With Baerga, Indians bring 'soul' into Hall of Fame
Second baseman brought fun to clubhouse, sheer determination to field
The final series at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was looming, the 1993 season was winding down, and Carlos Baerga's hit tally stood at 199.
The Indians' second baseman wanted badly to be a part of the final festivities at the old ballpark, and, yes, he wanted badly to reach the 200-hit milestone for the second consecutive season. In Baerga's mind, there was no way those two things were not going to happen.
Only one problem: Baerga was in the hospital.
He had, in fact, been in the hospital for the better part of a week, laid up with an ugly and painful leg infection suffered after fouling a ball off his ankle.
"I knew I needed just one base hit to get to 200," Baerga says now. "I told John Hart, 'Please, please let me get out of this hospital.'"
Hart, the Indians' general manager, allowed it. On Oct. 1, 1993, in the final night game of the season, Baerga's name was penciled into manager Mike Hargrove's lineup in his customary No. 3 spot but the not-so-customary designated hitter position. He was 0-for-3 when he came to the plate for his final at-bat in the eighth inning. The Indians were trailing the White Sox, 4-0, but they had two on with one out and were attempting to mount a rally.
"I noticed the third baseman was back, so I bunted the ball," Baerga recalls. "And that ball stayed right in the third-base line. I'm never going to forget that."
Baerga legged out the bunt single, crossed first base, then crumpled to the ground in pure agony. He was pulled from the game -- a game the Indians would go on to lose, despite his best late-inning effort -- and his season was effectively over. He wound up right back in the hospital, but not before drawing a huge ovation from the crowd of 72,454 fans, who appreciated the milestone and the physical fortitude it took to reach it.
They'll be applauding Baerga again Saturday night at Progressive Field, where he'll be inducted into the Indians' Hall of Fame before the 7:15 p.m. ET game against the Twins -- a high honor for a guy who routinely thrilled Tribe fans with his energy, his upbeat attitude and the premium production he provided for a Tribe team on the rise.
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That leg infection story gets to the core of what made Baerga such a special player at that time. It was difficult to keep him off the field. And once he was on the field, it was even more difficult to get him out.
In a four-season span from 1992-95, Baerga netted three All-Star Game selections while batting .315 with a .350 on-base percentage, a .476 slugging percentage, 75 home runs, 120 doubles, 11 triples, 365 runs and 389 RBIs. Among Major League second basemen in that span, Baerga's home run and RBI tallies were tops, by a long shot.
The switch-hitting Baerga reached 200 hits not only in 1993 but also in '92. In fact, as Baerga is proud to point out, he pairs with Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby as the only second basemen in history to have consecutive seasons with 200 hits, a .300 average, 100 RBIs and 20 homers.
But the greatest compliment we can pay to Baerga is one that's simply stated: He batted third in arguably one of the greatest offensive lineups in Major League history -- that of the 1995 club that won 100 games in a strike-shortened 144-game season.
"You make out your lineup," Hargrove says, "and certain people fit certain spots naturally. Carlos did that for us hitting in the three-hole. You want your best contact hitter to hit third in your lineup, to drive in runs but also to continue to keep innings going and keep guys on base for your big hitters. Very few people can hit third in the lineup. He fit the bill for us to a T."
There were, obviously, some incredibly talented players on those mid-90s Tribe teams. Kenny Lofton was the epitome of the modern leadoff man. Albert Belle was a prominent power presence, with the attitude to boot. Omar Vizquel has a legitimate Hall of Fame case, as does Jim Thome. And the depth of that '95 squad, in particular, was such that the up-and-coming Manny Ramirez usually batted seventh.
Even in that lofty group, however, Baerga stood out -- not just for his performance at the plate and in the field but for the intangible assets he brought to the clubhouse.
"Carlos always was the real soul of the ballclub," Hart says. "This was a guy that loved to play. There was never a guy that showed up to play more than Carlos. He had an infectious enthusiasm, he was a gifted talent. I loved Carlos like a son."
No wonder Hart worked so hard to acquire him in the first place.
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Between Jim Turner's cigarettes and Jack McKeon's cigars, the room at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville on Dec. 6, 1989, resembled an airport smoking lounge.
The two men were deep into discussion, using every last minute of the 24-hour window allotted them to complete a contract extension for Joe Carter. That extension was the final contingency of a trade the San Diego Padres and the Cleveland Indians had been working on for weeks, and now it was up to McKeon, the Padres' manager and general manager, and Turner, Carter's agent, to bring the matter to a tobacco-stained conclusion.
"Man," recalls Hart, "you talk about a smoke-filled room ..."
When the smoke cleared, Hart had officially brought aboard his primary target in the trade, a 23-year-old catcher named Sandy Alomar Jr. And Alomar alone would have been an impactful acquisition for an Indians club trying to build something special.
But there was another player Hart targeted who McKeon had been especially reluctant to part with. McKeon had offered Hart an outfielder named Jerald Clark and another outfielder named Thomas Howard (who would wind up with the Indians two years later). Hart, though, was adamant.
"Baerga," Hart says, "was the guy we wanted."
