I’m root-root-rooting for the home team – The Cleveland Indians. If I didn’t my father’s ghost would haunt me. He snagged seats for their last World Series win in 1948 and the loss in 1954. He stuck with them for another, largely dismal, 42 years until his death in 1996. It’s possible their loss to the Atlanta Braves in the 1995 series is what killed him, though the move of the Browns to Baltimore the same year couldn’t have helped any.
An early photo shows him in his work duds playing catch with me in the backyard. I appear to have been about five. He once told me he would have liked to have been a shortstop or a sportscaster, but many are called and few are chosen. So, he watched the Tribe on TV – first in black-and-white then in living color — with the sound turned down and the superior play-by-play of Jimmy Dudley on the radio.
When I was in school if you got good grades, or performed some useful task – like being a crossing guard – you got free Indians’ tickets. This was less generous than it sounds. The absurdly cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium – far better suited to football than baseball – seated 88,000. Given the perpetual inadequacy of the team, it was lucky to sell 10,000 tickets to a game.
So, the giveaways were probably smart marketing. The free kids were accompanied by paying adults, and the outfit could also count on making a buck on pennants, hats, programs, hot dogs, peanuts and crackerjack. Not to mention the hometown brew – Carling’s Black Label beer. It also seems to me the freebies were for frigid early spring games against loser teams so they were even more unsellable.
I got to see Ted Williams hit one of his last homeruns in 1960, his final season, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn pitch, and Rocky Colavito strike out – a lot. My favorite players as a kid were Minnie Minoso who had a weird bat-at-twelve-o’clock stance and Vic Power who had a cool name.
I played left field in neighborhood pick-up ball, but Little League put me off by taking much of the fun out of the game due to overly zealous adult fans and coaches. I collected baseball cards, but not obsessively like some kids. And ultimately I didn’t have the old man’s staying power. Losing year after year to the hated Yankees wore me out. And in the era of Jim Brown, watching Cleveland football was a lot less painful than sticking with the heartbreak kids.
By high school, football and basketball were displacing the national pastime in the affections of younger fans. The old mitt gathered dust in the basement. And when I was 25, I moved to a state with no major-league sports team. And so I became a lapsed fan, except for the NFL where I was a fickle enthusiast for whichever team was beautiful to watch at the moment – the Oakland of Stabler and Biletnikoff, the Niners of Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice, and the Belichick-Brady Patriots.
Rooting for the rivals-in-perpetuity Steelers and Bengals remains unthinkable, as does even mentioning the name of the Ravens who were stolen from Cleveland by the greedy owner and turncoat Art Modell, who is damned forever to a lower ring of hell.
I have never attended a ballgame at any of the nifty-looking newer stadiums that were inaugurated by Camden Yards and include The Jake in Cleveland and the new Nats park in Washington, though I’ve driven past all three.
But if I weren’t far away from home, a famous cheapskate, and unenthusiastic about watching baseball in 40-degree weather, I would have bought a ticket to see Cleveland try to beat the Cubs in honor of my dad. His loyalty to his hometown team never wavered for sixty long years. One of the many ways in which he was a better man than I.