Playoff Games with Chuck

Last Thursday, for the first time this century, I went to an Indians postseason game.

Admittedly, there haven’t been as many in the past 15 years as there had been in the late 1990s, when October baseball was a matter of course, filling the days during the time the Browns were on hiatus (or, as I like to call it, the three years they were undefeated).

And it certainly didn’t feel like October. Shortly before midnight, the scoreboard thermometer read 70 degrees. But it did feel like October. I went with Chuck (my father, to the uninitiated).

When it was games in the summer, I went with my friends. Jacobs Field opened as my junior year in high school drew to a close. It represented the perfect getaway from Youngstown. We’d caravan up, up to a dozen of us, for a couple games every year. Then, as I went to college in Bowling Green, it became the perfect meeting place for the friends I’d made in Bowling Green, either because they were from the Cleveland area or they didn’t want to be left out of the fun.

But if it was a playoff game, I went with Chuck. Truth be told, he was just as excited as I was to go.

He was never afforded the opportunity to go to games on a regular basis. The Guerrieri family motto is “Never turn down overtime,” and his father (Charlie, to the uninitiated) worked whenever he could. And when he wasn’t working, he was on call: Nights, weekends, holidays. You ever heard people talk about the Great Depression and say, “We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor?” I got the impression that Charlie was poor, knew it, and didn’t like it a goddamn bit.

He told stories of hopping a train in his salad days and heading to New York to watching boxing matches at Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds, and swore to his dying day he took Chuck to see Bob Feller pitch. The details got a little fuzzier the older he got (first Bob Feller pitched a shutout and hit a triple to win the game; then Bob Feller pitched a shutout and hit a home run. Near the end, it was one of his no-hitters – and my grandfather, who probably never held a baseball bat with sporting intent in his life, hit the triple), but Bob Feller retired two years after my father was born, so we knew to question the veracity from the jump. We met Bob Feller years later, and asked him if he’d ever pitched a shutout and hit a triple to win the game. “Sure, it was at League Park in 1939.” I didn’t pry any more. As they said in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Chuck had gone to a couple football games, one a doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium (he sat behind a pole, a not uncommon occurrence), and one game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. In both instances, he took a Greyhound bus. He said while at the Greyhound station in Pittsburgh, he saw George “The Animal” Steele… eating soup with a fork.

We’d go to a game or two every year. I went to baseball games with him. My brother Adam went to hockey or basketball games with him. In 1994, we went to Winterfest at the Marriott downtown, and went up into the Key Tower to look down on the new construction. He had that far-off look in his eye. He was going to get tickets for the opener.

And he did. I still carry with me the memory of walking out of the concourse into the seating bowl. The only places I’d ever seen baseball games before was on the cow pasture at Cleveland Stadium or the carpet at Three Rivers. The grass was real and in Technicolor, and they’d piped in “Karn Evil 9” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer:
Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside…

The game was everything you could have hoped for. The weather was perfect, and the Indians won in extras. We went to a couple more games there that year, but were stymied by a players’ strike in our efforts to attend postseason baseball in Cleveland for the first time since my father was a newborn.

The next year, we would not be denied. “Keep your schedule open,” he said. We ended up going to Game 2 of the American League Division Series. It was anticlimactic after the night before, won with a Tony Pena home run with two outs in the bottom of the 13th, but still an Indians win.

A little more than a week later, he called and asked what I was doing the night of Oct. 26. He had a line on World Series tickets. There was nothing I had planned that could even come close to that. “You have class Friday?” I told him I did, just one chemistry class. “Can you skip it?” “Oh, probably,” I told him, leaving out that I’d missed it a couple other times with no real ill effects.

He brought my brother, who wasn’t an Indians fan, but a World Series game was too much to pass up. That game remains my high water mark as an Indians fan, really as a Cleveland sports fan. Joe Walsh sang the national anthem, and the JumboTron flashed a scene from “Animal House,” to rally the faithful. The Indians were down three games to one, a mark that hadn’t yet taken on a mystical hue in Cleveland sports. John Belushi was yelling, “Over? Did you say over? Nothing is over until we decide it is!” The next line, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” was drowned out by 45,000 fans screaming themselves hoarse.

Albert Belle homered. Jim Thome hit a home run that rocketed screaming into the night. It might still be in orbit, for all I know. But the loudest cheers came in the top of the ninth, when the bullpen door swung open and Jose Mesa, the closest thing there was to a sure thing, trotted to the pitcher’s mound. It was like the end of “Major League” come to life. He gave up a home run, but the Indians had enough of a cushion to hold on to make the last baseball game of the year in Cleveland a win. “Glory Days” blared. People honked their horns. There was dancing down East Ninth Street.

The Braves won that World Series. The following year, the Indians made a quick exit – too quick for us to get to a playoff game. We couldn’t make it work the following year either, but in 1998, he got two tickets to a Friday night game for the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.

Andy Pettitte got shelled. I still remember Joe Torre on SportsCenter that night saying, “Well, we pretty much got our asses kicked.” There was a bite in the air, reminding us this was a meaningful game in Cleveland in October.

After college, I ended up in Pittsburgh. The last time they’d played October baseball, Willie Stargell was on the team. They built a new stadium, but unlike the magic at Jacobs Field, a contending team didn’t come for another decade.

Jacobs Field will always be my favorite. I’ve been to 22 existing stadiums and another half a dozen that are either torn down or no longer in use. I’ve been in ballparks both pretty and utilitarian. I’ve seen playoff games in three other cities. But you always come back to your first love.

And we did Thursday night. There was no chill in the air, jolting you awake. Time had marched on. The station wagon we’d driven to all those games in the 1990s had given away to a new Toyota, to replace the last one, which he’d only gotten 15 years out of, and then the Rapid. His hair had gone gray. Mine had gone.

I introduced Chuck to the concept of a selfie – which he’d done for years with other people’s cameras, but had to have the name catch up to him. There were still thousands of screaming fans – not as many as in the 1990s, after stadium renovations – and we saw three home runs in an inning.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before,” Chuck said. I went home and looked it up. Actually, we had – against the Yankees in 1998.

We’re still undefeated at playoff games, 4-0. We’re going again Friday. See you there.

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