Major League: Joe PosnanskiPosted 21 April 2011 by Harry Doyle
No Pepper has a new recurring series, brought on by a new technology. In Major League, remember all of the newspaper covers you see bemoaning the Indians’ losses or heralding their victories? No Pepper is proud to bring you those stories. Rick Reilly brought you the season preview. Now Joe Posnanski updates us on how the season has been going for the Tribe.
Every spring, my dad would get an Indians ticket calendar in the mail and find the dates that the Yankees were coming to town. My dad bought annual tickets to the Indians-Yankees series at Municipal Stadium. It really was an annual event for my father and I. Like most immigrants, my father was a Yankees fan. I think the Yankees – for better and for worse – represented America to him. Joe DiMaggio was the son of immigrants and was so effortless in how he played, he made it look so natural that he appealed to my father. And when I would argue that the Yankees just took all of the best players off other teams – like Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson – my father would smile and shrug his shoulders as if to say, “Isn’t that what America does?” It felt American to root for the Yankees in the national pastime. Of course, I was an Indians fan. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I rooted for the Indians with all of my heart and always believed that this year was the year. If my dad represented America, I represented Cleveland, with all of its loyalty and insecurities.
So every year, we would pack up the car, fill the cooler with Cokes and sandwiches and drive to Municipal Stadium.* It would be easy to say the Yankees crushed the Indians. It fits with the pattern in our minds. We think of the Bronx Zoo — Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Graig Nettles, Sparky Lyle, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson — and expect them to crush the hapless Indians. Because the Indians have been bad for so long, we lump all of the bad teams in together. But a true fan can tell you that the late ’70s, early ’80s Indians were good enough to not be hapless and hapless enough to never be really good. From 1975-82, the Indians had only two really bad seasons — they went 71-90 in ’77 and 69-90 in ’78. But every other season, they were right around .500.
But when the Yankees came to town, the Indians played pretty well. I remember going to a game in the September of ’78, during one of the bad years, and watching David Clyde make the Yankees look silly. By that time, Clyde was a grizzled veteran at 23 years old, trying to make a comeback with the Indians. After giving up a run in the first, he dazzled them for the remaining eight innings and the Indians crushed the Yankees. At 11 years old, I thought it was proof that Clyde was going to be a superstar. Of course, I looked the game up on baseball-reference.com and Clyde struck out 1 batter, gave up nine hits and the Yankees left nine men on base. It was not proof of Clyde’s resurgence, but that he got lucky for a moment.
* Yes, by all objective standards, Municipal Stadium was a dump. My sentiment does not outweigh the facts that the seats were uncomfortable, the sightlines were horrific and it had all of the charm you stereotypically associate with Cleveland. We usually sat in the upper deck on the first base line. If you sat straight ahead in your seat, you had a wonderful view of Lake Erie. Sitting out where we did, you inevitably wretched your back trying to watch the pitcher and the hitter. But it was MY awful stadium. I knew every corner of the place. I knew the popcorn vendors and the shortest line to get a hot dog. I knew which ushers would let us sneak down near home plate late in a hopeless game. For every bad ballpark — County Stadium, Veterans Stadium, Riverfront Stadium, the Metrodome, even Shea Stadium — there is a man out there for whom it will always be beautiful because it is where their heroes played and he grew up. Carry on.
In 1982, I was 15 years old and ready to go to the Indians-Yankees game. It was tradition. My dad and I would watch the game in relative silence, only to occasionally comment on the random play or cheer an Indians home run. When I was younger, I was a mascot to the drunks who sat in our section — they would tousle my hair as a good-luck charm. Seeing it written on the page makes it sound borderline abusive, but I loved it. The drunks were built like Bluto from the Popeye cartoons, but they had genuine affection. They made me feel like I belonged there at Municipal Stadium. But even though my father and I rarely talked during the game, just sitting next to him for a few hours, watching baseball and drinking Cokes made me feel closer to him.
But a week before we went in 1982, my dad took me aside when he came home from work at the sweater factory. This was rare. Usually when my dad came home, all he wanted to do was sit in his recliner, put his head back and close his eyes for a few minutes and be left alone. It wasn’t anything personal against any of us at home, just that he wanted to decompress. But my dad came over to me and told me that we couldn’t go to the Yankees game because everyone at the plant had to work extra shifts. I think that was what he said. I stopped listening after he told me we couldn’t go to the game.
