My old man was a sports nut. He and other sports nuts like him have long suffered and struggled with a disease known as nostalgia. Perhaps his intoxication with the scoreboard stemmed from the fact that he’d never been much of an athlete. Had he imagined that, by immersing himself in the holy waters of baseball, he’d somehow become part of the game? Maybe the crack of the bat or the struggle of the second baseman to free his wedgie sent the old bean back to his sunny childhood where he’d spent his summer afternoons shagging fly balls at the park with his cronies. Someone who didn’t know him well might very reasonably accept one of these scenarios. But they’d be wrong.
I was nineteen when he shared his favorite baseball memory with me. The story itself wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, almost cliché, really. After beer number too-many-to-count, my dad gushed about the baseball game his father, my Grandpa, had taken him to see when he was a just a boy. There wasn’t anything spectacular about the game. There weren’t any foul balls that came his way or grand slams hit that night, yet he spoke of it with a fondness I’d never see from him again.
My Grandpa Moorman was a sweet little man. He stood an inch below five feet and, at least in my mind, had been born with grey hair. He always had grease under his nails, smoked Pall-Malls, and drank heavily for most of my childhood. He was a plumber by trade but knew HVAC and could fix anything with an engine. He was soft-spoken and, like many Irish families, fathered a slew of kids, eleven in fact. My dad was the oldest.
As you might imagine, Gramps wasn’t around much. He worked – a LOT. When he wasn’t working his regular job, he was doing side jobs. Then, as the kids grew, side jobs would include fixing their cars and then houses. He was so busy working to support the family that he didn’t have any time to spend with them. Unlike me, however, my pops was a sap. He mourned those lost years and lamented the games he and his dad never got to see together. The other kids in his neighborhood went to a lot of games with their fathers. My dad went to one. That’s right, one game – ever. The story, the look in his eye, the shaky voice and tears he fought back gave me all the explanation I’d ever need. The massive collection of baseball cards, the million games he’d dragged us to see at Municipal Stadium, and the glee he exuded when he was awarded his first set of season tickets at the newly built Jacob’s Field all made perfect sense to me in that moment. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the effort he’d made to ensure that my sister, brother, and I would never lament games we didn’t see with him.
From the time I could walk, I’ve been attending Indians games. I was there for the World Series in 1995 and again in 1997. I was in the stands for game three of the 1996 divisional series against the Orioles. Albert Belle hit a grand slam in the bottom of the 7th to put the Tribe ahead and the stadium shook. While the Orioles went on to win that series, I’ll always remember that grand slam as the loudest, craziest, most energetic surreal five minutes of the game I’ll ever witness. As a baseball fan, I’ve been blessed. No, I’ve never seen the Indians win a World Series, but I’ve seen them come close and have enjoyed the hell out of the ride. As amazing as the World Series, ALCS, and Divisional games were to attend, none of them will be the game I’ll share fondly with my daughter as my most memorable. In fact, only one game and one night will ever be etched as permanently in my mind as my dad’s game with my Grandpa was etched for him. That’s right – only one.
It was 1985 and I’d just turned eleven. School was out and I was jamming to “Never Surrender” by Corey Heart and couldn’t wait to see that year’s summer blockbuster, Back to the Future. I was at the doorstep of puberty but still had enough kid left in me to enjoy mornings at the pool with my buddies followed by afternoon wiffle ball games that lasted until dark. Evenings were spent watching Indians games on TV or catching up on the latest MTV videos. Life was pretty grand back then. They truly were my endless days of summer.
My parents had divorced when I was five, so my sister and I were accustomed to the every-other-weekend schedule and were typically pretty cooperative about heading to our dad’s. Back in those days, he lived downtown in a high-rise apartment called the Park. It’s still there, but today it’s known as Reserve Square. The place was amazing, an adventure around every corner, especially for two very liberally supervised kids. The Park had its own grocery store, gym, pool, and tennis courts – the works. On the lower level, it even had a barbershop and a bar called the Park Pub. That was our favorite. Now I know what you’re thinking, “What the hell are two kids doing hanging out in a bar?” I know that’s what you’re thinking because that’s what my mom used to ask my dad every Sunday when he’d drop us off. We defended him fiercely, of course. We couldn’t let her ruin our fun. You see, our dad had picked up a job as a bartender at the Park Pub. He told us that he needed the money to pay alimony. Mom told us he needed it to pay his bookie. We didn’t care as long as we got to keep going.
