The end of the 40s are upon us and the best #49 is positively glowing, Jose Ramon Nova Mesa. Originally born in Pueblo Viejo, Dominican Republic, Mesa attended Santa High School in the Azua province. Mesa was an outfielder growing up and played well enough to be signed as an amateur free agent by the Toronto Blue Jays on Halloween 1981 as a 15 year old. However the Blue Jays scouts saw that Mesa had a live arm, so he reported to Blue Jays Gulf Coast League team as a starter in 1982.
Mesa did not disappoint the scouts, with a sparking 0.936 WHIP, 2.70, 6 CG and 3 shutouts in 12 starts. This earned him a bump to the Florence (SC) Blue Jays (South Atlantic-A) as a 17 year old. He struggled mightily, almost doubling his WHIP to 1.741 and 1 5.48 ERA in 141.1 IP. He opened 1984 back at Florence, making 7 starts. And although his WHIP only improved a bit (1.643), his K/9 rate jumped to 8.2 in 38.1 IP. He finished 1984 in Kinston (a Blue Jay affiliate at the time) and repeated Kinston in 1985 as a 19 year old. Neither season looked all that promising, so in 1986 he was shipped to the west coast to the Blue Jays California League affiliate, the Ventura County Gulls.
His numbers improved somewhat in Ventura, 1.398 WHIP and a 7.1 K/9, getting a late season bump to the Knoxville Blue Jays (Southern-AA). After repeating AA in 1987 as a 21 year old, Mesa was named as the PTBNL in a deal that sent Mike Flanagan from the Orioles to the Blue Jays for Oswaldo Perez. Mesa got his first cup of coffee that September, making 5 nondescript starts. Mesa missed most of 1988 for the Rochester (NY) Red Wings (International-AAA), only 11 appearances and 2 starts. He split time between Rochester and Hagerstown (AA) in both 1989 and 1990 before returning to the bigs in late August 1990.
In 1991, Mesa started the season in the rotation, made a quick 8 start detour in Rochester mid-season, before sticking in the majors. That first year in 1991 was not promising. He had a 5.97 ERA in 123.2 IP with a 1.722 WHIP and only a 4.7 K/9. After another 12 starts in 1992, the Orioles dealt him to the Tribe for minor leaguer (AA) Kyle Washington. For the rest of 1992 and all of 1993, the Tribe kept him in the rotation, but the results were less than average. He went 14-16 in 48 starts, a 4.68 ERA (90 ERA+), a 1.53 WHIP and 4.71 K/9.
As they still liked Mesa’s stuff, he was moved to the pen in 1994. Without the worry of going through the lineup a few times, Mesa became a pleasant success, a 3.82 ERA (123 ERA+, the first positive of his career), his WHIP dipped a bit to 1.329 and his K/9 rate jumped to 7.8 over 51 appearances and 73 IP.
After the death of Steve Olin is spring training 1993, the closer duties were split between Eric Plunk, Derek Lilliquist and Jerry Dipoto. All did very well that year, but 1994 was a different story. Dipoto had been dealt, Plunk was moved back to his preferred role of setup man and Jeff Russell and Steve Farr both struggled in the closer’s role. Heading out of spring training, Mesa was given the job and had one of the most dominant relief seasons ever by an Indian. He appeared in 62 games, finishing 57 of them, had 46 saves, leading the league, a miniscule 1.13 ERA (418 ERA+ !!), a WHIP of 1.031 and 8.2 K/9. He made the All-Star team, finished 2nd in Cy Young voting and 4th in MVP voting. He was pretty good in the postseason as well, a 2.70 ERA over 10 IP.
He was not superhuman in 1996, 39 saves in 69 appearances, a 3.73 ERA (130 ERA+), 1.341 WHIP and 8.0 K/9 making another All-star squad. He had a blown lead in the 1996 ALDS against the Orioles as well. In 1997, he was again very good (195 ERA+, 7.5 K/9 in 82.1 IP), but was not the full-time closer, splitting the duties with Mike Jackson.
But Mesa’s everlasting memory as an Indian occurred on that fateful day, October 26, 1997. Game 7 in Miami, Tribe up 2-1, Mesa came in to close things out against Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla and Charles Johnson. Alou singles to center to start the inning, but Mesa struck out Bonilla. Johnson singled to right, moving Alou to third. After Greg Zaun pinch ran for Johnson, Craig Counsell hit a long line drive deep down the right field line, scoring Alou with the tying run. Mesa would retire Jim Eisenreich on a grounder to Baerga, retiring the side, but the damage had been done.
Although Nagy got the loss in the 11th inning, Mesa ended up being the scapegoat for that game. Truly the guy who should get more of the blame was David Justice, who struck out in the 3rd with runners on first and second and again in the 5th with runners on first and third. Or even Jim Thome, who hit into two double plays that game. Mesa would really struggle in 1998, a 5.17 ERA (92 ERA+), 1.500 WHIP and only a 5.8 K/9 in 54 IP. He would be dealt to the Giants that July with Shawon Dunston and Alvin Morman for Jacob Cruz and Steve Reed.
After becoming a free agent, Mesa enjoyed a productive career with the Mariners, Phillies, Pirates and Rockies, before wrapping up things with the Tigers and Phillies one last time in 2007. The biggest controversy with Mesa ended up being his feud with Omar Vizquel. In Vizquel’s autobiography in 2002, he squarely put the blame for the 1997 loss on Mesa. Mesa vowed to plunk him every chance he got after the book was released. He got him in his only chance in 2002 with the Phillies and once more in 4 PAs with the Rockies in 2006. On a personal note, Mesa’s son Jesse is a senior infielder for the College of Charleston Cougars.
