Opening Day

The writer discovers a League Park of his own.

The morning started well enough, but by noon, I was no longer in the mood for the optimism of an opening day at The Jake. The Medical Mutual account soured around 11 a.m. with Tom Fredrico suggesting we start the campaign anew.

The marketing team was at odds and the client was demanding. This was our first new-product launch and we were as uncertain as the weather in spring.

Besides, everyone was going to the game. They were baseball people at Medical Mutual and had tickets even for those who couldn't align the stars in the marketing galaxy. My office was littered with Official American League baseballs that Jared Chaney, the company's chief communications officer, wanted to use in a promotion. There were another two boxes in my car. Even with these reminders, we could not come up with the right idea.

The work, and the realization that I had been alive for more opening days than I was likely to experience in the future, made me forgo the game and its timelessness, which I feared would cast me into even further depression.

If you grew up in Cleveland in the last half of the 20th century and followed the Indians, certain events marked your passage. All the events, unfortunately, were bound by a streak of woe that threatened to match your life expectancy.

If you asked the man next to you in a bar when he had seen his first Tribe game, the answer would establish an identity, a base for conversation that would mark how much agony he had endured.

In the pecking order of pain, I was high on the threshold. My earliest memories were of Lou Boudreau, Kenny Keltner and Feller himself with that high, deliberate kick that preceded the fastball's blaze. My generation had witnessed the transition from good baseball to bad — a transformation punctuated by The Catch.

The Catch signaled bad luck the way Black Thursday inaugurated the Depression. Willie Mays running with his back to the ball until finally cradling Vic Wertz's long drive to center field in the Polo Grounds sent the Indians into ignominy and oblivion in the 1954 World Series. That was the beginning of a run of bad luck so prolonged that boys grew into men and then middle age without witnessing a pennant, let alone a World Series.

In the following decades, the curse clung, so virile that owners could only manage to keep the team on life support. Herb Score's blow to the eye, the Rocky Colavito trade, Wayne Garland's bad shoulder and Joe Charboneau's aching back were all part of the plot.

And then it seemed to pass. The moment of its lifting can be traced to the summer of 1994, when you could almost watch its withdrawal, like ice melting from Lake Erie's shore. But the curse performed one final bit of treachery. With the Indians in the pennant hunt deep into the summer, a strike ended the season.

Except in Cleveland, baseball fans showed their displeasure over a new national pastime: greed, selfishness and avarice. In Cleveland, everybody knew that "next year" had finally arrived.

During all those years of adversity, the town could always rely upon opening day. With Municipal Stadium generally shrouded in a murky gray mist, the 70,000 faithful would appear, huddled against the chill, and sometimes snow, to remind the nation that the soul of baseball was still alive in Cleveland.

All that changed with the arrival of Jacobs Field. The Indians teams that played there following that 1994 season hit, ran, pitched, fielded, won games and championships, and while they didn't win it, they gave us two World Series appearances.

Opening day was still a sellout, but it belonged to a new era of fans: fans with money and exuberance to match. They expected to win. Most of them considered themselves winners. The new fans no longer worked in the mills or carried their lunch to the job. The new fans were programmers, managers, brokers, lenders, insurers, marketers and Realtors.

I fit this new group, but was not of them. I was off in the past, one of the few who had endured those dismal years and kept the eternal flame from dying and the franchise from moving to someplace like New Orleans or Houston.

Despite all of this, the Medical Mutual account had robbed me of something this morning. Actually, it was more like a brush with reality. It paid the bills. Baseball was spiritual and its compensation was escape.

I was exhausted by the morning's work and sought the middle ground between reality and escape: lunch.

Lunch in my business was once a cherished and revered event. Formerly a repast never to be missed, it's now been replaced by disgusting displays of fast food, business talk and tasteless diet cola. The sweep of political correctness and financial accountability has whitewashed lunch and the martini the same way free agency altered baseball.

I didn't care, but the thought of a martini interested me. There was something nostalgic about it.

