Memories of Tribe’s ’95 return

It’s not often that you can see a box score from almost two decades ago, and remember exactly where you were and what you were doing.

But with the Indians inducting former second baseman Carlos Baerga and general manager John Hart into their hall of fame this weekend, I decided to go on and remember a piece of what was the greatest summer of my life.

It was 1995. Baerga was the All-Star second baseman, Hart was the genius who built the team, and the Indians were destroying everything in sight.

In 1995, most cities in the country were not fully engaged in the sport, bitter about the baseball strike that had canceled the 1994 playoffs and World Series, and even cut into that season.

But Cleveland was the exception. Fed up with 41 years without a pennant, fans flocked to Jacobs Field almost as soon as baseball returned. The team was exciting, and while some were down about the strike, they weren’t about to miss what figured to be a good team.

But no one knew how good it would turn out to be.

By June, the Indians had established themselves as the best team in baseball. There was never a pennant race. It was clear to most that Cleveland would win the division and it wouldn’t be close.

But because most of the fans had never seen winning like this, they didn’t know how to respond after a rare loss.

June 23, 1995.

The Indians were in Chicago, coming off a loss. Six weeks earlier, this looked like a prelude to a showdown for the American League Central. The White Sox and Indians had battled in 1994, and when the strike ended the season, Chicago led the Tribe by a single game in the Central.

Instead, the Indians surged and the White Sox fell apart. By June 23, they already had fired manager Gene Lamont and replaced him with Terry Bevington. Chicago came into the game 18-31.

The Indians were 36-15.

But on this night, the White Sox buried Indians starter Charles Nagy, scoring five earned runs off him in 4 2/3 innings. White Sox starter Jason Bere wasn’t much better, but he managed to go six innings and allow five runs. The White Sox won because Tribe relievers Jim Poole and Gregg Olson were terrible, combining to allow seven runs, while the Sox relievers did the job. Chicago won 12-5.

I remember this game for a few reasons. It was a Friday night and I was home, frustrated at the outcome of the game and probably assuming a 10-game losing streak was on its way.

Meanwhile, my parents were playing golf, and someone asked what the score was.

When a fellow golfer found out, he professed it was the dreaded “June Swoon” that had become something of a right of passage for the Indians for four decades.

My mother’s response to the comment – which she repeated to me the next day – cannot be re-printed here.

The White Sox actually swept that series, sending fans into a short-lived panic. I even told someone I decided to give up watching baseball. It was too angst-filled.

Yeah, I actually said that.

But of course, the Indians weren’t going to slump. They were too good. When I looked at this box score from 18 years ago, the lineup still is stunning. Look at the batting averages:

1. Kenny Lofton, CF, .329; 2. Omar Vizquel SS, .251; 3. Carlos Baerga, 2B, .340; 4. Albert Belle, LF, .310; 5. Eddie Murray, DH, .308; 6. Jim Thome, 3B, .327; 7. Manny Ramirez, RF, .339; 8. Paul Sorrento, 1B, .272; 9. Tony Pena, C, .215.

Yeah, Manny Ramirez, with those numbers, hit seventh. And the lineup wasn’t even at full strength. Pena, who ended up having a very big year, only was playing because Sandy Alomar was on the disabled list.

The Indians went on to win 100 games that year. I doubt I remember all of them, but looking at the old box, and remembering what I did, only reminded me how invested I was in that team. The Tribe had many great seasons after that, and yet, they all seemed to pale in comparison to ’95. After losing the World Series to the Braves, fans expectations sky-rocketed. Suddenly, winning in the regular season wasn’t enough. Only a World Series title would do.

It’s a title we’re still waiting for.

Even the team changed. Hart let Sorrento go after the ’95 season. Murray and Baerga were dealt in midseason of 1996, which sent a great deal of the fanbase into shock. The next year, Belle was gone to the White Sox, and Lofton was traded to the Braves.

It was as if you woke up one morning and half your team was gone.

On Friday night, Baerga and Hart each spent an inning talking about the mid-90s. Baerga, now a Spanish-language announcer for ESPN, came across just like he did as a player: Energetic, engaging, positive. He especially seemed excited when the man now playing his old position, Jason Kipnis, came up to hit. It’s good to know he still has a passion for the Indians, just like us.

Hart, now analyst for MLB Network, seemed all to willing to take the credit for the 1990s. No one can deny Hart made some brilliant moves in building the Indians, but I can’t help but think he gets too much credit. The trade for Baerga and Alomar was orchestrated by then-GM Hank Peters (who doesn’t get enough credit). Belle was drafted before Hart even came to Cleveland.

In many ways, I think the Indians’ success evaporated for two reasons: Hart’s impatience and his inability to draft well. He dealt promising young players – Sean Casey, Danny Graves, Jeremy Burnitz, Brian Giles, Richie Sexson – for veterans who provided either a temporary boost (Kevin Seitzer, Bob Wickman, Dave Burba) or no boost at all (John Smiley).

Meanwhile, his drafting was suspect. From 1992-2000, only one of the Indians top draft picks became an All-Star (CC Sabathia). The rest reads like the first scene of the movie “Major League,” with names that either were OK players (Jaret Wright, Paul Shuey), or players who flopped at or before the big league level (Daron Kirkreit, David Miller, Danny Peoples).

But for one summer, it all came together. Hart was a genius. The Indians were unstoppable.

And it, almost literally, was unforgettable.