the last 30 years, I am VERY hard pressed to think there was a better offense than what the Tribe had in 1995. It was flat-out sick. Belle had one of the best years in baseball history, hitting .317 with 50 HR and 126 RBI and had an OPS over 1.000. Baerga was what we known him to be, a good solid all-around hitter (.314, 15, 90 RBI). Lofton was the culprit at the top, hitting over .300 and stealing 54 bases while leading the league in triples. Eddie Murray had the fountain of youth happen, hitting over .300 and 21 HR. But it was Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome that really busted out. Manny also hit over .300 with 31 HR and 107 RBI. Thome, over .300 with 25 HR and 73 driven in. Vizquel was Vizquel with the glove and even Paul Sorrento was contributing with 25 HR (his average a .235 but still). Even Sandy Alomar, in limited time hit .300 and 10 HR. This was a true murderer's row by all accounts. The team average was .291 and slugged over 200 home runs. In 144 games. People just forget how impressive it was, even if the home run era was beginning.
You are probably saying, well, the pitching was their weak link then obviously. Well, yes and no. The starting rotation was nothing to rave about and they did have their struggles, but it was a veteran bunch with Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser, who had pitched well (16-6, 3.87 ERA, though a far cry of his year in 1988 with the Dodgers). Ken Hill came over late from St. Louis and helped the rotation a bit. But Charles Nagy (a mainstay in the rotation) and Mark Clark didn't have their best of years (Nagy had a 4.66 ERA despite 16 wins and Clark went 9-7 with a 5.26 ERA). To be fair, it seemed like Nagy was an innings eater and with the Tribe slugging people to death, an argument can be made he was probably out there for longer than what he needed to be.
But it probably helped the bullpen have on of the most stout pens around. Jose Mesa was truly lights out, going 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA and 46 saves. But young pitching standout Julian Tavarez won 10 games out of the pen with a 2.44 ERA while veterans Eric Plunk and Paul Assenmacher solidified the pen both having ERA's under 3 and both having a WHIP under 1.20. Pretty much the style was simple: Cleveland would slug you and then if you think you had a chance, the pen would come in and quell any comeback. And forget extra innings. The Tribe went an astounding 13-0.
SO WHAT WENT WRONG? There are two things I believe that tripped up Cleveland in October. The first one was an odd one: the Seattle Mariners. Yes, the Tribe beat Seattle in 6 in the ALCS. However, in a bit of an ironic twist, Seattle pulled a "Major League" in 1995 and the "Refuse to Lose" mindset in late August, going 23-10 while the Angels went into freefall mode negating a 12.5 game deficit and throttling California on a 1-game playoff. Then after being down 2-0 in the ALDS against the Yankees, Seattle won the final 3 with the last one being in extra innings in dramatic fashion (and thus saving baseball in Seattle).
Now why do I think a team the Tribe handled in the playoff still ended up being a part of tripping Cleveland? The Indians started to struggle at the plate. Cleveland .257 in the ALCS, though if you pull out Lofton and Baerga (21 for 49, thus a .428 average), they hit a meager .203. And it seemed like the Tribe had to match the intensity and the energy that Seattle had brought with them from the ALDS and the final part of the regular season. Fortunately the Tribe's pitching was lights out. But when the Indians won that series, I remembered seeing the Indians celebrate but also have a look of "whew, we escaped Seattle." And it had a vibe maybe they were worn out heading to Atlanta, who was well-rested after sweeping the Reds.
Of course, the other thing I am getting to and this is cliche but holds true: great pitching beats great hitting. After Cleveland escaped Seattle, they faced the Braves, who were flexing their muscles with their rotation. Of course, it revolved around Atlanta's big 3 of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz (Maddux went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA, Glavine 16-7 with a 3.08 ERA, and Smoltz with a 12-7 and a 3.18 ERA). And all 3 were bulldogs, as they probably had to be since the bullpen was not that strong outside of Mark Wohlers and Greg McMichael. And the other thing was, despite the fact Hershiser won in 1988 with the Dodgers and having an amazing run, the rotation for the Tribe lacked major experience of October baseball......as did the hitters not named Eddie Murray.
The games were close for sure as 5 of the 6 games were decided by a run. Cleveland had to manufacture runs by somewhat playing small ball, only hitting 5 home runs in the World Series. Worse, Cleveland only hit .179 in the series (.575 OPS) and the studs of the Tribe went silent, save for a hit here and there. Belle was probably the best hitter in the series, hitting .235 with 2 HR (OPS still over 1.000) and the bat was taken out of his hand. Lofton got off to a good start, but went 0-for-13 in the final 3 games. Murray went .105 in the series. Ramirez went .222, Thome hit .211 and Baerga hit .192. Hard to win games if you can't drive guys in and even unable to get them on base. In the 4 losses Cleveland went 0-for-15 with RISP. It was the opposite of what the Tribe had done all through the regular season.
AFTERMATH: Maybe because I am not from Cleveland, but the vibe was that the Indians were an overall young group with plenty of stars so there wasn't the same vibe like it is now of all the horrors that Cleveland sports had to endure. There was the "yeah, but we will be back and next time we will win" mindset. Cleveland had a great year in 1996, winning 99 games but traded away Baerga to the Mets in a surprise manner. However, the pitching failed on them in October, losing to the Orioles in the ALCS. After 1996, Belle left Cleveland as a free agent and then the Indians traded Lofton to Atlanta for Marquis Grissom and David Justice. The Indians weren't dominant at all in 1997 but managed to see another World Series appearance and losing in major heartbreaking form to the Marlins. The Tribe in part because they had Thome and Ramirez while Justice was solid for them, continued being the team to beat in the weak AL Central. Lofton did return in 1998 but he wasn't the same player he once was either. Cleveland would continue the run of division titles, winning in 98 and 99 then again in 01. But it never felt the same.
The thing I think about with the 95 Indians and that time period for the Tribe was that they had everything ready for a baseball dynasty. This was at the very least, the best offensive team never to win a World Series in this time period. However, for all the great position hitters they had, the pitching could never match it and why it felt like they fell by the wayside to the Yankees who made their dynasty at this time. Which is sad because those Cleveland teams were EXCELLENT in the mid 90's.
OTHER GREAT TEAMS NEVER TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES IN THE PAST 30 YEARS
1987 TORONTO BLUE JAYS
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat