Our Tribeby Terry Pluto
A son, a father, a baseball team . . . This remarkable baseball memoir will touch the heart of any baseball fan who has ever shared a love for the game with a parent or child.
Award-winning sportswriter Terry Pluto (The Curse of Rocky Colavito) tells the story of a son and a father and the relationship they shared through their resilient devotion to one
A son, a father, a baseball team . . . This remarkable baseball memoir will touch the heart of any baseball fan who has ever shared a love for the game with a parent or child.
Award-winning sportswriter Terry Pluto (The Curse of Rocky Colavito) tells the story of a son and a father and the relationship they shared through their resilient devotion to one particularly frustrating baseball team, the Cleveland Indians (who always seemed to need just one more run to win).
The story includes the joys and struggles of growing older together, of coping with a sick parent, and, finally, of burying the man who indelibly shaped his son’s life. It also includes a lively history of the Cleveland Indians franchise, full of personal recollections about remarkable players and memorable moments from seasons past.
For so many people, baseball remains an important bridge across generations, sometimes the only topic of conversation when all other topics seem threatening. Absorbing his father’s love for the game, and their team, Pluto grew to understand and respect the often distant man who allowed himself few pleasures besides baseball in a life built around laboring to provide for his family. This book celebrates our ability to make that connection through baseball.
It is a heartfelt, memorable tale.
- Gray & Company, Publishers
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Read an ExcerptOur Tribe A Baseball Memoir
By Terry Pluto Gray & Company Publishers
Copyright © 2003Terry Pluto
All right reserved.
Chapter Two: The Stroke
When my father had his stroke, I ran.
It's not something I've ever talked about, except to my wife. She was with me in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where we'd arrived to start a vacation in September of 1993. On our second day, there was a message on my answering machine back in Ohio. It was from my aunt Pat -- my father's sister, who lived in Cleveland. My father had spent the summer of 1993 with her; I had seen him only a week before. Then he drove to his home in Sarasota, Florida.
The day after his arrival, he was playing cards with a friend when he keeled over. It was a stroke; that's all my aunt knew.
I called my brother, who lives in Sarasota. He had already been to see my father. He said it was a stroke, but no one knew the severity. No one in our family knew much of anything about strokes. I thought it was like a heart attack, which had killed my mother in 1984. I knew a stroke could paralyze you,
but that was it. I figured, "Well, he may end up walking with a limp or something."
My brother said there was paralysis on the right side, but the doctors weren't sure if it was permanent.
"He also can't speak," my brother said.
"Can't speak?" I asked.
"That sometimes happens when you have a stroke," he said.
I had no idea that a stroke could take away your ability totalk.
The doctors said it could be temporary," my brother said.
At this point, we should have driven home to Ohio, and I should have caught a plane to Sarasota. Or I could have flown from Rapid City to Sarasota, as my wife suggested, and she'd drive back to Ohio in our vehicle. That is what you do in a crisis. Instead, I asked my brother if I should cut my vacation short. He said he wasn't sure. He said he didn't know what I could do. He didn't see any reason for me to rush to Florida.
I drove to the Badlands of North Dakota. My wife thought I had lost my mind, but she went along with me. We had planned to go there -- and I was going! So what if my father had a stroke? I thought, "Let my brother handle this."
I thought of how I had last seen my father only a week earlier. We'd gone bowling one morning, and the next day he went with me to a Cleveland Browns practice at their complex in Berea. The Browns had just signed Vinny Testaverde, and my father liked the new quarterback's arm. My father was fine, I told myself. I tried to convince myself that he couldn't really be seriously ill.
I went to North Dakota.
I also kept calling Florida. I kept hearing there wasn't much change. I kept denying that anything was wrong.
"He'll be in the hospital for a week, then he'll be fine," I thought to myself.
But I knew better. I knew something was wrong, very wrong. I remembered how my mother died in 1984; at the time, I was working in Savannah, Georgia. I was at the newspaper office. It was a late Friday night, and I was taking the results of a girls basketball game on the telephone when I got another call.
It was my father.
He was crying.
My mother was in the hospital. She'd had a heart attack. Supposedly, she was stable, but...
But I did the right thing. I told my boss that my mother had suffered a heart attack. I stopped at home just long enough to throw some clothes in a suitcase, then I drove all night and through the morning from Savannah to Cleveland. I spent three days visiting my mother in the hospital. She seemed fine. The crisis seemed to have passed. I drove home to Savannah. I wasn't in the house for an hour when the phone rang again.
It was my father.
He was crying.
My mother was dead, another heart attack.
I repacked my bags, and my wife and I drove back to Cleveland for the funeral. I was grateful for those three days with my mother before she passed away. I was proud of myself for those all-night drives, because I knew it was exactly what my father would do in that situation -- something he had trained me to do.
But when his stroke came, I froze -- then ran.
As we drove to North Dakota, I thought of my father. I thought about how I didn't consider him a great father, how I thought he seemed to work all the time -- and then came home and shoveled supper down while reading the newspaper. His next stop would be the sofa, where he'd watch a game on TV for about forty-five minutes, then he'd fall asleep.
My father worked long hours. My mother also worked long hours. My brother was older and out of the house.
In my self-absorbed world, I felt alone.
But I really wasn't. Driving to North Dakota, I thought about how my father would skip out of work in the afternoons to watch me play ball. I thought of how he'd come home from work, and I'd convince him to take me to an Indians game; he'd come home, change his clothes -- and we'd be in the car, on the way to the Stadium. He could not have been home for more than fifteen minutes. He had to be exhausted. He could have said, "Let's listen to the game on the radio, I'm tired." Instead, he took me to the games. We listened to Herb Score and Pete Franklin on the radio, finishing up their pregame radio shows. Score would interview the Indians manager, and Franklin would supply a commentary on his Clubhouse Confidential show. My father owned a deep purple Chrysler 300, a nice big car he'd bought cheap because it looked like the world's largest violet on four tires. I remember sitting next to him, on the blindingly white front seats. In his purple and white car, it was as if every day were Easter Sunday.
I remember him smoking Newport cigarettes.
I remember him never saying a word about the job he hated.
I remember listening to those Indians pregame shows, talking with my dad about what was being said on the radio.
I remember my heart beating a little faster as we drove into the Stadium lot, and we could see the ballpark looming right in front of us -- all 80,000 seats worth.
I remember the huge Chief Wahoo neon sign above it all, the Chief holding a bat and standing on one foot as he if were preparing to hit the ball into Lake Erie; and I remember those walks from the car to the Stadium, my little hand in his big paw, my hand lost in his -- and feeling more secure than I ever did in my young life.
My father would buy tickets from a scalper, a guy in a fedora who always had his leg in a cast and used a cane. The guy wore what he thought was a dapper sports jacket, but it was one of those Checkerboard Square jobs that made him look like a bookie. I remember my father buying tickets from this manbox seats for half their cover price. For five bucks, we usually sat fifteen rows up, right behind home plate. That was the Indians in the 1960s, where the real bargains could be found with the scalpers. They picked up tickets from fans who didn't want to go to games, bought them for a buck each -- and sold the tickets for what they could. With 80,000 seats, the Indians of my youth should have had this motto: GOOD SEATS ALWAYS AVAILABLE.
I remember those drives home, my father sitting across from me, his cigarette glowing in the dark. We'd listen to Pete Franklin's postgame show, and usually Franklin and the callers had a wonderful time second-guessing the manager.
I don't remember a word my father said to me at those games or during those drives, but I remember him just being there, being with his son. I thought of all this while I spent the night in North Dakota. I asked myself, what was wrong with me? Had I forgotten how to be a son? Had I forgotten what my father had meant to me? Was my vacation so important that I couldn't be at my father's side when his life was in the balance?
The next day, we started the long drive back to Cleveland.
Meanwhile, I kept calling Florida, checking with my brother. My father was the same, whatever that meant. He couldn't move his right arm or leg. He really couldn't talk, except for a few words. His heart was okay.
Otherwise, he was supposed to be fine.
I heard this from my brother as I spoke into a pay phone at the Burns Brothers Truck Stop outside Mitchell, South Dakota. He was in my father's room, and he handed the phone to my father.
"Dad, this is Terry," I said.
"Man," he said.
"Dad, how are you?" I asked.
"Man...MAN...MAN!" he said.
My brother had told me about this, about my father being stuck on the word MAN.
But to hear it, over and over...
"Dad," I said. "I'll be there as soon as I can."
He started to cry.
I'm praying for you," I said. "I'll be there soon."
Through his tears, I heard the word MAN again -- several times.
I hung up the phone.
In that small truck stop in eastern South Dakota, I looked out at the windshield wipers and fan belts hanging on the wall. I looked at the plastic jugs of oil. I looked at the CB radios and tape players in a glass case, and I looked at the nice display of floor mats. It was in Burns Brothers Truck Stop that I had to ask myself, what kind of son did I plan to be?
I took a deep breath and I went outside.
I remember blinding sun.
I remember pumping gas.
I remember knowing that my life would never be the same.
For the next four and a half years, I went to Florida every month to visit my father. I went to Florida to learn how to be a real son, and I went to Florida to learn something about love, about duty, about doing things as my father did them for his family.
My father could be silent, brooding, and sarcastic. I still cringe when I remember him calling me "Half-a-job Terry." His hugs were usually stiff and forced, at least until he had his stroke.
But my father was always there.
That's what I thought about on those long flights from Cleveland to Sarasota, and during those hours waiting to change planes in Charlotte.
Good mood, rotten mood, mad at me, mad at my mother -- my father was always there. He was there to tell me that I did a lousy job cutting the lawn or dusting the house, and he was there to play catch with me in the driveway. I will always treasure those games of catch. He'd come home from work, exhausted, bone-tired, and more than a little angry. He'd plop down on the sofa, turn on the TV, lean back -- and I swear, his entire body would just moan. The sound didn't just come from his mouth, it bellowed from all of the pores of his skin
Then I'd say, "Dad, do you want to play catch?"
Now I know that he'd rather have swallowed a power saw than play catch. To him, playing catch must have felt like one more boulder someone had tossed on his already slumping shoulders. Work twelve hours, listen to idiots in the warehouse...and all he wanted to do was sit on the sofa and watch the news...and his kid wanted to play catch.
Most of the time, he'd moan again.
Most of the time, he'd then take a deep breath, somehow pull himself out of the sofa and stand up.
Most of the time, we'd head out to the driveway. He still had his pencil pouch holding several different pens and pencils in his pocket. My father was in his middle forties, about the age I am today. He had a potbelly. He had aching, arthritic knees. He'd beg me not to throw the ball low so he wouldn't have to bend down.
But we'd play catch.
I'd pretend I was Bob Feller. I had never seen Bob Feller, but he was my father's favorite pitcher. I had a strange windup with a high leg kick and a motion where I brought the ball behind my back -- something my father said Feller had once done. Only I threw the ball like Terry Pluto, future rag-armed sportswriter. My pitches didn't POP when they hit his glove, it was more like a soft, embarrassed belch.
But we played catch. He'd lean over a bit in his work clothes. He'd have a cigarette in his mouth. The darkness would fall. The brightest light would be from his cigarette. If nothing else, I learned control; seldom did I throw anything he couldn't reach. I wanted to please him. I loved the moments when we were done, when he'd put his arm around me as we walked into the house. He seldom said a word. But I can still see the genine smile on his face. I can see the beads of perspiration on his bald head. I can smell his clothes, smoky and sweaty. That was MY father at his best. That was the father I wanted to serve.
