I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie. It was the 1970s, and Cleveland was known as the “mistake on the lake”. Yes, I was living there, and remember well, when both the Cuyahoga River, and the Mayor’s hair caught fire. On the sports scene, the once proud Browns NFL franchise was in decline, and the NBA had just put an expansion team in town. The NHL didn’t want anything to do with Cleveland, but the start-up WHA had a team.
And then there were the Indians. If you have ever seen Major League (a movie that makes this 51-year-old cry every time he sees it), then you have a sense of how bad the Indians were. Lest you think that they exaggerated the depths of despair of being a fan, let me tell you…they actually went easy on the Tribe.
My father passed away from a heart attack when I was only six-years-old. I am the youngest of four children, with my next oldest sibling being 11 years my senior. Within a couple of years of my dad’s passing, all of my siblings were married, leaving just my mom and I.
One of my most vivid memories of my life before my tenth birthday, was a trip to the old Cleveland Stadium for my first major league baseball game. I would like to say that I had dreamed of the day, but the truth is that I have no memory of pining for the opportunity. That day the Indians played the Minnesota Twins. I remember that the Indians won, and that someone hit a grand slam home run. What I remember most was the sights, the sounds and the smell of a ball park. The green grass, the lights, the hot dogs. All of it resonated with me.
With my dad gone, and being raised as what amounted to being an only child, I had a lot of time on my hands. Somewhere along the way I got some baseball cards. Only a few at first, but over time it grew. Once, while rummaging in the basement, I found an old baseball glove. The glove fit on my left hand, not my right. I went to the playground and was messing around. Each time I would catch the ball, I would take off the glove to throw the ball back in. Finally, my older brother noticed, and bought me my first baseball glove. I proceeded to spend that summer wearing it out.
From the time I got up in the morning, until the street lights came on, as often as I could, I was playing ball in some way. If I wasn’t at a school yard in a pick-up game, I was playing with a rubber ball against the garage. During that time I wore out a LOT of rubber baseballs, and broke quite a few windows. The garage at that house had 24 windows. At one time or another I am sure I broke them all. Some of them were shattered multiple times until they were replaced with Plexiglas.
When the weather got in the way, or when it was winter, I played a dice game of baseball that I had invented myself. I filled notebooks with “statistics” of imaginary games. I clipped box scores from the newspaper to get the names of players, and read the backs of baseball cards to create my own league. Strangely, despite my efforts at making the games fair, all these dice based games had two things in common. The Indians seemed always to win. And Buddy Bell put up Hall of Fame numbers.
Buddy Bell was my idol. He was a right handed third baseman, and I was a left handed fielding, right handed hitting first baseman, but that didn’t stop me. His poster hung on the door of my bedroom for years. That poster was torn and taped. Once it was even thrown up on, but it survived. In the 1978-79 off season, when Cleveland traded him for Toby Harrah, I cried. I was 15 years old, and I cried that my idol was traded. I never forgave them for that, and hated Toby Harrah the entire time he played in Cleveland.
During all this, certain aspects of my personality emerged.
First, I developed a passion for collecting things. I collected and sorted and saved thousands of baseball cards. Today my collecting has more to do with my visits to lighthouses, but I still have those cards, sitting on a shelf behind me as I write this posting.
Second, I learned how to study something by listening to the experts. In those days there were two or maybe three baseball games a week on TV. One was the Saturday afternoon, nationally televised, game of the week. I rarely missed it. The voices of Kurt Gowdy and Tony Kubek still ring in my head. To this day, when I watch a sport, I listen to what the commentators are saying, and I learn from their insights. It helped me become a semi-knowledgeable fan of NASCAR, a sport of which I knew nothing for the first 40 years of my life.
Third, I learned loyalty. I always imagined it was easy to be a fan of the L.A. Dodgers, or the New York Yankees, or the Boston Red Sox. Those teams were always competitive, and always seemed to win more often than they lost. To be a fan of the Cleveland Indians took massive amounts of loyalty. I learned that you don’t give up just because things aren’t going your way. If something is important to you, you must stick with it.
Baseball is my first love in life. Long before I was interested in girls, I loved the game. I have often said that the saddest morning of the year is the one after the last game of the World Series. Until then you can fake it and believe it is still summer. That morning the air always seems colder and the wind’s bite is stronger. And, even though the snow still flies, that day in February when the pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training signals an early spring far more reliably than a furry rodent.
I have come to enjoy other sports over the years. I watch football, and even have a fantasy football team. I have come to love watching NASCAR (I will talk about that sometime), and take some joy in annoying my non-race-fan friends with discussions about why I do or do not shop at certain stores. But, baseball is, and always will be, my first love.