When attempting to identify baseball’s least likely success story of the last 25 years, one doesn’t need to look any further than the 1989 Cleveland Indians. Plagued with rumors of tampering from ownership, a practically non-existent budget, and a roster filled with names unfamiliar to most who followed the game, the ‘89 Indians should have turned in one of the worst seasons of all time.
Long time owner, Donald Phelps, passed away in December of 1988, leaving the franchise in the hands of his ex-Vegas showgirl wife. Her intentions for the club, which we’ve come to understand years later, involved nothing resembling on-field success. With a pair of 100-loss seasons in the rearview, Rachel Phelps set out to build a team bad enough to finish dead last, in hopes of packing up the team and relocating to Miami.
Their place in baseball history is undefined. The Indians improbable run to the American League East pennant has never been celebrated as a book, movie, or both. There was no forward thinking ex-player turned general manager rushing to save the Cleveland Indians on the back of a statistical revolution. It wasn’t a case of “the bad guys won,” but perhaps the wrong guys won.
This is the story of 1989 Cleveland Indians, as told by the players and coaches who helped a struggling franchise win its first pennant in over 30 years.
A Foundation Built Upon Deceit
Charlie Donovan (general mangager, Indians): Rachel’s first order of business was to tab me as the new general manager of the Indians. I gladly accepted, having worked under Donald in the front office for nearly a decade. I naively expected her to push the club in a direction that would honor her late husband’s aspirations to bring winning baseball back to Cleveland.
Paul Hoynes (beat writer, Cleveland Plain Dealer): There wasn’t a lot of optimism around the club when Rachel Phelps took over. Donald, when he was healthy, was always 100% committed to the ball club. Local interest in the Cleveland Indians by 1989 was at an all-time low.
Lyle Matthews (director of player personnel, Indians): Rachel called for our first offseason meeting to outline our plans for the spring, and I guess you could say she wore her intentions on her sleeve that day.
Donovan: Rachel came into our first winter meeting with a list of players she wanted invited to camp. I couldn’t believe the names she had on there. Washups, scoundrels, nobodies, and never will-bes. She was asking Matthews and I to build a Major League team with a handful of broken down veterans and various Four-A players.
Jerry Simmons (baseball operations head, Indians): She had Jim Brewer on that list. Jim had been out of baseball for 12 years, and two years dead.
Phil Butler (public relations head, Indians): I think I put off sending out anything to the media for four or five days. There was no way to spin this as a positive step for the organization.
Charlie Donovan was in on a secret. As if she hadn’t made it abundantly clear that a competitive baseball team was not part of the plan, Rachel Phelps shared her knowledge of a loophole in the team’s lease with city of Cleveland. If the season’s total attendance at Municipal Stadium were to drop below 800,000, ownership could exercise an out clause. Former Miami Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga wouldn’t begin his pursuit of a Florida expansion franchise until 1990, thus the city of Miami was prepared to welcome Phelps and the Indians franchise. Some backroom handshakes led to promises of a new stadium if Phelps (Ed. note: Rachel Phelps declined several author’s interview requests) were to relocate the club south.
Donovan: I let Rachel know my feelings on her plan right away. It didn’t matter, though. She had her eyes set on a membership at the Palm Beach Polo & Country Club and I was just another pawn in the scheme.
Matthews: Myself, Jerry, Phil, and even Lou [Brown] didn’t know the particulars that Charlie had been privy to. He told us all later, of course.
Hoynes: I can’t say that I knew the extent of Rachel Phelps’ strategy for getting to Miami, but it was apparent that something was more than a little awry.
Donovan: I gave the go ahead to Lyle to go off the board for some talent.
Rachel Phelps appointed Lou Brown, a career minor league bench boss, as her top managerial candidate. Brown had most recently managed in Triple-A with Toledo Mud Hens.
Donovan: I called Lou, who worked in sales at a Tire World in the offseason, and he was somewhat hesitant to take the job. He eventually agreed to manage our club.
Brown brought in Pepper Leach as his pitching coach, and Duke Temple to work with the defense and coach third base. The Indians had their coaching staff in place as they prepared for Spring Training in Tucson, Arizona.
