The Most Disappointing Season for…The Cleveland Indians
The 1987 Cleveland Indians
Record: 61-101 (7th in the AL East, 14th out of 14 in AL)
Pythagorean Record: 62-100
Runs Scored: 742 (12th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 957 (14th in the AL)
Prior Season Record: 84-78
Manager: Pat Corrales (31-56), Doc Edwards (30-45)
Hype: Thanks to the best offense in the AL, and mind you, a YOUNG team that put up those runs, there is great optimism by the lake for the first time in a while. Why, even Sports Illustrated put us on the cover!
The Gory Details: It’s amazing what a dynamic young team can do for your fan base. In 1985, only 655,000 fans dared go to Cleveland Stadium to watch a hapless, helpless, hopeless team learning on the job. But that team basically came back whole in 1986, and led the league in runs scored. That more than doubled their attendance.
Everyone was back for 1987, too. The only player that was aged on offense was DH Andre Thornton, who had suffered through a litany of knee and other injuries, and was on the downward slope of a career. The only questionable position for the Indians was catcher, currently manned by Chris Bando and Andy Allanson. Bando was the subject of a Sport Illustrated article himself, in 1985, talking about his at-the-time .071 batting average. He rebounded some in 1986. Allanson skipped AAA entirely in making the club in 1986 at age 24.
The one change they did to the lineup was add vet Rick Dempsey as a backup and mentor to Allanson. But the rest of the lineup was solid and young. Brett Butler and Tony Bernazard were 30, Pat Tabler was 29 as was 4th outfielder Carmelo Castillo. Phenom Cory Snyder was 24 – and the rest (Joe Carter, Julio Franco, Brook Jacoby, Mel Hall and backups Dave Gallagher and Otis Nixon) were between 26 and 28.
Pitching was a bit more problematic, but it was hoped knuckleballer Tom Candiotti would lead the staff, teamed with old old pro (age 47) Phil Niekro (his knuckleball mentor), Ken Schrom and youngster Greg Swindell, who was a 22-year old lefty phenom who had a dazzling career at the University of Texas. Old lefty Steve Carlton was also around, a late spring signing, to eat innings and hopefully mentor Swindell.
In the bullpen, veteran reclamation project Ernie Camacho hoped to have a good year. He and Corrales had some issues in the past about Camacho using his fastball. It was hoped lefty Scott Bailes and righty Rich Yett would also continue to develop as swingmen and that Tom Waddell would give them more solid innings like he did 1984 and 1985 before shoulder surgery. Lefty Ed Vande Berg was also around to steady the bullpen.
One thing some fans may have noticed was that there was no utility infielder. No worries, as Snyder could fill in and if something goes wrong, Jay Bell and Junior Noboa were just a call way toiling in Buffalo.
So with great optimism the Indians started 1987. They lost two of three in Toronto to start the year, but blasted the Jays 14-3 in the third game of the set, smacking four doubles and four home runs against the soft underbelly of Toronto’s staff.
Opening Day in Cleveland saw the Orioles come to town and 64,540 fans pack Cleveland Stadium. They groaned when Baltimore scored four off of Bailes in the third inning thanks to four walks and an error by Pat Tabler. But Cleveland smashed back with five in the bottom of the third, thanks to a costly error by Ken Gerhart with the bases loaded and a double by Tabler.
The good times faded in that game quickly. Butler had to exit with an inner-ear problem that messed up his equilibrium, and then Cal Ripken took Yett deep in the fourth. The Indians went ahead 8-6 on two doubles and a single, then Jacoby doubled home Tabler in the fifth to make it 9-6. This may be the way Cleveland plays ball this year, people thought, just crush them and hold on for dear life.
In the seventh Ray Knight crushed a Waddell pitch to make it 9-8, but then Tabler cranked one off Tony Arnold in the bottom of the seventh. Doug Jones, a rookie who had been knocking around the minors for ten seasons, promptly gave back the lead with one out in the eighth on a bases loaded double by Eddie Murray. Camacho came in and gave up a single to plate Ripken making it 11-10.
