With the Cleveland Indians back in the World Series for the first time in 19 years, it’s natural for those of us who are old enough to harken back to the Tribe’s previous appearances in the Fall Classic. At 38 years old, I was in high school and then college during the Indians’ marvelous run in the mid and late 90’s and those teams will always have a special place in my heart. Like many fans, I look back at the 100-44 team of 1995 with wonder, and even the loss to the Atlanta Braves in the 1995 Series does little to diminish that. After all, we were just happy to have the Indians in the postseason for the first time in 41 years. The 1997 World Series between the Indians and the then Florida Marlins? That’s another matter entirely.
I was a freshman in college during the fall of 1997. After living my entire life with my parents and four siblings in the same house just west of Cleveland, I was on my own for the first time. What’s more, I was three hours away from home in the middle of nowhere in a farm town with a college plopped in the middle. Some people have the kind of outgoing personality and optimism to jump into this kind of situation and make it their own. In my case, I was terribly homesick for weeks, despite having a built-in social group among the members of the college’s cross country and track teams, of which I was a member. Any idle time was spent in misery trying to figure out how I was going to get through the week, let alone the semester, school year, or college itself.
One of the things I missed the most were the Cleveland Indians. Back then, the majority of the games were on Channel 43, and there was no affiliate where I was living. At the time, the internet was fairly new to me, but it quickly became my way to follow what was going on with the Tribe. What many forget was that this was the weakest Indians team in years, going just 86-75 and having to fight to win the American League Central Division for the first time. Gone were Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, and Carlos Baerga, and in their place were Marquis Grissom, David Justice, and Matt Williams. Still, once the postseason started, I was able to watch my Indians, and for those three hours every night, I forgot my homesickness and enjoyed their postseason run.
And what a run it was! One of the guys in living down the hall from me in the dorm was from New York and ran his mouth when the Yankees took a 2-1 lead in the Division Series, only to shut it just as quickly when Mariano Rivera blew a save in the postseason for the first time in his career, courtesy of a home run by Sandy Alomar, finally healthy and in the midst of the best season of his career. Rookie Jaret Wright captured the imagination of Indians fans while winning Games Two and Five, as the Indians moved on to face the Baltimore Orioles for the American League Championship.
The battles against Baltimore were no less epic. The O’s sweep of the Tribe was still fresh in my mind as Baltimore took a 1-0 series lead. I can still remember watching Orel Hershiser and Mike Mussina put on a pitching clinic in the afternoon shadows of Jacobs Field during my first weekend home from school. I had gotten together with a bunch of friends as we each shared our college experiences while rooting on our beloved Indians. A few days later, I was back at school to watch Tony Fernandez take the place of the injured Bip Roberts—who was always hurt if memory serves me right—and propel the Indians back to the World Series with a home run in the 11th inning.
If the rest of the playoffs had been a joyride, the Series itself was nothing but stress for me. If you’ll recall, no team won consecutive games in that series. It was a back-and-forth affair highlighted for Indians fans by the dominance of Chad Ogea, the Indians’ number four starter who twice beat the great Kevin Brown, who was coming off the third of six All-Star seasons and was undoubtedly one of the best pitchers of the late-nineties. There were several times that I was so wracked with anxiety that I would have to go out into the dorm hall to calm myself down, where I often met with another one of the guys on the cross country team, a native Clevelander himself who was experiencing the same emotions.
Then came Game Seven. We all know what happened, so I’m not going to go into detail, but I was so upset that I skipped all my classes the next day, aggressively booed Jose Mesa every time he returned to Cleveland with another team, and was unable to watch footage of the ending without turning the channel until earlier this year, when my wife and I joined friends at Playhouse Square for the premiere of Believeland. Of all the failures Cleveland sports had endured during my lifetime, that one haunted me the most.
Yet here we are nineteen years later, and everything has changed. The 1997 Cleveland Indians helped me get through those rough first few weeks away from home, and I went from being a homesick freshman to having a wonderful four years in college and building friendships that remain among the most important in my life. The Cavs eased that championship pain this summer, and now the Indians are back in the World Series. Like the 1997 team, they have surprised many just by getting there, and have had a playoff run that has been nothing short of magical. They have arguably the best manager in the game, an extremely likable group of players, and a bullpen that has completely dominated the postseason, led by a pitcher in Andrew Miller that is every bit as dominant as Mesa ever was. Tomorrow night this Indians team will have a chance to make even more memories that we will never forget, and with this team’s heart, I wouldn’t bet against them delivering the happy ending we all have been waiting so long for.