I like baseball nostalgia, too. Players I grew up with were here for as long as a decade. You got to know them. Hegan, Rosen, Avila and Lemon were as much a part of Cleveland as the Terminal Tower.

Gen-Xers accepted free-agent movement with a shrug. After all, most of them had seen Mom or Dad leave through the free agency of divorce, so why fret over the loss of a sullen millionaire who happened to play left field?

There was only one place for my mood: Nighttown, where Joe DiMaggio's picture — taken during the great hitting streak of '41, the streak that Kenny Keltner ended at Municipal Stadium — hangs behind the bar.

Located on Cedar Hill, Nighttown is an aged and storied place, full of memories for those who visit it regularly. It appeared somewhere around the time that Joe Adcock mismanaged the Indians in one of the worst seasons ever.

Nighttown food is filling, the drink adequate and the crowd communal, if a bit old around the edges. The jazz is good, a mellow memory of the cool '50s or the joy of ragtime. On a summer day, the bar is dreary, the air still and the patrons lethargic. In bad weather, Nighttown is a place where something has happened to practically everyone there. Nighttown has been party to assignations, business propositions and interesting conversation with the occasional lawyer, professor or a cleric in mufti. There was even a washed-out astronaut. Like other gathering places, Nighttown has its regulars at the end of the bar.

Of all those who sat near the bar's penguin clock, I liked Leon Simmons best. A black lawyer in his 70s, Leon came in after court and counsel, ordered a glass of wine and consumed it quietly, listening to the others poke and cajole those around them.

When the talk drifted toward him, Leon would speak softly and with great authority, as if he were a judge rendering a verdict. You knew what Leon was about to say was crystal with truth, an observation so elegant that it could not be debated, ignored or even corrected. I enjoyed his company, especially when it came to history and baseball.

Because it was no longer on my regular route, I had not visited Nighttown much recently. The place smelled the same: the aroma of hamburger and the faint smell of beer. It was warm; the chill of a Cleveland day in early spring could be as sharp and painful as a fall on the ice. The low gray ceiling threatened snow, not a first for an opening day. Nighttown was inviting.

There was comfort at the sight of Leon bent over the bar, reading the newspaper. He was reaching a point in life were the old and familiar were more enticing than the new and untried. Next to him, a freshly opened bottle of sparkling wine fizzed with static lines of fine bubbles. It was the only sign of energy in the place.

"Not at the game, Leon?" I said in a greeting.

"Mr. Roberts. Long time not seeing you, friend. No, I haven't been to an opening game in years. Remember when to miss one was to miss part of life. Too old now, too slow now and the game ain't the same."

"You sound old." I pulled a stool up to the bar with a scraping noise that was a one of Nighttown's distinctive voices.

"My friend, not only do I sound old, I feel old and I am old," Leon said, his teeth all agleam in a smile that made his pencil-thin mustache rise like a bird in flight. "I'm so old that I remember Ruth and Gehrig at League Park, and seeing Twitchy Dick Porter run out of space chasing their hits.

"Ruth hit more home runs in League Park because he'd get under the ball and put it over that high right-field net out toward the elementary school. Gehrig — why, Gehrig was so strong, the man would hit line drives like they were shot from a gun. Got fewer homers because he put no loft into the ball. I believe that Gehrig was a stronger man.

"Ruth hit his 500th home run over there. The man hated Municipal Stadium. In those days, there were no fences up in the Stadium. Go over to League Park and see right field. Less than 250 feet down the right-field line. See it and you'll know why the Babe hated the Stadium. Suspect he'd have liked The Jake, though."

This is what I had come for, this and the cold martini that I raised to my lips after saluting Leon, who returned it with a tip of the sparkling wine.

"See many openers at League Park?" I asked.

"Seen a many. Got out of school and took the streetcar down in time for the game. Games started later in those days. Tried to get the office crowd. Workingman couldn't see an opener during the Depression."

"What was League Park like?"

