‘I love Cleveland and I always will’: Colavito Overwhelmed in Return to Town

Age has caught up with Rocky Colavito.

The dark hair has gone white. He’s fought off cancer, had a quadruple bypass after a heart attack, and lost a leg to complications by diabetes. At his event Friday night at the Keybank State Theater in Playhouse Square, he was wheeled out on stage and helped into a chair.

But the love was still there. Colavito, a fan favorite whose trade to the Tigers incensed his legions of rooters, was subject to a sustained standing ovation when he appeared on stage. And he was just as overjoyed to see the crowd as they were to see him.

“I love you all,” he said. “I love Cleveland and I always will.”

Colavito’s the subject of a new biography, “Rocky Colavito: Cleveland’s Iconic Slugger,” by Buffalo News reporter Mark Sommer. The book was released at the end of June and author and subject were appearing in Cleveland to promote it during All-Star week.

Sommer said Colavito’s memories – entertaining and for the most part accurate – were a tremendous help in writing the book, and Colavito told some of the same stories recounted in the biography on Friday, even if he was self-deprecating about them.

“I don’t remember you swinging and missing a lot,” said Bob DiBiasio of the Indians, who grew up as a fan of Colavito’s.

“I do,” Colavito replied.

For part of the evening, he was joined on stage by several of his teammates from his second stint with the Indians: Pitchers Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant and infielder Vern Fuller.

McDowell recalled Colavito as a smart line-drive hitter.

“I never saw him get fooled by a pitch,” McDowell said.

“You must have had blinders on,” Colavito replied.

Sommer introduced Colavito, reading from the beginning of the biography, which took place at the same stage for the appearance Friday night. The movie was stopped at the State Theater – “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” with Doris Day – to announce the trade. Even nearly 60 years later, the mention of Frank Lane brought audible boos from the crowd.

“He’s right up there with Art Modell, huh,” Sommer said, referring to the man who fired Paul Brown, Marty Schottenheimer and Bill Belichick, and moved the Browns to Baltimore.

More positively remembered was Herb Score, who was Colavito’s roommate for all or part of seven seasons, from the minors through the majors, and a good friend for the rest of their lives. Colavito and Score were both recognized on the Indians’ all-century team, and when Score had suffered a series of strokes, Colavito wheeled him out onto the field at Jacobs Field for a ceremony – and eulogized him after he died.

After Sommer spoke, Colavito and DiBiasio got some one-on-one time, where they talked about the high points of his career, like his four home runs in a game against the Orioles in Baltimore, which has taken on a mythical quality. “I’ve heard from 55,000 people who say they were there,” Sommer said. (Paid attendance was 15,883.)

Then Fuller, McDowell and Tiant were brought out. Tiant was the comic relief – which kept with his role in the clubhouse, Colavito noted. “Luis kept the whole clubhouse loose,” Colavito said, noting the Cuban pitcher nicknamed him “Turkey neck.” McDowell added that was one of the more repeatable nicknames Tiant would bestow.

Colavito returned to the Indians in 1965, and he had disagreements with managers and management (he didn’t have a lot of kind words Friday for team executive Gabe Paul), but his love for the fans remained steadfast and requited.

“I hope you understand how bad I felt about leaving,” he said. “I never wanted to go anywhere.”

Photo: Vince Guerrieri

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