Over the next six months we will analyze every aspect of the Cleveland Indians down to the frequency with which the left-handed relievers trim their toenails. Seriously, I saw it in the draft file. But it is important, on Opening Day, to remember why we love baseball. To realize why we have waited for next year for 64 years, why we could talk to our fathers about baseball when we couldn’t talk about anything else, why when we start descending over airports the first thing we pick out in a new city is a baseball diamond, as though that reassures us that we are not landing in alien territory.
I watch all sports, but I can recall moments from baseball games that happened decades ago with more clarity than I can remember breakfast. My first game was on my eighth birthday. Denny McLain beat Luis Tiant 4-0. I can remember a game against the Brewers in the old Stadium in the early 80′s, when I caught my first foul ball off the bat of Cecil Cooper, then the next batter, Ben Oglivie hit a foul ball into upper deck in right field that crashed into a seat with such force that we could hear the seat shatter from behind home plate.
I can remember Don Deckinger’s blown call in the ’85 series and Bill Buckner’s muff the next year. I can remember the 1979 series because I lived in Pittsburgh then. The Pirates were down 3-1 and they had used every pitcher except Jim Rooker, who was at the end of his career and hadn’t pitched a meaningful game in months. Rooker gave them five innings of three-hit ball on an arm that would only pitch eighteen more innings after that, and the Pirates came back and won the series. The key moment in Game 7 was a fly ball by Eddie Murray with the bases loaded that Dave Parker caught with his back against the wall in right field. Like it happened yesterday.
I remember shaking hands with Gaylord Perry at a bank somewhere when I was about ten. A couple of years later Perry would win fifteen straight games. I figured out early in the streak that he would win his seventeenth straight on my birthday, so my dad got tickets. The streak ended at fifteen, then there was a doubleheader and Perry ended up pitching the day before my birthday, so I saw Dick Bosman instead. Those who are old enough know that Bosman threw a no-hitter, missing a perfect game on his own throwing error. That’s why you watch baseball, because something amazing can happen every time you watch.
I remember going to a doubleheader between the Indians and the Tigers in May 1974. We left Barberton in our shorts because it was 70 degrees. By the time we got to Cleveland it was about 50, with a stiff breeze blowing off the lake that made it feel like 30. My dad bought me a windbreaker and a sweatshirt, and I was still cold. When I cleaned my dad’s house out last summer after he died, I found the windbreaker.
The Indians in the 70′s had some good players, just not enough of them. In the early 70′s Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Dave Duncan, George Hendrick, and Chris Chambliss all played for the Indians within a year or so of each other, but we could never put enough players around them, so they were traded for prospects. Sound familiar? A couple of years later, Dennis Eckersley, Duane Kuiper, and Rick Manning all came up together, and it looked like we were really building something. One year I bet someone that Manning would have a better batting average than Rod Carew. Maybe his WAR was higher. At his best, Manning played center field as well as anyone in Cleveland in my lifetime, including Kenny Lofton. Lofton never came in on balls nearly as well as Manning. I can still see Manning flying through the air, catching a ball inches off the ground, in that godawful all-red uniform.
I lived through Charlie Spikes, Ted Cox, Joe Charboneau, and Cory Snyder. At one point or another I would have sworn they would all be in Cooperstown. They may have passed through, but not to collect a plaque.
My oldest daughter got to go to games in the old stadium. After about the third inning we would go up to the very last row in the empty upper deck, and she would run from the left field foul pole, around behind home plate to the right field foul pole, then all the way back. Now she’s training for a marathon. (My wife’s main memory of that place was trying to find a place that was clean enough to change a diaper.)
I remember going to Indians games in the 90′s. About half the people in the stands were actually watching the game. For the rest it was a social occasion. Those folks probably haven’t been to a game since Mike Hargrove got fired. If you think all we need to get back to the 90′s is an owner who will spend money, consider this: John Hart drafted Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome. He traded Joe Carter for Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga. He traded Ed Taubensee for Kenny Lofton and Felix Fermin for Omar Vizquel. The Indians in the 90′s were smart and lucky. John Hart spent years trying to get one starting pitcher that could beat the Yankees in the playoffs. There was a rumor one year that the Mariners offered Randy Johnson for Chad Ogea and Brian Giles. Hart said no, but he kept trading for veterans instead of giving Giles a chance, then a couple of years later he traded Giles for Ricardo Rincon. Remember that when you want the Indians to hold on to a prospect.