So every month, it was a trip to Florida. I usually flew down on a Thursday night, arriving near midnight. I left the first thing on Monday morning.
When I was an infant, I had colic. Nights were nightmares, because I couldn't sleep. I just cried and cried and cried.
"We walked miles carrying you around the house," he said. "Then we'd put you down, and five minutes later you were bawling your head off again."
I thought about that during some of the nights when my father couldn't sleep, when he had fluid in his lungs. He'd cough and cough and cough until I swore he was about to gag up a lung. I'd spend many of those nights at the side of his bed, helping him drink water, cough syrup, tea with honey -- anything I'd ever heard used to drown a cough.
Most of the time, nothing worked.
Okay, I might find fifteen or twenty minutes of peace, but just as I was about to fall back asleep in the next room, he'd begin to gag and gag again. I had never heard such coughing. I had never seen anyone cough until they were blue in the face -- not until my father.
I never felt so helpless...and I never felt so like my father must have felt when he held me in his arms and all I could do was cry.
I don't remember a time in my life when someone had to dress me, but I know it happened. I also know I never dreamed there'd be a time when I had to dress my father, starting with diapers. I don't have children, so I don't recall ever touching a diaper until my father's Depends. Then I learned more about diapers than anyone should: Which ones worked well at night, which ones were best for the day. Which ones were the most comfortable, which ones were the most absorbent. And I also was subject to my father's whim, as he'd suddenly grow tired of one style and want another -- for no reason that I could ever discern.
So I studied diapers. I learned how to change his bed every morning. I learned about rubber pads, extra sheets, and towels placed in strategic areas to keep the bed as dry as possible. I learned how to hug my father when we didn't make it to the bathroom in time, and his tears would flow as I went to change him. I learned a lot of bathroom and fart jokes, because he loved those -- especially in these tough moments.
I learned how not to be embarrassed when we went out to eat and food dropped from his mouth. The right side of his mouth had also suffered some paralysis from the stroke, and food would pouch in that cheek, and sometimes drop out onto the bib I had tied around him.
I learned to rub his feet and his back and his bottom with cream to keep the skin from drying up.
I learned about dozens of prescription medicines. I learned how the Medicare system works. I learned about his health insurance. I even learned the name of the guy who came to my father's home every month to spray for bugs. My father used to do bowling averages in his head for his league. He kept an immaculate checkbook. His financial records were always in perfect order. But after the stroke, he couldn't do the most basic bookkeeping -- and I learned to be my father's financial keeper.
I never thought I'd see that day...
I learned that minor league ballgames in Sarasota were great for people in a wheelchair -- wide aisles, small crowds, and a friendly staff. I learned that a bingo parlor (one of my father's favorite haunts) could be the coldest, most depressing place to take someone with a disability, someone who can't quite keep up with the numbers. The closest I've ever come to getting into a physical fight in my adult life was with the manager of a bingo hall who told me, "The people around you are complaining because you're talking too loud."
"They said what?" I asked.
"YOU...ARE...TALKING...TOO...LOUD," he said.
"See that guy in the wheelchair?" I said. "He's had a stroke. He was a regular customer here for years. All I'm doing is repeating the numbers so he can play his card."
"Well..." he said.
I felt my hands turning to fists. I also felt tears in my eyes.
"Do you want to throw him out?" I asked. "Is that how you operate?"
A compromise was reached. We were sent to the back of the hall, a table by ourselves, where my repeating the numbers wouldn't send a bunch of blue-haired old ladies into a collective hissy fit.
We never went to a bingo parlor again.
After his stroke, my father spent nine months in a rest home, working with various therapists. While he made a lot of progress, he still had major disabilities. His doctor didn't think my father was capable of living at home. My brother and I thought he'd earned the right to go home. My father wanted to live in his own home. At several crucial moments in my father's care, my brother stepped in and found the right doctor to help us. He agreed to release my father to his home. We set up a rest home situation at his condo. One woman worked four days a week, another worked three. When I came down every month for the three days, the ladies would take that time off. My brother lived in Sarasota and dropped in to keep an eye on everyone. Even before his stroke, my father was a little like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man when it came to his home, everything had its place, and it seemed as if Western Civilization was about to crumble if anything ended up in the wrong spot. After the stroke, he was even more rigid, more attached to his home. It was his sanctuary, his comfort zone. Rather than move him closer to me, I realized I had to go to him -- even if it meant countless flights to Florida.
After a while, I became like my father in that place. His routines were my routines. I'd line up his dentures, his denture powder, his denture cleaner -- all in their appropriate spots in the bathroom. No matter where he sat, he had to have a small box of tissues within arm's reach. His diapers had to be stacked in a special way on a certain shelf.
Thank God for sports events on TV, especially baseball. We'd sit and watch the games, any games. He'd point at the screen and I knew what he was saying. It always sounded like, "Man...MAN...MAN! " but we had been to so many games together, it wasn't hard to guess what was on his mind.
Baseball filled those long, lonely nights when there was just the two of us, and when we really had little to say to each other. Baseball was a medicine when his legs hurt, his chest ached, and depression was gnawing away at the edges of his heart. For the four-plus years after my father's stroke, baseball helped hold us together.
Copyright © 1999 by Terry Pluto
The first year my generation's Indians won the American League pennant was the time when my father and I truly came to a sense of peace with each other, at least in my adult life. The year was 1995. My father was two years into his stroke and beginning to come to terms with what it had done to his body, and yes, to his mind. I was two years into a new life that saw me travel to Florida for a few days every month to see him.
