The Cleveland Indians dynasty that never was (1995-1999)
When you think about a sports franchise’s success obviously the first thing that comes to mind when judging the performance of the club is how many rings did they win? The Cleveland Indians from 1995-1999 hold a special place in the hearts of Cleveland fans, along with much of the baseball world, but they failed to secure that final piece.
The greatness began with the 1995 Cleveland Indians who had a freakishly over powered, yet somehow balanced lineup. With Kenny Lofton leading off and playing center field he brought contact and crazy speed to the leadoff hole, followed by shortstop Omar Vizquel and the switch hitting power bat of Carlos Baerga at second base.
Then came the power, starting off with the true 1995 MVP, Albert Belle. Belle was followed by Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and a young Jim Thome, who was actually the team’s third baseman at the time. The “bottom of the order” started with Manny doing what Manny does in right field followed by the catcher for the team, which was either Tony Pena or Sandy Alomar Jr.
The 1995 Cleveland Indians won 100 out of the 144 games, going 100-44. Absolutely crazy considering only two other teams in baseball history finished by winning 14 more games than the American Leagues second best team the Boston Red Sox and 10 more than the World Series Champion Atlanta Braves.
The craziest number of all is they won the division by 30 games over the American League Central second place team Kansas City Royals. Not surprising to anyone who followed this team, they made the fall classic where they lost to the Atlanta Braves, the team that was supposed to be the team of the decade. The 1995 championship turned out to be the Braves only championship in the 90s.
The Cleveland Indians did not only dominate the sport of baseball in 1995, they dominated the sport of baseball for the next four seasons. Unlike the Braves, Cleveland, unfortunately, did not end up with a single championship to show for it.
In 1996 the Indians went 99-62 which was once again good enough for first place in the American League Central, winning the division by 14.5 games over the Chicago White Sox. They so with a roster that nearly mirrored the team from 1995, with the exceptions of Sandy Alomar Jr. getting the majority of the catching time over Pena and the addition of the ageless Julio Franco. The Baltimore Orioles eliminated the Indians in the Division Series, winning the series three games to one.
The next season, 1997, is to Cleveland Indians fans what 2003 was to Yankee fans. The only team you need to know and understand is the Florida Marlins. Now known as the Miami Marlins, the 1997 Florida Marlins won the World Series. With a regular season record of 92-70, which was actually the fourth best record in baseball, Florida road momentum to the title.
The only teams in 1997 with a better record were the Atlanta Braves with 101 wins, Baltimore Orioles at 98 wins, and the New York Yankees with 96 wins. The ’97 season marked the first time the wild card team would win the World Series.
After winning the championship the Marlins went on to clean house. What makes this story even more interesting is in the 2003 season the Marlins went on to defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series in six games. Unfortunately, I was at Yankee Stadium to witness Josh Beckett pitch a masterpiece along with having a young Miguel Cabrera, Ivan Rodriguez and many other big names that helped Florida win another championship. After winning, the Marlins yet again cleaned house and have basically become irrelevant ever since.
The other Major League teams that won the the wild card to go on to win the World Series were the 2002 Anaheim Angels, 2004 Boston Red Sox, 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, 2014 San Francisco Giants and 2019 Washington Nationals. It is pretty interesting that from 2002-2004 each team was a wild card World Series Champion.
Moving on to 1998 which was a little bit more promising for the Cleveland Indians. Yet again, Cleveland won the division by a large margin, going 89-73 which was nine games ahead of the Chicago White Sox. Cleveland would find itself once more in American League Championship Series going head-to-head with the New York Yankees.
After losing Game 1 by the score of 7-2, Cleveland would go on to win the next two games at Yankee Stadium. It is a safe bet to assume most Cleveland fans remember the site of Travis Fryman running down the first base line, Chuck Knoblauch blowing a bubble and pointing as if Fryman was out of the baseline, and Enrique Wilson stumbling his way around third to score the go ahead run.
Cleveland went back home with a 2-1 series lead, and I don’t need to remind you of the rest. It was the 1998 Yankees who are considered one of the best teams in baseball history, and Cleveland had them on the ropes. Not a bad way to look at it from a Cleveland fan’s perspective.
The season in 1999 would find the Indians in the same old spot, winning the division with an outstanding margin of 21.5 games over the Chicago White Sox. With a record of 97-65 which was good enough for the second best record in the American League, behind the Yankees by only one game for the best record in the AL.
At this point the fans in Cleveland expected to win the division, but they faced the Red Sox in the Division Series and ultimately lost in five games. The Cleveland Indians of this time are one of the few teams that despite not winning a single World Series over this span, still managed to be highly regarded by not only the fans of Cleveland, but fans of all teams. They had some of the biggest names in baseball who could seemingly put it all together for the regular season, but just could not finish the job by bringing a championship to the city of Cleveland.
At the end of the day a teams true success is judged by the number of championships they won. Teams that are labeled a dynasty whether it’s the Golden State Warriors, New York Yankees, New England Patriots, etc. all have a number of rings to show for it. When it comes to the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s a ring would have been the obvious high water mark for the team. After all, they took the baseball world by storm and continue to be talked about to this day, being a dynasty with out a championship.