MLB Network Presents feature on the 1990’s Cleveland Indians: The Dynasty That Almost Was elicits all sort of emotion if you’ve been an Indians fan at any point from the 1950s-2000s. As each year passed throughout the documentary, it felt more emotional and heartbreaking and it definitely felt like you were reliving it all over again but this time it felt a little more excruciating.
If there’s one thing about Cleveland sports fans, it’s that they never forget (they may forgive if you’re from Akron and come home and win a title) and they’re passionate for better or for worse. For me at least, The Dynasty That Almost Was was fun but tough to take in as former Indians players, media members and executives and coaches gave context to the heartbreak. It was a well done documentary. A lot of people wrote reviews of it after seeing it ahead of the its national release, so I’m not going to bore you or spoil it if you have or haven’t seen it, but here are some takeaways.
- Bob Costas opened it with a speech about how it felt like Cleveland had won. That’s nice and all and there was a parade in 1995 after the season, but given what followed, for Costas to say it “felt like they won” was pretty silly.
- Part of the intro featured Major League. I’m not sure why, but that annoyed me a little. I know it’s part of the Indians history because it coincides with the Indians rebirth as a franchise, or maybe it was because Corbin Bersen was the narrator they felt it would be interesting to include. I could have done without the inclusion of the classic
- Bernsen did a great job as a narrator for this. He’s not the first guy I would have thought of to narrate this but he wound up being a good choice.
- I had watched STO’s “Coffee Talk” with Matt Underwood chatting with Tom Hamilton earlier in the night. He mentioned the story about Milton Bradley being traded after taking a cab home during a spring training game because he was pulled for dogging it on a grounder. Albert Belle was pulled for a similar reason early in his career. Hamilton said about Bradley was that the Indians and their front office’s never put up with that stuff. Well, they did for Belle, for better or for worse. Although Belle and Bradley should really never be mentioned in the same sentence when it comes to talent.
- Terry Pluto said Carlos Baerga looked like a penguin when the Indians first traded for him and couldn’t figure out how he was going to be a good ball player because of his body type. Sounds a lot like Jose Ramirez, doesn’t it?
- If you read our site regularly or follow Joe or me on twitter, you know we’re not the biggest fans of Pluto and Paul Hoynes these days. With that being said, they were very good in this documentary. I don’t think they have the pulse on the current game, but they can tell stories about the 90s and other parts of history of the game with the best of them.
- MLB Network wasn’t scant in their search in reaching out to ex players, coaches and executives for this piece. Baerga, Jim Thome, John Hart, Mark Shapiro (sporting a very awkward looking beard), Dan O’Dowd, Charlie Manuel (it could have used more Charlie. I’ve never gotten over the Indians firing him), Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar Jr., Orel Hershiser, Omar Vizquel, Jose Mesa, Mike Hargrove, Charles Nagy, Jaret Wright and Brian Anderson all added a lot of great context and stories to this piece. Anderson especially because he is from Cleveland, was exceptional in his interview.
- Most people forget the Indians in 1994 got off to a bad start (14-17) but went off as the season went on (50-32). I truly always wonder what would have happened had they got into the playoffs had the season not been cut short by the strike. It was perhaps the Indians best rotation during that period (Dennis Martinez 133 ERA+, Charles Nagy 135, Mark Clark 122) and free agency was still a ways off for guys like Belle and Lofton.
- Those looming free agencies came back to haunt the Indians as far as clubhouse/front office turmoil. Belle and Lofton were volatile (especially the former then and now). Thankfully, the Indians do not handle these things as publicly now, but it was a big part of this story and ruining some good teams chemistry.
- MLB Network of course brought up the BIG strike zone in the 1995 World Series Game 6. This was long before the public knowledge of pitch framing but just seeing how the Braves’ Javy Lopez and Eddie Perez jerked their gloves back over the plate, not even subtly, was pretty jarring on some strike calls.
- Jeff Kent and Kent Mercker didn’t do much for the Indians when they were traded here but there’s no way the Indians could move Carlos Baerga and Eddie Murrary today if they played like they did in 1996 when they were traded. Stats and personality issues are way more public now. The only comparison I can make to today is the Indians trading Nick Swisher, but Murray is a Hall of Famer and Swisher had one decent year in Cleveland and is far, far from a Hall of Famer.