Weekends at the Pub meant a never-ending supply of 7-Up with Grenadine, all the junk food a kid could eat, and the ultimate prize – a share of dad’s tip money, paid out in quarters. The bar had a game room and Dick, the owner, kept it stocked with all the hottest arcade games and pinball machines. Donkey Kong, Ms.Pac-Man, Q*bert, Dig Dug, Pole Position, and Galaga were all there waiting to be won, but my personal favorite was Spy Hunter. I loved James Bond and Spy Hunter put me behind the wheel of my own Bond-like chase. I was in heaven. The old man worked most Saturday nights, so it wasn’t uncommon for us to get ready for bed, put our pajamas on, ride down the elevator and hang out at the bar in our PJs until his first break. Then it was up to bed and he’d come up on the hour to check on us. It was our little dysfunctional routine and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Once in a while, if it was a busy night and he wasn’t able to make it up, he’d send one of the waitresses. We knew and loved them all. Then, on Sunday mornings, we’d truck back down and clean up the mess. We made $2.00/hr to sweep floors, wipe down tables, and clean out ashtrays. To a nine- and eleven-year-old, it was a fortune. Our incentive plan was that we could keep any money we found on the floor or in the bar seat cushions. We kept the place clean and filled our little pockets. Of course, we’d blow our earnings on candy at the Park grocery store, but it was ours to spend.
Working Saturday nights meant that our quality time took place Friday evenings and Saturdays during the day. During the summer, if the Tribe was home on a Friday and we were with our dad, there was a 99% chance we’d be in attendance. Sometimes he’d surprise us with amazing seats right behind the first base dugout. Other times, we sat in the upper deck. It was always fun, though, and we loved it because he loved it. Being the nostalgic guy he was, he made sure we had our programs. He tried each game to teach us how to score the contest. We didn’t get it. There was a scoreboard as big as life staring right at us. Why he felt the need to score in a program was beyond our limited baseball comprehension. He’d rebut, stating that the program was also good for collecting player autographs. That idea was something that registered in our pre-pubescent brains. We knew all the players and had our favorites. The 1985 Indians boasted some pretty sweet talent although, as a team, they weren’t by any means considered a contender. Mike Hargrove was still playing, a young Joe Carter manned first base, Brett Butler hustled out in center field, Julio Franco was our shortstop, and my favorite player, Brook Jacoby, worked the hot corner. Andre Thornton batted DH and our ace that season was none other than the great Bert Blyleven. The Indians finished the 1985 season with 60 wins and 102 losses but it was one of those 60 wins that would forever enshrine itself as my greatest baseball memory.
It was Friday, June 14th and I was four days into my eleventh year. The Indians were playing the A’s and Blylevin was on the mound. My man, Brook Jacoby, went two for four with three RBIs and Blyleven pitched a complete game, allowing only one run and striking out seven. We weren’t lucky enough to score the choice seats behind first base, so we sat in the upper deck. The Tribe won 6-1 and a great time was had by all. The only downer of the evening, according to my sister, was that we didn’t get the chance to fill our programs by scavenging for autographs at the fence in between innings.
My old man took her disappointment to heart. It was a crime against nature as far as he was concerned. A human girl child wanting a baseball player’s autograph meant parting the red sea if need be, especially when that girl child belonged to him, the one who scores in the program. So down the ramps we walked until we finally found our way to the player’s exit. My sister and I waited anxiously to catch a glimpse of one of our heroes and hopefully score a coveted autograph. It seemed like an eternity before the first batch of players exited. Most got in their cars and drove off. Those that signed only signed a few and we weren’t one of the lucky ones. Our hopes were fading when, in some bizarre twist of fate, out walked Bobby Bonds. He was our first base coach that season. At the age of eleven, I hadn’t followed baseball long enough to know that the man who was making his way toward us had only been four years separated from the game as a player. I had no clue that he’d been only the second player to ever hit 300 career home runs and steal 300 bases (Willie Mays being the only player ahead of him). Yet there he was, as big as life and heading right toward my dad, my sister, and me.
