Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Jacobs Field
LATER KNOWN AS: Progressive Field
HOME TEAM: Cleveland Indians
VISITS: 1, including a tour
VISITED: August 4, 2000
CHRONOLOGY: 22nd of 34
RANKING: 11th of 34
This is what Fred Wilpon had in mind. This is what everybody had in mind. We all reflexively credit Camden Yards for starting the retro ballpark trend — with good reason, since it was first throwback stadium to take root in the middle of a city and its originality was so darn striking. But Jacobs Field was the second and it really may have been the one that confirmed the formula worked.
If it can work in Cleveland, one franchise owner after another started thinking, it can work for us.
Camden Yards deserves its iconic status, but Baltimore already had a bit of a downtown renaissance in progress when Oriole Park took wing. It had the Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium. Cleveland, on the other hand, was, no disrespect intended, Cleveland. You don’t have to be an urbanologist to understand what that meant prior to 1994. All you have to do is remember the opening scenes of 1989’s Major League, set to the strains of Randy Newman:
Cleveland city of light, city of magic
Cleveland city of light, you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
‘Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin’ through my dreams
Randy Newman recorded “Burn On” in 1972, a tribute (if you will) to the Cuyahoga River oil fire of 1969. That was the image America had of Cleveland for the longest time: a city whose river went literally to blazes. There wasn’t much else you’d call hot about the city’s image. Cleveland was a reliable punchline for Johnny Carson, a default example when experts gathered to bemoan the fate of Our Dying Cities. It was the broken buckle of the Rust Belt, impervious to industrial-strength RustOleum. Cleveland was a joke and the Indians were a laughingstock. No wonder Major League was so funny.
And then came Jacobs Field.
Not long after we returned home from our trip there in the summer of 2000, Stephanie was catching up with the mother of her best friend from high school. She told her about our most recent vacation. We went to Cleveland, Stephanie said. Her friend’s mother very nearly fainted. She lived in Florida but was originally from Ohio. Why, she asked Stephanie, would you ever take a vacation in Cleveland? It’s the worst!
Stephanie’s friend’s mother hadn’t been back to Ohio in quite a while. And she wasn’t a baseball fan. Everybody else seemed to know things had changed on the shores of Lake Erie, or at least enough of them had been renovated to make “America’s North Coast,” as civic promoters once hailed it, palatable for a brief visit. The river wasn’t burning, the Indians weren’t losing and the downtown wasn’t a bad place at all.
In the middle of it, the ballpark. It was probably unimaginable when Jake Taylor was catching Ricky Vaughn in aging, enormous Cleveland Municipal Stadium (which was portrayed in Major League by County Stadium). I won’t call Municipal Stadium “decrepit” or “dilapidated” since I was never there — and I have a soft spot for allegedly outmoded stadia — but it’s fair to say it didn’t have the best PR, and there’s no arguing it didn’t attract many Clevelanders. As Bennett Tramer wrote lovingly of his hometown ballclub in 1979’s premiere issue of Inside Sports, he rooted for a team “so terrible that hometown kids leave the ballpark early to sneak back into school.”
From 1956 through 1992, the Indians finished among the bottom four in American league per-game attendance 33 of 37 seasons. Not coincidentally, the Indians spent the entirety of the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s out of contention. If the Tribe gave its fans a little hope, its fans would show up — ticket sales more than doubled when the Indians improved by 24 games in 1986 — but there wasn’t much hope. There was just a very large, very old, very deserted stadium. Bennett Tramer again:
In 25 years, the two most exciting moments have been Tito Francona’s TV commercials for Central National Bank and Valmy Thomas’s groin injury.
It would go on like that for another 15 years in the city “where the Cuyahoga River caught fire more frequently than the baseball team,” until four decades of futility at last burned away and Jacobs Field opened its gates. The Indians had a sensational young ballclub and Clevelanders couldn’t not show up. Second in the American League Central and fourth in A.L. attendance when the labor troubles hit in 1994. Second in attendance and first in all of baseball with a staggering 100-44 record in strike-shortened 1995. Division titles and sellouts became the norm. The Indians made the playoffs five years running, advancing to the World Series twice. For 455 consecutive games, the Jake, as it quickly became known, sold every ticket and filled every seat.