Cleveland struck back in the 8th on a Franco double. So the most anticipated Opening Day in Cleveland in about 30 years headed to extras. But in the 10th, Camacho hit Fred Lynn, threw a wild pitch then allowed a double to Ray Knight for the Baltimore win.
That was disappointing, and Cleveland didn’t have much more success the rest of the weekend as Baltimore treated Candiotti and Schrom rudely. Then it was a seven game road trip to New York and Baltimore. The Yankees teed off on Swindell and Waddell in the first game and Niekro, Carlton and Yett in the second game. In the final game of the set at Yankee Stadium, Bailes and Waddell turned a 3-1 game into a 4-3 loss the 7th helped by a Franco error.
Baltimore picked up where they left off in Cleveland, beating Candiotti 4-1 before eviscerating Schrom and the bullpen 16-3. That lost left Cleveland at 1-10 on the season; Sports Illustrated may have already sent the Indians’ front office an apology for their cover story.
Finally, good news on Sunday the 19th, as the Indians swept a doubleheader. In the second game, Niekro got roughed up again (knuckleballs!) but Carlton pitched four innings of key relief despite giving up two runs thanks to a Snyder error when he was playing short, and Camacho earned a save, though it was interesting. Camacho entered with two outs in the ninth up a run. Jim Dwyer pinch hit, and hit a single to right but Carter threw him out trying to take second on the hit.
Then it was back home again for a nine-game homestand to close out April. Cleveland won five of the nine, getting a nice bounceback start from Schrom. Yet the pitching was battered around enough that fresh arms were needed. Jones and Waddell went down to Buffalo and Vande Berg was out for three weeks with an injury.
The Indians scrambled the jets, moving Bailes to the pen and giving starts to Carlton, while Mark Huismann was acquired from Seattle for Gallagher to help bail out the relievers.
It was at this time where the decision was made to bench Thornton. The old, dignified pro was hitting just .128. He’d only get 44 more plate appearances the rest of the season, had arthroscopic knee surgery during the summer, and retired at the end of the year. He didn’t deserve to go out this way. But he did.
If April was bad, May was worse. There wasn’t a long losing streak (just a six game streak that left Cleveland at 10-22), nor a lot of 10-run games (only two, by Boston), but the month was a constant drumbeat of lose, lose, lose. What was worse, if things could be worse, was that the vaunted offense was struggling. They were barely averaging four runs a game, not what was expected of that crew.
Also, at the end of May, Corrales had enough of Camacho not throwing his fastball, and having an ERA over nine, so he was sent out for good. Corrales installed Bailes as the closer, even though as a starter he may have been the most effective of that bunch. Hmmm…
June was still more of the same. No matter who Cleveland put in the box, odds are they’d get pounded more than have an effective game. The offense picked up a little bit, but everyone’s ERA was ugly and getting worse. Sammy Stewart and Mike Armstrong were picked up from the scrap heap (or waiver wire, as it were), and tried to help, and failed. Also, the crowds were getting back to 1985 levels. A three game weekday series against the Angels barely drew 23,000 fans total to the Stadium.
The last game of that series was July 1st, a desultory 10-5 loss. Their record was 26-50. They were 22 games out of first. Butler, Franco, Castillo and Tabler were pulling their weight. As for the rest, Jacoby was the best of the bunch with a .244/.344/.447 slash line, passible for a third baseman.
Carter and Snyder were hitting below .235 and not walking. Hall was just a bit better at .238. The catchers were hitting worse and worse. This wasn’t a great defensive team to begin with, but Snyder was butchering up everything either at short or right field, and Franco wasn’t much better at short.
The lowest points of the season thus far may have been July 3rd and 5th against Chicago. After they had a walk-off win on the 2nd, Stewart blew a 9-8 lead in the ninth, making it a 14-9 loss. After a ‘regular’ loss on the 4th, Scott Nielsen shut out the Tribe while Niekro, Vande Berg and Armstrong were poleaxed in a 17-0 loss.
The cruelest blow during that time frame was the news about Swindell. He was 3-8 with a 5.10 ERA, not what the Tribe had expected at all. His elbow, ginger from all of the usage he endured at Texas, finally gave way. While he did put together some decent seasons going forward, he never did become the dominant pitcher Cleveland envisioned.