"Looked like heaven to me. Smelled like it, too. I was a kid in those days. Just getting out of the neighborhood was a big adventure, bigger than a trip to Europe would be for those kids who live up in the Heights today.

"Hell, that ballpark was old, and painted over like some woman trying to stay young, but I liked it, the shabby parts and all. The grass was always so green, the home uniforms were always so white and there was a big Sherwin-Williams sign out in center field."

"I guess they played in that place from the beginning?" I asked.

"I'm not sure, but to me it was always the cradle of baseball in Cleveland," Leon said. "I'm glad they didn't build a housing project on it or make it one of those industrial parks. They left it there. Sure as hell seen better days, but you could probably walk up to the plate and look out there in right field and get some idea of what the Babe felt."

"Ever do that — get up there like the Babe?"

"Nah, the neighborhood has been bad for so many years. Get up there like the Babe and liable to get your car stolen. Ain't been by there in I can't remember when."

"What were the best years for that place?"

Leon studied the little bubbles rising in his glass, thought and looked up. "Probably with that 1920 bunch, you know, Speaker and that lot. They played the World Series over there and beat the Brooklyn Dodgers. Beat 'em with a grand-slam home run and an unassisted triple play."

"That must have been a happy year?"

"Well, that was before my time, but I don't think it was that happy. You see, Chapman was killed that summer. The shortstop. Hit in the head by a pitch from a Yankee in the Polo Grounds. Only time it happened. Chapman is buried up the street at Lake View Cemetery on Mayfield Road."

"I remember reading about that."

"Chapman was good. They say he had a good arm, could bunt real well and played his position with the best of them. I don't know whether he was better than Boudreau or the fellow we have now, Vizquel. But he was good. Probably make a lot of money today."

"Imagine if that happened today," I said. "Man getting killed by a pitch on television."

"Be awful, but we seen plenty of people die on television with all these wars and assassinations," Leon replied, taking baseball out of the conversation. He was like that. Leon could sober you up and make you think and bring you back to reality.

I finished the Bloom's Burger. One martini was enough. The gloom of the Nighttown afternoon did not hold the mellowness I sought. Leon was preoccupied with something. Maybe a case, maybe a woman, maybe money. He would never say and I knew better than to ask.

"I'm outta here," I announced, pushing my stool back and clapping Leon on the shoulder. "Got to get back downtown before the crowd lets out and the place becomes a mess."

"Funny," Leon said. "Forgot about the game. I can't believe that. Age, I guess. Makes me sad not to worry about the score."

"Yeah, maybe the same thing is happening to me."

A late-afternoon sun was making a come-on, but a lingering winter chill hung in the air. It probably would rain, too. I always thought that Municipal Stadium never got warm until August because the cavernous confines held the cold like an icehouse.

As I wheeled into the traffic on Cedar Hill, I switched on the radio to learn that the Tribe was winning, 7-4, in the third. They had so many young players these days that it was hard to imagine the score would hold. If you followed the Indians for 30-some years, you had to live on history and hope. The history was always there, but hope ran out by Memorial Day.

Maybe you learned more about baseball with bad teams than with a winner because you had to go back and relive things. I was on Chester near East 88th Street when that thought occurred. If I turned north on East 66th Street I could see the park's remains.

The neighborhood was a ruin. Shabby homes with people living in them interrupted stretches of abandoned houses, vacant lots, mangy stray dogs and broken glass along the curbs. Imagination was something that came easily. But as I moved the car down East 66th, it took some effort to imagine the vibrant world of 1932 with tended yards, painted houses, black autos and buff streetcars, boys in corduroy knickers and girls chasing behind in long, loose skirts. Things that Leon would have seen.

I pulled to the side just as League Park came up on Lexington.

There was not much of the place left: the old offices, a wall, some of the original concrete grandstand along Lexington, which would have been the first-base view. The fences were long gone, but the field was still there, the same dirt that Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb and Speaker played upon. If this had been Rome, it would have been a tourist site, I thought. There was a historical marker, though.