Discovering Wild Thing, Willie, and Jobu
Donovan inherited third baseman Roger Dorn and his albatross of a contract. Dorn and 44-year old Eddie Harris, a right-handed pitcher notorious for doctoring the ball, represented the club’s only veterans to have enjoyed a modicum of success in the Majors. Donovan plucked Jake Taylor out of a Mexican league to be his catcher and clubhouse leader. Taylor last played big league ball with the Indians in 1987, but years of wear and tear to his knees forced him out of Major League Baseball.
Harry Doyle (Indians radio play-by-play announcer): Roger Dorn, Eddie Harris, and Jake Taylor were the only recognizable faces on the team. To be perfectly honest, I hardly paid any attention to the team that spring. I knew I’d be carrying a bottle into the booth every day because I thought, ah to hell with it, these guys won’t be the least bit fun to watch.
Donovan: Matthews pushed me to invite this power hitting Cuban defector to camp. I had never heard anything about this guy, but Lyle said he watched him hit a baseball nearly 500 feet. I said sure, and that was how we picked up Pedro Cerrano.
Matthews: We had heard all these stories about Taylor drinking his way around Mexico on a pair of broken knees. He was an all-star in Boston, and I don’t care what any of the stat type guys say today, you can’t put numbers on leadership. We needed Taylor to help keep the Cleveland Indians from losing 120 games. I guess you could say it was the right move.
Simmons: Charlie kept going on and on about how we needed another arm. We had Eddie, and a couple younger guys like [Mitchell] Friedman and Buddy Bushnell, who we knew could give us some innings. Lyle had the ok to go out looking for some talent, so I put him in touch with Buddy Collins.
Buddy Collins (former scout): I spent a dozen years in the Angels organization as a scout at various levels. At one point, in the late 70s, the club set up a deal with some of the prisons in southern California to send them some old bats and gloves for the inmate league they had down there.
Donovan: Rachel had a pretty strict budget for me to work with. There was very little money for scouting, so I had to lean on some old friends who were either out of work or retired. Matthews reached out to Buddy Collins, who was a couple of years out of work.
Collins: Now I hadn’t really been active in the game for a year or two when Lyle Matthews with Cleveland calls me, so I’m scrambling to find him an overlooked arm somewhere. A kid that maybe slipped through the cracks. That’s when I had a chance encounter with an old college friend, Martin McGoohan.
Martin McGoohan (warden, California State Prison): I ran into Buddy while vacationing. He mentioned he was working some contacts to find a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Buddy was instrumental in the prisons reaching a deal with the Angels for some ball equipment a decade or so prior. I told him he should visit the state prison in Corcoran because we had this kid causing quite a buzz in the California Penal League.
Colllins: Did I think there was anything to it? No way, not a chance. Anyway, I drove down to Corcoran a week later to get a look this kid. I got there, and that’s when I realized it was Rick Vaughan. He was a former high school prospect who more or less flamed out in the minors. He was serving a sentence for grand theft auto.
Donovan: Buddy calls me from California and says he might have the arm we’re looking for. He says he’ll come cheap, but there may be some issue with him reporting to camp on time.
Collins: I didn’t want to tell Charlie that I was about to send him a convict.
McGoohan: I remember Buddy sitting outside of the 9-foot fence we had around the field. He didn’t want to set foot in the area with the convicts. He set up a chair and pointed his radar gun toward Vaughn, and that was pretty much it.
Collins: I mean, the radar guns of the era were wildly inconsistent. You needed to see a guy throw 20-25 pitches to have an idea of how hard he was really throwing. Vaughn’s first pitch, to this behemoth of a man, must have been three feet out of the zone, but this fella takes a hack at it anyway. The guns says 97mph. He throws him two more, both balls for certain, and he hacks at those as well. 95 mph and 97 again. The inmates, they just got up there and swung to get their at-bats against Ricky over with. They were terrified of the heat he was throwing, that and they could have been killed with the lack of control he had.
Donovan: Buddy set up for Ricky to call me later that day. He didn’t want me finding out the Rick was incarcerated. I don’t blame him.
