The other night I let Sophie stay up past her bedtime to listen to the last inning of the game between the Red Sox and Indians. One of the things I love about the Internet is the ability to listen to every Indians game with the Cleveland radio play-by-play announcers making the calls — it’s really kept me in touch with my hometown. Ironically, baseball was not a huge part of childhood in northeast Ohio; during the ’80s, there was little to root for when the Indians took the field. Oh, each year there was a glimmer of hope for the home team that lasted until the end of April, by which time the Tribe was usually in the basement of their division. In addition to the woes of the Indians, baseball was just never a presence in our house, which is strange, because if you ask my dad about the ’48 and ’54 championship Indians teams, he can rattle off players and some of their accomplishments. The radio was always tuned to music in our house, though, and I found televised games a bore. I took in the occasional game, but the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was a dungeon: cold, damp and cavernous. It wasn’t a lot of fun to sit in the stands.
The only Indians game I recall vividly occurred in the mid ’80s. It was actually a doubleheader, and my cousin Dave and I rode the rapid transit downtown, to take in both games and then hear Crosby, Stills and Nash give a full-length concert afterward. It was a perfect day: Sun shining; women roaming around in bikini tops; hippies singing out of tune at the top of their lungs; and the Tribe won both games. It was unbelievable. Dave and I returned home around 11 PM and man, was my dad pissed. Turned out he didn’t realize it was a doubleheader and a rock concert. I think he was just worried.
I credit the movies for stirring my interest in baseball. I cried my eyes out each time I saw Gary Cooper gave the Lou Gehrig farewell speech in The Pride of the Yankees; I cheered each time I watched Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs shatter the stadium lights in The Natural. However, it was the release of Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham in 1988 that made me appreciate the nature of the game. I don’t believe any other baseball film has ever captured the essence of life on the field and off as well as Bull Durham — plus, Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and the late Trey Wilson are a dream cast. Almost a year later, David S. Ward’s comedy about the hapless Cleveland Indians, Major League, hit theaters. The film, starring Tom Berenger, Rene Russo, Charlie Sheen and the incomparable Bob Uecker, is a love letter to the city of Cleveland, a town with a self-confidence problem ever since the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969. While both films are very funny, they are also hopeful, which is what I love about the game. One day, your team can lose by 10 runs and look like complete incompetents; the next night, those same players can be in sync and look like champions.
With so many games in the baseball season, every day offers the possibility that things may turn around. After any great win, you find yourself saying, “Maybe they aren’t so bad.” True, delusional fans (like me) repeat this line to themselves up until their team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. When that happens, and the season is over, you then find yourself muttering that other mantra, “Wait until next year.”
During the ‘90s I became a hardcore Indians fan. It helped that they had become a championship team, with great young players like Kenny Lofton, Omar Visquel, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Jim Thome and that whack job slugger (and future Hall of Famer) Manny Ramirez. I bled Indians red and blue and proudly wore my ’70s era crooked ‘C’ cap around Los Angeles. To paraphrase Kevin Costner’s other great baseball film, Field of Dreams, I died a little when the Indians lost the 1995 World Series; died a lot when they lost in 1997. I still replay the moment the baseball skipped off of Indians pitcher Charles Nagy’s glove in the bottom of the 11th and the Florida Marlins’ Craig Counsell ran home to give the Marlins the championship. I fell to my knees in our apartment and sank to the floor. I hate Craig Counsell.
Each spring, when the birds begin chirping and trees spout new leaves, when the winter coats are cast aside and the sun hangs longer in the sky, you begin to hear the crack of the bat and the smack of leather gloves. There are crowds cheering and players shouting, “Hey batta batta,” and from the open windows of speeding cars and through the massive sound systems of baseball cathedrals, you hear the rock and roll of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.” Baseball is back, summer is just around the corner, and every team has a chance to be a champion. With 162 games to play, anything is possible. There is hope.
Because of my obsession, Sophie and Jacob have also taken to the game. I’m not ashamed to admit how thrilled I am that they’re Indians fans. They’re free to root for any team they choose, yet they can’t help but feed off of my enthusiasm. Sophie keeps track of wins and losses with different color markers on a team schedule and sometimes sits on my lap in the office while we listen to the Tribe play ball. I never had the experience of hanging out with my dad, listening to the game and discussing what’s happening on the field. We never bonded like that. Moreover, I never had that comforting arm when defeat was so overwhelming I cried. Two years ago, the Indians came one game from making it back to the World Series. That was when I knew that Sophie was in love with this game, and that was when she learned that things don’t always work out the way you want them to. As the Indians slowly walked to their dugout and the Boston Red Sox celebrated their victory, Sophie broke down and cried. “It can’t be over. They have to win.”
I took her in my arms and she sobbed into my shoulder. “It’s only a game,” I said to her, hoping this line would somehow ease her pain. Then I told her what I told myself:
“There’s always next year.”