By 2000, with the Cleveland Indians entrenched among baseball’s most popular and powerful, I wanted in. I wanted to go to a game at Jacobs Field. I wanted a taste of Tribemania. I wanted a ticket. I wanted a seat at the table.
But how? How do you inject yourself into a crowd that regularly tops 43,000 in a ballpark that seats barely more than 43,000 (and stands a few hundred besides). Your online options were limited. StubHub was in its infancy. Scalpers? Were they legal in Ohio? How much would that cost? And where does one go in Cleveland to buy an already sold ticket? Our ballpark trips were almost always made with the baseball arrangements taken care of in advance. We weren’t going to travel great distances and get shut out. This wasn’t Municipal Stadium or Shea Stadium. You couldn’t just walk up to a window and ask for two, please.
As luck would have it, the reign of the Indians coincided with my knowing a handful of people who either lived in Cleveland or had relatives in Cleveland. Maybe it was the heat of the Tribe or the rise of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the prestige of The Drew Carey Show, but every time I turned around in New York, I seemed to be in contact with somebody with some connection to Cleveland.
One of those people was a co-worker whose parents just happened to be season ticketholders at the Jake. Not just any season tickets either, but tickets that were four rows behind the first base dugout. This thoughtful young lady made a call and, voila!, the tickets were mine. Four tickets at that, which was terrific since at the center of my Cleveland network was my former co-worker Eric — his house had been our satellite office — and it would be swell to go to this game with him and his wife Shelley. I had made noises in 1993 about flying out there to take in a game with him before the old joint closed, but it never happened. This figured to more than make up for it.
The tickets we were provided were for Friday, August 4, so that automatically became the fulcrum of our vacation and the core of what became the closest I ever experienced to my version of a fantasy camp. The Saturday before, I went to Shea and saw the Mets win. I went back on Sunday, and I saw the Mets win. The Mets lost on Monday, but I didn’t go. I went Tuesday, the Mets won. Returned Wednesday afternoon, the Mets won again. Four games in five days, four consecutive wins.
And then it was off to Cleveland. Who could ask for anything more out of the middle of summer?
Take that, Randy Newman.
My ballpark fetish has exposed me to brief glimpses of America’s medium-sized cities, places I never would have visited otherwise. Unless there was business taking me to Cleveland, no way I’m there, even if they do have a Hall of Fame. So when Stephanie and I landed at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and found our way to the light rail that (per Eric’s instructions) takes you to Tower City and then emerged in the middle of some “downtown” we’d never given any thought previously — downtown having a different connotation in all these other places than it does in New York — it was actually kind of exciting.
New Yorkers getting excited over Cleveland…go figure.
I liked the compactness of downtown Cleveland. It was just a few blocks from Tower City, the big mall/office complex, to our lakefront hotel, which itself wasn’t too many steps from the Hall and the Browns’ new stadium. We even figured out that Cleveland State University was within reasonable walking distance; procuring college t-shirts from universities we know little about are one of our vacation rituals.
As for the object of our desire, Jacobs Field, it was also nearby. Of course it was. It was the magnet in the middle of our minds from the moment we checked in until we got through our game. After dropping our luggage, we walked over and peeked in. There was no game in progress, but it was right there on the street waiting to be gazed upon. You could see the field and all the touches that made it special, like the toothbrush lights and the massive scoreboard (which seemed bigger in those days before everybody got one). You could enjoy the sandstone exterior, an unwitting antidote to the epidemic of Camden-style bricks almost everybody else building a ballpark was copying from Baltimore. Cleveland had itself an original.
The game was Friday night, but I couldn’t wait 24 hours for more Jake. It was just too damn alluring and we were just staying way too close to pretend it wasn’t calling to us. We learned they gave tours, so we showed up Friday afternoon after purchasing our CSU shirts (Go Vikings!) and got the inside look.
That was fun, too, though it revealed my only substantive gripe with the place: the suites. They were stacked atop each other so high — suite, suite, suite — until the upper deck could have been called America’s North Coast. I thought the idea of these retro parks was intimacy, yet the regular Tribe fans were pushed heavenward by the swells. My tickets weren’t in the upper deck, so it wasn’t going to affect me one bit, but I try to maintain an aesthetic standard on these trips. One thumb down for over suite-ing Jacobs Field.