Rick Vaughn (pitcher, Indians): Charlie extended me an invite to Spring Training over the phone while I’m locked up. Of course I said yes, but I told him that I wasn’t sure I could make it on time. I had at least another couple of months to serve.
McGoohan: I can’t say that Rick Vaughn was a classic good behaviour case, but I can say that Buddy Collins was damn good man, and a damn good friend. I felt like I could help him out if I got him a ball player to deliver to the Indians. So the kid stole a car… I felt like we were giving him a second shot at life.
Collins: They arranged to let Ricky go early so that he could make camp with Cleveland. He was a good kid, but he made some bad decisions. It’s not like he had murdered someone or anything like that.
Lou Brown passed away due to complications from heart disease in 2001. In a 1998 Sporting News story, Brown talked about his relationship with Rick Vaughn:
Ricky was always one for making an entrance. He might tell ya he wasn’t big on the stadium pumping in the Wild Thing song, or that he’d rather live a quiet life. I saw something in him the first day he showed up to camp. I don’t think Ricky had ever worn sleeves before joining the Cleveland Indians. He arrived at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson on the back of motorcycle, everything he owned in a garbage bag, looking like he’d been on tour the Ramones or some damn shit. We talked every day when he played, and we still talk today. He’s like son to me.
Temple: Cerrano was a prolific home run hitter in Cuba, from what we had heard anyway. It was a lot more difficult to track that stuff back then. He showed up to camp and just tore the cover off the ball with his first few BP cuts.
Leach: We found out fairly quickly why nobody else gave him a shot.
Taylor: He couldn’t hit a breaking ball. I don’t mean he had trouble with them. He flat out could not make contact with breaking pitches.
Harris: Pedro and I became close friends, despite our differences out of the gate. He used to have this shrine set up in his stall, it was for Jobu, his voodoo god or whatever you want to call it. He would get into all these ceremonies to try and get Jobu to help him hit curveballs. I thought it’d be funny one day to steal some of Jobu’s rum. It was a couple minutes later when I got hit in the head with a bat while walking onto the field.
Pedro Cerrano (outfielder, Indians): It’s very bad to steal Jobu’s rum. It’s very bad.
Harris: I owe a lot of who I am today to Pedro. He really opened up my eyes to some different kind of stuff. I ain’t gonna go around apologizing for who I am, and I guess you could say Pedro wasn’t neither. I think we probably had more in common than what was different about us.
Hoynes: Now I have seen my fair share of characters in Cleveland over the last 30 or so years. Ernie Camacho, Mel Hall, even that crazy son of gun Tony Bernazard. I have never witnessed anything quite like the 1989 Indians, though.
Donovan: Nobody, not Vaughn with his Sex Pistols thing he had going on or even Cerrano with all of the snakes and voodoo routines he brought in, made an impression quite like Willie.
Leach: This slight fella practically parks on the field, gets out of an old beat up Herbie car and tells us his name is Willie Mays Hayes. Alright then. The only problem we had with him was that he was never invited to camp.
Donovan: He tells us he plays like Mays and runs like Hayes or something along those lines. We gave him the afternoon to get settled while myself and Duke [Temple] double checked to see if we erred somewhere. We hadn’t. Willie was never invited to spring training. He took it upon himself to try out for the Cleveland Indians.
Hayes: Prior to making the Indians, I suppose the highest level I played was some small college ball. I had always been a great runner, and my self-effacacy was on high so I figured I stood a decent chance at landing a spot on the worst team in baseball.
Donovan: We had him removed from the facility. We didn’t want to make a big scene of it, so Pepper told security to wait until the middle of the night and they just picked up his bed and carried him off the grounds.
Taylor: I don’t think anybody who was out for the team that spring will ever forget what transpired with Willie on day two.
Hayes: I woke up, still in my bed, outside the field. I was barefoot and in pyjamas, and I thought, “I got one chance to show these guys that I belong here”.
Lou Brown (via a 1996 Esquire profile on Hayes): We cut Willie before giving him so much as a smell test. We’re running some early morning sprints, two fellas at a time, y’know. There’s two of the guys about 15 yards into their 40-yard dash, and Willie comes sprinting out of nowhere, is goddamn pyjamas, and beats both of ‘em to the finish with 10-yards to spare. We got him a uniform after that.
