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Lauding past Tribe players

March 30, 2008
By ED PUSKAS Tribune Chronicle Sports Editor
Every spring, I wonder what Jim Norris has been doing with his life since 1980. It is said a man never forgets his first girlfriend, but it is also true we don’t forget our first favorite baseball player.

Jim Norris? The name probably won’t resonate with anyone but the most ardent Cleveland Indians fans of the late 1970s. Norris was a journeyman outfielder who made his major-league debut with the Indians in 1977 at the age of 28. He spent three seasons with Cleveland, and it could be argued the first one was his best.

Norris hit .270 as a rookie and established career bests in games (133), at-bats (440), runs (59), doubles (23), triples (6), RBIs (37) and stolen bases (26). He played all three outfield positions and a little first base, too.

But good-fielding, slap-hitting outfielders didn’t tend to stick in the majors 30 years ago any more than they do today, and Norris’ playing time diminished over the next two seasons. On Jan. 4, 1980, the Indians traded him and left-hander David Clyde to the Texas Rangers for Larry McCall, Gary Gray and Mike Bucci.

Norris had just 174 at-bats for the Rangers in 1980, and never appeared in another major-league game. I remember Gray, even though his Indians career consisted of exactly 28 games and 54 at-bats in ’80, before the Seattle Mariners claimed him in the Rule 5 draft. McCall, a pitcher, never appeared in a game for the Indians. Neither did Bucci. I know he was a hitter of some variety, because a Google search shows he was caught stealing 14 times with the minor-league Tulsa Drillers in ’77.

Norris was no Hall of Famer, but compared to those three, he belongs in Cooperstown. So why do I remember so vividly a guy who had a cup of coffee with the Indians three decades ago? It didn’t hurt that Norris was the featured speaker at my town’s Little League banquet one year. Yes, major-league players made those kinds of appearances back then. But for whatever reason, he also was one of the players I identified with on the first Indians teams I followed.

And even now, Norris has a spot on the list of my all-time favorite Indians. It’s only fitting, on the eve of another season, I finally put this list on paper. To this point, it has existed only in my head:

? CATCHER: Sandy Alomar Jr. It would have been great if Alomar could have stayed healthy more often, but he did have that magical 1997 season.

? FIRST BASE: Mike Hargrove. Hargrove is the only Indians player whose jersey I ever wore as a kid. My cousin and I used to battle over who got to be Hargrove when we played tennis-ball baseball. I think I could still do his between-pitch batting glove and helmet routine. I remember Hargrove signing autograph after autograph as kids crowded around his ’79 Chrysler Cordoba in the Municipal Stadium parking lot one day. It’s funny what you remember as a kid, but Grover dutifully signed an autograph for every one of us that day. Even then, not everybody was so accommodating.

? SECOND BASE: Carlos Baerga. A slight nod for Baerga over Duane Kuiper here. Before too many late nights derailed his career, it sure looked like Baerga was on his way to a great career.

? SHORTSTOP: Omar Vizquel. You can’t convince me anyone has ever played the position better than Vizquel did. Not even Ozzie Smith.

? THIRD BASE: Toby Harrah. When the Indians traded Buddy Bell for Harrah, I never thought I’d get over it. But I did, and I still think Harrah was a vastly underrated player. I remember him as a terrific clutch hitter.

? LEFT FIELD: Albert Belle. It was probably best that he didn’t do the Little League banquet circuit, given his tendency to melt down. But what an imposing hitter in his prime. He was robbed of the American League MVP Award in ’95.

? CENTER FIELD: Jim Norris. I know he was just keeping the position warm for Rick Manning, who was injured for much of ’77, but I remember him as a guy who hustled and got the most out of his abilities. I also know Kenny Lofton was probably the best center fielder the Indians have had in my lifetime, but this is my list and Norris gets the nod. Honorable mention to Rick Manning.

? RIGHT FIELD: Manny Ramirez. The best Manny moment? I nominate his home run off Dennis Eckersley at Jacobs Field. It was the one that landed more than halfway up the bleachers in left-center field, and left the Eck mouthing the word, ‘‘Wow!’’

? DESIGNATED HITTER: Andre Thornton. He was one of those rare sluggers who hit for a decent average, walked more than he struck out and even stole some bases. Thornton missed the steroid era, or his numbers would have been much, much better. He was a quiet, class act.

? UTILITY PLAYER: Alan Bannister. Another one of those players a lot of people won’t remember, but he was a versatile guy in the early 1980s. One thing I remember: Bannister walked out of Municipal Stadium after a game one day with a six-pack of beer in each hand. When I asked for an autograph, he replied, ‘‘Not today.’’

? STARTING PITCHERS: Charles Nagy, Len Barker, Bert Blyleven, Rick Waits, C.C. Sabathia. Nagy, Hargrove and Norris are right at the top of my personal list of favorite Indians. Barker’s perfect game gets him on the list, and no, I wasn’t in attendance that night, unlike the 578,311 people who claim they were. He also once threw a pitch halfway up the screen at Fenway Park. Blyleven didn’t spend much of his career with the Indians, but he won 287 games in the majors and should be in Cooperstown. Waits and Sabathia are my two favorite lefties. Waits beat the Yankees on the final day of the ’78 season to force a playoff with Boston. Sabathia’s Cy Young season gets him on the list, even if it does look like he’ll be somewhere else in ’09.

? RELIEF PITCHERS: Dan Spillner, Doug Jones, Bob Wickman. Spillner was an underrated swingman. He won 16 games as a starter in 1980, and saved 21 two years later. Jones’ amazing changeup helped him save 303 games in 16 seasons, including parts of seven years with the Tribe. Wickman’s saves were almost always nailbiters, but the guy had guts. What? You thought Jose Mesa was going to make the list?

? MANAGER: Doc Edwards. Hargrove could be here, but he is already on the list as a player. Why Edwards? He treated reporters the same whether they were from the big city or a 20,000-circulation paper from Ashtabula. Honorable mention to Pat Corrales, but not for any actual managing. He makes it because of that incident 20 years ago or so when he tried to deliver a karate kick to then-Oakland Athletics pitcher Dave Stewart, who dropped Corrales with a right cross.

I’m probably forgetting someone who deserves to be mentioned, but that’s what happens when you try to remember things that happened 30 years ago. Maybe some alert readers can jog my memory about some of the Indians’ players of the last three decades.

And if anyone knows what Jim Norris is doing these days, let me know.


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