Extra inning baseball book reviews for 2020: When Cleveland rocked 25 years ago, we can still roll with it

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A memento from the 1995 World Series, available for sale on eBay.com.

Cleveland Rocked:
The Personalities, Sluggers and Magic of
the 1995 Indians

61UIHMBWipLThe author:
Zack Meisel

The publishing info:
Triumph Books
$28
288 pages
Released May 12

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Powells.com
At Target
At Indiebound.org

The review in 90 feet or less

When the movie “Major League” arrived in 1989, it kinda rocked the box office.

Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, Dennis Haysbert, Corbin Bernsen … plus Milwaukee County Stadium, and Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker, recruited to somehow merge into this a fictionalized story using a real MLB team and logos to grab onto some kind of authenticity.

Yet, was it really doing the real Indians of Cleveland any favors?

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A “Major League” tribute illustration, available on Etsy.com

The R-rated “Slap Shot”-type of tale about how an evil woman owner of the team is trying to break the stadium lease with the city by fielding the most mismatched roster possible that will sink ticket sales and then she can move the franchise to Miami. It wasn’t based on a true story. But one couldn’t help compare the team to how the real ’89 Indians of Joe Carter, Cory Snyder, Brook Jacoby, Greg Swindell and Doug Jones were operating amidst their third losing season in a row, a 73-89, next-to-last finish in the AL East.

91v9tWcaEmL._AC_SY741_In the movie, the guys rallied together. In real life, not so much. (Oh, and here’s also 10 “wild” facts about the movie, thanks to the late, great Mental Floss magazine).

Because the movie grossed about $50 million just with its domestic release, “Major League” it would spawn two sequels.

By the time “Major League II” came out in 1994 — sub in Omar Epps for Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes, as if we wouldn’t notice, and then drop it down to a PG rating – the real Indians had started to turn a corner under manager Mike Hargrove. They were going along at a 66-47 clip and second in the newly created AL Central (the first year beyond a simple East-West division for each league) when everything came to a ridiculous stop for the strike/lockout. The Indians were almost assured a playoff spot in ’94. But with the season done (ask the Montreal Expos about “what if?”), there would be no World Series and everything would bleed over into the threat of replacement players and the delayed start of a 1995 season.

(You may be hearing more about how the current MLB situation reminds some of that ’94-’95 period when it comes to how to split up income. Some things just don’t change).

Back on that Indians’ ’94 roster was Albert Belle, a rookie back in ’89, coming off an All-Star year where he led the league with 129 RBIs and was third in AL MVP voting. Manny Ramirez was a 22-year-old who would finish second in AL Rookie of the Year voting (17 HRs, 60 RBIs, .269). Jim Thome, drafted by the team in ’89,  was a 23-year-old third baseman showing some power – the first of 11 straight seasons of 20 or home homers. Kenny Lofton, Eddie Murray, Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Omar Vizquel and Paul Sorrento were the core of the lineup. The pitching staff focused on 40-year-old Dennis Martinez and 39-year-old Jack Morris at the top, with Charles Nagy and Jason Grimsley. But no one in the bullpen had more than five saves.

When “MLII” hit theaters in March, 1994, it debuted at No. 1 in the box office. Yet critics gave it a 5 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Yet from where we sit – as well as where Steve Yeager fits in, considering he played the Indians’ coach in every movie – the timing of both movies have to be factored into if you’re trying to tell the tale of Cleveland Indians’ real-life resurgence and redemption versus the public perception and acceptance of them as a down-and-out franchise.

The “magic” of the ’95 team is that, in a strike-shortened 144 game season, this team won 100 and had a 30-game lead over second-place Kansas City in the AL Central. It was the first team in the history of the American League ever to win 100 games in a season that had fewer than 154 games.

A sweep of the Red Sox in the ALDS, and then a six-game win over Seattle in the ALCS pushed them into the World Series against Atlanta, the Indians’ first championship appearance since the New York Giants and Willie Mays eliminated them in 1954.

What made this ’95 Indians refresh work was- Orel Hershiser (16-6, 4.55 ERA) in his age 36 season coming over from the Dodgers as a free agent after 12 seasons in L.A., subbing in for Morris and joining Martinez and Nagy.

s-l1600The unleashing of Jose Mesa (3-0, 1.13 ERA after giving up only eight earned runs all season, 46 saves in 62 games and 64 innings) made him runner-up in the AL Cy Young voting. More veteran leadership — Dave Winfield arrived to help Murray in the DH role. Tony Pena shared a lot of the catching load now with Alomar.