Joe Morgan (former ESPN Sunday Night Baseball announcer): Sunday Night Baseball didn’t launch until 1990, so I didn’t see all that much of Cleveland until they got some attention down the stretch in ‘89. I remember thinking how Charlie Donovan got a lot of mileage out of what he had. You know, for all the talk about Billy Beane and the guys he brought to Oakland by using computers and the stat guys, Charlie was probably the first general manager to identify those “value” players. I guess the only difference between Charlie and Billy is that Charlie never wrote a book about himself to tell everybody about it.
The Season of Destiny and Defiance
With their veterans Dorn, Harris, and Taylor, fireballing rookie in Vaughn, speedy leadoff hitter in Hayes, and voodoo practicing slugger in Cerrano, the Indians were ready to open the 1989 season. Their first test would come against the mighty New York Yankees. Rachel Phelps, from her luxury box, sat high above this improbable collection of baseball players, ready to watch her plan to move the Indians to Miami unfold.
Donovan: Even with the limitations Rachel had imposed on us, I felt like we were better than anyone wanted to admit. We had talent, it’s just that no one had ever heard of the guys were running out there on Opening Day.
Doyle: They kept themselves in the season opener for a while, and then Vaughn made his big league debut.
Vaughn: I think I walked the first three batters I faced. I don’t remember how many pitches it threw, but I remember not having much control that day.
Doyle: It took him 12 goddamn pitches.
Leach: Here’s this kid with this amazing fastball, but he can’t locate it to save his life. I wanted to go get him before Clu Haywood stepped in, but Lou said we were sticking with him. Clu Haywood was the American League home run leader in 1988, but I guess you gotta give the kid his chance.
Taylor: I just wanted Ricky to get something over the plate. I called for fastball…
Clu Haywood: It was right down the dick. You know, I had a lot of respect for Rick Vaughn later in his career, but I wanted nothing more than to give this kid a nice warm shit sandwich on that day. I don’t think I hit too many more further than that one.
Vaughn: I guess you could say I didn’t handle that so well…
Leach: Lou wanted to see how Vaughn was going to react to giving up a grand slam. We weren’t too surprised when he drilled the next fella in the back.
Vaughn’s punk rock aesthetic would eventually resonate with fans, which helped him achieve near superstar status by the end of 1989. One person who didn’t take to Vaughn’s bad boy image so kindly was Roger Dorn.
Taylor: They had their differences. That would be a simple way to put it.
Leach: There was this incident on final cut down day where Dorn slipped a red tag into Ricky’s locker. So Ricky thought he was cut, obvisouly. Well, he stormed into Lou’s office, and I can’t begin to count the expletives he lobbed in there.
Taylor: Rick comes storming out of the manager’s office and tackles Roger. Dorn had been pestering him all spring. It was mostly the harmless veteran-rookie stuff, but Ricky was this hot headed kid fresh out of jail. He didn’t take it very well.
Dorn: Was I acting like an asshole towards Vaughn? Sure, but mostly because I saw how easily it was to rile him up. We don’t really speak anymore, but that’s another story.
The Indians got off to rough start to the season, losing 11 of their first 12 games, but they started to resemble something like a Major League club by late May with a 15-24 record. This Indians team designed to fail, wasn’t living up to the plans of its owner. Charlie Donovan admitted in a 2005 interview with ESPN that Rachel Phelps swapped the club’s Boeing 757 for an older plane, which he described as something that “looked like it was raised from Lake Erie”. This would prove to be the first in a series of schemes to disrupt the players’ routines.
Taylor: We had guys getting sick from all the turbulence. I’m still not convinced it was turbulence, it could have been the engine cutting in and out.
Simmons: I get a complaint from Lou Brown in the middle of a west coast swing that he feels his players’ safety is at risk. I said, “what are you talking about?”, and then I get word from Charlie that Rachel had up and sold the team’s plane. This kind of medling was unheard of. She was making a legitimate effort to tank the season.