“Hey, Phil. What are you doing here?” he said. I looked around to see if there was another Phil in the crowd of fifteen. My old man crushed his cigarette and extended his hand. Bobby shook it and started bullshitting with him as if he were an old friend. My sister and I were dumbfounded to say the least. Seriously? Was this actually happening? My dad actually knew a bona fide member of the Indians and failed to mention it to us? He told Bobby Bonds that he was with us and that we were waiting and hoping to get a couple autographs. We shook his hand and introduced ourselves. When we said, “nice to meet you, Mr.Bonds,” he said, “Call me Bobby.” Then he looked at my dad and wrinkled his forehead in a way that said you should have told me you were going to be here. He instructed us to stay put then headed back into the clubhouse. We did as instructed and chastised our father while we waited. Bobby returned and handed my sister and I each a ball autographed by the entire team. The signatures were in ink, not the Xerox copy souvenir ball, but the genuine article and we were beyond thrilled. I would have been happy to snag a Chris Bando signature for the program, but no. Instead, I was holding a ball with all of my favorite players’ signatures on it, including Brook Jacoby and that night’s winning pitcher, Mr. Bert Blyleven. What happened then was unimaginable. Bobby asked what our plans for the evening were and if we’d like to join him down at the Park Pub for a drink? My sister and I were dragging him by the sleeve before my dad could answer.
As it turned out, the tiny, dark, almost hidden little gem of a bar that resided in the basement of a high rise apartment complex in downtown Cleveland was a favorite among the local athletes and my dad had been one of their favorite bartenders. The wealth of sports knowledge he’d amassed throughout his lifetime earned him the respect and friendship of a dozen Cleveland Indians and Browns, not to mention some generous tips. He had his favorites and at the top of his list was Bobby Bonds.
I’m certainly not the first guy to attribute a momentous life occasion to having taken place in a smoky bar, surrounded by drunken idiots, but I may be the only one to have had it happen in that environment at age eleven. My nostalgic father knew it was a big moment for me, so he just watched and smiled as I peppered Bobby Bonds with questions only an eleven-year-old boy could think to ask. Was Brook Jacoby his favorite player on the Indians, too? What did it feel like to stand at the plate and stare down a big-league fastball? Was Julio Franco a nice guy? He laughed and answered all of my questions. Then, after a few drinks (7-Up and Grenadine for me and adult beverages for him,) he began dispensing pearls of wisdom, life advice, and stuff that had nothing to do with baseball. He complimented me on my manners and told me to never lose sight of their importance. He told me to work hard at everything I did and shared his fondness for my dad. He sung the old man’s praises and I asked him if we were talking about the same guy? He laughed. I asked him if he had kids and he lifted his chin and beamed as he told me about them. I remember him talking about Barry. He told me that he was coming up in the Majors and to watch for him as I got older. He said, “I think he’s going to be real good.” My response was that he had to say that because it was his son. He shook his head and told me that Barry was the real deal. Then he promised to get me an autographed Brook Jacoby bat and told my sister he’d get her an autographed Julio Franco batting helmet. My dad called it a night and ushered us up to bed. We gave our new favorite Indian a hug and rode the elevator up to the old man’s apartment.
We never saw him again after that night. I never did get my autographed Brook Jacoby bat, but I did follow Barry throughout his career as instructed. Each Sports Center highlight and every mention in the news offered me the opportunity to brag about my evening with Bobby Bonds. I acted like I was somehow cooler for having been given the inside info on the man who would eventually become the single season home run record holder and one of the greatest players of the modern era. Bobby and Barry Bonds are among the most successful father-son duos in the history of the game.
In 2001, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. In between chemo, radiation, weight loss, and lost energy, we’d still watch baseball games together. He was probably half of his normal weight the day his limited edition, signed and numbered commemorative Barry Bonds bat arrived in the mail. He opened the box and showed it off, a new prized piece of nostalgia, maybe his most prized. He died the next year – August 30th, 2002 at age 54. The following year, August 23rd, 2003, Barry Bonds and his siblings would say goodbye to their dad, Bobby, who had also lost his battle with lung cancer at the age of 57.
I wish they were still here. I wish they’d both be able to pass their wisdom to their grandkids and stress the importance of good manners all while sitting in a smoky bar after a Friday night at the ballpark. They aren’t, though. They’re home and hopefully hanging out together talking baseball and playing pinball and Spy Hunter. Now it’s my turn. Five years from now, I fully intend on perpetrating the same poor parenting decisions for which my old man was renowned. I’m going to drag my daughter to a Friday night Indians game. Then, we’ll head down to some bar that an eleven-year-old girl and her father have no business being. I’ll order her a 7-Up with Grenadine and I’ll order myself an adult beverage. Then I’ll tell her the story of my favorite baseball memory and give her the autographed ball that the great Bobby Bonds had given me.
I guess maybe I inherited a bit of nostalgia after all.