The next morning after the Toronto baseball game Phil and I and others boarded a bus for a four-or five-hour trip to Cleveland. If I had been traveling alone, I would have read for much of the trip, but that seemed rude sitting next to Phil, who did not seem to have any reading material. So I chatted with Phil some and then started to learn a bit about others on the excursion, all of whom, except for Phil and his companion (me), had paid for it. I was curious, but never asked anyone how much it cost.
The tour company was Canadian and there were a smattering of Canadians on board, but I felt that most of my companions represented aspects of an America where baseball was still the true national pastime. A young couple were on their honeymoon shortly before he was to start a new job as a baseball coach at a small college in upstate New York. Nice people, but I could never get him to explain how he threw a slider versus a curve ball. A young, single woman, who always seemed to have her energy switch on, was from one of the Dakotas (Ok. It shows some sort of prejudice in me that I can’t keep the two apart in my mind.) She had never been to the eastern part of the U.S., where the trip was going to take place, and although she regularly attended minor league games in her hometown in one of the Dakotas (Again: I can’t keep them straight and am still somewhat surprised there are two of them), and before the previous night, she had never attended a major league game. Two decades older and quieter was another woman traveling by herself who, too, had never before been to a major league game, but she was an avid college baseball fan, especially of Louisiana State, whose games she regularly attended near her home. My favorites were a forty-year-old man traveling with his father. They were extremely knowledgeable baseball fans from Dallas and were excited about seeing baseball parks they had only viewed on television. I especially liked what I saw as a deep bond between. I thought that on some level this was as American as it gets—a father and son at baseball games discussing the pitchers and whether there should be a sacrifice and moaning over an error.
The Toronto-Cleveland trip took us past exits for Niagara Falls, but this was not the usual sightseeing trip. We motored on until we got to the hotel not far from what was then called Jacobs Field. In the early afternoon, we walked to The Jake for a guided tour. I was interested in this because this park was then at the forefront of a change in baseball architecture. For a generation newly-built stadiums were large with little character, but Jacobs Field was smaller, more intimate with quirks to give it a personality. The Indians had been regularly selling out the stadium, partly because Cleveland was fielding good teams but also because the park was a fun place to watch a game. As an employee of the club showed us around under the stands, I also learned something about home field advantage. We were shown subterranean batting cages and video monitors for players to practice swings and study pitchers and hitters. I don’t know whether baseball rules required that such home team facilities—or their equivalent–be made available to the visiting team, but if so, equality had its limits. So, e.g., just because the Indians had air conditioning in their practice area, that did not mean that the “equivalent” one had to be cooled. On a mid-summer afternoon, the visitors’ under-the-stands batting cage was stifling.
We continued on to the Indians dugout, but we were not going to go farther. The head groundskeeper stood on the top step that led to the playing field. He explained that The Jake’s infield was composed of some very, very, VERY special dirt. It was not the sandy color of other ballparks, but a deep black that reminded me of the bottomland soil of the Mississippi delta (or what I imagined that delta soil to look like because I had never actually seen it). I was not paying much attention as the groundskeeper told us–at length–of the dirt’s special qualities, where it came from, and what painstaking care he took to maintain it. I was just curious to touch it, and perhaps put a tiny, tiny sample in my pocket. I doubt that he could read my mind; I am sure it was a standing rule. He made it clear–at length–that we were not going to put one single solitary step on to that field, and we were not going to get to the dugout’s top step to even touch it. Overwhelmingly disappointed, I mostly tuned him out, but I believe that he mentioned–at length–the Cuyahoga County Jail.
We strolled back to the hotel, but I have no memory of what we did before we headed back to the park for the game. Our group’s tickets were scattered, and Phil and I had seats in the lower deck down the right field line. Baseball games, with long pauses between intermittent actions, almost compel conversation with those seated nearby, and we started talking to some young men in the row behind us. Walking to our seats I had noticed that The Jake sold a wide choice of beers, and these new friends were sampling many of them. I don’t remember anything about the game itself, which is true for many games that I have seen, but I do remember that the liquid refreshments made our recently acquired companions increasingly loquacious. They insisted time and again that we go with them to their favorite bar in the neighborhood after the game, and we agreed.
The establishment was crowded and smoke-filled with a pool table and dart boards, but my eyes were drawn to framed photographs around the place. I would have expected them to be of Cleveland Indian players of the past and present—Tris Speaker, Bob Feller, and the like. Or because Cleveland once had a proud professional football history, the walls would have pictures of Jim Brown and Otto Graham. Instead, what I saw were Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, and other Green Bay Packers of the Vince Lombardi era, fierce rivals of the Cleveland Browns, who lost crucial games to the Packers. I turned to the new friend and asked why the bar had pictures of famous Packers. He replied with the simultaneously obvious and mystifying answer, “This is a Packer bar.”
(concluded August 4)