Of course, the real Indians news over the past few days is that spring training games have begun. The Tribe is off to a rousing start, too, with back-to-back victories of 11-10 and 13-10 over the Cincinnati Reds on Friday and Saturday. So it’s understandable if perhaps you missed this bit of news: the Indians recently announced that Carlos Baerga and John Hart will be inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame this summer.
Indians fans over the age of 26 or so remember Baerga for his contributions to the hard-hitting Indians teams of 1994 and 1995, when Baerga held his own in a lineup which included Albert Belle, Eddie Murray, Jim Thome, and Manny Ramirez. But those of us who are a little bit older than that remember that Baerga was performing at a stellar pace during the lean years of the early 1990s as well. In his rookie season, 1990, the 21-year-old Baerga appeared in 106 games, hitting .260. The following year, playing for a hapless Indians team that went 57-102, Baerga stepped up his game. He appeared in 158 games that season and led the club in hits with 171. The only Tribesman to get more extra base hits was Albert Belle.
Baerga continued to hit well in 1992 and 1993, when his batting average was .312 and .321. He began to hit for power as well, with 20 home runs in 1992 and 21 in 1993. By the time the Indians were ready to contend, in 1994, Baerga was a major part of the Indians’ offense. Of course the players strike ruled out any chance of an Indians pennant in 1994, but the Tribe began the 1995 season with the confidence and swagger of a team that was good and knew it.
Just about every Indians fan alive knows what it was like to follow the teams the Indians put on the field from 1994 through 2001. But for the three or four years before that great run of baseball, Carlos Baerga was giving Indians fans something to be excited about during a time when there wasn’t much talent on the field to root for.
My son Nick was born in 1986, and ever since he first started caring about baseball, Baerga was his favorite player. Nick liked the infectious way Baerga would say “Hello, Cleveland!” in promotional spots for the club.
In the pennant-winning season of 1995, on a Saturday afternoon before an evening game, Baerga made a scheduled appearance at the Parmatown Mall to sign autographs. When I told Nick about it, he insisted that we go to meet Baerga. To be honest about it, he didn’t exactly have to twist my arm to get me to go. When we got there, the line to meet Baerga was long, very long. I told Nick that we’d be waiting a long time, adding that if he wanted to go home, it would be OK with me. Nick wouldn’t hear of it.
Eventually we got to the front of the line. Baerga signed something for Nick, and then I took off my Indians cap and asked Baerga to sign the bill. As he did, I got out some of my junior-high Spanish and told him “Tú eres el hombre”—you are the man! Baerga laughed and moved on to the next fan waiting in line. To this day, Nick remembers that exchange fondly. And I still have the autographed cap.
Baerga is currently an alumni ambassador for the Indians organization and will be working with the team during spring training this season.
Of course, a lot of the credit for the resurgence of the Indians during those glory years is due to Hart, who served as the organization’s general manager from 1991 to 2001. His ability to identify talented players and to sign them to long-term contracts paid big dividends throughout his tenure with the team. He certainly deserves his induction into the Distinguished Hall of Fame for non-uniformed personnel.
Baerga and Hart will be inducted in a ceremony at Progressive Field before the Indians’ game with the Minnesota Twins on Saturday, June 22.