“Where are the Indians fans today?” Tom Hamilton belted into the microphone, the sweet sound of summer filling the room.
Thunderous cheering followed. Clearly, the fans were at Summit Mall.
It’s that time of year again. Any baseball fan knows what I’m talking about. We’re currently marred in what I like to call “the dog days of winter.” With the start of February just around the corner, spring training is almost upon us. That’s enough to get any fan excited, regardless of the prospects for his or her favorite team’s upcoming season.
To take advantage of this enthusiasm, a handful of Indians players were on hand at local malls this weekend. Fans had the opportunity to get autographs, ask questions of the players, enter raffles, and win bobbleheads, hats, and other Tribe goodies. Not to mention they could beat “Drummer Guy” John Adams’ famous drum and meet Slider and the hot dogs.
Hours before the “Tribe on Tour” event was set to start Saturday at Summit Mall in Akron—the third installment of four in the Cleveland area—fans formed long lines around the mall to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Jason Donald, Shelley Duncan, Jack Hannahan, Jason Kipnis, Vinnie Pestano, Josh Tomlin, and manager Manny Acta were all in attendance to answer fans’ questions about the team and the upcoming season. The players arrived to cheering from the anxious fans.
In the days prior to the event, the players had been active on Twitter, getting fans excited to see them in person. After the final fan event at Beachwood Mall, for example, Pestano tweeted:
"Wow what a whirlwind of a trip but definitely worth it to see that everyone is as excited as I am for the season to start. #tribevstheworld"
The event started with a question and answer portion, which gave fans an opportunity to address any of the players or Acta. Tom Hamilton led the event by introducing the players and directing questions.
After being introduced by Hamilton, Duncan addressed the fans. “The season’s a lightning flash away and we are ready to get going,” he said. “We are going to be a really good team this year. I really feel it.”
There was a certain kind of energy that settled in the crowd at that statement. There was excitement. If only for a little while, the fans in attendance seemed to forget about the woes the team has faced in the recent past. They seemed to forget that Detroit just signed a superstar that the Indians will have to reckon with for years to come. Maybe it was in the back of their minds, but while listening to the young players of the current team speak, it seemed as though the current roster could get the job done.
None of them are stars in their own right—at least not yet. None of them have set themselves apart from the rest, but all of the players that were on the stage have the ability to impact the team in one way or another in the upcoming season. If only for one day, hundreds of fans could see that. Sure, there are doubts, and there will continue to be doubts. But there was Indians pride in that mall. It wasn’t just something you could see with the red and blue ball caps, jerseys, and T-shirts, with Chief Wahoo and the names of favorite players proudly displayed. It could also be felt. Maybe it was hope or awe at the players in front of them, but I think it was something more than that. I think what was there was a very special feeling, the one bringing together a group of people with nothing else in common but a mutual love for the Cleveland Indians.
That’s what makes this fan event so special. The fans undoubtedly came for the players, but they got more than autographs—they got to feel like they were a part of something so much more.
That’s why events like this are so important to teams like the Indians. They can’t buy off their fans by signing big-name players to multiyear contracts. We know that’s not going to work. Fans need to have a sense of unity and dedication to a team like the Indians. Fan-centered events like “Tribe on Tour” have the potential to help fans develop these attributes. The fans can bond not just with one another—and trust me, they had plenty of time while standing in line—but also with the players. Seeing them in that light does a lot for fans, especially the younger ones.
One such young fan ventured with his father up to the microphone. From the stage, Hamilton asked the boy: “Did you enjoy last year?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, the boy, with the excitement only a small child can harness about a disappointing season, exclaimed: “It was awesome!”
That’s what I like to see. We can analyze the future of the team all we want—and we will—but that boy showed us all what it means to be a fan of a team. It’s not about the standings—yes, winning is fun, and it’s true that losing game after game can be painful. But there’s something to be said about seeing the game from the eyes of a wide-eyed child though. Maybe that wasn’t the aim of this event. That was beyond the control of the organizers and the players on stage. But it helped emphasize the purpose.
I’m excited. I don’t know about you, but I am. Who knows what’s going to happen this season? Maybe I’m just an optimist, but right now, we’ve got every reason to be excited, because if we just look at it like that little boy, it’s going to be awesome.