- $55 million made Belle the highest paid player in 1996. It’s not accurate but an inflation calculator suggests that contract would be worth $85,556,299 today. That seems low given Belle’s bat.
- They mentioned that ’97 slow start because of some new identities. Given the Indians 2017 issues, it was an interesting point that they played their best baseball in September.
- 1997 issues were interesting because what made the 94-96 Indians reinvigorate the franchise were guys like Belle, Baerga and Murray as well as Martinez and Hershiser. Only Hershiser remained in 97 and a lot of experience and swagger were gone. The Indians only subtracted Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli from last year’s team. Imagine taking away those key pieces today? It would feel deflating.
- Throughout the whole mention of 1997, they failed to mention adding Matt Williams, which I thought was odd. He had a very mediocre offensive year (101 OPS+) but was fantastic defensively and moved Thome to first base, which was a huge move for the team internally for a rising superstar like Thome and upgrading their defense. He also hit the ball well in the World Series.
- I’ve always wondered about the Game 7 decision to start Wright over Nagy. Nagy had struggled at points of the 1997 postseason save for the ALCS but numerous statistics throughout his career suggested that Nagy’s first inning or sometimes few, were his worst (5.47 first inning career ERA). I’m sure Hargrove never thought he’d have to go to Nagy in extra innings in that game or at all, but he was not a great choice in that spot and perhaps Wright would have been better to shutdown that lineup out of the bullpen and keep the game going. Not going to blame Grover too much there.
- Grover gives the same answer about not getting over the 1997 World Series and it gets more depressing to hear him tell it each time.
- Something I never had any clue about – Grover was calling pitches from the dugout in 97 for Mesa in the 9th inning. Mesa didn’t like it (hard to blame him as he didn’t do this all year. Grover was a great manager but micromanaged too much there.) But Grover called for inside fastballs to Charles Johnson and Mesa shook them off, threw Johnson an outside slider that he poked to right field to send Moises Alou to third base and he scored the trying run. Mesa is still pissed off about that. Not a shock.
- You’ve probably seen a lot of this on twitter recently – the Indians had a shot at trading for Pedro Martinez in 1999 for Wright and a young Bartolo Colon. The Indians said no. Had Wright not gotten hurt, this was probably a call that you wouldn’t have blamed them for. But it’s a bizarre situation because in today’s context, Wright, who had been a World Series hero in 1997 and was still young and talented, wouldn’t have been the ask or be available in a trade like that. They would have asked for prospects and Wright no longer was. Still, it came back to haunt them. Pedro owned the Indians in the 1999 playoffs instead of the Indians owning his playing rights.
- Think Mesa was mad at Grover for 1997? He’s still mad about Vizquel’s book. He wants to “talk” to Omar even to this day about his comments about being “empty” in the 97 World Series in his book.
- If you thought Mesa was mad, Belle was more mad. Belle didn’t appear on camera but he did return a producer’s call to give a quote about the 90s Indians. I won’t spoil it for you, but he had some choice words about Hart’s role in the 90s Indians not winning a World Series.
Overall it was very well done despite being a little heart wrenching but also eye opening. What it really made me think about is how fans should really enjoy this current run of the Indians. Since 2013, the Indians have finished over .500 even though 2015 was not a great year. 2014 was despite a slow start. And 2016 was special whether it ended like we wanted it to or not. Maybe the 90s Indians ruined baseball for Cleveland for generations. While I want the 2017 and even ’16 Indians to stand in their own greatness alone without having to compare it to the 90s, the similarities are hard to ignore. A slow-ish start like 1997, a team with a little different makeup than they had in previous years (Jason Giambi, Napoli, Davis, etc.) and a really bad division. But really overall, it made me think how fans should appreciate the fact that these Indians teams right now have a chance to win almost every game each night and should be in the playoffs again next year. As an eight year old in 1997, I just assumed the Indians would be back in the World Series again soon since they had just been in it in 1995, too. It took 19 years to see it again. Who knows what happens in 2017 but it someday, the Indians window to win a title with this group will close and there may be a rebuilding period, so don’t take winning for granted.