Belle’s AL-best 50 HRs, 52 doubles, 126 RBIs, .690 slugging percentage and a 7.0 WAR was only good enough for second in the AL MVP voting behind the Red Sox’s Mo Vaughn. Ramirez (31 HRs, 107 RBIs, .308) combined with Thome (25 HRs, 73 RBIs, .314), Murray (21 HRs, 82 RBIs, .323) and Sorrento (25 HRs, 79 RBIs) to provided the pop. Lofton (54 steals, 13 triples, .310, Gold Glove), Baerga (15 HRs, 90 RBIs, .314) and Vizquel (.266, 29 SB, Gold Glove) were more than just filling out the lineup, providing speed and defense.

zack9781629370323_p0_v3_s550x406Enter Meisel – not so much with the speakers blaring “Wild Thing” and people chanting his name, but the Cleveland-based writer for The Athletic over the last three years, coming off a stint with Cleveland.com and MLB.com. In 2015, he also wrote “100 Things Indians Fans Should Know Before They Die” for Triumph Books.

“The franchise was so synonymous with losing, Hollywood unveiled a blockbuster hit in the late ‘80s to parody the embarrassment that the decades of ineptitude had fostered,” Meisel writes in the first chapter, the only reference in the book to the “Major League” movie franchise.

Major-League-1“(Manager Mike) Hargrove guided the club out of that pit of misery and into the postseason. One fan in attendance (as the team clinched a playoff spot in early September) raised a sign that said: FINALLY. Another sign read: Deal with it America … Cleveland Indians … Best Team in Baseball.”

Well, maybe not really.

As Meisel says in the introduction, his first sports-related memory is as a 6-year-old at his grandmother’s friend’s house watching Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, where the Indians lost to the Braves, 1-0, and ran out of steam.

But 25 years later, the Ohio State grad dials it back to the moment when it was cool to be Cleveland, during a time that “launched a new era of Indians baseball that created a generation of baseball fans.”

Going back even further to set up how 1995 came to happen, shortened season an all, Meisel interviews former players, front office folk and broadcasters to stitch together reflections with non-revisionist history and remind everyone – not just Cleveland inhabitants –how that season remains meaningful for followers of the game.

Remember, this is also just two seasons after the Indians lost pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews in a boating accident in Florida.

(That reference is made a couple of times, but it also fails to mention that teammate Bob Ojeda was seriously injured in that same accident in March, 1993.)

Why 1995 still matters is a point to look back on how that time was the start of a rebuilt and changing of the narrative, separating it even further than what movieland tried to push.

They had 99 wins and lost the AL Division Series to Baltimore in ’96. But one year later, they were back in the World Series, losing to Florida in seven games. In 1998, it was 89 wins and losing to the Yankees in the ALCS. In ’99, it was 97 wins, but losing the division series in the decisive fifth game to Boston. A year after missing the playoffs despite a 90-win season, there were 91 wins in 2001 but a loss to Seattle in the ALDS.

Wahoo to all that.

s-l400The franchise that continues to own the longest World Series title drought — 71 years, going back to 1948 — had another chance in 2016 before getting pushed aside by the Chicago Cubs in that extra-inning Game 7 on their home turf.

Of all those who still considers 1995 to be a very special time, it’s Lofton, who spend 17 seasons in the big leagues (including 2006 with the Dodgers).

“Once the years go by and you start to compare, they say, ‘That ’95 Cleveland team was something else’,” Lofton says. “That’s what really makes it sink in.”

How it goes in the scorebook

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Mission incomplete?

Aside from the fact these ’95 Indians came up short in that Fall Classic, the voices missing seem to be needed as much if not more than those obtained for this. All those most oft-quoted – Lofton, Hargrove, Thome, Baerga, Vizquel, broadcaster Tom Hamilton, and even one-time Dodgers reliever Paul Shuey, who provides some background how he could do nothing right for then-manager Jim Tracy – there’s nothing there from Belle or Ramirez.

Belle would have been most beneficial to talk to — maybe even ask about how he was fined $50,000 by Major League Baseball for a verbal tirade he unleashed at NBC reporter Hannah Storm before Game 3 of the ’95 World Series after she requested an interview. Maybe we missed it, but that incident wasn’t mentioned in the book.

eb91c79dcccbb9e9ee97fa2c4605e5c6
We can admit to some regional bias with the “incomplete” reference as we also wonder where the exit interview exists from the very talkative Hershiser.

