I didn’t know they sucked so bad when I fell in love with them. Given my life-long love of the underdog, I might have picked the Cleveland Indians as my team anyway.
I was about 10 or 11 years old, I think, when my dad bought into a season-ticket package with a bunch of guys who had four front-row seats at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium. The seats were along the tarp, between third base and the outfield wall, giving us the visitor’s view of the field.
When you’re a kid, you have certain magical ideas about what can happen when you are THAT CLOSE to the action. I think it comes from the old movies, where players sidled up to the railing and signed autographs or shook hands with the fans.
For me, all I wanted was a ball. The idea that a major leaguer (or two or three of them) had touched it made all the difference to me. Now, I see those balls, fouls caught by fans or batting practice tokens tossed to the stands, at rummage sales for a couple bucks apiece. You can buy brand new ones, still in the box, online for less than $20 each.
Back then, though, the only way to get one was to have a player toss you one. Your hand grabbing the orb first in that sea of hands along the edge of the field.
In our first game in those seats, it rained. My dad bought me an Indians hat so maybe one of the guys would come by and say hi or at least wave. As I sat there, a little drown rat alone in the front row, Jamie Easterly emerged from the dugout with another player and began walking toward the bullpen.
If you don’t know who Jamie Easterly is, you’re not alone. A second-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in 1971, Easterly and I crossed paths near the end of his amazingly pedestrian 13-year career in which he went 23-33 with a 4.62 ERA. He played for the Brewers during their 1982 World Series run before being sent to Cleveland in 1983, which at that point served as the Devil’s Island of baseball.
Easterly was walking away from me, the distance nearly 20 feet and growing, when I surprised him and myself by yelling, “Throw me a ball!” For a polite, diminutive hermit of a child, that was pretty damned bold. However, I really wanted that ball.
Easterly took the ball out of his pocket and flipped it at me. I was alone, so it was mine for sure. It got closer, closer and then…
Bam. It hit my hands and bounced out, trickling out onto the stadium’s warning track. A precious prize, just out of reach.
I stared at it, as if I could some how make it come closer. There it was. Here I was. Never the twain shall meet. It was over. My ONE shot at a ball, done in by my complete lack of coordination.
Easterly looked back and noticed my plight. He stopped walking toward the pen and jogged over to the ball.
He picked it up and placed it firmly in my hand. “Now don’t drop it this time, kid, OK?” he said with almost a chuckle in his voice. He then trotted back to his teammate and prepared for the game, the rest of which was a total blur for me.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Jamie Easterly had set me up for a lifetime of heartbreak and disappointment. There was no rationale reason to like the Indians other than that one moment. However, they just grew on me. The more the guys at school teased me about my choice, the more I dug in and learned more about “my guys.” The worse they got, the more I kept waiting for “next year.”
I didn’t care that Sigmund Snopek was an asshole who wrote and heartily performed a song at Summerfest each year called, “Thank God This Isn’t Cleveland” in which he always promised if the Indians EVER finished higher than the Brewers in the standings, he would stop singing it. I think ten years had passed between his pledge and that moment. Even so, it was just because both teams sucked that year. My team just happened to suck less.
I so wanted Brook Jacoby to be the next Mike Schmidt when he slugged 32 homers in 1987, seemingly on an upward trajectory toward stardom. Instead, he became the next Joe Charboneau of my life: A brief flame, doused by the nature of playing in Cleveland. He would only hit 44 homers over the rest of his career, petering out in the early 1990s.
Greg Swindell would anchor a pitching staff that looked like it was put together for some goofball comedy. We had Tom Candiotti, a young knuckleballer, and Phil Niekro, an old knuckleballer. About 20 years separated the bookends of a “ship of fools” approach to pitching.
Still, I remember those guys like Rich Yett, Scott Bailes and Jim Kern because they would come to the rail at County Stadium every time I went to a Brewers/ Indians game and they would sign autographs for fans who essentially said, “Hi, could you sign this to me from whoever you are?”
I also remember someone telling me that when you’re a Cleveland fan, you don’t just get the regular heartbreak. God goes out of his way to really fuck with you.
We had Ray Chapman, the only man to be killed while playing a baseball game, in our history. We had the Curse of Rocky Colavito. We had Gabe Paul, who ran the team for about 20 years and treated it like a delusional family member standing over a brain-dead relative, saying, “I think he twitched there! He’s going to make it!”
