A long time after October 1997, in a best-of-three Wild Card Series this time instead of an American League Division Series, the Yankees are running into Sandy Alomar Jr. again.
Because of Terry Francona’s health issues, Alomar is the interim manager of the Indians as they get set to face the Yankees at Progressive Field, known as The Jake back in ’97. It doesn’t change the fact that Alomar and the Yankees have history, because he sure made some for the Indians that year -- and maybe changed the history of Joe Torre’s squad. Maybe even kept the Yankees from winning five World Series in a row.
The Yankees, the defending World Series champs that year, were banged up by the time they got to October. Torre would eventually have to give the ball to Dwight Gooden, going on memory at that point, to start Game 4 (against Orel Hershiser, by the way). But they were still Torre’s Yankees, even as a Wild Card team. They had won 96 regular-season games, finishing just two behind the Orioles in the AL East. And they were 10 games better than the Indians, even if the Tribe had won the AL Central.
Then the Yankees were ahead two games to one and had the lead against the Indians when Torre asked Mariano Rivera to get a five-out save. The Yankees were that close to going back to the AL Championship Series against the Orioles. Bottom of the 8th and a young Rivera with the ball, because he had become the closer the year after being a setup man to John Wetteland when the Yankees had won their first World Series since 1978.
“Oh yeah,” Torre said on Monday morning. “Oh yeah.” He paused and said, “Sandy Alomar Jr.”
It had been some year for Alomar already. The ’97 All-Star Game had been played at Jacobs Field, and the Indians catcher had hit a two-run homer in front of his hometown fans and been named MVP of the game. Now it was three months later, his team four outs away from going home. Rivera? He had a 6-4 record that year, with an ERA of 1.88 and 43 saves.
Two outs in the eighth, nobody on, Yankees winning, 2-1, Rivera against Alomar -- one of the Tribe’s stars, having the best season he would ever have in the big leagues, a catcher who hit .324, with 21 homers and 83 RBIs.
Yankees fans know what happened next. Indians fans know what happened next. So does Torre.
The count went to 2-0 on Alomar.
“Mo got behind,” he said on Monday. “Then he threw one down the middle, and Sandy hit one out to the opposite field.”
All the home run had done is tie the game. But it was as if everything had changed. The Indians would eventually win the game in the bottom of the ninth, when Omar Vizquel hit a ball off the glove of Ramiro Mendoza, pitching for the Yankees by then. The Indians won Game 5 the next night. They were the ones who went to the ALCS, and finally to the World Series, where they became Game 7 heartbreak kids -- a fitting title 19 years later against the Cubs, when they lost their season and the Series in extra innings.
“When we flew home after Game 5, Mel [the late Mel Stottlemyre, Torre’s pitching coach] and I grabbed Mo on the tarmac and told him that we would never have made it as far as we had without him. And that he was going to have a great career as a closer. It just didn’t help him feel better about things that night, or better about what happened the night before.”
It was one of the most famous and dramatic swings in Indians history, not just because of when it happened, but against who it had happened. The fact that it was hit by one of the most popular players in Indians history, one of the faces of that '90s team that won so many games, only made the night better.
Here is what David Cone said about the moment, when Game 4 was over:
“The oldest cliche in baseball is make them beat you the other way. Mo did, and Alomar did.''
Even now when you watch the replay, you can see Rivera’s head drop just slightly. He knew. Paul O’Neill chased the ball to the right-field wall and jumped for it. In vain. He knew, too. By now Alomar was rounding first and pumping his arms.
“It’s the reality of being a closer, even one as great as Mo,” Torre said on Monday. “You do or you don’t. You get them, or they get you. And Sandy got him good that night.”
Now it is the Indians against the Yankees, last Tuesday of September, at the beginning of a crazy postseason week like this. The two teams are back in Cleveland, 23 years after Game 4. This time Alomar is managing the Indians, not playing for them. So that’s different, of course. Not this: He and the Yankees still have history.