As a 15 year old, I reacted about as well as you would expect. I stormed off to my room, slammed the door and generally acted as if the world had intentionally chosen to single me out and ruin my plans. I acted as if my dad had created the extra weekend shift at the plant. But then my mom spoke up. She could see what I couldn’t say: that the Saturday at the Indians game was special to me because I loved spending that time with my father and that it was such a tradition for me that I needed to go even if my father couldn’t. So she volunteered to take me. She dropped off my siblings at my aunt’s house and took me to the game. It was the day before the 4th of July (that’s July 3rd for those of you keeping score at home) and we packed up the cooler and went to the game.
And if at this point, you are expecting a heartwarming story about how I became closer to my mother and how we had a glorious evening at the ballpark, please read a different blog. Unlike my father, who embodied the word “taciturn,” my mother would not shut up during the game. Let me repeat that: MY MOTHER WOULD NOT SHUT UP. So much of the appeal of going to the ballpark were those little moments, in between pitches and in between innings when I could let my mind wander and enjoy the scenery. Instead, I was hit with rapid fire questions, as if I was on a game show.
It went like this:
Mom: Who is that man going to first base?
Me: That’s Oscar Gamble.
Mom: Why is he taking so long?
Me: He was walked.
Mom: Does that mean he isn’t allowed to run to first?
Me: (sigh) No, it doesn’t.
Mom: Then why isn’t he running? Isn’t it rude to keep everyone waiting?
Me: (rolls eyes).
It went on like that for a full nine innings. If you wrote a sitcom where a clueless but eager mother took her moody son to a baseball game, it would have played out exactly like you imagined it. Looking back, I am embarrassed at how I acted. My mom clearly wanted to have one of those bonding moments like my dad and I had, but I was too much of a teenager and too put out about my dad not being there that I didn’t even notice or care.
And the game wasn’t as fun simply because I was growing up. Drunks will tousle your hair when you are nine. The drunks are funnier than George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock combined when you are nine. Being next to your dad at a baseball game is some of the most fun a 9-year-old boy will ever have. But no one tousles a sullen teenager’s hair at a game. The drunks are suddenly loud, obnoxious and overbearing. And being 15 years old and sitting next to your mom in public is humiliating.
The game was a microcosm of the Yankees vs. the Indians of that era. The Indians were good enough to only be down 7-6 going into the top of the ninth, when Dave Winfield hit a solo home run off Dan Spillner and three batters later, Graig Nettles hit a two-run home run and the Indians lost 10-7.
On the way home, my mom finally had enough. I was sitting in the front seat of the car, arms crossed and furious at the world. My mom had paid my aunt to babysit my siblings, brought me to the game and I was just as sullen as the moment my dad told me we weren’t going this year.
Mom: Why are you acting like that?
Me: (mumbling) The Indians lost.
Mom: So? You were acting like that for the entire game.
Me: (shrugs my shoulders in that way that only teenagers can do).
Mom: Do the Indians ever win?
Mom: Do they ever win championships?
Mom: When was the last time they went to the World Series?
Mom: Are they going to the World Series this year?
Me: (snorts). No.
Mom: Then why do you even go to the games if you know they aren’t going to win?
Me: (crosses my arms even tighter). I don’t know.
I turned my head and stared out the window long enough for my mom to know that the conversation was over.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that experience and that conversation recently. As a father, I think about it when considering all of the things I do for my daughters that I hate. Being a dad means being introduced to some great stuff that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. Sharing the Harry Potter books and movies with Katie is just as special to her as baseball was to me. J.K. Rowling created a magical world and the stories were just as enthralling to me as they were to my daughters. And Mr. Rogers’ world still has the same effect on my daughters that it had on me.
However, Dora the Explorer has the opposite effect on me. She has a voice that is probably used to torture dissidents in dictatorships. It is so loud and so cheerful and so repetitive, but most of all, it is condescending. Dora: CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE, WHICH SOUNDS LIKE MY VOICE? YOU CAN HEAR MY VOICE? THAT’S GREAT! WHERE ARE WE GOING TODAY?
I would rather listen to James Blunt cover Billy Joel songs than watch another minute of Dora. I hated watching Dora, and I am sure that my daughters never appreciated what I did for them by enduring that show. But when your daughters are addicted to Dora and want to run around town wearing backpacks, shouting everything they say and then have 5 second pauses in between sentences … well, you just love your children.
But I also think about that conversation with my mother whenever I watch the Indians this season. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to go to an Indians game this season. As a Cleveland fan, you can discern between varying levels of losing; it comes naturally, the same way that growing up in a Northern California valley will give you the ability to differentiate between various wine vintages. There are teams that are competitive without being good (like the Indians teams I grew up with). There are teams that have potential, but are snakebitten. There are teams where you can see the faint outlines of talent, but it is still several years away. There are teams that are just going through the motions, doing enough to earn a paycheck. And there are teams so bad and so hopeless that they turn losing into an art form. This year’s Indians are the last kind of team.