Along came the 1995 Indians, and all the joy the team brought him. I realized how he felt taking me to games when I was a kid, how just being at the Stadium made us happy, no matter how the Indians played. Even though my father lived in Sarasota, he had a chance to see several Tribe games a month on TV; ESPN had discovered the Indians and the fact that there were Tribe fans all over the country who couldn't get enough of their team. So ESPN carried the Indians a lot, and my father never missed a game.
What he saw was remarkable:
A team that would win 40 games in their last at bat.
A team with three superstars -- Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, and Carlos Baerga.
A team with three venerable veterans in Dennis Martinez, Eddie Murray, and Orel Hershiser.
A team that won the Central Division by a major league record 30 games.
Never in my lifetime did I expect to find an Indians team capable of attracting players with the baseball pedigrees of Martinez, Murray, and Hershiser. Never did I believe the Indians would have enough money to pay them. And even if the Tribe did, never did I think Cleveland would be the place where veterans such as these would want to play. Hey, these guys are at the end of their careers. They'd want to play for a winner, right? That would leave out Cleveland. And they'd want to play for a team in a city that embraces its baseball team. That wasn't the Cleveland of my youth.
But so much had changed, and nothing was more symbolic of the rebirth of this franchise than the move to glorious Jacobs Field. The ballpark was a magnet for the fans and the players. I almost passed out in utter shock when I heard Hershiser say, "I know the Indians haven't been to the World Series in over forty years, and the team that makes it to the World Series will be remembered in Cleveland forever. I want to be a part of that team." Orel Hershiser actually believed the Indians would win the pennant! Orel Hershiser, who was Mr. October, at least when it came to pitchers. Orel Hershiser had that much confidence in the Indians?
Okay, everything seemed to be coming together. I could see that. Dick Jacobs took over as owner in 1987. He muscled the city into finally building a new ballpark. That was crucial. It brought the Indians into contention during this era when the difference between baseball's haves and have nots often is a state-of-the-art stadium capable of producing revenue from luxury boxes and club seats.
Jacobs also hired Hank Peters as the team's president. It was Peters who traded Joe Carter for Sandy Alomar, Jr., and Carlos Baerga -- for once getting great young talent instead of giving it away. It was Peters who took the bullets when he slashed the major league payroll in order to spend more on scouts and the farm system. And it was Peters who hired Mike Hargrove as manager and John Hart as general manager. It was Hart who traded Eddie Taubensee for Kenny Lofton, Hart who signed Martinez, Murray, and Hershiser, and Hart who became recognized as one of the most astute general managers in all of baseball. And it was Hargrove who became the Indians' best manager since Al Lopez.
Even early in 1995, the longtime Indian fan residing deep in my baseball soul kept whispering, "Something will screw it up."
Just two years before, in 1993, the Indians had lost three pitchers in a spring boating accident. Tim Crews and Steve Olin were killed, while Bobby Ojeda was seriously injured and pitched only briefly after that.
Then came 1994.
The Indians were a contender for the first time since 1959. On August 10, 1994, the Indians beat the Blue Jays, 5-3, in the Toronto Skydome.
Jason Grimsley won his last game with the Indians (Okay, he won only eight for the Tribe, so it's not like we're talking about Bob Feller). But give Grimsley credit: He pitched well on August 10, 1994, which also happened to be Rocky Colavito's sixty-first birthday. But the Curse of Rocky Colavito still had some spunk. That's because August 10, 1994, was the last day the Indians played baseball that season. The next day, baseball went on strike. It went on strike with the Indians only one game out of first place in the Central Division. It went on strike with the Indians in prime position to secure a wildcard playoff spot and appear in the postseason for the first time since 1954. It went on strike and stayed on strike, wiping out the World Series for the first time in baseball history.
Here the Indians had their best team in my lifetime, and this was the one year -- the only year -- a strike erased the World Series.
Not long after the strike began, I visited my father in Sarasota. He was sitting in his favorite chair, the TV remote in his hand. He was surfing from channel to channel, looking for a baseball game.
I reminded him there were no games -- the strike, remember?
He shook his head sadly, "Oh, Man."
He put out his good hand, his left hand, with the palm faced up. It was his way of asking, "Why?"
I knew what he meant, and the question had nothing to do with revenue sharing, pension plans, or anything else that was stuck on the bargaining table. The question wasn't "Why is there a strike?" but rather, "How can they do this to us?" It was asked on behalf of all the people such as he, shut-ins who had spent their lives loving baseball, for whom the game on TV that night was the focal point of their day. I remember reading stories about how some people said the strike was a good thing, because now they could read, walk in the park, or go to Little League games instead of watching the big leaguers on TV. Well, my father and millions like him couldn't read, couldn't walk, and couldn't leave the house for very long. Maybe baseball shouldn't be that important to them, but it was. They had so little else. When the strike came, it was devastating. It seemed like one more lousy, rotten trick in the final days of their lives.
Then came 1995.
Then came the 1995 Indians.
But even in 1995, the Curse hung on for a few more weeks. Spring training and eighteen regular season games were cancelled by the seemingly never-ending, stupid, pointless, cement-headed, galling strike.
Finally, a judge issued a restraining order.
At last, the best Indians team in forty-some years was allowed to play ball. And baseball was back on TV for shut-ins such as my father. Yes, a lot of fans stayed away from the ballparks, but my dad was thrilled to have the games on TV. And the 1995 Indians grabbed baseball by the scruff of the neck and brought it kicking and screaming out of the strike. It was a team that played in front of sellout crowds at home. It was a team that played in a city once declared dead, but which now was vibrant. It was a team for every Tribe fan who could remember Duke Sims, Alan Ashby, or Andy Allanson. It was a team for every Tribe fan who remembered the Clapper, who sat behind home plate at the old Stadium and fiercely pounded his hands together before every pitch. That's right, every pitch -- maybe a dozen claps before every pitch, all night, for all nine innings. And he was there for almost every game. It was a team for the Drummer, who had pounded away on his drum for all those dismal decades at the Stadium. The Drummer sat in the bleachers at the old Stadium, maybe seventeen miles from home plate. It was a team for fathers and sons, mothers and daughters...or any combination of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters...anyone who really grew up with the Indians.
