The year was 1998. Just one season removed from the heart breaking World Series loss to the very young, upstart, flash - in - the pan Florida Marlins. I was standing in a long line on Ontario Street on a Sunday morning. I had my wife and youngest son with me(he was 12 years old). We were shielding ourselves from the brisk , March morning wind. Oh, by the way, we were outside of Jacobs Field… home of the 1997 American League Champions…YOUR, Cleveland Indians! Woooo!
We are there because I am fanatical about Cleveland sports. I wanted to be part of Cleveland Indians history in any way I could. Since I was already 45 years old and lacking any professional baseball skills, I opted to answer a job fair ad for ball park staffing and concessions. I had my resume, two letters of recommendation, list of at least 5 references that were not related to me( I barely had 5 friends in the world and I used 2 of them up for my letters of recommendation.) and a note from my mother that I had permission to stay out after dark.
The neat part was that we all got to go into the bowels of The Jake to fill out the applications and take part in on the spot interviews. Imagine walking under the stands . The very same concrete floor that Jim Thome, Albert Bell, Jose Mesa, Manny Ramirez and all the Tribe stars used to return from the batting cages and into the clubhouse. I was more excited than my son. My poor wife just smiled and nodded. She is a saint and knew how much I wanted to do this. I got hired as an usher(that year officially called a Host/Greeter).
Yes, after 12 grueling hours as a Shipping Supervisor for a chemical company over on Hamilton Ave., I wanted to change into Indian’s Game Day clothes, run to my car, fight downtown traffic, park down a steep hill and hustle back up to the allowable entrance for employees to use, swipe my card and run breathlessly down to the underground Mecca to get our towels, and location assignments. I think it paid $7.00 an hour, but I didn’t do it for the dollars. I wanted to be part of the Indians during a magical time in their not so illustrious history. This was the consecutive sellout streak of 455 games Cleveland Indians. This was the World Series representative American League Champions (1995 & 1997) Cleveland Indians.
‘The Special Event’
Then, it happened. It was Saturday, August 15, 1998. The Baltimore Orioles vs. Your 1997 American League Champion , Cleveland Indians. It was a balmy 80 degree day and the 65-57 Orioles were playing the 66-55 Indians. Juan Guzman of the Orioles against Dave Burba of the Tribe ! A good game it should be. There was another 43,000 plus fans that filled the Jake. But let me tell you what I remember.
I was assigned to the bleachers that game. Before the game, the Indians were just finishing batting practice. They had a star studded team with Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Omar Vizquel. One more piece was added to the puzzle when aging, past his prime, former slugger Cecil Fielder was added as a free agent after being released by the California Angels.
There was a typical family of Mom, Dad and 10 year old son trudging up to their seats. The boy was pudgy and carried a newer looking baseball glove. They got my attention when I heard the boy pleading to stay down on the deck to try and catch a batting practice home run ball. The Dad mumbled something about finding the seats first and don’t dare ask him again. Already I knew the lad was having a hysterically good time as he choked back those tears. The Mom looked embarrassed. I watched with curiosity as they kept climbing those steep bleacher steps. Further up the stairs they went and finally settled in way up there, about 5 rows from the top.
‘What I Remember’
The boy sat ever so still and then I saw him explode into a smile that I can still see in my minds eye. The Mom was escorting him down so that he could try and get a home run ball souvenir. There was no room at all. The bigger and older kids had long ago claimed their territories and this boy stood meekly to the side. So in my most authoritative, Host/Greeter voice, I commanded the older boys to step away from the rail. Those regulations say to be at least three feet away from “The Rail”. Heck, I can tell a white lie to help the kid out, OK? Then, I guided this lad to the newly created room by the rail and crossed my fingers. I wanted that boy to get a souvenir ball more than wanting the Indians to avenge the previous days’ 15-3 loss.
This kid did not stand a chance. The older and taller boys out jumped him, out ran him and had a huge reach advantage.. My heart sunk. That 10 year old fan did not get a ball. But, as luck would have it, recently signed Cecil Fielder hit his last batting practice pitch right at us. The ball towered against the beautiful blue, sunny sky. It started to descend and it was touch and go if it would clear the bleacher wall. One of the big kids, slipped by another usher and started to lean over the rail. I was about 10 feet to his right. The boy had the ball hit the heel of his glove and it bounced up over his head into the deck area.
A frenzied attack on the shiny white baseball began. All I know is that the ball somehow rolled out from beneath the pile of human youths. It rolled right to my left foot. Now we were under orders to not take or keep a ball. If one came our way, we were to toss it back onto the left field grass and let the ball boys add it to the bucket for the next days batting practice. I don’t think so. With the reflexes of a cat, I swiped at the gleaming white sphere and grabbed it before a creature that appeared to have 16 hands got it.
I had the ball. The other ushers had started to lead the fans back to the seats and I saw the Mom hug the pudgy boy and told him that it was alright. She said they would buy a souvenir ball on the way out after the game. Mom ! That’s not the same. I wanted a real ball, you know,, the one that Fielder hit. No, that wasn’t what the boy said. He just nodded. That was what the boy’s eyes said though. At the last minute, I called out to the boy.
This is what I said. I said, “Hey kid, wait up!”. I hurried over to the front of the steep stairway. I took the ball from my left hand and handed it to him. I told him that I had talked to Cecil Fielder before the game and he told me that if I got a ball that he hit for a homer, that I should give it to who I think was the biggest Indian’s fan. I told him that Fielder was at one time, one of the best home run hitters that played the game. I told him that I just knew that he had to be the biggest fan because he was having the most fun trying to catch a ball.(Alright, Alright. Two white lies aren’t so bad. And I was depressed. Just the day before, I turned 45 ! FORTY-FIVE). I asked him if I gave him that ball, would he promise not to throw it back on the field like my boss said I had to do. He promised, he promised. I then gave him that ball and saw that special smile again. He didn’t say thanks but he didn’t need to. He was in another world and the look on his face said it all. The Mom said thanks and shook my hand. That was something I liked about this $7.00 an hour job. The friendliness of everyone that came together to root the Tribe to victory.
Well, by the fourth inning, Cleveland was losing by a score of 7 - 1. Allot of folks were bored, including the Mom. At each half inning the ushers had to stand facing the crowd. We were told to make sure there were no fights going on behind our backs. And each half inning the Mom would smile and wave at me and then muss the boys hair. And the boy just kept tossing that ball in his glove, over and over. The Dad looked bored. That the Tribe made it exciting before losing 9 - 8 does not matter. What matters is this.
What I will Never Forget
I didn’t remember anything about that August day in 1998. I looked it all up, even the weather we had that day. I doubt if that Mom and Dad remember anything about that day. And I know that the 10 year old boy sure doesn’t remember anything about that game because he barely watched. He just kept tossing that ball into his mitt. But I bet he remembers the FORTY FIVE year old usher who asked him to promise and hold onto that Cecil fielder home run ball. I bet he remembers how that ball smelled and felt that day. Today, that boy should be around 21 years old. I bet he still remembers me giving him that ball. Or he may have forgotten that day altogether by now.
However, I won’t. That day I became that 10 year old boy all over again, just for a minute. I’ll remember.