I got out of the car and, remembering what Leon said, turned on the alarm and locked it. I walked through what must have been one of the gates and into the remains of the park. Suddenly, there was a crack of the bat, more of a thunk. While strange, it belonged.

There on the field were a dozen or so young black teens from the neighborhood playing a game of their own making, six or seven to a side, just a few gloves, an old bat. They were clad in basketball shoes, the soles filled with the soft mud of the diamond, and wore shirts that advertised the Chicago Bulls, the Knicks and the Cavs — the emblems of their game, a game remote from the soil on which they played.

But, for today, they were trying the old game, fooling with it, really, maybe even mimicking it with their high-pitched voices full of today's vernacular, cursing in street patois, shrilling away at one another with a harshness that was hard to comprehend.

I watched them, looking for the telltale signs of the special ballplayer. That little hop when taking a high throw, the marvelous way that a ball thrown by a good arm arches across the infield, the inimitable grace that a natural betrays in retreating on a fly ball, and the unmistakable spring of the ball off of a bat wielded by one whose eyes and hands and body have a special karma. That is always a delight to see, but even a blind man could tell that kind of talent by the sound of the bat.

There, the kid at short with the Miami Heat jacket — now, that kid had an arm and he probably didn't even know it. The boy fielded a ball, dark with dirt, and put it across the diamond with the kind of grace that could bring a crowd to its feet.

So much was out of place. No baseball stuff, no coaches, none of the daintiness of the suburban Little Leagues with their manicured bandboxes, scoreboards and parental pressures. This was like the Depression days when you were lucky to have a ball, and if you did, you preserved it with so much tape that it lost its getup.

On the edge of the crumbling stands, a forlorn figure sat with his shoulders hunched against the cold, his head covered by one of those newsboy caps. Pictures show men standing in soup lines during the Depression wearing that kind of cap.

From this distance, I could only see that he was white and his clothing indicated he might be homeless. Could be a Vietnam veteran, but he appeared too young. Maybe someone from the Gulf War who suffered from one of those mysterious traumas that haunt a life and remind us of the folly of our foreign policy.

I thought for a moment about going over and sitting on the old concrete stands, too, but the chill was hard and wet like it would be at Jacobs Field, only without the 40,000-plus crowd to ward it off with enthusiasm and body warmth. The lonely figure in the cap offered none of the same. League Park was like a grave.

Ω watched the young players with fascination. I thought about Leon and his recollection of those great Yankee teams, and the Indians with Bad News Hale at third and Soup Campbell in the outfield, playing for good Cleveland teams, teams that were lost to memory because they finished second or third, but teams that could probably win today and go into the divisional playoffs as feared as any modern club.

Then I remembered the teams of darker times, men in flannels and double knits whose names were a recall of infamy, laughter and last place.

The kids were playing one of those imagination games that I remember from childhood. Your mind could put you anywhere and you could always make the big play that would beat anyone. The teams that one vanquished changed, but the dreams held the same magic.

Their chatter was a buzz as I stood lost in my own world, the past and present and future all converging over the game.

Then I remembered the balls in the car. Two-dozen Official American League baseballs, fresh, tight and white with the wonderful leathery smell that makes you want to pick up a glove and throw them. The balls for Chaney and the MMO account. I went to the car, grabbed four balls from a box and returned to the field, wondering how to introduce them.

I was amused at my embarrassment. What do you say? "Hey, kids, how about a couple of balls?" That was 1950s jargon, Ozzie-and-Harriet stuff.

I waited for a break in the action and then simply lobbed a ball toward the mound. It bounced, sudden and white, and the Miami Heat jacket took it, stopped and they all looked toward me, silent and expectant. I thought one of them would shout that I was a cop. What I got for my effort was a gem, a smile as big and genuine as the sudden appearance of the sun itself. The youth grasped the ball, squeezed it and threw it across the diamond to his first baseman, its flight a brilliant flash in the gloom of the day.

