This time of year is such a special time for me! Spring is officially here, at least by the calendars standards, not necessarily by what the weather is actually outside, and that means baseball season is about to begin. Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, OH, I began playing T-Ball at age six, not really because I had any interest in it, but because my parents wanted to find something else for me to enjoy doing besides listening to music, which was the main thing I wanted to do when I wasn’t in school.
That was the summer of 1993, and if you know baseball history at all, you know that the Cleveland Indians at that point in time had been, to be brutally honest, mediocre for almost forty years. Thus I knew nothing about baseball, the Indians or anything sports related at that point. I didn’t know the positions or anything and my coach, who was a very patient man, would always have to tell me where to go on the field.
I continued to play T-ball every summer through 1994, and 1995, when I was eight and could only play one more year. As any fan of baseball knows, the summer of 1995 was kind of the greatest summer the Cleveland Indians have had to this point in my lifetime. They would go on to win 100 games in a strike shortened 144 game season, and that summer I still didn’t know anything about baseball. Enter my grandfather, who loved the Indians, and baseball more than any man I have ever known. I will never forget one summer day in June when he called me aside in my backyard after one of my T-ball games had ended.
“Jimmy” he said (because that was what my grandfather called me at that point, later on as I got older it became “Jim”) “It is time you learn some about the game of baseball, like where each position is on the diamond, so when your coach says ‘go play shortstop’ you know where to go on the field.”
“Grandpa, I really don’t need to know that because Coach Ron always just tells me where to go” I responded.
“Trust me on this, as you get older here you ‘ll want to know. Why don’t we start by having you watch the Indians games with me sometimes” he said gently (that is another thing about my grandfather, he had patience that is truly unparalleled)
“Well, it is kind of boring” I said “But I can do that for a little bit some”
Over that summer of 95 I was true to my word and watched snippets of games with my grandfather and he patiently answered any question I had about the game. By the time autumn rolled around and the Indians entered the playoffs for the first time in 41 years, I began to actually enjoy watching the games, and remember feeling quite devastated when the Tribe lost the World Series that year to the Atlanta Braves.
You baseball historians out there would know that the Indians had a sellout streak that reached from June of 1995 to April of 2001, so my grandfather and I didn’t get to go to many games together. The company my Dad worked for had season tickets, so he once or twice a year would be able to get tickets to a game. He managed to get four tickets in June of 1995 and he, my mom, me and of course my grandfather came with us to my first Indians game. The Tribe won 11-0 that night over the Baltimore Orioles, and I remember how much my grandfather was enjoying his first trip to Jacob’s Field.
From that point on, my grandfather and I would forever share a bond over the baseball. He was the one who invented the ‘sockball’ which any of you who have been at the summer holiday gatherings my parents and I have hosted in recent years, are familiar with. They are basically rolled up socks that you can hit around with an aluminum bat in your backyard without having the threat of breaking any windows or body parts with a real baseball. In order to help me develop my baseball skills growing up, my grandfather figured this out, and made the first ‘sockballs’ I owned, to help me practice! I then complimented his creation with one of my own, the game of ‘sockball’ in my backyard, complete with strange ground rules for when the ball gets caught in any of the large trees in my backyard, and a home run porch: the garage roof!
Our Indians bond also grew, as since games were sold out and my family and I didn’t have cable until 1999, the next three baseball seasons from 1996-1998 I would often spend summer evenings over my grandparents house to watch the games that were not on free TV sitting on the coach next to my grandfather who would sit in his recliner and continue to tell stories about baseball and the Indians to me, filling in my increasing interest in the history of the Cleveland boys of summer. He always had such an excitement whenever he told me about Tribe legends such as Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, Larry Doby, and Satchel Paige.
One other occasion during the sellout streak, I won two tickets from a roller rink I often attended growing up. I immediately knew I wanted to go the game with my grandfather. So on May 11th, 2000 we headed downtown on the rapid to see the Indians square off against the Kansas City Royals. It was a rainy Thursday evening and the game was delayed at the beginning. However, by the time we got to our seats, the grounds crew was coming out to take the tarp off the field! We watched as the players warmed up and settled down to watch the game. Indians slugger Manny Ramirez would slug a grand slam home run in the first inning as the Indians were on their way to a 16-0 rout of the Royals, leaving my grandfather and I with more great memories to talk about and share over the years.
Once the Indians sellout streak ended and I grew older into high school and college and beyond, my grandfather and I would go to many more Tribe games together, and also would watch them on TV together when we would have the opportunity. Even when we weren’t at the game or watching together, the moment something amazing and exciting would happen it was always a race to the phone to see who would call whom first!
On September 29th, 2010 my mom and Grandfather decided last minute to go down to the final two games of the season. Yes you read that right, it was a double header, and one of the twi-night variety, meaning the first game started at 4pm and the second game would start 20 minutes after the first one ended. You could see both games for the price of one ticket! I had dreamed of doing this for years and we decided to seize the opportunity and go! The Indians would win both games that evening, which included a very exciting 4-3 win over the Tigers and Justin Verlander in game two, in which Jason Donald executed a perfect suicide squeeze bunt on the sixth inning to bring home Michael Brantley with what proved to be the winning run! It was a truly amazing time that was everything I dreamed attendance of a double header would be! I didn’t know it at the time, but it would also be the last game my grandfather and I would attend together.
That following summer of 2011, my grandfather’s health began to decline and he didn’t have the energy to go down to the games in person anymore. However, we still watched the games at home together and one particularly stands out in my memory. It was July 7th, 2011 and the Indians trailed 4-0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. My grandfather was over at my house, and at this point having trouble with his lungs, and thus not driving very much on his own. I was set to give him a ride home, but my Mom said ‘you might as well wait until the game is over’ and so we kinda just all agreed and sat back down. I have since been forever grateful for my Mom suggesting that for what would happen shortly afterwards!
Incredibly the Indians staged a stunning rally! Before you knew it, the Tribe was trailing 4-1 and had the bases loaded with one out and their best, though often injured power hitter, Travis Hafner was up. On the first pitch Hafner crushed a belt high fastball that sailed well over the right field fence for an unbelievable walk off grand slam home run netting the Indians a 5-4 victory!!! As we all screamed and yelled with zealous enjoyment I remember looking back at my grandfather who had stood up from the couch with his arms raised exclaiming ‘oh my goodness, he did it!!!!”
That would be the last incredible win my grandfather and I would watch together, as in November of 2011 he would go on to join my grandmother in Heaven. We are now on the cusp of the beginning of the second baseball season without my grandfather. The Indians have finally decided to start spending money again adding such star power as Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, not to mention hiring the managerial genius that is Terry Francona! Thus, while I find myself excited beyond belief for this season to start, I can’t help but feel a bit sad that my grandfather isn’t here to enjoy what is poised to be one of the most exciting seasons of Indians baseball since the 1990’s.
Just think if it hadn’t been for the patience of my grandfather back in that summer of 1995 to patiently teach me about the game of baseball, I may never have grown to love it as much as he did, and thus never had the incredible bond that God allowed me to have with him. So tomorrow as the 2013 Indians season kicks off and all throughout this season, I will forever have my grandfather on my mind as the Indians play each game, knowing that without his patience I may never have received one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me: a love for the game of baseball!