However, in my lifetime, we had Little Lake Nellie, something that sounds far too benign to ever bring heartbreak. In 1993, the team looked a little less lifeless. Mike Hargrove was the manager (the man who played for us in the 1970s and ’80s and who was once dubbed “the Human Rain Delay” for his at-bats that seemed to last longer than the director’s cut of “The Godfather.”) and he had his guys moving up in the world. Young talent was surrounded by a few veteran pick ups and hope was eternal.
As a reward for a strong effort in spring training, Hargrove gave his guys a day off. Tim Crews, Steve Olin and Bob Ojeda decided to go fishing, using the time to bond as new teammates. What happened that day still has not been fully understood, but somehow, Crews had failed to see a 165-foot dock and slammed into it at a high rate of speed. Olin died instantly, Crews shortly after. Ojeda survived, but he would never again be the same. The team had to trade pitcher Kevin Wickander, as he couldn’t handle being in the locker room where he always saw his best friend, Olin. The team staggered to a sixth-place finish in the old AL East.
Even when we became good, it was always someone else’s year: In 1995, we bludgeoned our way to the World Series, pairing an aging, retread pitching rotation with a murderer’s row of homerun threats. When all-star Jack McDowell gave up six runs in five inning to the Tribe, a reporter asked about his performance. “It’s pretty fucking good when you only give up six runs to those guys,” he replied.
Still, our year turned out to be the year the Braves finally got their ring.
In 1997, it was the Marlins’ turn to show that a team whose owner was willing to spend ridiculous sums on a group of mercenaries could buy a World Series title before gutting the team and dumping players all over the league.
In 1998, it was the Yankees and their record-setting pace.
In 2001, it was the Mariners and their record-setting pace.
In 2007, it was 3-1 in the ALCS when Boston decided it needed another World Series.
Last year, it was the Cubs’ turn. Up 3-1 in the World Series, we couldn’t get it done.
Sisyphus in cleats.
There was always a reason why: Jim Poole’s slider to David Justice, Joe Brinkman running Doc Gooden out of the game, Ichiro, Ichiro, Ichiro…
Eric Wedge going for the kill in Boston, pushing his two best pitchers to go on short rest, getting drilled for it. Cliff Lee going from pitching God to shitbox for that ONE YEAR WE NEEDED HIM to pitching God again.
Fucking Trevor Bauer’s drone injury. Who else but the Indians would lose a guy to a fucking drone?
How we still have fans, I’ll never know.
And yet, there I was last night, glued to my TV, watching as the Tribe went for 22 wins in a row, a sentence so absurd to my younger self that it seems foreign to type it.
Down 2-1 to the Royals, the Indians had run themselves out of multiple chances:
- Runners on first and second, two outs in the fourth. 0 runs
- Ramirez caught stealing on a bullshit play in the sixth, right before Encarnacion singled and Bruce walked. Should have been bases loaded, one out, but instead it was first and second, two away and Santana grounded out to end the threat.
- Bases loaded, one out in the eighth with our two best hitters coming up. Both fouled out.
The pattern of that game and the history of that team just screamed, “Yep, this is my Tribe.” We’re batting against a closer with 26 saves and a nearly triple-digit fastball. We haven’t done shit since the third inning.
And yet, down to our last strike, the fans were screaming. They weren’t beaten. It was Francisco Lindor, who had gone 0-for-4 to that point in the game, who took a fastball the other way and smashed it off the wall, just grazing the tip of the outfielder’s glove, driving in pinch runner Erik Gonzalez to tie the game.
In the 10th, Ramirez led off with what should have been a pedestrian base hit, but instead, he was flying out of the box and went for two. This is the same guy who got caught stealing earlier in the game. The same guy who wouldn’t be playing this year at second if Jason Kipnis weren’t constantly injured. He’s a utility guy that looks more like your local grocer than a baseball player, at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds.
He challenges the arm of one of the better centerfielders in the game, who had no reason to be concerned that this human fireplug might try to take an extra base. The fact Ramirez did startled him and the throw was off line. The next batter, Jay Bruce (a financial dumping trade by the Mets), lined a pitch into right field, scoring Ramirez.
22 in a row. And counting.
I don’t expect the Indians to keep this up. In fact, watching this streak, the Indians fan in me keeps saying, “They’re peaking too soon!” I see a 3-2 series loss in the Division Series and a lot of people second-guessing Terry Francona and asking if the streak did more harm than good.
I see more heartbreak, because that’s what you get when you are a Tribe fan.
And yet, I’ll be back again.
Watching, hoping, aching, crying.
And I never once got mad at Jamie Easterly for getting me into this mess in the first place.