After his stroke, the summer of 1995 was probably the best time for my father. Yes, his right arm never did much more than hang down, helpless and lost. Yes, despite four different speech teachers, he never was able to find any new words. But his paralyzed right leg began to show some life because he simply willed it to. He relentlessly worked at therapy, in sessions where he was placed on a table for two hours three times a week and turned into a pretzel. A therapist would work on his legs, his hips, his ankles, his toes -- every muscle and every tendon was pushed and stretched and brought alive. He reached the point where he could take his good left hand, grip the walker hard, and then sort of fling himself across his house for maybe thirty steps.
To the rest of us, this was the same as running thirty miles.
After his stroke, two doctors said he would never be able to walk at all, not a single step. They said he'd never he able to live anywhere but a rest home. They may as well have said, "Just bury him, he's worthless." At this point, my brother, Tom, stepped up like a cleanup hitter and changed the doctors, finding a couple more who were willing to work with my father, to give him a chance. Then my brother found a therapist named Aaron Mattes, whose staff was willing to treat my father as if he were Jim Thome coming back from an injury. By 1995, my brother's connections in Sarasota had paid off to make my father's life so much better.
In the first months after the stroke, I wondered if my father would ever be able to do much of anything besides sit in bed. But his therapists kept telling me that my father "was a tough guy." They kept telling me that they loved to work with him. They said, "I'm not sure exactly how much he will be able to walk, but he will walk. It will take a long time, but he'll walk." Just as the Indians were rolling through the American League in 1995, my father was making huge strides. He was so proud to be able to make the twenty steps from his favorite chair to the bathroom. He still needed someone to pull down his pants and ease him down on the toilet, but he was walking. As the Indians were wrapping up the pennant in September, my father had reached the point where he only used the wheelchair when he left the house. To him, that was as much a victory as the Tribe's pennant.
He still had terrible, depressing days where he'd look at my mother's picture and begin to cry. Even though she had been dead for eleven years and their marriage was sometimes rocky, he missed her terribly. He had dreams where he was a younger man, a man who never had a stroke. Then he'd wake up and find himself wearing diapers, trapped in a body that seemed to be nothing more than a broken-down old Buick. He'd cry out at night. I'd see him in bed, eyes wide; he'd point to his right side, the arm that wouldn't work, the leg that refused to listen to his commands.
It would take a while, but finally I'd figure out he was dreaming. I'd tell him that.
"Man...MAN...MAN!" he'd say, a few tears in his eyes.
I'd ask questions, figure out he'd dreamed that he was healthy, and he wanted to know what had happened to him. In essence, he had forgotten he'd suffered a stroke.
So I'd tell him that he'd had a stroke. I'd remind him what the stroke had done to his body. I'd tell him how hard he had worked to come back, to be at home in his own bed -- and how the doctors never thought that would happen.
I'd hold his good left hand. I'd stare into those sad blue eyes. I'd tell him how proud I was to be his son. I'd tell him that he was brave. I'd pray as I was speaking so God would give me the right words to calm him. After a while, he'd remember. The stroke. The diapers. The pain. Who knows what else. He really couldn't tell me all of it, but I'd see it coming back to him. He'd reach out and touch my cheek, his way of telling me that he loved me. I'd tell him to try and get some rest, that there was a baseball game on TV tomorrow. I'd tell him that we'd go to his favorite restaurant, Der Dutchman, and he could get his favorite meal -- pork chops, sweet potato fries, and fruit Jell-O. In fact, it was the only meal he'd order, even if we went there three straight days. I'd tell him that the Indians were going to win the pennant, and I'd tell him anything else that would come to mind.
And usually it worked, as he'd relax and go back to sleep.
The 1995 Indians were so important to us.
The chip was off my shoulder. I no longer had anything to prove to him when it came to baseball. We could just watch the games on TV, talk like a couple of fans. I didn't feel compelled to tell him how truly aggravating Albert Belle could be; I just said the guy was no bargain to be around, but he just may be the best power hitter the franchise had ever seen.
I'd tell him how Dennis Martinez was my favorite pitcher. I told him about a story I wrote about Martinez in 1979. I was a rookie baseball writer in Baltimore, and Martinez was a young pitcher with the Orioles. He was from Nicaragua, and his English was limited. I wrote a story where I quoted him exactly, in very broken English. I thought I was being funny.
The next day, a veteran Baltimore sportswriter named Phil Jackman asked me, "I read your story about Dennis. I was just wondering, how is your Spanish?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Your Spanish," Jackman said. "Wonder how you'd do if you were interviewed in Spanish."
I said I had taken two years in high school, and I remembered about twenty words. But I also had gotten Jackman's point and I was feeling about two inches tall.
"Look, cut these Latin guys a break," he said. "They come over here at sixteen years old. They don't know any English. They give you time for an interview, and you..."
"I know, I know..." I said.
"Listen, just help the guy," Jackman said. "I'm not saying make him sound like Abe Lincoln, but you know what he's trying to say -- don't embarrass him."
My father liked that story, probably because it's the kind of advice he'd have given me if he had been in Baltimore that year with me.
In 1995, my father was glued to ESPN. He loved to watch the news clips from Jacobs Field, where the stands were jammed and it seemed every day another player was being showered with a standing ovation. I knew he'd have loved to be at the games, but he showed no bitterness; he was content to follow the team from Florida, to hear me tell him about the Indians during my monthly visits.