If Mesa had started his career as a reliever, he would have cracked the Top 10 lists in a couple of categories. As it was, he finished his career with 321 saves, good enough for 14th all-time and 1022 appearances, 11th all-time. He finished his Indian career 3rd in saves (104) and games finished (195). The only season he did not wear #49 was in 1993 when Bob Milacki was on the roster.
*during the Manhattan Project, plutonium was referred to 49 because 4 is the last digit in plutonium’s atomic number (94) and 9 is the last digit in Pu-239, the weapon-grade fissile isotope used in nuclear bombs.
A Brief History
The only other player who gave Mesa a run for his top spot would be Tom Candiotti. Originally an amateur free agent signing by the Royals after pitching for the Victoria (BC) Mussels in the independent Northwest League. The Brewers snagged him that same year in the 1980 Rule 5 draft after he threw 8 CG in 17 starts for the Jacksonville Suns (Southern-AA). He spent 1981 in El Paso and was injured all of 1982. From 1983 to 1985 he shuffled between AA and AAA and got two cups of coffee with the Brewers in 1983 and 1984.
He became a free agent in October 1985 and signed with the Indians two months later. From 1986 to 1990 he averaged 31 starts, 3.66 ERA (113 ERA+), 216 IP, 1.306 WHIP and 5.6 K/9, accumulating 17.7 WAR over those five seasons. As Candiotti would become a free agent at the end of 1991, he was dealt to the Blue Jays with Turner Ward for Mark Whiten, Glenallen Hill, Denis Boucher and cash. He pitched another six seasons with the Dodgers, another season and a half with A’s before making his final 7 appearances (2 starts) back with the Tribe in 1999.
The knuckleballer is 4th all-time in Tribe history with 53 wild pitches and concluded his Tribe career 73-66, 3.62 ERA (115 ERA+), 45 CG, 1.291 WHIP, 5.7 K/9 in 1201.2 IP.
The One Year Wonders
Mel Harder, Ray Gardner, Jack Spring, Juan Pizarro, Mark Ballinger, Dick Bosman, Cardell Camper, Gary Gray, Bob Milacki, John Rocker, Nerio Rodriguez, Alex Herrera, Jason Beverlin, Dave Elder and Jake Robbins all wore uniform #49 for only one season.
The All-Time List
Mel Harder RP (1929) 0-2, 23 G, 1 GS, 6.61 ERA, 49 IP, 63 ERA+; switched to #18 in 1930
Ray Gardner SS, 2B, PR (1930) 077/077/077 -61 OPS+, 14 PA; was #34 in 1929
Juan Pizarro RP (1969) 3-3, 48 G, 4 GS, 3.16 ERA, 82.2 IP, 119 ERA+; also #43 in 1969; traded with Ken Harrelson and Dick Ellsworth from Red Sox for Sonny Siebert, Joe Azcue and Vicente Romo; sold to Athletics
Mark Ballinger RP (1971) 1-2, 18 G, 0 GS, 4.67 ERA, 34.2 IP, 83 ERA+
Gary Gray PH, DH, 1B, LF (1980) 148/193/278 27 OPS+, 57 PA; traded with Larry McCall and Mike Bucci by Rangers for David Clyde and Jim Norris; Rule 5 draftee by Mariners
Jeff Barkley RP (1984-1985) 0-3, 24 G, 0 GS, 5.40 ERA, 45 IP, 78 ERA+
Tom Candiotti SP (1986-1991, 1999) 73-66, 183 G, 174 GS, 3.62 ERA, 1201.2 IP, 115 ERA+; traded with Turner Ward to Blue Jays for Mark Whiten, Glenallen Hill and Denis Boucher
Denis Boucher SP (1991-1992) 3-6, 13 G, 12 GS, 7.07 ERA, 63.2 IP, 57 ERA+; also #37 in 1992; traded with Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill by Blue Jays for Tom Candiotti and Turner Ward; expansion draftee by Rockies
Jose Mesa RP, SP (1992-1998) 33-36, 341 G, 48 GS, 3.88 ERA, 647.1 IP, 116 ERA+; All-Star in 1995, 1996; 2nd in Cy Young voting in 1995; 4th in MVP voting in 1995; also #33 in 1993; traded by Orioles for Kyle Washington; traded with Shawon Dunston and Alvin Morman to Giants for Jacob Cruz and Steve Reed
Bob Milacki RP, SP (1993) 1-1, 5 G, 2 GS, 3.38 ERA, 16 IP, 131 ERA+
Nerio Rodriguez RP (2002) 0-0, 1 G, 0 GS, 0.00 ERA, 0.1 IP, no ERA+; traded to Cardinals for Neil Simoneaux
Jason Beverlin RP (2002) 0-0, 4 G, 0 GS, 7.36 ERA, 7.1 IP, 62 ERA+; claimed on waivers by Tigers
Alex Herrera RP (2002) 0-0, 5 G, 0 GS, 0.00 ERA, 5.1 IP, no ERA+; claimed off waivers from Rockies; switched to #59 in 2003
Dave Elder RP (2003) 1-1, 4 G, 0 GS, 19.29 ERA, 2.1 IP, 26 ERA+; was #47 in 2002
Jake Robbins RP (2004) 0-0, 2 G, 0 GS, 5.40 ERA, 1.2 IP, 98 ERA+
Tony Sipp RP (2009, 2012) 2-0, 46 G, 0 GS, 2.93 ERA, 40 IP, 146 ERA+; switched to #46 in 2010 (2012 stats not included)
Statistics and such
Other fun facts, the uniform #49 has been worn 40 times by 22 different players covering 33 seasons of a possible 84 seasons since 1929. Uniform #49 was shared in a season six times, 1991, 1992, 1993, 2002, 2003 and 2004. It was shared by three players in 2002.