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Here's to Opening Day, and a kid's belief that anything can happen


I only went to one Opening Day game as a boy. That was April 8, 1978. It was a Saturday. I was 11 years old. I remember it for a few reasons, one being that it was approximately 23 degrees below zero in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. I have often written about how cold Cleveland Municipal would get, even in the middle of July. The wind would howl off Lake Erie. The roof would cast this frigid shade -- there were places in the Stadium where the sun never shined, puddles that would not dry until the place was imploded. I'm not sure it ever felt colder in there than that day in '78. Wayne Garland, who started the game for Cleveland, would say that the baseball felt like a piece of glass in his hands .

The Indians were playing the Kansas City Royals, and the Royals may have been the best team in baseball the year before. It's always tricky to make those sorts of pronouncements about a team that did not win the World Series (and in this case did not even REACH the World Series), but the Royals won 102 games, most in baseball, and more to the point they were about as close to unbeatable as a team can be late that season. From Aug. 17 through Sept. 25 they went 35-4, something no Yankees team ever did, something no Cardinals team ever did, a feat that (I think) you have to go back to the 1906 Cubs to find previously. That Royals team lost to the Yankees in a five-game series, and you can take from that what you want, but the general point is that that was a great Royals team.

And I was 11, which means that I put a preposterous amount of meaning into that Opening Day. I was too young -- I often still feel too young -- to appreciate the length of a baseball season, the drone of 162 games, the numbing effects of tomorrow after tomorrow. To me, Opening Day would provide all the answers. The Indians were playing the Royals. If they could just win, they would prove what I knew in my heart to be true: That this was the year.

I have never fully recovered from this. And I never want to recover from this. I still put way too much stock into Opening Day. I take entirely too much joy out of looking at the standings on Day 2 -- with all those 1-0 and 0-1 records. I am an early season "Leaders" watcher... I can't help it. Hey, if Tuffy Rhodes had maintained that pace, he would have hit 486 home runs. Maybe you could not expect him to keep that pace... but even if he slowed, hey, 200 home runs would be pretty good.

My father was not especially happy to go to Opening Day, I remember... I now know why. I have inherited his hypersensitive frustration with not being able to find a place to park. I know this is not unusual, but I feel this unhealthy rage build up inside me -- and I don't really have much rage -- when I cannot find a place to leave the car. All I want to do is LEAVE THE CAR. Please? Just any place? Some place? Just give me a little bit of earth where I can leave this hunk of metal while I go do what I must do. Is that too much to ask? Earth may not be a large planet in the universal scope of things, but there is enough room out there for golf courses and baseball stadiums and state parks and planes to land and so on... there should be one more tiny hunk of dirt so I can get the hell out of my car. And so on.

So, my father more or less preferred to go to Cleveland Indians games ANY OTHER day of the season (except July 4th) when there was plenty of space and very little traffic and friendly parking lot attendants who, shoot, would PARK YOUR CAR FOR YOU as long as you just would agree to go into the game. There were more than 50,000 people at Cleveland Municipal that day because Cleveland, even in its darkest baseball moments, respected Opening Day. Though 50,000 people made Cleveland Municipal look barely half full, it was more than enough to shut down the traffic flow, especially because my father did not know any secrets about how to get in and out. I remember we were in the car for a long time, my father's face burning redder and redder as the time passed.

In fact, I don't know that we made it for opening pitch -- Wayne Garland vs. a 22-year-old rookie blazer named Willie Wilson. I'm pretty sure we did not. I remember a long walk to the stadium. A long walk. I do remember being in our seats when my hero Duane Kuiper singled in the bottom of the first -- I would have been devastated if I had missed that. Kuiper would come around to score when Willie Horton singled him in. And the Indians would go on to score three unearned runs off Dennis Leonard, the big blow being a rocket double to center by Buddy Bell. I seem to remember Bell's hit -- I can see the ball flying over the center fielder's head -- though that's probably just what I would call a "Retrosheet Memory" -- when you see something on Retrosheet and think "Oh yeah, I remember that." If tomorrow, Retrosheet printed a retraction and said that, no, Buddy Bell did not get a double, it was actually Rick Manning, I would probably nod and remember it the new way.

