Getting so close turns dream into nightmare for Indians

October 27, 1997|By John Eisenberg

MIAMI -- It wasn't quite as epic as the Red Sox's famous disaster of 1986, when they were one strike away from beating the Mets and winning their first World Series in 68 years -- and found a way to lose.

But what the Indians experienced last night at Pro Player Stadium was close.

After 49 years without winning a Series, the Indians were three outs away against the Marlins.

One run up and three outs away in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, with their closer, Jose Mesa, on the mound.

Cleveland's long-suffering fans were poised to party through a joyful, sleepless night.

So were the Indians and manager Mike Hargrove.

The payback for years of bad jokes and bad baseball was just moments away, or so it seemed.

Whoops.

There it went.

The Marlins scored a run off Mesa in the ninth, then scored another off Charles Nagy when Edgar Renteria singled home Craig Counsell in the bottom of the 11th to beat the Indians, 3-2, and win the Series.

A five-year-old franchise had ruined Cleveland's dreams.

South Florida, a region that has been slow to embrace baseball -- there were hundreds of empty seats last night -- had stolen the thrill of victory.

The Indians had it, and it slipped away.

Second baseman Tony Fernandez misplayed a routine ground ball in the bottom of the 11th, allowing Counsell to reach base and set up the winning score.

After an October of improbable heroics, the Indians gave away the Series on a mistake.

After singling up the middle, Renteria threw off his batting helmet as he raced to first base and Counsell touched home, and the Marlins mobbed each other on the infield dirt.

The Indians walked slowly off the field, as if they couldn't believe they had lost after leading from the top of the third until the bottom of the ninth.

First baseman Jim Thome stopped on the infield grass, in front of the mound, and kneeled, his head hung in despair.

He didn't want to leave the field, it seemed, and he didn't want to admit defeat.

But he would have to -- as would his teammates and the Indians' stunned fans back home.

They got close enough to touch their Holy Grail last night -- Cleveland Indians, World Series champs -- and couldn't finish what they started.

They would have to take solace in having played in a brilliant Game 7.

After six games of a Series marked by uninspiring games, poor TV ratings and bad pitching, the Indians and Marlins did their best to make up for lost ground last night.

There's nothing like a Game 7 thriller to cure an ailing Series.

It didn't matter, suddenly, that the Marlins were a wild-card team, or that the Indians had won just 86 games during the season, or that the foul poles at Pro Player were giant pencils, or that the series had been widely criticized for being the Fall UnClassic.

All that mattered was that this was a terrific Game 7, perhaps the best of all moments in sports, an entire season boiled down to one night, every move magnified and every muscle twitch pressurized.

After a week of forgettable games, there finally was a sense of real baseball history unfolding.

Yes, even in a stadium drenched in teal.

There were all sorts of plots and stories worthy of the event's grand tradition.

The Most Valuable Player was Florida's Livan Hernandez, the Cuban-born pitcher who won two games. His mother was in the stands last night, able to see her son's team at last after having been granted an exit visa from Cuba just the day before.

The Indians' Jaret Wright, 21, threw 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball and would have been the first rookie since 1909 to win Game 7 of the World Series -- but Mesa blew the save.

Instead, Renteria -- only the fourth native Colombian to play in the major leagues -- was the hero.

He and the rest of the Marlins took a victory lap as their fans cheered and flashed pictures that would keep for years.

The Indians sat in the dugout for minutes before slowly returning to a silent clubhouse.

They would have all winter -- and the rest of their careers, really -- to wonder how it slipped away.

Mesa is one of the game's best closers , but Moises Alou led off the ninth with a single to center, and, after Bobby Bonilla struck out, Charles Johnson singled to put runners on first and third with one out.

With the crowd roaring, Counsell, who started the year as a minor-leaguer in the Rockies' organization, lined a pitch to right field. The Indians' Manny Ramirez caught it, but Alou tagged up and scored the tying run.

In the 11th, Bonilla led off with a single, Gregg Zaun popped outand Counsell bounced the grounder that Fernandez misplayed as Bonilla raced to third.

After Hargrove walked Jim Eisenreich to load the bases, the Marlins' Devon White bounced a ball to Fernandez, who threw to home for the force.

But Renteria came up and lined an 0-1 pitch up the middle for the hit that delivered the winning run, and the stadium exploded.

Cleveland's frustration was complete.

After decades as the standard for baseball inferiority, the city was so close to the top again.

Three outs away.

Ready for their great moment of joy to unfold.

And it didn't.

Pub Date: 10/27/97

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