Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Unlikely Champions Bring 2000 Triple-A Title to Indy

The Governors’ Cup returned to Indianapolis with the help of a new team on the field
The Indianapolis Indians took home the final Triple-A World Series title in 2000. (Photo from Indianapolis Indians archives)
April 13, 2020

When the calendar flipped into the new millennium, the Indianapolis Indians went from being unsure of what a new affiliation would bring to finishing as the unlikely champions of the final Triple-A World Series.

When the calendar flipped into the new millennium, the Indianapolis Indians went from being unsure of what a new affiliation would bring to finishing as the unlikely champions of the final Triple-A World Series.

Since being crowned American Association champions in 1994, Indy made it to the postseason three times but fell short from bringing another trophy to Indianapolis as an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The 1999 season – and Indianapolis’ connection to the Reds – ended with the Tribe in second place of the International League Western Division, 9.5 games behind the Columbus Clippers.

It took the unlikeliest of players to bring a title back to Indianapolis, but their talent is forever etched into Indians’ history. After changing its affiliation from Cincinnati to Milwaukee, Indianapolis had a brand-new team on the field, but a familiar voice behind it all. Along for the ride was longtime Indians play-by-play broadcaster Howard Kellman, who has watched different players wear the Tribe uniform on the road to the big leagues.

“It was our first year with the Milwaukee Brewers and we didn’t know what to expect,” Kellman said. “There weren't that many guys from that team who had a real major impact in the major leagues. It was a good team with good players,”

Unlike the 1989 Indians team that carried Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Larry Walker, the 2000 squad was composed of talent that saw little time in the big leagues. Players like left-handed pitcher Horacio Estrada, who led the IL with 14 wins, and doubles machine Jose Fernandez anchored the new roster to bring Indianapolis its first and only championship in Victory Field history.

Joining Estrada in the starting rotation was right-hander Everett Stull, one of the handful of players to break out in unexpected ways for the Tribe. He went 7-5 with a 2.95 ERA in 16 starts before he joined Milwaukee in early August. He was fourth on the team with 103.2 innings pitched and 74 strikeouts.

The most prominent name on the staff was Ben Sheets, a right-hander selected by Milwaukee with the 10th overall pick in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft. Sheets, who later produced seven double-digit win campaigns for the Brewers, didn’t make his first start for the Tribe until mid-June and went 3-5 with a 2.87 ERA in 14 games (13 starts) down the stretch.

Fernandez provided stability in the lineup with his .286 batting average (134-for-468) and 68 RBI. His 37 doubles led Indy and with an OPS of .810, the then-25-year-old was one of the most important bats to keep in the lineup, along with Kurt Bierek (19 HR, 72 RBI), Santiago Perez (74 R, 31 SB) and Creighton Gubanich (16 HR, 71 RBI).

But the overall standout player for the Tribe that year was relief pitcher Bob Scanlan, the right-handed closer with 270 games worth of major league experience at the time. Scanlan’s last major league save during his nine-year run in the big leagues came against Seattle on May 29, 1994. Six years later, he led the IL with 35 saves for the Tribe. Scanlan was 34 years old when he was named team MVP.

At the helm of it all was first-year manager Steve Smith, who was a coach for Seattle before joining the Tribe. His time with the club was only for the championship season, but his impact is well-remembered 20 years later.

“He was a terrific manager,” Kellman said. “He did a great job [and had] great leadership. He really had his finger on the pulse of the club.”

Indianapolis spent the season in a three-team race for first place in the IL West with Louisville and Columbus. The Tribe swept a handful of doubleheaders and rarely slipped more than three games out of first. While the offense kept the Indians in playoff contention, it was the pitching staff that sealed their fate.

Although Indy seemed to be in control for much of the season, the playoffs were anything but guaranteed_._ Baseball’s unpredictability stretches to any level and the 2000 postseason was no different.

“It was a good team that played well when it had to,” Kellman said. “You could be a phenomenal team, but you can easily be beaten in a short series, because baseball is so unpredictable.”

Down 2-1 in a best-of-five series against Durham, the Indians were looking at a first-round exit of the Governors’ Cup playoffs. In the must-win Game 4, Indy’s bats struck first to turn the series around, scoring three runs before Durham was able to get on the board. Then in the winner-take-all Game 5, Estrada tossed 4.1 scoreless innings in relief during a 6-4 triumph.

Like the first round, it took five games for the Indians to beat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for the Governors’ Cup. The Indians were quick to gain control of the series after losing the first game. Starting pitchers Kane Davis and Rafael Roque held Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at bay in the following games for Indy to take a 2-1 series lead.

The Tribe fell silent in Game 4, 1-0, as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre evened the series. With their backs against the wall, the Indians quickly scored three runs in the final game and didn’t look back. They toppled Scranton, 6-1, with Tim Harikkala pitching 8.0 one-run innings. The Governors’ Cup returned to Indy for the first time since 1963 and the Tribe punched their ticket to their first Triple-A World Series.

Along with the team was Indy’s front office that made the trip to Las Vegas to witness history. The Tribe controlled the series against the Albert Pujols-led Memphis Redbirds – a 3-1 series win that included a walk-off homer by Gubanich in Game 2 – en route to becoming the final Triple-A World Series champions. Indy outscored Memphis 24-18 in the series, with Perez being named series MVP after hitting .462 (6-for-13) with two home runs and three RBI.

"Very satisfying season, I'd say,” Kellman said. “Very satisfying and very proud of the group of players, who are good people, and with the great leadership from Steve Smith."