The summer of 1995 was my father's longest stretch out of the hospital. For about six months, he had no setbacks, no scares. He seemed to keep getting stronger and more confident, just like the Indians. I'm not naive enough to say the Indians were the reason that he had his best post-stroke summer, I'm just saying it happened. And I'm saying the Indians were fun for him, and that the baseball team brought us even closer together.
"This must be what it was like for Indians fans in 1948," I said to him more than once.
"Yes!" he'd say.
It was remarkable how once in a while, a different word would come to him. You could put a gun to his head and demand that he say the word Yes, but he couldn't do it on command. He'd just say, "Man...MAN...MAN!"
But as a quick answer to something that moved him -- something like the 1995 Indians -- well, YES, he could say it.
We'd see Omar Vizquel make a great play at shortstop, and I'd ask him if Omar was as good as Lou Boudreau -- and my father would say, "Yes! Man...MAN...MAN!"
When my father came to baseball in the 1920s, there never would have been a shortstop like Vizquel -- at least not a shortstop from Venezuela. The major league baseball of my father's youth was played only by white men from America. But my father was like most fans of his generation. When it came to baseball, they had only one question: "Can the guy play?" It was the owners more than the fans who had racial hangups and fears. That's why my father could watch Vizquel play a few games and immediately think of Lou Boudreau. White? Latino? One guy played in the 1940s and 1950s, the other in the 1990s? Doesn't matter. If my father had been able to speak with all the words he had possessed before his stroke, he'd have said, "Both guys are the kind of shortstops that take a team to the World Series."
Why is that?
"Because they make great plays, but they don't make errors," my father would have said.
You may think I'm taking some literary license. You may believe it's presumptuous of me to be so sure of what my father would say comparing Vizquel to Boudreau. On this point, you'd be wrong. On this point, my father's words are branded into my brain. "A great fielder doesn't make a lot of errors," he told me over and over.
When it came to shortstops, my father believed steady hands that gobble up grounders are more important than great range. An accurate arm matters more than a man with a bazooka who had lousy aim. Boudreau's arm was not especially strong, and the same is true for Vizquel. Boudreau had a knack of getting the ball to the first baseman just in time. Sometimes, it seemed as if his throws had a bit of an arc in them as they leisurely made their way across the diamond. But he'd shock you with the ability to make long throws from deep in the hole, the kind of throw that seemed to leave a vapor trail, the kind of throw that had you saying, "I didn't think he had such a strong arm."
That also is the case with Vizquel.
Hal Lebovitz has insisted Vizquel is the superior shortstop because of his range.
"Both make all the routine plays," he said. "But Vizquel is more spectacular. He makes more great plays than Boudreau did. I have seen every Indians shortstop since the 1920s, and no one is better than Omar. And I've talked to people who saw the shortstops before that, and I'm confident that none of them played the position better than Omar."
When men such as my father and Lebovitz not only rave about Vizquel, but put him on such a lofty historical perch, then indeed he is special. If fans were ever forced to be truly honest, they'd admit that the players they love the best are usually the players whom they first saw when they discovered the game. That is why the baseball of our youth tends to look better than the game of today. Yes, it may indeed have been just that there were fewer teams, therefore the talent wasn't as diluted as today. But it's far more than rational. It's emotional. It's nostalgic. It's viewing the game through more innocent eyes, because we were more innocent. Vizquel seems like a player from another age, from a time when baseball was played like poetry, when it could be set to classical music.
That was Boudreau, and that is Vizquel at shortstop.
Boudreau was the more productive hitter, Vizquel the more acrobatic and athletic fielder.
It still goes back to grace, a word that's been applied to both players. Grace is why so many elderly fans quickly adopted Vizquel after he was traded to the Indians prior to the 1994 season. Grace also shows up in Vizquel in his willingness to sign autographs, do interviews, and take time for the little things. He is one of the Indians players who finds time to call children in hospitals and to visit with special-needs kids brought to the park. The front office considers Vizquel its "go-to guy" when the subject is public service, and Vizquel has received several national honors for his work in the Cleveland area, especially with the mentally retarded.
Allen Davis is the Indians director of community relations. He also works closely with the Latino players, because Davis was born in Puerto Rico and speaks fluent Spanish. One day, he walked into the Tribe dressing room and saw Vizquel working with Enrique Wilson, a young Tribe infielder from the Dominican Republic.
"Now, write the word -- socks," said Vizquel.
Wilson took a pen and slowly wrote s-o-c-k-s.
"Good," said Vizquel.
"Now, try pants," Vizquel said.
Wilson tried to write the word, but made a mistake.
Vizquel corrected him, then had Wilson write it again.
P-a-n-t-s, Wilson wrote
"That's good," said Vizquel.
"I never saw one player take the time to teach another English like Omar was doing with Wilson on that day," said Davis.
That's because Vizquel remembers what it was like to sign with the Seattle Mariners at the age of sixteen. He had learned his baseball in Caracas, Venezuela, which is the New York City of Venezuela. He learned his baseball on small diamonds with no grass -- just clay, dirt, and rocks. He learned his baseball from his father, Omar Sr., who had been an excellent amateur shortstop and later became an electrician. He learned the game with a little salsa, almost fielding to a lively Latin beat. He learned to catch ground balls with his bare hands, compensating for the crazy bounces off the wildly unkempt fields. That is why, to this day, Vizquel comes roaring in from his shortstop position, fields a roller with his barehand and throws all in one motion -- much like a third baseman. Occasionally, he even has grabbed a high-hopper with that bare hand to save a fraction of a second in order to throw out a runner at first base.
"People ask me how I can do that," he said. "It's how I grew up learning to play the game."
"And the amazing thing is Omar never drops the ball on those plays," Manager Mike Hargrove said. "It used to scare the hell out of me. I've never seen a shortstop make as many barehanded plays as Omar. With someone else, you'd tell them, 'Don't even think about it.' But if Omar wants to try it, I've learned that he can do it. I'm awestruck by how he plays. I don't know if anyone in the history of baseball has ever played shortstop like him."