Though he was just a utilityman in his first season in the bigs in 1990, Baerga's presence was immediately apparent. He was actually sent back down to the Minors at one point that season, and clubhouse spirit took a tumble. When he returned, it was a party.
In that '90 season, Baerga showed he could handle the bigs and earn the respect and appreciation of his peers. Then again, by that point, Baerga was accustomed to thriving at a level above his age.
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Baerga was the oldest of Jose and Baldry Baerga's four children. But he was typically the youngest member of his baseball teams in his native San Juan.
When Baerga was 8, his father encouraged him to switch-hit. He also signed him up in a league of 11-year-olds.
When Baerga was 14, he was playing in one of Puerto Rico's top amateur leagues -- on a team primarily featuring players in their 20s and 30s.
So by the time Baerga was nearing young adulthood, he was ready for the next step. The Padres signed him on his 17th birthday.
"I have to give thanks to my father," Baerga says. "He always used to push me. I was 8 years old, playing with 11-year-olds, and I would ask him, 'Why do you do that?' He told me something that I now realize. He said, 'I don't want you to be the best at your age. I want you to work hard to become a good player.' I give thanks to my father, because when I came up to the big leagues, I wasn't afraid or intimidated."
Baerga became a regular in the Indians' lineup in 1991, and in '92 he emerged as an All-Star with the organization's best offensive performance from a second baseman in decades.
"The day that I realized where I was and the talent that I have was in my first All-Star Game," he says. "When I sat down in the same clubhouse with Kirby Puckett, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, all those unbelievable players, it was amazing to be sitting there and looking around. I sat down for like two hours watching everybody, saying, 'There's no way I'm here.'"
Baerga always showed an appreciation for his position on the big league stage, and that's what made him such a hit with fans. He was a legend in his native land, and he was equally beloved in his adopted hometown of Cleveland.
"A lot of [players'] dealings with fans at times is more forced than anything else," Hargrove says. "With Carlos, it never was. When he talked to you and smiled, he made you feel like the most important person in his life in that moment. That was sincere coming from Carlos. There was nothing phony about him."
Says Baerga: "I was so, so blessed. So why not sign autographs when I don't know how long I'm going to be here in the big leagues? Why not sign for a little kid?"
Baerga didn't just sign autographs. In 1992, he was one of the first players to literally sign on to Hart's plan to retain his core players, signing a three-year, $8 million deal. A year later, against the wishes of his agent, Scott Boras, Baerga signed a four-year, $21.4 million extension. Cleveland was his home, and it was the place he made so many special memories.
The most special of all might have come April 8, 1993, in the seventh inning of a game against the Yankees at the old stadium. Facing left-hander Steve Howe with one on and nobody out, Baerga, batting right-handed, smacked a full-count fastball into the left-field bleachers.
"I was fouling everything off," Baerga says. "Foul, foul, foul. Then he threw me a fastball, and I hit it over the left-field fence. Then we scored so many runs that inning, and Alvaro Espinoza hit a grand slam. So when he hit that grand slam, I say, 'I know they're going to hit me [in retaliation].'"
Sure enough, the new pitcher, right-hander Steve Farr, buzzed one over his head. Baerga had one thought about the next pitch:
"I'm going to swing as hard as I can."
He swung hard at a 2-0 fastball and sent it sailing over the fence in right. With that, Baerga became the first player in history to hit a homer from each side of the plate in the same inning.
As Hargrove says, "Special people with special skills have a tendency to do things you've never seen before."
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Unfortunately for Baerga, alongside those special moments in a Tribe uniform were some particularly painful injuries. He was prone to playing through pain, but an ankle injury suffered late in the '95 season -- requiring him to wear an air cast during the World Series against the Braves -- lingered. In '96, his production dropped precipitously, and Hart made the difficult, but prescient, decision to trade him to the New York Mets in a deal that netted Jeff Kent.
Naturally, the trade did not go over well with Indians fans at the time.
"Some dude got an airplane," Hart says, "with a sign that said, 'Trade Hart, keep Baerga.' That was like, 'Really? It's come to this?'"
The trade, though, turned out to be the right move for the Indians, because Baerga was never the same player after '95. On the field, he struggled to stay healthy and produce. Off the field, he struggled with his personal demons. But it was during his two and a half seasons with the Mets that he made what he calls a marriage-saving conversion to Christianity.
"It changed my life," he says.
Baerga will always wonder what life would have been like had he remained with the Indians for the full extent of his career, as he intended. He did return to the team briefly, in 1999, but the old magic was gone. After two seasons away from the big leagues, he made a solid return in 2002, with the Red Sox, followed by a 2003 season with the D-backs that saw him hit .343 in 231 plate appearances. Baerga would retire after appearing in 93 games for the Nationals in 2005, though he did represent his native Puerto Rico in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
These days, Baerga's primary role in the game is that of broadcaster for ESPN Deportes. But he also lends a helping hand at the Indians' Spring Training camp and makes frequent visits during the regular season.
Much like that night in 1993, when he played through the pain of a leg infection to achieve his 200th hit, it is hard to keep Baerga away from the ballpark. Like the memories, his energy, his enthusiasm and his effervescent smile still linger.