What was Corrales going to do? Well, he couldn’t do that much. He finally called up Noboa to become a utility man, putting paid to the great Cory Snyder shortstop experience. Snyder made six errors in 18 games at short, and didn’t play it at all the rest of the year.
Out of desperation, Armstrong was exiled much like Camacho. Jones came back up. Yett was sent down as well to try to work things out in Buffalo.
The high point, if you call it that, of the season came in the home set against Kansas City right after the 17-0 loss. Only six thousand and change saw the Indians score four runs in the bottom of the eighth off of Bret Saberhagen (14-2 up to that point) and Steve Farr, and held on while Stewart and Vande Berg almost gave the game back.
During the ninth, Stewart hit Jamie Quirk with a pitch and broke his hand. Quirk had hit a home run earlier in the game, but it seemed unintentional. Hold that thought.
The next day, a little more than eight grand saw another exciting one. Schrom brushed back Willie Wilson to lead off the game, and in the fourth, got Wilson to fly out. While running out the flyball, Wilson suddenly sprinted to the mound and up and coldcocked Schrom when he had his back turned, igniting a melee.
Wilson was ejected (of course), but Schrom stayed in despite a separated non-pitching shoulder. (Schrom didn’t miss a start, which was a mixed blessing I guess). Kansas City scored three in the seventh to take a 4-2 lead, but the Indians came back against Dan Quisenberry, scoring two in the seventh and two in the ninth thanks to a Carter home run.
The final game of the set loomed. Kansas City was fighting Minnesota for the AL West. Cleveland was fighting ennui and malaise. The Indians though the retribution for Quirk’s injury was done, but in the bottom of the first Danny Jackson threw two pitches behind Brett Butler, the second one over his head.
As Rich Eisen would have said, “Let’s Play the Feud!”
Butler charged at Jackson. Punches flew, fights broke out everywhere. George Brett clocked Butler. It took sixteen minutes for all of the shenanigans to stop. This, this was embarrassing to MLB. Not only had these teams fought the day before, but the same day as the Schrom / Wilson dustup Eric Show beaned Andre Dawson and ignited a war that saw three fights and seven ejections.
Oh, by the way, the game carried on, as they must, and Cleveland beat Kansas City again on a walk-off against Quisenberry. This time a double by Snyder scored Hall and Franco.
Feeling good, Cleveland won the next day in Texas to put together a four game winning streak for the first time all season. The next day, Texas scored 10 against Niekro and Huisman, who was then exiled to Buffalo after the game, no doubt to commiserate with Armstrong and Camacho.
Back to normal. Oh, and Franco, hitting .315 with a .392 OBP, was disabled for a month after this game, leaving Noboa and a 21-year old Jay Bell to handle shortstop.
Two days later, Corrales was sent packing. He oversaw the 1985 wreck, and now this season was turning out worse. Doc Edwards replaced him and tried to steer the ship the best he could.
One would say, “play the kids” but the kids were already playing for the most part. It was the staff that had the oldsters. But on July 15th, Cleveland sent Bernazard to Oakland for a young pitcher, Darrel Akerfelds and a young catcher, Brian Dorsett. Then to make sure Akerfelds could get plenty of work, Carlton was sent to Minnesota for some pocket lint and loose change.
On August 9th, Niekro was finally sent away, to Toronto, for scraps of driftwood and a used sharpie.
Bailes moved back to being a starter. Yett came back up after pitching well in Buffalo. Jones became the closer; the start of a great career as a change-up artist. Tommy Hinzo came to the bigs to play second for the rest of the year with the hopes of being the second baseman of the future. (Spoiler alert: He wasn’t…)
The string was being played out. Heck, it was being played out in July. Carter got his act together and started to hit, as did Hall, but Snyder was become a three-true outcome player without the walks, plus bad defense. Jacoby was starting to crush the ball. Yet, because of where he batted, most of his extra base hits were with the bases empty. Yikes.
