Sports | October 23, 2017 9:00 am

The World Series’ Most Heartbreaking Loss Turns 20

‘You’re Welcome, Cleveland’ author Scott Raab mourns the Tribe's crushing 1997 defeat.

The moment was so perfect that, in hindsight, disaster was inevitable. While the Cleveland Indians had reached the World Series in ’95—their first appearance since 1954—they lost to the Braves in six often bitter games that left fans disgusted even decades later. (Doubt it? Google “1995 World Series strike zone.”) By 1997, star slugger/Halloween enthusiast Albert Belle was gone and the team entered the playoffs having won only 86 games, 13 less than the previous year. Which made sense since all five starting pitchers posted earned run averages of 4.28 or higher in a season Pedro Martinez led the bigs with a 1.90 ERA.

Yet they knocked off the defending champion Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.

They only had to beat the wild-card Florida Marlins to bring the city of Cleveland its first title of any kind since the Browns ruled the NFL in 1964. (Oh, and to make for maximum poignancy, the Browns had abandoned Cleveland for Baltimore in 1995.)

Now a championship was a few pitches away.

“When you go into the ninth inning with a lead in Game 7 of the World Series, you reasonably expect that it’s going to happen,” recalled Scott Raab. (The Cleveland-born Raab is the author of The Whore of Akron and You’re Welcome, Cleveland: How I Helped LeBron James Win a Championship and Save a City, as well as a central figure in ESPN Films’ 30 for 30: Believeland about the pride and pain of being a fan from a certain community on Lake Erie.)

Then closer Jose Mesa gave up the tying run.


And, in the 11th inning, this happened.


Suddenly what Raab termed a “team of destiny” who even pulled off a comeback against New York’s seemingly invincible Mariano Rivera…

…and had managed more runs, more hits, and fewer errors than Florida over seven games still somehow lost.

The Marlins had their first title, ending an agonizing wait for their fans that had lasted an entire… five years. (They only came into existence in 1993.)

Which made it seem like the universe was going out of its way to mock Cleveland.

“It was miraculous until… they didn’t actually complete the miracle,” Raab said.

Cleveland is famed for suffering iconically crushing defeats, including The Fumble:


The Drive:

And The Shot:


Yet for Raab, one low was lowest: “When people would ask which was the worst, for me, ’97 always stood out.”

Even by Cleveland standards, the Indians boast a dark history. Memories of Pete Rose running over Cleveland’s 23-year-old catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 1970 All-Star game (the injured Fosse was never the same)…

…quickly lead to Ray Chapman (Cleveland’s star shortstop killed by a Carl Mays fastball in 1920) and the 1993 boat accident that took the lives of pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin (it also nearly killed a third, Bobby Ojeda). Indeed, the Native American player Louis Sockalexis, who batted .313 during his brief career and is often credited as the inspiration for the franchise’s name, struggled with alcoholism and died of a heart attack at just 42.

The last two years have seen Cleveland baseball experience additional unexpected highs and punishing depths. They again reached extra innings of a World Series Game 7 in 2016, only to lose to the Chicago Cubs. This season? “My wife and I watch the Tribe every day,” Raab said. “It became part of our daily rhythm, particularly when we took our son to college toward the beginning of that 22-game win streak.” (It was baseball’s longest since the 1916 New York Giants, whose streak technically shouldn’t count since it included a tie.)

Then Cleveland took a 2-0 lead on the Yankees, only to get knocked out of the playoffs as the team that won 22 in a row managed to lose three straight.

In the last 15 years, three absurdly epic “Curses” ended as the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918, the Chicago White Sox won their first since 1917, and the Cubs won their first since 1908.

Next up is Cleveland, who last won it all in 1948. Optimistic?

“Optimism is a hard concept, not just as a Cleveland fan but as a Jew,” Raab said.

Yet he also noted that past frustrations with the Tribe—even the 1997 World Series—have become easier to bear because of two events in 2016.

The first: The Cavaliers won a title, ending Cleveland’s drought. “I would say the Cavs winning a championship softened the edge of that [1997 Series loss] memory. It made it, at least for this Cleveland fan, no longer necessary to rank the disappointments in terms of bitterness.”

The second: Just days after the Indians’ loss in Game 7 of the World Series, the 2016 election happened. Raab said that while he’s “never been one to agree with people who say, ‘It’s just sports,’” suddenly “none of that stuff seemed very relevant to me in light of the death of American democracy.”

Of course, Raab still has the “Comcast Digital Extra Inning package” and he’ll doubtless continue to watch the Tribe obsessively: “For me, I love baseball in particular.” He notes its importance both in bonding with his son and now in helping his wife and he cope with their child leaving the nest.

Raab finds that in following the Tribe in particular there’s something “essential” that stands apart from wins and losses (even ones as devastating as 1997): “There’s a purity that’s awfully sweet and really hard to explain.”

Below, watch “The Catch” by Willie Mays that he made during the 1954 World Series against—you guessed it—the Cleveland Indians.