On Opening Day, the Indians brought in the new phenom, Ricky Vaughn, to pitch in relief. Never mind that Vaughn was in jail at this time last year for stealing a car. Ignore the fact that Vaughn has a mohawk and generally looks like he should be the lead singer in a heavy metal garage band instead of pitching in the major leagues. It’s Opening Day. It’s time for optimism. Of course, Vaughn walks the first three batters on 12 consecutive pitches and then throws a fastball so straight and so pure that Clu Haywood hits it into Lake Erie. And Vaughn responds by plunking the next batter, grabbing himself and being ejected from the game.
In one game, the center fielder, left fielder and second baseman all converged on a ball, ran into each other and the ball fell harmlessly between the pile of bodies. I’ve seen enough bad baseball to know that it happens sometimes. But one inning later — ONE INNING — a ball is hit to the exact same location and the same three players converge on it. Only this time, they all pull up short to keep from hitting each other and again the ball falls harmlessly between them. Every Indians fan I know stared at the screen as if they were watched an altered instant replay, wondering if their eyes were playing tricks on them.
That center fielder, Willie Mays Hayes, continues to hit the highest pop ups you have ever seen. They take forever to come down and land in the second baseman’s glove. Despite having impressive speed, Hayes refuses to hit the ball on the ground. The best part? No one knows where Hayes come from. When the Indians invited players to spring training, he just showed up. No one knows what city he played in last, whether he ever played in the minor leagues or where he was even born. Unlike Otis Sistrunk, Hayes may have actually graduated from the University of Mars.
I could keep going down the list. The staff ace, Eddie Harris, has been pitching forever and at this point, is relying on Vasoline fumes. Jake Taylor had an on-base percentage of .287 when the Padres released him three years ago. Roger Dorn hasn’t actually tried in a game since they signed him to a big free-agent contract. The manager was a tire salesman when they hired him. There is no logical reason to ever follow this team.
But being a fan isn’t about logic. If I could go back in time to that conversation in the car with my mother, I would stop acting like I was a victim and would thank her. But when she asked why I went to the games even though the Indians weren’t going to win, I’d say, “Because they might be good someday.” As an Indians fan, I look at Vaughn and I see an arm that has so much electricity that Vaughn doesn’t even know what do to with it. If he ever had control, his fastball would be unhittable. I rationalize that Sandy Koufax was wild before he put it all together. I conveniently ignore that Sandy Koufax was a nice Jewish boy who preferred sleeves on his leather jackets.
I look at Pedro Cerrano and watch him clobber any fastball that a pitcher throws at him. He hits the ball so hard that it is impossible not to imagine him being the feared power hitter the Indians have lacked since Rocky Colavito. Of course, every pitcher throws him a breaking ball, and each time he flails at it like a man standing up in a canoe and trying to club a fish.
Every Indians fan looks at Hayes and sees a potential Willie Wilson, a guy who puts the ball on the ground, runs out singles, taunts pitchers and steals bases. Every Indians fan sees a player who brings to mind the cliche about 2/3rds of the world being covered by water and the rest by Garry Maddox. So every time he hits a pop-up and is standing at first when it is caught, there is that hope that next time he will get it and put the ball on the ground.
As a sports fan, that hope never goes away. There were 3,498 people at last night’s game against the Orioles. Why anyone would pay actual money to see the Indians play is mind-blowing. They are 17-42 and will be bad for the foreseeable future.** No rational person would pay money to see the Indians play baseball. Most of the time, they can’t even claim to be so awful that it is entertaining. While everyone else snickers that only 3,498 people came to an Indians game, I wonder what those people were thinking.
** There are rumors that Rachel Phelps is trying to run the team into the ground so she can break the lease with the city and move the team to Florida. I refuse to believe those rumors. Not because it isn’t plausible that a former showgirl would rather own a team in Florida than northern Ohio, but because Cleveland without the Indians wouldn’t be Cleveland anymore. We are not going to mention these rumors again.
Look, there is a reason that no other team in baseball wants Dorn or Taylor or Harris. There is a 9-year-old boy in Cleveland who will have this team scarring his memories for the rest of his life, a team unwilling to put the effort into attempting to win. And if you asked those 3,498 fans why they went to the game, they would probably cross their arms, stare out the passenger window and mutter, “I don’t know.”
But in their hearts, they know the answer. Because the Indians might be good someday.