And we could have done without what seemed like 20 minutes sitting around one of the suites as part of the tour. I don’t think that was planned, as our tour guide seemed flustered by some technical glitch and parked us on a bunch of private couches and barstools. It was nice, sure, and it’s novel compared to not sitting in a suite, but the more I think about it, the less these things have to do with baseball…and I don’t have to think that much about it. Yet no ballpark built in the past 20 years has been completed with the selling point being “we’ve eliminated suites.” The Jake sold them out like they sold every seat, so more power to ’em, I guess.
A couple of other Jake tour highlights: Charlie Manuel’s parking space (if I could have foreseen the future, I would have done something nasty to it); the tantrum room right off the Indians’ dugout (where players could take out their frustrations away from umpires and the looming threat of ejection); and standing and posing for pictures on the field itself. Prior to August of 2000, I’d given no thought to following in the tracks of Chief Wahoo. Now I just had to be photographed on his sacred ground.
Fine official tour to go with our sneak preview the evening before. On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped in Tower City to look around and found a store that sold ballpark photos from all over the American League. I snapped up Baltimore, Boston and Detroit. Ten years later, I’ve yet to figure out what to do with them, but I know had to have them while they sat on the counter of a store in Cleveland where I’d never be again.
The main course awaited at 7:05. I was excited about taking another stroll from our hotel, breathing in the bracing lakefront air, joining the parade of locals until we all, as one, got our Tribe on. But that little thrill was pre-empted because our friends were picking us up and, in appreciation for the tickets they — actual fans of this team — couldn’t hope to lay their hands on, taking us to dinner. Well, we could hardly complain about either of those options.
Eric and Shelley brought us to a steakhouse on the edge of downtown. One of the more impressive pregame dinners I’ve ever enjoyed. They made for great companions. It was my first time meeting Shelley. As for Eric, we generally only saw each other at trade shows or when our former employer would fly him in for a meeting. Friendly sort when we were discussing beverage or magazine matters, but move us toward baseball and man, this guy was a blast! Remind me never to go to a convention when I can go to a ballgame.
Full but hardly sated, it was off to the Jake. Eric parked in an off-site lot that charged $20 (downtown ballpark, limited parking) and we were in our fabulous seats just in time for first pitch. From there, nearly every pitch was whacked around. Turn of the Century DH league baseball..DUCK!
The Indians and the Angels each planted some sacrificial tomato can on the mound and their respective offenses let fly. Four for Cleveland in the bottom of the first. Four for Anaheim in the top of the second. Five for the home team in the third. Single runs for the visitors in the tops of the fourth and fifth. What did that make the score?
A lot. Yet all those base hits meant very little compared to a Roberto Alomar bunt attempt gone foul. Robbie, as we called him in our continual efforts to sort of fit in on these sojourns, bunted way too hard. He fouled it directly back, off the window of the press box. It bounced just as hard in the direction of the really good seats behind the first base dugout.
It was coming right toward us. A small mob converged and the ball disappeared. Stephanie, on my left, bent down as if she was going to find it sitting at her feet. Oh, I thought, that’s so cute! She actually thinks the ball landed, of all places, right by her shoes.
Guess what — it did. Stephanie got the ball.
WOW! My wife “caught” a foul ball! Sure, what she really did was pick it up off the ground, but they’re all acrobatic snares of sizzling liners in the paper the next day, so way to go!.
Two aspects of this that still slay me:
1) Stephanie has never attended a baseball game in which she didn’t warn me of the terror lurking in her soul regarding a foul ball taking her head off (no matter how far we sat from likely foul ball territory), yet she couldn’t have been more blasé about her Jacobs find. While I was scouring the area to see where the sphere of dreams landed, she just sat and smiled and handed it to me. Is this what you were looking for?
