I’ve been lucky enough to see the Cleveland Indians play many times, but I’ll never forget the first, when I was just a kid who loved a baseball team.
People where I live are always somewhat surprised to learn that the Cleveland Indians are my favorite team in the sports universe. I was raised in a small Pennsylvania town roughly two and a half hours from Philadelphia; by all geographical logic, I should’ve grown up a Phillies fan.
As a kid, however, the concept of loyalty to a location was foreign to me. I didn’t know I was supposed to root for the teams who played in the closest proximity to where I lived. I based my rooting interests on how I felt watching teams play, and no team took a stronger hold on me than the Cleveland Indians of the mid-to-late 1990’s.
My earliest MLB memories are all of individual players. Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tony Gwynn, Frank Thomas, Cal Ripken Jr., you get the idea. If a player was dominant or otherwise noteworthy at any point in the 1990’s, he stood out to me as a kid.
But the first team that truly commanded my attention as a young baseball fan was the Indians. If you’re a kid who knows nothing except that he loves baseball, how could you not have fallen in love with that team? I suppose if I was in the market for a little less heartbreak I could’ve gravitated toward the Yankees of the same era, but something about those Tribe squads sunk into me and never left.
I have vague memories of the 1995 World Series, but the 1997 World Series stands out in my mind a lot more than it should for a kid who was 10 years old at the time. Watching Edgar Renteria‘s championship-clinching single skitter up the middle of the diamond to end Game 7 was the first time I felt true sadness over a baseball game in which I was not playing. And in some strange way, it was that sadness that sealed a lifelong bond between me and my favorite baseball team.
Fast-forward a few years later to the summer of 2000. My mom asked my younger brother and me if we had any ideas for a Father’s Day gift. I immediately suggested going to an Indians game even though neither my dad nor younger brother were Tribe fans. Somehow, my suggestion won out.
It would’ve been difficult for my parents to work out the logistics of a pilgrimage to Cleveland from where we live, so later that day my mom sat down at our desktop computer with dial-up internet and ordered three tickets to an Indians/Orioles game in Baltimore at the end of July. I didn’t care where the game was, I cared that I was going to see Omar Vizquel, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome in person.
I was in awe over the beauty of Camden Yards, particularly the right field patio area where there are markers indicating the landing spots of some of the park’s most majestic home runs. Included is Griffey’s assault on the B&O Warehouse in the 1993 Home Run Derby.
During batting practice I wandered around in the outfield stands even though our seats were high up on the right field line. Omar Vizquel was shagging flies in center and throwing them to fans in the bleachers behind him.
I could be choosing to remember this incorrectly, but just before throwing a ball in my general direction, I swear my favorite shortstop pointed at me and smiled as if to say, “This one’s for you, kid.” Unlike so many of his throws to first base, this one was a little high–too high for a 13-year-old kid to go up and get. It sailed into the glove of a much taller, grown adult man who promptly walked away as if there was not a sea of kids around him who would have gotten much more enjoyment out of catching that ball than he did.
The frustration I felt over missing out on a chance to catch a baseball from one of my favorite players of all time soon gave way to the pure joy of watching the Indians absolutely decimate the Orioles on the scoreboard.
Manny Ramirez drove in six runs, four of them via a grand slam and the other two on a second home run later in the game. The rest of the lineup sliced and diced its way through Baltimore’s pitching staff en route to a 14-3 victory.
Now that I’m older, I have a much easier time making the trip to Cleveland to see the Indians in their home park, but I’ll never forget the first time I got to see them in person on Saturday, July 29, 2000 in Baltimore. I remember it was sweltering hot and humid, I remember that my younger brother and dad were with me, and I remember that the Tribe put on one hell of a show.