By: Joshua Ellis
As I shake hands, exchange hugs and walk down the long corridor to my hotel room, I wear the biggest baseball grin I have had in quite some time. Tonight was magical, epic and despite not being in Safeco Field for opening night, felt just like home. The much needed sleep delayed by swirling thoughts and bowels that only planned impulsiveness and six white castle burgers can allow. Before I finally drift to sleep I know I will be missing out on a tribute to the World Champion Seattle Seahawks, Kings Court pandemonium, and the home field debut of Robinson Cano. In the end and throughout the evening, my spontaneity and trust in complete strangers would make for a memory of baseball I would not soon forget. Two months ago, a phone conversation with my brother made this night a reality. A thought provoking night thrown together on a hop from baseball to bars. A progressive night. Only fitting that it should start at Progressive Field.
For the past several years my brothers and I have gone to opening day at Safeco Field. During a conversation with my brother, I tell him that I will not be able to attend this year. Instead, my job is sending me to Cleveland for advanced training during opening week of Mariners baseball. Understandably bummed, he realizes that if he wants to go to opening day that he will have to go one brother short. Currently, Mariners baseball doesn’t attract the fair weathered fan. Instead, it brings the folks who understand that baseball, at its essence is a past time to be spent with family and friends. Baseball, for us, will not be the same without me there. This thought and my absence leads to a decision. No one is going to Opening Day.
My trip to Progressive Field was not without its adventures. I made a conscious decision that I would be attending a baseball game long before I actually arrived in Cleveland. The excitement of being in a different stadium followed me throughout the work day and any kind of baseball mythology and lore that I could soak up. My journey downtown found me on a train traveling at the speed of my own anticipation. The sprawl of a city nestled along the banks of Lake Erie allowed me to see many different adjuncts of lifestyle. Suburbs, architecture, people, restaurants, vegetation laid out on flat terrain as I rolled closer to the skyline of Cleveland. Seattle never felt so far away. Thankfully, I met a few out of town stragglers on the way downtown in the same predicament as myself. Amongst the four was a middle aged man with tough rugged features, a leather jacket that screamed Midwestern blue collar and Indians gear from head to toe. I knew instantly this was my fate, I had to befriend these people. I introduced myself, my situation and within no time we were exchanging small talk and baseball enthusiasm while the train whistled along. I would now be able to see baseball through the eyes of an east coast baseball nerd and relax in the company of his friends. He knew absolutely everything about the Cleveland Indians. As far back as the Cleveland Spiders when they played at a “dump” called Cleveland Municipal. He would tell me about the infamous drummer that didn’t randomly appear at any given spot in the stadium, but rather always in the outfield. This now iconic drummer leads the charge to get fans clamoring for their beloved Indians. However, I had a hard time finding this supposed drummer and for good reason. The Indians absolutely killed any chance the National League representing San Diego Padres could muster. Between cheers and runs scored I kept my ear tuned to my new found friend’s rants on upcoming farm system talent, recent trade acquisitions and praise only a die-hard fan could spit out. However, my fascination in his stories proved difficult when trying to discern my hunger levels. It was only during a lull in the conversation I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch earlier. It wasn’t until I excused myself that John, the Indians fan, would stop me and insist that I get a hot dog with the Cleveland Indians signature mustard called Bert’s. What he didn’t tell me is that this knee buckling condiment would change my experience of ball park hot dogs forever. Twenty-five dollars and four bottles of mustard later I walked out of the team store relishing in my purchases. This experience had to be shared, shared with the people I would normally be watching baseball with. Baseball might be cooler here.
In my experience as a baseball fan I have had the privilege of seeing Candlestick Park, Oakland – Alameda, Camden Yards, Safeco Field and now Progressive Field. I was able to fully appreciate what I have and don’t have back home as I strolled around the stadium demolishing a hot dog and sipping on surprisingly quality craft beer. What I do have, at Safeco Field, is a nothing short of state of the art. A ball field that caters to both fans and players. Safeco Field’s identity lies underneath a retractable roof and is illuminated by the Major League Baseball’s largest jumbotron. The scent of garlic fries and brewed Pyramid beer masks the spray of ocean water coming from Puget Sound. Seattle’s progressive skyline hovering behind left field giving just an inkling of what the city truly has to offer. However, this package comes with a sense of what baseball means in the 21st century.. A far cry from where it started over a hundred years ago leading to its eventual manifest destiny. Without knowing any better, one might assume that the fans and city are rich, full and drunk with power in the best sports city in America. Sadly, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. We haven’t been playoff contenders in over a decade and are still seeking our first World Series appearance! We are a fan base trying to find an identity, while the 12th man, voted as the NFLs best are literally across the street. What I don’t have is a Midwestern city that clings to sports as if it’s the only thing worth getting out of bed for. I have seen this attitude in St. Louis, another Midwestern city.. In my opinion, I haven’t found much else outside sports to get excited for when visiting the Midwest. Seattle, Portland and San Francisco have so much to offer in terms of culture, personality and general things to do than your average Mid-Western city. The Mid-West feels like a post apocalyptic desolate wasteland. An area on the map that looks overpopulated but feels like a ghost town. Sports, thankfully, gives the locals an excuse to go downtown, support the team and give the illusion of a bustling city. Its this mindset that fuels the desire and need for sports to exist in this area of the country. For example, the Cleveland Browns NFL team moved to Baltimore and their fans cried for their return and got them back several years later. Conversely, when the Seattle Supersonics left for Oklahoma you saw an outcry in Seattle but not strong enough to bring them back to the city. Cleveland has that, we don’t. This all became more clear as I circled the concourse. Random cheers amidst random bits of silence encapsulated the feel of a baseball game. However, the aging stadium resounded more with me than any of the familiarities that I have come to expect during a game. The stadium has this rustic, old, dirty and industrial feel. Massive steel poles acting as foundation for bleachers crisscrossed along the perimeter of the concourse. It was as if the local fans griminess caked on each towering pole fueled the organizations profile, mantra and character of the city. This was part of Cleveland’s identity, part of their birthright, part of history and no one recognized it more clearly than myself. This was not just any Tuesday night, it’s their way of life. Baseball is different here.