Donovan: We were starting to win ball games. Duke Temple had things working with the defense, and Vaughn was pitching very well since Lou forced him to wear glasses, and even Cerrano was starting to hit. Rachel wasn’t having any of it.
Leach: She cut the fucking hot water to the clubhouse.
Donovan: We were 60-60, just nine games out of first in the East, and attendance was on the rise. When Rachel cut the hot water, that’s when I’d had enough. It was time to let Lou and they players in on what she had planned for them.
Brown (via the 1998 Sporting News story): We lost to the Yankees, and Haywood had just taken Ricky for another ride with a big home run, and we’re back below .500 again. Charlie came into my office and let me in on little miss showgirl’s plan to pack up the franchise. I called a team meeting. No fucking way was this happening on my watch.
Hayes: We’re devastated after Lou tells about the Miami thing. Nobody says anything, you could have heard a pin drop. That’s when Taylor speaks up…
Vaughn: He goes, “Well, I guess there’s only one thing left to do…”
Dorn: “win the whole fucking thing.”
Leach: Then Lou has this idea to bring a cutout of Ms. Phelps in leopard print showgirl garb. We figure we need to win 32 of our remaining 42 games, so Lou’s got 32 panels of cardboard covering up this girl’s titties and down there…
Hayes: Lou says we peel a piece off for every win, until we get to 32. We’re motivated now.
The Indians went on a tear, winning five straight and climb to fourth place following Brown’s meeting. They reach second place in the American League’s East Division following a sweep of the California Angels. Suddenly ‘Wild Thing’ t-shirts are the hottest selling item in Cleveland, Rick Vaughn’s bad boy redemption story is gracing the cover of People Magazine. The Cleveland Indians land on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and they even appear in an American Express credit card commercial.
With a series victory over the Chicago White Sox on the final day of the season, the Indians found themselves tied for first place in the division. The team that should have played its final game in Cleveland forced a one game playoff with the Yankees.
Taylor: Everybody looks back at the one game playoff and remembers the in-game dramatics. Well, the off-field dramatics nearly derailed what we had going before the first pitch was thrown.
Hayes: Cerrano is talking about sacrificing a live chicken in the clubhouse as part of some voodoo ritual to harness some extra power.
Steve Larson (second base, Indians): We just couldn’t have that. I think Jake arranged for an attendant to pick up a bucket of chicken, that was gonna have to do.
Hayes: There was also this incident involving Rick and Roger… it was, uh, well it’s not really for me to say.
Temple: Jake is helping Rick get his uniform and glove packed up and sending him off the bullpen a good three hours before game time. We knew something was up.
Mitchell Friedman (pitcher, Indians): There was a lot of whispering going on. I’ll just say Dorn showed up and he wasn’t his usual spritely self.
Taylor: Rick had what we’ll call an “encounter” with an eager woman the night before the game…
Dorn: I’m on my way out of my house and Suzanne says she wants to talk to me about something.
Vaughn: I didn’t know who she was…
Dorn: Rick Vaughn fucked my wife.
Taylor: Suzanne [Dorn] caught a glimpse of Roger making out with another woman in a live spot being filmed at our hotel after we beat the White Sox to tie the Yankees. I guess she felt that the best way to get back at Rog was to sleep with Rick.
Dorn: Rick Vaughn slept with my wife, “unknowingly”, on the eve of the one game playoff with New York. Sorry, my ex-wife, I should say.
Taylor: You wanna talk about clubhouse problems? This was something as personal as it gets.
Dorn: I wanted to kill Rick. Thankfully, I didn’t have a chance to see him until he entered the game in the ninth…
The Indians eschewed disaster, and took the field for the one game showdown with the Yankees. The game was scoreless until Frank Burton knocked Eddie Harris for a two-run blast in the seventh inning. The Yankees’ lead would evaporate quickly, though. Dorn laced a single off of Steve Jackson in the bottom half of the seventh. In stepped Pedro Cerrano.
Temple: Steve Jackson had one of the best curveballs in the game. I honestly thought we were done. Pedro couldn’t handle the breaking stuff.
Cerrano: I see one, two curveball. I swing. I miss both.
Harris: Everybody in the stadium knows what’s coming next. Another curveball.
