CLEVELAND — The 1995 Cleveland Indians will be remembered as one of the greatest hitting lineups in major-league history.
But their chemistry also remains part of their lore. How an eccentric cast of characters came together — and how manager Mike Hargrove and his staff kept them together — would confound psychologists, especially with the volatile Albert Belle threatening thermostats and sports writers in equal measure.
Their magical mix of talent, cockiness and killer instinct could still serve as a model for the kind of championship team the Indians are trying to put together under manager Terry Francona.
“We had an aura about ourselves, a confidence that you couldn’t teach,” Indians slugger Jim Thome said Saturday during Tribe Fest at Progressive Field. “We all wanted to be great and we fed off each other. Kenny (Lofton) was like our catalyst. He was arrogant, in a good way. Cocky, he’d walk and flip the bat at home plate. We had Albert, (Carlos) Baerga, flamboyant and charismatic. We had quiet guys, but those quiet guys were like lions who wanted to learn and win and hit. Great, great competitors.”
Lofton recalled one year in the 1990s when he and his rollicking teammates were virtually uncontrollable when they got together for the team picture.
“We were all kind of crazy … That was one of my best picture moments,” Lofton said. “People were talking about us. They’re trying to find a way to knock us down. We were on a roll and they couldn’t stop us. Somebody always wanted to nitpick about our team. That’s something they wanted to nitpick about, how we dressed, how we were acting.
“Between the lines we were killing everybody. We’d get that word from Carlos, ‘Kill ‘em all.’ We had that killer instinct. Off the field we were a little different. Once we got between the lines it was all business.”
When the Indians reached the World Series in 1995, it might have seemed like a meshing of madmen that might never happen again. But new Indians roving pitching instructor Charles Nagy believes that kind of chemistry can be replicated. He pointed to the heavily bearded 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
“You saw it a little bit this year, a group of guys, overachievers, who get together for a common goal,” Nagy said. “They went out and battled to the end. You look back on what we did, we had lot of guys with a lot of talent, but they never gave up. Even if I put ‘em down seven or eight runs, it was ‘Here we go again.’
“We had a great attitude, everybody got along. We all kind of came up together so we knew each other really well. Then the guys they brought in, Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray, those were the key pieces that got us over the top, the veteran influences, the steady guys. Orel [Hershiser]. I learned a ton from those guys.”
Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi have taken over the steady veteran roles of Martinez, Murray and Hershiser. When the Indians signed outfielder David Murphy and closer John Axford late last year, both cited the clubhouse atmosphere as a reason they wanted to join the Tribe.
“I’ve got goose bumps under this big sweater,” Swisher said, when asked his reaction to that. “We’ve got a great vibe going in here. Last year we really stressed that word camaraderie. What this team accomplished and the closeness that we gained as an organization from top to bottom was such an amazing thing to be part of.”
Lofton said an underappreciated member of Hargrove’s staff was bullpen coach Dave Nelson, who could get through to Belle, Manny Ramirez and himself when Hargrove couldn’t.
“He’ll say it more streetwise than trying to be studious,” Lofton said of Nelson, who was let go after the 1997 season. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, knucklehead, this is the way you’re supposed to do it.’ You’ll look at it like, ‘He’s right.’?”
Giambi would take that role for Francona if needed, but there aren’t any current Indians who match the peculiarities of Belle and Ramirez.
The 2014 Indians seem a few players away from the glory days of the late 1990s. But they might have one thing in common — a trait of their manager. As Lofton described Hargrove, he sounded like he could be talking about Francona.
“Mike was a little different cat,” Lofton said. “It was tough to manage the players we had. One thing I will always respect him for was letting us be ourselves.”