After purchasing the necessary memorabilia without being a traitor to my own team, I found my way back to my seat. In the relatively short trek around the somewhat unoriginal stadium, the Indians had managed to pull together a very strong lead. The fans being robbed of their opening day festivities due to inclement weather the day prior were able to relish in the glory of their beloved Indians. It was then, that I was able to relax and truly take in the awesomeness of being in a different stadium, to take notice of what I was watching and also what I was missing. Behind the curtain, the sanctuary and past-time of baseball has always been an escape. An opportunity to revel in the mystery of the dreamers out there that made their dream a reality. The American Spirit and American dream that anything is possible tucked underneath the pleasure of good company is what makes baseball sacred and special. Only later in life have I been able to realize this. It took an Indians – Padres game in the middle of nowhere America for me to realize this. At the 7th inning stretch I had a revelation but not before I took notice to mascots dressed as condiments raced around the stadium punching and kicking their way to bragging rights. I cleared my throat and braced myself for the singing of take me out to the ball game. Goose bumps littered my skin as I started into song, knowing full well that I could never let myself actually root, root, root for the Indians. It was in this moment where that I realized that although I was amongst the family of baseball, I missed my actual family. I missed my own anticipation of the drive up to the game, the dreadful parking at Safeco Field, sitting in a different part of the stadium, being late for the third consecutive time, opening day festivities, laughing about the most ridiculous things with my brothers and taking in the feeling of being in the midst of my personal family. So, even though I was singing take me out to the ball game, I cheated and root, root, rooted for a team that had not even started playing their home opener. Baseball is not only different here, its cathartic.
With my new temporary ‘baseball’ family we finished watching the game and I soaked in as much of my remaining experience as possible. The sights, smells, feels and look of our national pastime represented under a different set of lights while illuminating a very real and cherished memory in the making. These days, I am smarter about what I eat and drink but felt the necessity of sharing a smoke with one of my new comrades. It only seemed fitting that with every inhale and exhale of smoke that I could truly appreciate the dizzying effect of not only the cigarette but what I had just had the privilege of witnessing. After the game, my crew and I deemed it appropriate to get drinks at a Hooter’s knock off called The Tilted Kilt of Cleveland. It was then, after treating these strangers to drinks, that I looked up and saw my beloved Mariners on the jumbo screen. My heart sank but was lifted simultaneously when the expected shit talking that only sports fans can appreciate started barreling towards my direction. For a moment, ironically, it felt like home. However, my current home (i.e. The Hilton) was beckoning my return. The time I had to return to the train station for a shuttle ride back to my hotel was quickly dwindling away. I then communicated my dilemma to the group and Jon, baseball guru, stopped me before I could finish. My love of fast food and the stipulation of going on a quest to White Castle would guarantee a ride back to my hotel. It was a no-brainer. Harold and Kumar would be proud.
One hour and six hot off the oven White Castle burgers later I found myself tired, excited, happy and most of all, safely back in my hotel room. As I have gotten older and allowed the world to frame my thinking on things I never would have guessed at this point in my life that I could surprise myself. A spontaneity I haven’t felt since I left home for the first time. Could I put my complete faith in people I just met? Could I make the best of a lonely awkward situation where I would rather be someplace else? Could I pull myself out of the personal shell that with time I have created? Could I look back on this experience as something of a life lesson and gain some value out of the situation? It was these thoughts that rattled around in my head as I finally was able to lay down for sleep. It was these thoughts that kept me awake for longer than I had wanted to stay awake. It was these thoughts that when answered, “Yes” that I was able to finally escape to dream world and leave the dream that I had just experienced behind.