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Trials and Errors After letdowns on and off the field in '97, Cleveland closer Jose Mesa dreams of a better '98

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, 3
1/2-year-old Jose Jr., climbed onto the couch and blurted out,
"Daddy, that's the Indians playing on TV. Why aren't you there?"

Mesa sent his son to bed. He couldn't bear to tell Jose Jr. that
his dad, the indomitable closer, was looking elsewhere for a
save this time.

During the rape trial Mesa's attorney Gerald Messerman
repeatedly attacked the credibility of his client's accusers.
Messerman pointed out that one of the women had a history of
filing charges she failed to pursue in court and that she had
told a friend she was "going to sue Jose Mesa for a lot of money
and be on Hard Copy." The woman denied saying that.

On April 9, after the jury found Mesa not guilty of all charges,
he wept openly. "It was tough and I was nervous, but I knew God
was with me," Mesa said as he left the courthouse. "And with
God, I can do the next thing, win the World Series."

Two days later he was back on the mound at Jacobs Field,
pitching a scoreless inning against the Angels. But it quickly
became apparent that his 6.94 ERA in spring training was no
fluke. Mesa was still throwing 95 mph, but his location was
erratic. He stumbled to an 0-3 record with a 7.45 ERA in his
first 19 appearances, losing his closer's job to Mike Jackson.
"Jose had to handle a crisis in his life a lot bigger than
baseball," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove says. "An experience
like that shakes you right to your core, and when he returned,
he didn't have the same confident attitude."

Though Mesa had been acquitted, he was hardly a free man. "What
I went through was a lot like O.J. Simpson," he says. "Fans
called me a rapist. It was a nightmare."

When the team was in Cleveland, Mesa would return home with
Mirla immediately after games. He also stopped drinking. "If one
good thing came out of the trial, it was that Jose learned just
how important his family was," Mirla says. "He became a devoted
husband and father again."

Mesa eventually worked himself back into shape both physically
and psychologically, and before a home game on Aug. 9, Hargrove
gave him back his old job as the closer. Mesa pitched 1 2/3
innings against Texas that night to earn his first save since
April 24, beginning a stretch during which he produced an 0.39
ERA over his last 23 regular-season appearances.

Still, questions remained as to how he might deal with his
playoff demons. In Game 4 of the '96 American League Division
Series against the Orioles, Mesa had entered the ninth inning
with a 3-2 lead and was one strike away from forcing a Game 5
when Roberto Alomar hit a bloop single to score the tying run.
Then, in the 12th against a tiring Mesa, Alomar launched the
series-winning homer.

Mesa put those doubts to rest by getting the final outs of the
'97 Division Series against New York and the American League
Championship Series against Baltimore. Two hours before Game 1
of the World Series, Mesa said he expected to be on the mound in
the ninth inning of Cleveland's clinching victory: "I want to be
the guy who throws the last out of the season. I just have a gut
feeling that I'm supposed to be out there at the end."

Mesa fulfilled half his prophecy when he walked to the mound
with the Indians leading 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth of Game
7 in Miami. Mesa and catcher Sandy Alomar have conflicting
memories of what happened next. Each insists now that he wanted
to use more of Mesa's best pitch, the four-seam fastball, but
deferred to the other's wishes. The players agree that Mesa kept
getting beat on pitches that were not his best. Mesa threw three
straight sliders to Moises Alou, a sequence Mesa claims he had
never used before in his major league career, and Alou whacked
the last one into centerfield for a leadoff single. After
striking out Bobby Bonilla, Mesa hung yet another slider to
Charles Johnson, who singled to right, putting runners on first
and third. Then Craig Counsell lined a sacrifice fly to right
off a two-seam fastball that didn't sink. As Mesa watched
helplessly from the dugout, Florida won 3-2 in the 11th. "I just
didn't do my job," Mesa said after the game. "It hurts a lot to
think we were just two outs away."

In one unforgettable year Mesa had experienced two very
different verdicts in the two most stressful, and public, trials
of his life. Innocent in April. Guilty in October--guilty beyond
a reasonable doubt. "He was so devastated, taking on all the
blame himself," Mirla says. "It's like he needs to punish

On Nov. 28 Mesa left Westlake for an extended winter vacation in
the Dominican Republic. For a long time he had no desire to
throw a baseball again, but in December he began long-tossing
with his brother Baltazar.

Two weeks ago Mesa finally put 1997 and its endless misery
behind him. Surrounded by 27 members of his family at a New
Year's Eve gathering at his home in Santo Domingo, Mesa vowed to
stop looking back, to set his sights on the upcoming season. On
Jan. 4 he returned to the pitcher's mound for the first time
since the Series, throwing a scoreless inning for Licey in the
Dominican Winter League. The next night Mesa earned a save. He
has begun to fantasize about another save next October. "I want
to be back pitching in the same spot in Game 7 of the '98 World
Series," Mesa says. "This time I know I will do my job right.
Wow, that would be an unbelievable story, wouldn't it?"

No doubt about it.

COLOR PHOTO: YUNGHI KIM/CONTACT Mesa, with Jose Jr., found peace of mind at home with his family in the Dominican Republic. [Jose Mesa and Jose Mesa Jr.]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [Jose Mesa, Mike Hargrove and Sandy Alomar Jr. standing on pitcher's mound]

COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE YANAK/AP [Jose Mesa weeping in court]

"I just didn't do my job," Mesa said after Game 7 of the World
Series. "It hurts a lot to think we were just two outs away."

Though Mesa had been acquitted, he was hardly a free man. "Fans
called me a rapist," he says. "It was a nightmare."