After the changes made to the staff, and with the oldsters being traded, Cleveland called up John Farrell, and he became the one effective starter for the Tribe. Meanwhile, the rest of the Cleveland pitchers were consistently inconsistent, including Candiotti. He put together two great games in early August, a one-hitter against the Yankees and then a complete game win over Toronto. Then at the end of August, he won his seventh game of the year against Boston and lowered his ERA to 4.65.
The next game, Candiotti lost 2-1 to Detroit, as he gave up just one hit again. This time, though, he walked seven. He went 0-4 with one no decision the rest of the way, and tied for the team lead with seven wins.
The Indians went 4-2 on their final homestand before friends and relatives for the most part as they fought to stay above 100 losses, to no avail. They dropped five in a row on the road before winning game 162 10-6 behind Farrell and Jones. At 61-101, the Indians were buried in last place, and even though they somehow drew over a million fans, they were last in attendance in the AL as well.
It was fitting that losses 99, 100, and 101 were wipeouts – the pitchers gave up 31 runs total in those three games, including the career enders for Schrom and Stewart.
Jones was far and away the best pitcher on the staff. After a lousy start and a demotion, he had eight saves and an ERA+ of 144. Farrell’s great end-of-the-season work went for an ERA+ of 134, but those were the highlights. Bailes had pitched well as a starter early in the year and as the closer until mid-June, but struggled thereafter as a closer and then back in the rotation.
Schrom didn’t miss a turn due to injury, and had a 6.50 ERA to show for Cleveland’s faith in him. Akerfelds, the prize of the Bernazard trade, clocked in at 6.75. Yett had a couple of nice games in August, but totally lost it in September. Overall, Cleveland hurlers had a 5.28 team ERA, and were last or next to last in every category except shutouts and complete games.
Even when something was great, like Jacoby’s .300 / .387 / .541 season with 32 home runs and an OPS+ of 143, things were bad. Jacoby somehow only batted in 69 runs with that line, despite playing 155 games. He had the luck to bat behind Hall and Snyder all year, who were good at making outs.
Snyder, one of the SI cover boys with Carter, had a negative WAR on the season even with though he led the team with 33 home runs. Somehow, a .273 OBP, 166 strikeouts, and ghastly defense doesn’t make you a valuable player.
Franco, Butler and Tabler also had good years, and Carter recovered from his first half doldrums and somehow drove in 106 runs though his lack of patience (just 27 walks) and bad defense at first base also hindered his value.
When the season ended, Butler became a free agent and got the hell out of town. No one else could, though, since they didn’t have the service time. The offense righted itself a little bit, but the problems with pitching plagued the Indians for many years to come. In fact, the Indians bottomed out AGAIN, in 1991, after most of this bunch became free agents, before finally hitting .500 during 1994. That team was 66-47 when the strike was called – a record that the 1987 team was supposed to have. If only.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Butler’s 4.9 WAR and Jacoby’s 4.2 led the team. No one else came close to 4.0 WAR.
Honorable Mention Team: The 1968 Indians were 86-75 and finished third. Led by Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell along with bullpen ace Vincente Romo, the strength of that team was pitching. The 1969 Tribe started out 1-15 though (hmmm…) and finished 62-99 as the pitchers became mortal, or worse.
What’s funniest is that Alvin Dark, the manager, was named GM midway through the season. That didn’t work out, as the 1971 Indians were even worse with Dark doing double duty (but really, after 1969 no one had any reason to think they’d be good).
Bad Blast from the Past: The Indians put together a great run from 1917 through 1921, finishing thrd once, second three times, and winning the AL pennant and the World Series in 1920, despite the death of Ray Chapman.
Tris Speaker was the player manager, but not even a .377/.474/.606 season from The Gray Eagle could help that 1922 team. The offense got old, and the pitching staff was leaky, so much so that the Indians used 23 pitchers, twelve of them for just one or two games.
A pitcher named Doc Hamann, from New Ulm, Minnesota pitched one game against Boston in 1922, gave up three hits and three walks, including a home run to Boston pitcher Jack Quinn. He then hit a batter and threw a wild pitch, and was replaced without getting an out. Six earned runs, zero innings pitched, and that’s your career.