2) Eric, lifelong fan of all Cleveland sporting combines, witness to no Cleveland championships, scarred as any Cuyahogan by the 1997 World Series that got away in the ninth inning of the seventh game…Eric had been to loads of Indians games at mammoth Municipal Stadium where your chances at a foul ball were mathematically excellent. He never got one. At the Jake, albeit with more competition, same thing — no dice. Somehow, Eric chose the half-inning of Roberto Alomar’s fateful at-bat as the half-inning to go to the men’s room. Thus, when he returned to his seat and saw me holding a baseball hit moments earlier by the biggest star on his favorite team…I believe the first two words uttered were “what” and “the”. Eric’s indignation was mock but still, out-of-towners just cruise in and grab a ball. Ouch.
Eric still has no championships from his teams, but if it makes him feel any better, we haven’t come up with any foul balls since 2000.
Our friends were such nice people, but not all Tribalists were so civilized. Specifically, a bunch of tanked-up teens were giving the business to one Angel in particular, Mo Vaughn. Mo, they deduced, was a large fellow, so they saw fit to remind him loudly and crudely that he wasn’t — fit, that is. As Mo led off the seventh with Anaheim two runs down, I must confess that I hoped he’d shove their taunts down their throats just on principle. In another stroke of luck, Vaughn’s fellow slugger Jim Thome, standing around first base for Cleveland between his own at-bats, couldn’t field a grounder. E-3 on the Thomenator, Mo Vaughn on first.
Then Justin Speier throws a wild pitch and Vaughn speeds to second. HA! He’d come around to score as the Angels eventually tied it 9-9.
9-9. Geez, the American League can be numbing.
I went back to nominally supporting the Indians out of courtesy, but I wasn’t too upset when Adam Kennedy singled home Garret Anderson in the top of the ninth to make it 10-9 Angels. This had been a long-ass game. We had our ball, we had a ball in general, but by the ninth, we’d seen just about everything Jacobs Field had to offer. The Mets were in Arizona (playing the “Rattlers” according to the out-of-town scoreboard). I was tired, I was full, now I was distracted. When can I get back to the room to track the Mets on the ESPN crawl?
No worries. There was one more thing Jacobs Field had to offer us. With one out and one on, Thome stepped in against Angels closer Troy Percival. The Thomenator had also decided it had been a long enough night and he creamed the fourth pitch he saw. Just like that, after nearly four hours, we had our final: Indians 11 Angels 10.
It meant more to Eric than it did to me, but that was a helluva way to end any game — no doubt the most exciting ending to what I’ll call an “other” game I’ve ever witnessed. Jerks who told Mo Vaughn how effing fat he was gaining satisfaction notwithstanding, it was a ton of fun leaving a ballpark in that kind of delirious crowd.
For Thome, it was career home run No. 225; he now has 587, eighth all-time. For Jacobs Field, it was consecutive sellout No. 423; the streak would snap at 455 the following April (the Red Sox have long since smashed that record, with Fenway selling out 622 straight games and counting). For the Indians, it was part of a late-season surge that would catapult them into Wild Card contention where they’d come up just short of their sixth consecutive postseason appearance. Another division title, unfortunately for them, was out of the question, as Charlie Manuel’s club was outpaced early in the A.L. Central by the White Sox of Jerry Manuel. Quite a manager that guy was supposed to be.
Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn were two superstars I’d remember from this night but presumably forget about as soon as Eric and Shelley dropped us off at our hotel where I’d race to turn on Baseball Tonight and learn Joe McEwing and the Mets were sticking it to Randy Johnson and those redubbed Rattlers. True, the next day Stephanie and I visited an Indians clubhouse store in a downtown mall and picked up a Beanie Baby-type keychain with ALOMAR 12 inscribed on its back because we were so grateful to Robbie for having such precise aim with his misfired bunt. We’d take Beanie Robbie home and put real Robbie’s ball in a case and place them both atop our bedroom dresser and glance at them now and then and remember what a good time we had in Cleveland in the summer of 2000.
But otherwise, we’d have no reason to let either Roberto Alomar or Mo Vaughn cross our Met minds on a going basis in the foreseeable future. Nope, no way.
A friend spent his own vacation this past June in Cleveland, timing it to catch the Mets at the Jake or whatever it’s called now. He was happy our team swept their team, but reported “that ballpark is kind of sad.” No crowds, no life, not well kept up — “it shows you what Citi Field could be like in ten years if they don’t take care of it.”
My Jacobs Field, however, will always look fantastic from the fourth row.