Vizquel learned to assume that every bounce will be bad. He learned that every throw was important, and that most first baseman like a soft toss about chest high -- so he doesn't cut loose just to show off his arm. He learned that your feet are just as important as your hands when you play shortstop, because good balance and the ability to move sideways quickly determines how you'll handle those difficult plays deep in the hole or those times when you need to charge in to gobble up a slow roller. So Vizquel played soccer, not just because he liked the game but because it helped his footwork in baseball.
Even today, Vizquel will have someone throw an easy grounder to him, and he'll kick the ball straight up in the air so he can snatch it with his glove. Occasionally, he'll do this during warm-ups between innings of a game. The feet. The hands. The glove. The ball.
"It all comes together," he said. "It's all one."
That was something his father preached to him on those rutted dirt diamonds in Caracas.
"I always wanted to be a shortstop because of my father," Vizquel said. "When I was five years old, I got my first glove. My father told me that I had to take care of it. He didn't have enough money to buy me a new glove every year. It had to last at least three years."
To break in his new glove, Vizquel put a baseball in its pocket. Then he took a sock and tied the glove closed. Then he went to bed, hugging the glove close to his heart like a favorite teddy bear. He learned to massage the glove with baby oil. He carried the glove with him constantly.
"Sometimes, I took a nap and used it for a pillow," he said.
As a big leaguer, Vizquel uses only one glove per season, even though he has an unlimited supply. He says it's because he only needs one glove, but it probably goes back to his father and that Christmas present when he was five years old. It goes back to knowing a glove is precious, and "if you take care of it, it will take care of you," as the old baseball men preached.
Vizquel had just turned seventeen when he signed his first pro contract. The Seattle Mariners shipped him to Butte, Montana, where he learned to eat chicken and eggs while breaking into pro ball in the Pioneer League. Every day, it was chicken or eggs. That's all he knew how to order at a restaurant. Those were the first words of English he learned.
"But I also figured out that I had to learn English real fast," he said.
So Vizquel talked to some of his American teammates. He watched a lot of TV. As his handle on the language became steadier, he forced himself to read the English newspapers. Rather than fight his new language, he embraced it -- and he promised himself that he'd help other young Latin players to do the same. That was why he worked with Wilson, even though Wilson was the best shortstop in the Tribe's minor league system. Vizquel didn't feel threatened, he felt fatherly.
It took Vizquel seven years in the minors before he became a regular big league shortstop. The problem was his balsa bat, so soft he had to learn how to be a switch-hitter at the Class AA level, which can be very scary. What if the experiment failed? What if all he'd ever be was a good-field, no-hit shortstop? But Vizquel almost willed himself to learn to swing from the left side of the plate, even though it felt about as natural as trying to run with his shoelaces tied together. Slowly, he developed into a fair hitter. He had little power, but he could steal a few bases -- and no one played shortstop with his flair or sure-handedness. But he played in Seattle in the early 1990s, where few people outside the Puget Sound noticed.
On December 20, 1993, Tribe General Manager John Hart made a deal that would become one of the most important in the history of the franchise, but few realized it at the time. The Indians were coming off a 76-86 season. They were moving into Jacobs Field, but fans didn't realize what a new ballpark would mean to the franchise. As for trading Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson to Seattle for Vizquel, few fans even bothered to discuss it on the local radio talk shows. To them, Vizquel was much like Fermin, another light-hitting, steady-fielding shortstop -- probably not much better than Tom Veryzer.
And three weeks after he joined the Indians, Vizquel committed three errors in a game. This from a guy who was supposed to be a Gold Glove shortstop? The impressive sidelight to that dismal day at Jacobs Field was Vizquel standing up in front of the unrelenting glare of the TV cameras, staring straight into the microphones and notepads, and saying simply, "It is my fault. I messed up the game. My three errors cost us seven runs. No excuses."
Vizquel later said he'd never made three errors in a game, "And I won't ever again, I promise."
The next day, the newspapers were full of stories not just of Vizquel's errors, but of his mature handling of the situation, of his willingness to take the blame. A few days later, other players revealed Vizquel played that day with a fever and the flu, and that he was offered a chance to skip the game -- but he insisted that he play. And Vizquel himself never mentioned he was sick.
In 1994, he made only three more errors in the remaining games of that strike-shortened season. He won his second Gold Glove. Then he won a third. A fourth. Heading into the 1999 season, he'd won six consecutive Gold Gloves. He'd turned himself into a guy who hits around .280 and steals 30-some bases per season. His passion for the game and good-natured personality have led to the fans embracing him much as they had Boudreau.
In 1995, my father watched Vizquel a lot on TV. Even though he lived in Florida, the Tribe was a regular on either ESPN or another network. My father built his days around watching those games, and it was a wonderful time for him, a release from the bars and chains that the stroke had become to his body.
Then came the postseason.
Then came something called the baseball network.
My father couldn't wait for the playoffs to begin. ESPN had been advertising them, as did one of the networks.
Then came the games.
Only there were no Tribe games on TV, at least not for my father or anyone else in Florida. ESPN would tell him that the Indians were facing Boston that night and stay tuned, but all he'd have on his TV would be the Braves game. Once in a while, there would be the Indians, but only if Atlanta wasn't playing. I'd be on the phone with Karen Cochran, his primary caretaker. She'd tell me how he couldn't find the Indians game on TV. I was utterly confused and angry. I didn't know what to tell her. I had no idea when -- or if -- the game would be televised.
How was my father supposed to figure out the schedule and reasoning for the baseball network when baseball itself couldn't quite explain it? All he knew was that every playoff game was on national TV before 1995, and when the Indians finally were in playoffs, all the games weren't being broadcast. That made him so mad one night, he turned off the Braves games, watched bowling for a while, and went to bed early.
