- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
For three days after the World Series, Jose Mesa ate nothing. He slept less than two hours a night. He rarely spoke. Holed up in his bedroom in Westlake, Ohio, the Cleveland Indians' closer watched the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 about 250 times, agonizing each time he saw himself give up the Florida Marlins' game-tying second run, which eventually doomed his club.
Even when Cleveland staged a downtown parade to honor the team, the 31-year-old Mesa watched on TV from his bed, convinced that if not for his failure, it would have been a victory parade. When concerned Indians general manager John Hart phoned to ask why he hadn't attended the parade, Mesa claimed that he'd slept through it. He simply couldn't shake off the dreadful inning, an ignominious failure that marked the only time in all 93 World Series that a team began the ninth inning of Game 7 with the lead and lost. "It was my fault that we didn't win the championship," Mesa says even now. "I let the team down, I let the city down. It was the longest season of my life."
Seven months earlier, at the start of the baseball calendar, Mesa had endured another judgment day—a trial on charges of rape, felonious assault, theft and two counts of gross sexual imposition. On the night of Dec. 21, 1996, Mesa, his brother, Manuel, and a friend, David Blanco, had met two women at Club 1148, a Cleveland nightspot. The group drank together and then left the bar and drove to a Days Inn in nearby Lakewood. During that drive, one of the women alleged, Mesa forced his hand inside her pants and penetrated her. Both women alleged that, in the motel room, Mesa fondled them against their will.
The night in question was a rare instance when Mesa ventured out in Cleveland without his wife, Mirla, who customarily watches over her husband like a bodyguard. But according to Mirla, in the months before his arrest, Jose had surrounded himself with new acquaintances who were bad influences. "Jose can be naive and impressionable, like a kid who gets talked into things he shouldn't do," Mirla says. "He was vulnerable in this situation because he had never truly grasped the danger of his own fame."
Perhaps that's because Mesa had spent much of his life blending into the crowd. He is one of his father Narciso's 25 children and the 12th of the 15 kids Narciso had with Jose's mother, Maria. Jose, his 10 brothers and 14 sisters grew up poor in the tiny rural town of Azua in the Dominican Republic. There were times when Jose endured a day or two without a meal.
Mesa and several of his brothers lived for baseball, but their father despised the sport, and whenever he caught his sons playing the game, they were rewarded with a painful whipping. Despite this, Jose would sometimes escape to the sandlot with some fellow truants. On the day in '76 when Narciso died suddenly of a stroke, nine-year-old Jose vowed to replace him as the family provider by becoming a major league baseball player.
Only a 15-year-old seventh-grader when he signed his first contract in October 1981 with the Blue Jays, Mesa spoke no English when he arrived the next spring in Bradenton, Fla., to play in the Rookie League. Before long, though, he stumbled upon a catchphrase that he still uses: "No doubt about it."
The 13 seasons in baseball obscurity that followed were full of nothing but doubt, wildness and various arm injuries. Finally, in 1995, his third team, the Indians, gave him a chance to be their closer because there wasn't anyone else to take the job. He finished that season with a major-league-high 46 saves and a 1.13 ERA and collected 39 more saves in '96, making the All-Star team both years. Suddenly, when Mesa entered a game, there really was no doubt about it. By the winter of '96, like many celebrated athletes, he had become enamored of the nightlife.
While his teammates embarked on a season-opening West Coast road trip last year, Mesa spent the first week of April in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Each day he would leave the courthouse for silent Jacobs Field and proceed to the batting cage beneath the stadium where he pitched to Luis Martinez, a former Indians farmhand and bullpen catcher. Free on $10,000 bail, Mesa awaited one of two possible fates: up to 20 years in prison, or a return to his job as closer. Night after night Mesa prepped himself for the pen. But which one?
On the evening of April 4, Mesa clicked on the TV to watch Cleveland's game at Anaheim. The youngest of his six children, 3½-year-old Jose Jr., climbed onto the couch and blurted out, "Daddy, that's the Indians playing on TV. Why aren't you there?"