A FATHER SAVORS HIS LITTLE GIRL'S GROWING ENTHUSIASM FOR BASEBALL

April 07, 1986

My father stands, and my daughter, too. People around us rise to applaud. Nine Cleveland Indians in a row have reached base during the seventh inning, and eight have scored. More fans at Municipal Stadium rise, clap and whistle. I try to detect sarcasm, the kind that would congratulate Julio Franco for making an assist after two errors or Jamie Easterly for throwing a strike after 13 balls. But there is none.

It is July 7, 1985, and this is the last of a four-game series with the Chicago White Sox. The Indians have lost the first three. Every year Cleveland finishes near the bottom of its division. This year, though, it has been especially difficult to find Indian scraps in the sports pages, and I have been to only two games, both of them dismal losses. This is the season in which the Indians will lose 112 games. The Plain Dealer frequently runs a box called "Adding up the Losses" that compares the Indians with such past greats as the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, an illustrious team that lost 134 games out of 154.

My father was the one who wanted to come to this game. Whenever his work as a claims attorney brings him to town he visits us. Today, about an hour and a half before game time, he had asked, "Can we see your Indians? They at home?" We had run out of ways to entertain him, and he likes to avoid blank intervals.

"Remember when we used to go to Sunday afternoon ball games?" he said on the way to the car.

I didn't remember a thing about Sunday ball games. He did take me to plenty of Pirate games in the early 1960s when we lived in Pittsburgh, but as I recall they were night games. I especially remember seeing Roberto Clemente being scraped off the wall and carried away on a stretcher, still—at least in my memory—holding the ball that Willie Mays had hit into the smoky air of Forbes Field. The Pirates won the game 1-0, and Clemente was well enough to return to the lineup a week or so later.

My father and I went to a lot of games that year, 1960. For years the Pirates had remained near the bottom of their division, but in '58 they had risen suddenly into second place, and then in '60 they were on top. Dad took me to all the games I wanted that summer. Some of them must have been on Sundays.

Sports were never a big part of his life, but he has always been subject to enthusiasms. He never played much baseball as a kid. The game seems to skip generations in our family. My grandfather had been a semipro pitcher, and he used to take my dad to see the old Baltimore Orioles, then a minor league team. Dad always looked forward to that because of the hot dogs and soda his dad would buy him. My dad and his nine brothers and sisters grew up during the Depression; he is still the first one to finish any meal at our house.

My daughter Brett, 8, wanted to go to the Indians game, too, and she was invited on the strength of her recent interest. She and I, and sometimes my younger daughter, Elizabeth, 4, have taken to playing baseball in our front yard, using empty record jackets for bases, the hedge for a backstop, and a plastic bat the size of Chris Bando's thigh. Brett won the last two games 19-1 and 26-7. If I try to move the bases closer when she's not scoring runs, she protests. She wants to win fair.

Brett brought one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books to the game in case her attention wandered. It wasn't hard to keep her on track in the first inning because she and the Indians' centerfielder, Brett Butler, share the same first name. "I like it when I hear people say my name," she said. The similarity was also helpful to my father, who wanted to call Brett Rhett Butler. I said that was O.K. with me, since the Indians had gotten him from Atlanta. In the third inning Butler tripled to right center and scored on Franco's groundout. In the fifth Butler drove the ball past the Chicago first baseman, who had been holding a runner on. My daughter watched all of this with hot-fudge-sundae delight.

Lefthander Ramon Romero, who was sporting a blue glove, had started for the Indians. I like to watch lefthanders. Nature did not, I feel, design man to throw missiles with any velocity from that side of the body, and whenever I see it done, I regard it as something of a miracle. Romero, on bamboo-thin legs, throws remarkably hard. Wild, too, and not by inches. He works quickly and doesn't groan or slow down when he misses. He just rears and pops the next one. A couple of times manager Pat Corrales or pitching coach Don McMahon had to come out to the mound to slow him down.

Between Butler's appearances my daughter ate part of my hot dog and then worked on a bag of peanuts. Now and then I heard a shell crack, and sometimes I had to break a hard one for her. Other than that I didn't need to supervise. She just went at it with monkey tenacity. Once when I did glance at her she was reading, gradually bringing a bookmark down each line. My father finished the peanuts.

By the sixth inning Corrales could no longer trust Romero's shaky control, and the White Sox had tied the game 2-2. Romero, delighted to have gone as far as he had, left the game to scattered applause.

We are now in the seventh inning. Carmen Castillo walks. Bando, whose average has dropped to .069, lays down a bunt. Tim Lollar, the White Sox pitcher, lumbers after it. I had watched Lollar, then a Padre, on television in last year's playoffs, but television does not give a sense of perspective, the chance to see a player's actual size or quickness. Lollar in the flesh, like many pitchers these days, is something of a monument. When he brings his large and not very agile body down on Bando's very ordinary bunt, no one expects anything unusual. But Lollar decides to go for the lead runner. Too late.

This has been a nice day. And it may get better. It is someone else's turn to make mistakes. Cleveland doesn't hold the patent on errors.

Mike Fischlin, the spare part of spare parts, playing only because Tony Bernazard has a sore thigh, is allowed to bat so he, too, can try to advance the runners. One of the things Fischlin does well is bunt. He hits one of those little squibs in the air that sometimes result in a double play, but we are talking Lollar here, and his range does not extend much beyond the pitcher's mound. The ball, slowed by backspin, dribbles out, and Lollar's throw, this time to first, is not even close. The Indians have the bases loaded and nobody out. Butler is due next.