Cerrano: I ask Jobu to help me now. He no help me now? I say fuck you, Jobu.
Taylor: Pedro connected with Jackson’s curveball, and he nearly hit it into the lake. It went right out of the fucking stadium.
Leach: We were so happy, but we couldn’t help laugh at him as he carried his bat all the way around the bases.
With the game tied at two heading into the ninth, Lou Brown allowed Eddie Harris to head back out to the mound to try and keep the Yankees bats quiet. A two-out double off the bat of Jason Saslo put runners at second and third, and Harris would walk Mickey Cheevers with Haywood on deck.
Lou Brown approached the mound and signaled to the bullpen for Rick Vaughn. The ‘Wild Thing’ would was welcomed to the game by 70,000 fans singing along to the classic rock ‘n roll song being piped into Municipal Stadium. The stakes were high, and Vaughn was about to encounter a pair of foes.
Vaughn: I came in to face Clu Haywood, the guy who had just clobbered me in the only two meetings we had prior. I take my warm up tosses, and I then I look over to third. Here comes Roger and all I can think about is how bad it’s going to look when two teammates are duking it out on the mound in the biggest game of the season.
Taylor: “Oh fuck, this is the beginning of the end…”, that’s what I thought. Roger had some words with Rick…
Vaughn: My heart is racing and I’m fully expecting him to take a swing at me right then and there… and Roger says something to the effect of “let’s cut through the crap”…
Dorn: I told Rick that I only had one thing to say to him…
Vaughn: … and he goes “strike this motherfucker out”.
Vaughn would strike out Haywood, on three fastballs. His third pitch registered as 101 mph. After Tomlinson just missed a home run, Willie Mays Hayes stepped into the box with two outs.
Johnny Horton, the former Yankees manager, called for Duke Mueller, the 1989 American League leader in saves, K/9, and hit batters, to finish of Hayes and the Indians and force extra innings. Hayes hit what would normally be a routine grounder, but the fleet center fielder beat the throw to first.
Leach: In steps Taylor, and everyone in the stadium knows we’re sending Willie.
Haywood: I shit you not, that fucker turned to me and said he’s gonna go. We just missed picking him off, too.
Hayes stole second, which set the table for one of the most memorable plays in the game’s history.
Temple: Taylor was the one that called for the bunt, he gave Lou the sign, which he then relayed to me. As for the called shot, well, that was all Taylor too.
With Hayes on second, Taylor did something that no one in the game had done since Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series. He called his shot, pointing to the left field bleachers.
Duke Mueller (pitcher, Yankees): Of course I sent my first pitch high and inside. That was a bullshit move from Taylor.
Taylor: That was about what I expected from the Duke.
George Steinbrenner told Sports Illustrated in a 1989 interview that “Taylor showed a complete lack of class with that. Babe Ruth was the greatest player of all-time, and his called shot stood alone in baseball history. Who the hell does Jake Taylor think he is?”
Taylor picked himself up and called his shot once again. This time Mueller gave him something to hit, and nobody was prepared for what would happen next.
Temple: Hayes is off to third and Taylor turns to lay down a slap bunt and everybody in the infield is caught off guard.
Haywood: We all knew Taylor’s knees were busted, there’s no way he could have beat out a throw to first, right?
Temple: I’m sending Willie home all the way, and Taylor beats the throw to first by a toenail…
Mueller: I’m screaming at Clu to get the ball home…
Donovan: Willie beat the throw home with a slide and that’s it. We won the goddamn American League East. I think Rachel Phelps was more heartbroken than the Yankees.
Fans rushed the field as the Indians celebrated their first division title in 34 years. Roger Dorn landed stiff punch to Rick Vaughn’s face, then they embraced. Eddie Harris and Pedro Cerrano put aside their theological differences, and hugged each other like they were brothers. The team that should not be, comprised of broken down veterans and kids who had no business on a big league club, had defied the odds and snatched victory from the most storied franchise in baseball.
The team would eventually fall to the Chicago White Sox in the American League Championship Series, but the 1989 Cleveland Indians had already won the hearts of baseball fans everywhere. They were a collection of pieces that nobody wanted, and they became something that fans who watched them will never let go.