My Dad – who grew up loving baseball and was a pretty good pitcher – was on the verge of playing for St. Louis when he was drafted into the army. Dad came out of World War II with a bad shrapnel wound to the head that forever ruined his pitching and, consequently, his dream of playing in the major leagues. But Dad never lost his love for baseball. He also loved watching football. He couldn’t care less about basketball because a) he never went to college and b) he was kind of an Archie Bunker, and there were just too many non-white players in basketball.
Mom, sadly, had no interest in sports. She was clueless. If I had told her the Indians were playing baseball in December and were wearing brown and orange uniforms, she would have believed it. The only time she noticed a televised game was when there something else she wanted to watch on TV; then it was a source of profound irritation. During a football game she’d ask, “How much longer is this going to be on?” and then Dad and I would tell her, “Don’t worry, they just sounded the two-minute warning.” Of course, then we’d laugh like hell when Mom actually thought that meant “two minutes.”
Sadly, not one of his three children inherited Dad’s athleticism. My brother hated all sports; I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because playing in any sport requires some degree of focus in order to not die, and Bill has never had any focus. When he was a child, he would throw objects up into the air and watch them plummet to earth, ultimately landing on top of his skull (maybe could that be considered a legitimate sport? Bonk Ball?). Bill also loved getting wasted (buzz ball?) and finding creative ways to elude law enforcement (fuzz ball?)*. As for my sister – well, she always got bored too quickly. The day I took Dad to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, Barb spent the afternoon shopping and dining on pancakes. Barb likes to tell me that perhaps she would consider sitting through a game if the players had to juggle knives while running the bases, or if the outfielders had to catch the ball while whistling and hopping on one foot. (Apparently, Barb has no interest in a sporting event unless there’s some element of immediate danger and/or personal humiliation involved.)
Out of the three kids, I came the closest to sharing Dad’s appreciation of our national pastime. I wasn’t athletic enough to be much good at playing softball and baseball (although I enjoyed it – translation - it was one of the few gym activities that didn’t make me puke), but I was a great spectator. I loved watching baseball on TV with my father, and can remember how much fun I had going downtown to the old stadium to see players like Joe Charboneau, Buddy Bell, Andre Thornton and Dennis Eckersley. Oh, and I was totally in love with Duane Kuiper (as were most of the girls at Willowick Junior High), but he ran off and married somebody else, so it’s best we don’t talk about him again.
Now, given this was Cleveland, I probably don’t have to tell you that the Indians sucked back then (for any out-of-towners reading this, it’s safe to assume that if a sports team was in Cleveland, it had way many more bad years than good). It was considered a decent year if we finished in fifth place. Also, the Indians didn’t have the luxury of playing in a park that was intended for baseball, like Jacobs Field (sorry, but I’m not calling it Progressive Field, now or ever, and you can't make me). Back then the Tribe played baseball in a football stadium, so with the exception of Opening Day or the weekend the Yankees were in town, the place was mostly a yawning sea of empty chairs dotted with an occasional cluster of drunken fans. I can remember how easily my friends and I annoyed the crap out of centerfielder Rick Manning because we wouldn’t stop yelling insults from the bleachers. Ah, those were the days. We were young and we stupidly and optimistically believed a losing team could still perform miracles. Also, that’s where and when we finally got to drink beer (which probably accounted for much of the afore-mentioned stupidity/optimism).
Of course, baseball wasn’t always a bust. I did get to see Len Barker’s perfect game on television (and wrote about it in my diary because hey, even back then I knew I’d probably never see another one!). I do recall 1995 and 1997 when the Indians went to the World Series … and even though the Tribe wasn’t victorious, this town finally got to be happy and optimistic (without having the “stupidly” attached to it). Also, the Indians had really memorable, nice-guy players in the 90s: Orel Hershiser, Charlie Nagy, and Omar Vizquel, among others. It was just a fun time to be a fan.
Not for Dad, of course. Dad didn’t watch sports to have “fun” in the traditional sense … he just loved to bitch, and he found reason to bitch about everybody, no matter how fleetingly fantastic they were. There I’d be, cheering on Jim Thome during a season when he was trying for 50 homeruns, and Dad’s contribution was generally, “He’s too fat - they should get rid of him.” Everybody was “awful,” “terrible,” “sickening,” or “pathetic.” And yet... if a game was on television... he never missed it. I think Dad somehow found tremendous joy in criticizing base-running, crotch-scratching millionaires.
(I, of course, am nothing like him, and I am certainly thankful for that.)
But Dad didn’t confine his rancor to baseball. I watched football games with him as well – well, at least up until halftime. Dad often missed the ends of Browns games because Sam Rutigliano or Bill Belichick or (insert any name of a luckless head coach) was “awful,” “terrible,” “sickening” or “pathetic.” (If those guys had needed to run anywhere, I’m sure “too fat” would have been thrown in there as well.) Usually Dad would fly into a rage over the Browns’ predictable “run-run-pass” offense and, fearing he’d have a heart attack, would spend the second half of the games puttering outside in his garage. Then, when it was all over, he’d wander in and casually ask me who won. If the Browns won, he’d grunt and saunter back outside to rake a leaf, shovel dog poop or avoid my mother. But if the Browns lost, then he’d laugh sadistically and shout, “Good!” “Good for ‘em! That’s good! I hope they lose every game! They’re ______!” (Insert “awful,” “terrible,” “sickening” or “pathetic.”)
And no, football wasn’t always a bust. We never made it to the big show during my conscious lifetime, but we came close. Those were exciting times. Of course, then somebody from another team would intercept the ball in the end zone or drive their offense 98 yards down the field and break our hearts all over again, but it was so much fun thinking “this time” would be different.
I guess I got to thinking about all this today when I was driving to work and heard the latest Indians’ commercial on the radio … it has something to do with “tradition.” I think maybe this marketing move is replacing the “What If?” campaign we heard all summer... at least until it became apparent the end of that sentence was, “the Indians crash and burn again this year?” But seriously – “tradition” – well, I’m kinda thinking they should have thought that one through. Cleveland teams have a tradition of losing, and often losing at the last possible minute. Cleveland fans have a tradition of being amazing resilient and incredibly enthusiastic about mediocre to poor professional teams. We are a people who, in the face of awful, terrible, sickening and pathetic reality, still show up and believe that somehow it’s all going to change one day. As we say goodbye to another disappointing season of baseball and try to believe another new quarterback is going to be the Chosen One who finally lifts our curse, we mentally prepare ourselves for yet more disappointment … because yes, that is our tradition.**
*My apologies to our esteemed law enforcement community. You guys are the greatest, and I’m sorry Bill put you through hell.
**Well, until this year. This year we’re going to win the whole thing. I just know it.