Baseball makes me miss my dad, who, when he died in 2010, was the oldest living season ticket holder in Philadelphia Phillies’ history. It is a Tuesday night, unseasonably warm for my fleece which I discard once we arrive at our seats, having traveled via the Rapid with a joyful stream of Clevelanders heading to Game Six of the World Series. There is a camaraderie among our fellow fans, a joy and pride in our city, in our team, anticipation so palpable, it seems edible. We take silly selfies to broadcast our glee beyond our area code! Even the occasional whiff of cigar or cigarette smoke feels celebratory. I turn my own baseball cap around, so as to see without the bill blocking my view. As my son and husband, Atticus and Seth, go off in search of food, I sit in the stands, breathing it all in.
Across the aisle, an older man jots statistics with the stub of a pencil, so like my dad that my eyes fill. He shells peanuts, dropping the shells at his feet. I look at the ballpark, lit with chasing LEDs, toothbrush lights and video screens, illuminations blazing with hope and possibility. Before the game, music throbs, pulses, “It’s been a long, long time.” The field is stripes of emerald turf, combed one way and then the other. It’s tired, though. I can see the divots and the rough bits; after all, it’s November even though much of the merchandise touts TribeTober. Chief Wahoo is absent in any iconography in the stadium itself. True, he’s still on all the players’ jerseys and on many fans’ apparel, but perhaps all the focus of this week will help our team figure out a way to retire him for good.
We wave our red rally towels on command, the announcers whipping us into a frenzy before the game even begins. I wonder, fleetingly, if there are parents of Cubs players here with us and remember, grudgingly, that the Cubs want a win as much as we do. We two, we happy two—scrappy underdogs from labor towns, pugnacious, resilient, fighters till the end. “Ketchup, mustard, and onion” parade along the stadium wall—there’s an odd job! Slider, our beloved fuchsia mascot, is somewhere in the screaming throngs. I note the pageantry. A woman Marine sings “God Bless America;” a game ball is presented. I feel weirdly teary.
“Make some noise!” exhorts the big screen, and we do, booing as the Cubs lineup is announced. I think about the first Indians game I ever attended when this ballpark was colloquially referred to as the “Jake.” We had just moved from New York City and the Indians were playing the Yankees. I was surprised by how vociferously the Cleveland fans hated the Yankees. “Yankee, go home!” they yelled, and the eyes of our nine-year-old daughter filled with tears.
“They don’t want us here,” she murmured. “I want to go home.”
Home. She didn’t mean the lovely Head’s home on the campus of the School I had come to lead in Shaker Heights. She meant home to our old life in Manhattan. I hugged her, tears in the back of my own eyes. This life was so new; everything felt unfamiliar.
A guest with us in the corporate suite, noticed Cordelia’s distress and whisked her away. She returned wearing a brand new Indians t-shirt, slightly mollified, appreciative of this stranger’s kindness.
Now, I fight hubris, knowing it is bad luck to think we will win. But I want us to. In the intervening twelve years since that first Indians’ game, Cleveland has become home, this town my town in a way I did not expect. Perhaps because I’ve always identified with the underdog, perhaps because, as a leader of a girls’ school, I am all about resilience, about bouncing back, about never giving up or giving in.
Big cheers erupt as the Indians’ line up is announced. I, who have spent my life in the theatre, recognize the spectacle, the drama of this particular event. Around us, the buildings loom benevolently: AT&T, Huntington Bank, PNC, the Thirsty parrot, the Q (home of the CAVS) winking from the corner. From our seats in right field we can see how nearby Progressive Tower glows, dressed in Tribe colors, standing proud in the night. During the warm up, long, easy pitches in the outfield entertain me. Like so many experts, professional athletes make what they do look effortless, belying the hours and hours these young men—boys, really—have worked at every aspect of their craft.
I remember my baseball-besotted older brother, Rod, playing catch with himself by the hour, using our cellar door as a backstop: “Thwack, thwack, thwack,” the ball bounced off the angled door, pitch after pitch. Who would ever want to be a pitcher? I couldn’t stand the pressure. My brother loved to pitch, though his asthma kept him from being a serious contender—he couldn’t run fast enough without wheezing, but when he threw against the cellar door he did not yet know his limits. When Rod was about eleven, in 1968, our Uncle Joe flew Dad and him out to see a World Series game in St. Louis—the Cardinals versus the Tigers—the team my husband grew up rooting for, the only team he really loves. It was a glorious surprise, one my family feasted on for decades—flying was not nearly as common then as it was now—and it was a thrill for Rod and Dad to be there. As it happens, the Tigers won—a fact I had forgotten before I write this piece—another hometown devastation.
We all went to games with Daddy, but when I was chosen, I was frustrated that, thanks to his transistor radio complete with earphone, so he could listen to the play by play, he had scant interest in a little girl’s questions. Then, like now, I dipped my hot pretzel into spicy mustard and took it all in. In his last decades, Daddy and my sister were thick as thieves, attending games religiously. “I took his place, Rod’s place,” my sister explained a few weeks ago. Our brother had died when he was eighteen, leaving our father without his number one sports companion. My older sister had stepped in, learning how to be a fan. Now, we acknowledge her as the baseball queen in the family. She, having inherited Daddy’s season tickets, remains a diehard Phillies fan. She and Atticus made memories in the same way Dad and Rod had in St. Louis almost 50 years ago. She is on deck to come tomorrow, if there needs to be a tomorrow, because Seth and I must fly east for a Memorial service. But tonight, Atticus gets her a World Series baseball cap. “Just in case,” he explains. “I want her to have one, no matter what.” And, if we win, of course, we won’t be coming back to buy merchandise. It is a shrewd decision. She will love it.
We stand for the National Anthem and then, the game begins, finally. Fireworks dazzle against the warm, dark sky. On the huge scoreboard, an asset for one used to watching sports on television, the players’ faces are unlined. They concentrate but play, too in this high-stakes game. I imagine them falling to sleep as little boys imagining this moment, now living it. I want to know each one of their stories, their alliances, their triumphs. Do any of them, Indians and Cubs, now opponents, have shared histories like those two Civil War generals who roomed together at West Point and refused to face each other in battle? I’m a drama teacher; it is natural that I want stories over stats that I don’t really understand.
I note the fickleness of the crowd roaring approval one minute, booing the next. An undercurrent of aggression, tempers loosened by beer, worries me. The grinning, joyful beginning dissipates with the first three runs scored by the Cubs, dissolves further with the Cubs’ Grand Slam. We despair. Our spirits turn on a dime, soar on a hit. We encourage the Tribe with our yells, but as the innings stretch on, joy seeps away, air from yesterday’s birthday balloon, sagging. Top of the ninth and we are down by five only to witness a two-run home run before our boys come up to bat. And I hear my dad reciting,
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
There’s not much joy in Cleveland, even when we add a run in the last at bat. We make our way back to the Rapid, climbing onto the car, subdued but buoyed by our hope that the Indians just wanted to stretch out the series, that they want to clinch it in Game Seven. We are “bloodied but unbowed” like Dad’s favorite Invictus. My dad loved poetry as much as he loved baseball; tonight, I love them both on his behalf. So, my sister will drive to Cleveland and take our son to Game Seven. And I will carry the memory of this game and this night with me--while time will lessen the disappointment of its outcome, it won’t diminish how thrilling it felt to get this close, to be a fan worthy of my dad, worthy of my brother, worthy of my son.