"Byoo-tee-full!" the boy cried, flashing an index finger toward me. "That's like butter." I returned the gesture, hoping that it meant No. 1. Flushed by the reaction, I threw out the other three and the teams merged into a roughhouse over the balls, pushing and pummeling one another to possess one. Fearing a fight would break out, I ran to the car to get the rest of the balls.

"Hey, I've got enough for everyone! Come on, you guys are going to hurt yourselves. I've got plenty." I threw out two more balls and the smaller of the boys came over to avoid the pushing and shoving.

"Here you go," I said and handed each player a ball. I wished that Chaney could see them. This scene would make a great commercial, but you could never stage it again.

Miami Heat came over. Tall and rangy with large hands, he was a shortstop for sure, with big, agile feet, the kind that could make a dance of a double play. "Hey man, you got an extra?" he asked. "I need one for Crazy out there. He'd like a new ball, too."

"Who is that guy?" I asked.

"Ah, that's ol' Crazy," said one of the boys. "He's buggin', man. Come around sometimes and show Birdman here baseball stuff, talkin' smack about the Indians and all. Said he used to play, but he doesn't do nothing now. Come around here and just go. He don't like it when folks like you comes here."

"Baseball dude — really knows his sheeet," Miami Heat said. "Tells how to play. Ain't know nothin' about hoops, but can do this. Why, he don't even know Michael Jordan. Something wrong with him. That's why we call him Crazy. He can still ball, though. You should see him out their hitting, running, throwing, going after that ball like it was his. That's why I want to give him one."

I handed him a ball and Miami Heat yelled out, "Crazy! Here's for you, man!" He threw the ball in a long arc toward the lonely figure at the end of the stands. The man reached up effortlessly and snatched it from the air with the nonchalance of someone who had done it many times. He studied the ball for a moment and waved back, a broad smile across an interesting face with a dark brow.

The new white balls were flying back and forth as if it was pregame at The Jake. Then, the rain began and took me from my revelry. I should go. The game traffic would be hell to buck.

But first, I went to home plate. I wanted to tell Leon that I'd stood out there in the batter's box and looked down the right-field line, the same sightline that the Babe, Gehrig and Speaker used. I looked out into the darkening afternoon, out to the vacant lot, out into the present and I remembered that I had forgotten to lock the car when I went back to get the balls.

That's all I needed, my car stolen — then I would really have something to tell Leon.

Miami Heat rolled on the ground in horseplay with the boy in the Cavs jacket and the rain began to come down harder. I shouted a goodbye, looked for the briefest moment out to where the man called Crazy had been, but he was gone. I hurried to my unlocked car, which remained where I'd left it.

I pulled out from Lexington onto East 55th and headed north toward St. Clair. It was raining hard now and Tom Hamilton was summing up an Indians victory on the radio. Rain had held off until the last out. After all these years, there was not a lot of luck to the Indians and you took it when you could.

As I joined the traffic, I reflected on the afternoon. It had been better than going to The Jake. My mood was restored. I relaxed and let my mind slip into an imaginary past. Ruth had been there right where I had stood. Now that was something.

This year's opener would be memorable because of a game-winning home run and Omar Vizquel's incredible play on a ball hit behind second base. "That play had to be among the most memorable ever made by an Indian shortstop," Hamilton's vibrant voice echoed. "Simply amazing."

When I stopped for the red light at the Payne Avenue intersection, I suddenly noticed a baseball rolling around in the box on the seat next to me. That was odd. I was sure I'd emptied both boxes of balls.

I reached for it.

I held the ball, which carried a line of strong, legible handwriting. The dying afternoon light fell across a clearly written signature that read: "Ray Chapman, Cleveland Indians 1920."

The sharp blast of a car horn from behind startled me. The light was green and I edged forward. I had only had one martini that afternoon and I knew Leon would insist on a handwriting expert. Chaney would say I was drinking.

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