The Indians led 4-0 for approximately 48 seconds -- the Royals then scored four runs in the second to tie the game -- Freddie Patek homered, which I remember pretty clearly, and Hal McRae homered, which I don't remember at all. I remember the Patek home run because I was the shortest kid in my class. I probably don't need to spell out the connection, but:

1. I was the shortest boy in my class.

2. Fred Patek was the shortest player in baseball at 5-foot-5.

3. The shortest boy in class needs inspiration.

4. Fred Patek was my inspiration.

5. When Fred Patek homered, even though it was against my Indians, I felt happy and strangely vindicated.

The Indians, in a rather unlikely way, came right back in the bottom of the second. And this is the part I remember most because it may just be the greatest live baseball-watching moment of my childhood. The Indians hit back-to-back home runs. That was titanic. Back-to-back home runs? Well, this is one thing that is absolutely true about 1970s baseball -- you appreciated home runs, because, they didn't come along very often.

Look: I consider my Cleveland Indians childhood to be 1975-1981 -- from 8 to 14 -- and in those years, the Indians played 532 home games. They hit home runs in 263 of those games, did not hit a homer in 269 of them. So, basically, I had less than a 50-50 shot of seeing an Indians home run when I went to a game. And I had about an 18% chance of seeing the Indians hit MORE than one home run in a game. And the odds of seeing back-to-back home runs... staggering.

But there it was, and on Opening Day, with the crowd loud enough to linger in my imagination for a lifetime. Ron Pruitt hit the first. He was a backup catcher from Michigan who was close to my heart because, for some reason, Cleveland was flush with athletes named Pruitt at the time. Greg Pruitt was the superstar runner for the Browns, the brilliant little back with the tear-away jersey who, while at Oklahoma, had finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Johnny Rodgers in 1972. Mike Pruitt, who we were CONSTANTLY reminded was of no relation, was Greg's bruising fullback then, and he would gain 1,000 yards himself in four of the next five seasons. Ron Pruitt, who was of no relation to either (though nobody made the point), hit the first home run in that memorable back-to-back, one of the highlights of my Indians childhood and, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of his Indians career.

Also, this is awesome.

Paul Dade hit the second home run. Dade had been a pretty good young player for the Indians in 1977, or anyway it sure seemed that way. He hit .291, though looking back it was just about the lightest .291 a player could hit (his slugging percentage was .356). He could run a little bit and he had killed the ball in June the year before, leading us to believe that the best was yet to come. Indians players always led us to believe that way -- or at least me. I seem to remember that one of the themes of spring training that year was the emerging power of Paul Dade. And then he followed Ron Pruitt's bomb with one of his own.* And it was thrilling.

*He would hit three more home runs as a member of the Cleveland Indians.

The Indians maintained that 6-4 lead into the fifth when Andre Thornton, probably the most overpowering baseball presence of my Cleveland childhood, hit a two-run blast of his own (THREE HOMERS IN ONE GAME!) and gave the Indians an insurmountable 8-4 lead. The Royals tacked on a run, but Cleveland's Mike Paxton pitched three flawless innings to record his first major league save. Cleveland's Mike Paxton pitched three flawless innings to record his last major league save. Both true.

And I remember leaving the park shivering and utterly convinced that, yes, this was the year. The Indians had not just beaten the Royals, they had dominated them with a major power display on a freezing day in early April. As we walked and walked to the car, which of course we could not find right away, my mind was abuzz with possibility. Did you see that power? Just imagine how many home runs they would hit once the weather warmed up! Just imagine what they would do when they were not facing Dennis Leonard and the Royals! I was overcome with hope... I can remember, distinctly remember, wondering how to gently ask my father if we could afford to go to Indians playoff games.

Of course, the Indians would not hit three home runs in a game at home again until late September -- when they were 25 1/2 games back. Those three were Andre Thornton (of course), Dan Briggs and Wayne Cage. I was not there. The Indians lost 90 games. Anyway, I had long given up hope by then. I had grown disgusted with myself -- I was getting to that age when I was putting away childish thoughts, when I realized that the Yankees won a lot, and that hope doesn't always lead to triumph, and that the Indians might never win no matter how much I believed. Of course, six months later, next Opening Day, I believed with all my heart all over again.