The AL Championship Series MVP started Game 1 of the World Series (losing to Greg Maddux, 3-2) and then won Game 5 to keep the team alive (this time besting against Maddux). Hershiser went 4-1 in the 1995 postseason, allowing only six earned runs in 35.1 innings pitched. He even admitted to pitching coach Mark Wiley during a meeting at the mound that he didn’t have it working in the seventh inning after giving up two walks during a 1-1 game, not willing to try a “hero” move and Bulldog his way out of it. The Indians’ bullpen gave up his runners.

That feeds into a story Thome tells on page 207:

Thome’s two-run blast in the first inning in Game 3 of the ALDS essentially shut the door on the Red Sox in 1995. He hit a pair of key home runs late in the Indians’ ALCS triumph against the Mariners. He authored a couple of critical hits—a go-ahead two-run single and what wound up being the game-saving home run—as the Indians staved off elimination in Game 5 of the World Series.
Thome’s 17 postseason home runs rank seventh all-time, though many of the players situated ahead of him on the list racked up far more plate appearances.
“I remember [Orel] Hershiser saying, ‘You can’t get every big hit’,” Thome said, “‘but the hits that you get are meaningful. Don’t try to be the hero every at-bat’.”

As the story of the Indians’ pitching here seems to be focused mostly on the achievements of Mesa, it obvious how pitching makes a difference over hitting in the post-season — see how the Braves won it all. And Mesa wasn’t all that effective in the World Series: Two appearances, one win in the 11th inning in Game 3, nearly blowing (but still earning) a save in a 5-4 win, and a 4.50 ERA. He was only around in four of the 56 innings played.

Says Wiley about the importance of Hershiser, as well as veteran Dennis Martinez, at the top of this rotation: “It was the experience and professionalism, knowing how to take care of themselves, knowing how to limit big innings. They knew that our bullpen was strong as we got into the season and they knew their job was, primarily, if you get through six, we have a good chance of winning the game. They were focused from the first pitch on. I think the impact of the professionalism and showing the young guys how to pitch out of trouble was a big factor.”

During the season, as Meisel notes on page 87, Hershiser had perhaps the most dominating pitching performance by the Indians in ’95: A complete-game, six-hit shutout with no walks, 10 strikeouts and 72 strikes in 107 pitches during an 8-0 win over visiting Detroit on June 5. Hershiser went at least six innings in 21 of his 26 starts and at least seven inning in 15 of his 26.

There’s also this passage on what happened during Game 5 of the World Series that brings Hershiser’s presence into focus:

“Maddux tossed a pitch up and in to Murray, who took exception to the chin music. Murray took a few paces toward the mound and the two exchanged words before home-plate umpire Frank Pulli and catcher Charlie O’Brien impeded Murray’s progress. The dugouts emptied. Murray kept pointing to his head. Hershiser approached Maddux and asked if he was intentionally throwing at Murray. Maddux, of course, contended that he was simply trying to jam the veteran. Hershiser reminded Maddux he could throw inside without targeting the space near a batter’s head, especially considering Maddux possessed unparalleled accuracy. Three innings later, Murray lined a pitch back at Maddux, who made the catch while nearly dropping to all fours to avoid impact.”

drewThe book otherwise feels like it’s caught somewhere between an oral history of what happened, and a retelling of games and comebacks and everything else that can be researched, maybe missing a lot of nuance as well as what was happening at the time that kind of puts the team into some historical context.

Could this have been done more thoroughly by someone who wrote and covered the team when this actually happened and had all sorts of secretly-kept stories saved up about team chemistry, etc.?

As a book for those who want to relive that time, sure, it works. So much positive, so little negative.

But another missing angle feels like the part where it  “launched a new era of Indians baseball that created a generation of baseball fans.” How is that quantified here? Where are the Cleveland fans most quotable — LeBron James, Drew Carey … even Charlie Sheen could have been asked (even if he’s more a Reds guy)?

(Carey ain’t that hard to track down when you’re talking about the Indians. He even told us once he thinks the Cleveland Indians will win the World Series this season if “the Browns win the Super Bowl and the Cavs win the NBA championship.” You’re halfway there, friends.

And we can’t think of the old “Drew Carey Show” without that opening intro song.

What was it? Oh, right: “Cleveland Rocks.”

1 thought on “Extra inning baseball book reviews for 2020: When Cleveland rocked 25 years ago, we can still roll with it”

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