My daughter, roused by crowd noise and the sight of her father and grandfather leaping to their feet, wants to climb into my lap when we settle back. Her main man is at the plate. Would the Indians dare bunt again?

With the next pitch Butler leaves no doubt. He is looking for the same notch he found in the third inning, somewhere in right center near the base of the fence. He misses. Second pitch—same swing, same miss.

We will have to face the inevitable. Our man has two strikes on him. We are prepared to forgive. He has two hits already and can't do it every time. I think all of this but do not explain it to my Brett. She has faith, and I am not the one to test it. Lollar heaves again. Like a battleship that lies offshore and batters the beach, he need not move to be effective, and Butler sends a soft sinker over the first baseman for his third hit of the afternoon. This is a great game. My old man still knows how to come up with a good idea.

Lollar is excused, and Mike Stanton takes over. There is still God's plenty out there on the bases, and Franco is waving his bat above his right ear. Ozzie Guillen, the young Chicago shortstop, crouches down just before Stanton winds up, broadly sweeping the dirt to his left with the back of his mitt to fill in any ditches that may make fielding hazardous. Manager Tony La Russa has recently praised Guillen's fine fielding; one can only wonder what Corrales thinks of his own shortstop, who has made 22 errors in 78 games.

Stanton delivers, and Franco rifles a shot to the spot Guillen has cleaned off. Which means that Guillen, when he intercepts it, will be well on his way to second base, and we will have two instead of no outs. All this, however, is predicated on Guillen's picking up the ball, now on its way to the outfield. Two runs score; it's 5-2. Guillen strides back and forth, staring into his mitt, shaking it. He has given up hope of finding the ball there but wants to locate some defect that will explain what happened.

My joy should be tainted by Guillen's error, but it is not. I am too old to question Fortune. So is my father. We are all glee.

As if to set matters straight, Brook Jacoby, Andre Thornton, Pat Tabler and Joe Carter smack solid line drives to center, left, left and right. It's a Fourth of July finale all over again, one starburst after another, a series of bone-satisfying detonations. But good fortune never lasts forever, and after a strikeout and two groundouts, the inning is over.

This is when we all stand up to applaud, without sarcasm. This is baseball the way we want it. ("It's a game I'll never forget," La Russa said the next day. "They play for one run and they get eight." Those of us on our feet took it a different way. We just wanted to enjoy the feeling of everything going exactly right for once.)

The crowd settles back with a 10-2 lead. There are about 10,000 fans in Municipal Stadium, slightly above average for the Indians, who have the worst attendance in the major leagues. A bunch of coolers and kids move by.

"Why are people leaving?" my daughter asks. "Is the game over?"

She is still trying to grasp the concept of an inning and how innings build to a game. I explain that the people who are leaving don't think anything else important will happen. We're not leaving, though. The game, I tell my father, isn't over yet. In the last couple of weeks the Indians have regularly bled away leads of three, four and five runs.

We're in no hurry, my father replies—it's now nearly four o'clock, and he doesn't have to be at the airport until seven. If we leave by five, we will still have plenty of time for dinner on the way.

Jamie (the Rat) Easterly takes over at the top of the eighth. I don't know where he got the nickname, but it fits. He is not the classic lanky lefthander with the big kick-and-whip delivery. The Rat—short, thick around the middle—spits the ball out. He wears little wire-rimmed glasses like the fictional rats and mice of Rosemary Wells's stories. All he's missing is the tail, but possibly he tucks that in before the game.

With one out, the Rat walks one, gives up a hit and plunks the next batter. I tell my father that this guy pitches best with men on base. The Rat hits the next batter, forcing in a run. The first one he hit batted from the right side, the second from the left. We know his fastball is moving today. He is not happy out there, pawing the back of the mound and pounding his mitt.

"I'm leaving at 4:30 no matter what," my father says suddenly. This is a man acquainted with disaster. This is a man who had lived for the day Johnny Unitas, or at least Earl Morrall, would take his team to the Super Bowl, the same Super Bowl Joe Namath brought his team to. This is a man whose ticket to the Pirates' 1960 World Series was not for the immortal seventh game but for the sixth, the one the Pirates lost 12-0.

But the Rat escapes his maze of difficulties and allows the White Sox only that one run. The game, as recorded by the sportswriters the next day, was another matter. It happened that in the top of the ninth, La Russa, in a rush of inexplicable strategy that bordered on contempt, replaced two of his best hitters with pitchers, including first Dan Spillner, another former Indian, and then Gene Nelson, who lined into a double play to end the game 10-3. La Russa's odd move, allegedly a response to Easterly's wildness, is what will remain publicly memorable about a game in a season with little else for Cleveland fans to recall.

After the game, laboring over a taco that she had dismantled in order to nibble at its inner workings, Brett looked content. Dad was doing in a burrito supreme.

"What was your favorite part of the game?" I asked Brett, curious to see which she remembered better, Brett Butler or the peanuts.

"When the crowd cheers," she said, and I knew I had found someone who would gladly sit with me and the 10,000 others in the vast and windy stadium for another season of hot dogs and hope.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSMARK FISHER

John Gerlach is a professor of English and a long-suffering Cleveland Indian fan.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)