"Dad, just hang in there, when the Indians make the World Series, you'll get to see all the games," I'd tell him from the Jacobs Field press box.
"Man...MAN...MAN!" he'd say.
"I know, it doesn't make much sense," I'd say.
I wanted to say something else, but what? What was there to say? Like so many fans of so many teams who didn't happen to live in the city where their favorite teams played, he just wanted to watch his team play in the postseason. Who could blame him?
Thank God, my father did see the best Indians game of 1995.
That was Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. The Indians had a 3-2 lead over the Seattle Mariners in the best-of-seven series to decide who would go to the World Series. That sounded pretty commanding, until you looked a little closer. Games 6 and 7 were to be played in Seattle. In Game 6, the Indians had to face Randy Johnson. In 1995, the Indians never beat Randy Johnson. No one beat Randy Johnson, especially not in the Kingdome. And if the Indians didn't beat Randy Johnson?
"Charlie Nagy was pitching Game 7, and Charlie, he never likes those domes."
Those words were spoken by Dennis Martinez, the man pitching for the Tribe in Game 6. He said that to Akron Beacon Journal baseball writer Sheldon Ocker and myself about five hours before he was to pitch. Martinez was sitting in the hotel lobby, as nervous as a cat in a room full of bulldogs. His eyes darted from one end of the room to the other; his voice never stopped for long. He wanted to talk...to anyone.
Ocker and I just happened to come along at the right time.
"I hope these guys are ready," he said. "I hope they aren't thinking that they'll wait until tomorrow just because they gotta face Randy Johnson."
"We lose today, we could be in big trouble tomorrow," he said. "Game 7. In the Kingdome? Charlie pitching? You tell me..."
Before we could tell Martinez anything, he launched into a long discussion of the managing in the series. Basically, he didn't think much of the job done by either manager. He brought up situations, pitching changes that were made at the wrong times, pinch hitters that should have been used. It seemed to comfort Martinez, dissecting the managers.
Then he said, "I hope I'm not out there by himself."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders," he said. "And right now, I'm wasted physically."
His elbow hurt. His knee hurt. His whole body hurt.
"I hurt my knee first," he said. "Then I hurt my elbow because I pitched with a bad knee. You know, the knee bone is connected to the elbow bone, the elbow bone is connected to the shoulder bone..."
"A mess, that's what I am," he said. "And they're sending me into the lion's den against Randy Johnson."
If you didn't know Martinez, you'd have been ready to bet your last dime on Seattle. But Martinez did this before every big game. He turned it into David and Goliath, only he was David with an empty slingshot. He relished being the underdog, putting the pressure on the other guy. And he always had to face the opponent's top pitcher.
"You notice, I'm supposed to be an old man, but it's always me," he said. "They don't send some young guy against Randy Johnson."
On this October afternoon, Martinez was forty-one years old. He had won 231 major league games. He had made the 1995 All-Star team. His two-year record with the Tribe was 23-11. Martinez first wore a big league uniform with Baltimore in 1976; the Seattle Mariners franchise wasn't born until 1977, so you could argue he had more experience than the entire team he was facing.
Yet Martinez wanted you to believe he was Frank Funk.
Then Martinez grabbed his slingshot. He trudged into the mouth of the lion. He used every cliché in the baseball book. And he beat Randy Johnson, 4-0. He beat the man who was considered the most intimidating pitcher in baseball, a totem pole of a man with a perpetual scowl, seaweed for hair, and a flamethrower for an arm. He matched this man pitch for pitch until one of them blinked -- and it was Johnson. The Indians scored the game's first run in the fifth on an RBI single by Kenny Lofton. The game remained 1-0 in favor of the Tribe until the top of the eighth, when the Indians broke through with three more runs.
They were headed to the World Series for the first time since 1954.
I told my father the story about Martinez in the lobby of the hotel. I told him that our conversation with the pitcher ended when Bob Feller showed up. Martinez has a sense of baseball history. He knows Feller is in the Hall of Fame. He also knows Feller never won a World Series game. And before that night in Seattle, Martinez had never won a postseason game.
Feller hugged Martinez. I stared at the two men as they embraced and realized they had nearly 500 big league victories between them. Feller then whispered something in Martinez's ear. They both laughed. Feller handed him "a lucky buckeye." Martinez put it in his pocket.
Thinking about this now, I realize this was the kind of moment that made it so special to be a sportswriter, the kind of moment Hal Lebovitz had so many times when he rode the trains with the Tribe in the 1950s. It was the kind of moment that brought a wonderful smile to my father's face when I told him the story. It was even more meaningful to him because that crucial game in Seattle was finally televised in Florida for him to see.
In the end, it didn't matter that the Indians lost to Atlanta in the World Series. It really didn't.
They finally had gotten there.
That's what counted to me, to my father, to any Tribe fan with a sense of history that predated Albert Belle. I was content to cover the games, just to see what happened. My father was thrilled just to watch them from his favorite chair in Florida. And while we were so many miles apart, during those games we felt as if we were together.
Copyright © 1999 by Terry Pluto
Excerpted from Our Tribe by Terry Pluto Copyright © 2003 by Terry Pluto. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Terry Pluto is a sports columnist for The Plain Dealer. He has twice been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the nation’s top sports columnist for medium-sized newspapers. He is a nine-time winner of the Ohio Sports Writer of the Year award and has received more than 50 state and local writing awards. In 2005 he was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. He is the author of 23 books, including The Curse of Rocky Colavito (selected by the New York Times as one of the five notable sports books of 1989), and Loose Balls, which was ranked number 13 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 100 sports books of all time. He was called “Perhaps the best American writer of sports books,” by the Chicago Tribune in 1997. He lives in Akron, Ohio.
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