GOODYEAR, ARIZ.: Amassing 200 hits in a season is an uncommon achievement for all but the most prolific batsmen.
With three games left in the 1993 season, Carlos Baerga was lying in a hospital bed fighting an infection in his leg, one hit short of the gold standard. If Baerga was forced to stay away from Cleveland Stadium while the schedule faded into nothingness, he would miss a chance at consecutive 200-hit seasons.
“I had so many great moments with the Cleveland Indians,” Baerga said Wednesday after the announcement that he and former General Manager John Hart had been selected for the Tribe’s hall of fame. “They did let me out of the hospital, but I was really dizzy.
“I struck out twice, and I didn’t have a hit going into my last at-bat. I had to do something, so I bunted my way on. It was a miracle. Not many second basemen get 200 hits.”
After that, Baerga returned to the hospital.
He already had achieved a rare feat when he hit two home runs the same inning in an April 1993 game against the New York Yankees. A switch hitter, Baerga became the first player ever to homer from each side of the plate the same inning. Only one other big-leaguer has done it since, Mark Bellhorn of the Chicago Cubs in 2005.
“I’ll never forget that,” Baerga said. “It was the best day of my career.”
Baerga is in camp as an extra coach. In his first experience as a manager over the winter, he was named manager of the year in Puerto Rico. He has aspirations to manage in the big leagues.
He was part of the Indians’ juggernaut that roared through the shortened season of 1995 with 100 wins in 144 games to win the American League Central Division championship by 30 games.
“USA Today rated the best offensive teams in the history of baseball, and we were second to the 1931 Yankees,” Baerga said. “How I batted third in that lineup for so many years, I don’t know.”
How lethal was the Tribe attack? Paul Sorrento, who usually batted eighth, hit 25 home runs. The lineup included Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Albert Belle, Eddie Murray, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and, at times, at designated hitter, Dave Winfield.
Together, Belle, Ramirez, Murray, Sorrento, Thome and Baerga combined for 167 home runs and 557 RBI, and keep in mind that labor problems trimmed 18 games from the schedule.
The Tribe led the league in runs, hits, home runs, RBI, steals and had the fewest strikeouts. The team OPS (on-base plus slugging) was .839. Last year, only 18 AL players compiled an OPS of .839 or better.
The man who put together the 1995 Indians was Hart, who began the transformation of the club as director of baseball operations under Hank Peters. Hart succeeded Peters as general manager in 1991 and acquired or developed all of the rosters that won six consecutive division titles and two American League pennants, losing the World Series to the Atlanta Braves in ’95 and the Florida Marlins in ’97.
“John Hart changed the city,” Baerga said. “We went to the playoffs so many years. It was something special.”
Hart currently does studio work for the MLB Network and is an adviser to the Texas Rangers.
“That was about as good as it gets, going from when we were terrible to building it and having the run that we had,” he said. “It means a lot to me; it was a special time.”
Hart and his front office associates are credited with changing the way players were dealt with contractually. The front office would try to identify key players early in their careers and sign them to multiyear contracts that would get the club through players’ arbitration years and sometimes through the first year of free-agent eligibility.
Of course, he would pay the consequences if he overvalued a player, but that rarely happened.
“We recognized our market at that time,” Hart said. “It was not going to be an economic powerhouse. It had been a rough time in Cleveland. The team would get good players and they’d be gone in two or three years. We wanted to show fans that we were committed.
“We looked at Pittsburgh and wanted to do the opposite. They had some really good clubs, but their guys would get picked off by other teams. We didn’t know if this was going to work, and what if it didn’t?”
Hart, who will be 65 in July, said he isn’t actively seeking to be a GM again, but he has an open mind.
“It would have to be the right situation,” Hart said. “I’ve turned some things down. More than anything, I’m enjoying my freedom. I’m still a part of what’s going on without wearing it 24/7, 365 days a year. But I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Baerga and Hart plan to be at Progressive Field for their induction on June 22, when the Indians play the Minnesota Twins.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.