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When a Fan of Believeland Began

Updated: Jun 16, 2023



In the span of 5 days my life was never the same. These 5 days consisted of two separate trips to Cleveland attending two different ballparks. The year was 1994 and it was the beginning of a rebirth for the city. I was a 10--year boy full of wide-eyed wonder that week. The first reason was what happened the previous Saturday morning, June 11th.


For the first time in my life I stepped into a baseball ballpark, the ancient, decaying Cleveland Municipal Stadium. But baseball wasn't why I went.


Instead it was attend the Billy Graham crusade which was in town that weekend. Only a few hours later I stepped out on the field and found new life making the decision to follow Christ (more on this story in this Friday's 360 Journey article).


Brand New to Baseball


My love affair with baseball and the Cleveland Indians began four days later on Wednesday, June 15th, 1994. My Dad had gotten tickets to the inaugural season at the emerald gem on the shores of Lake Erie called Jacobs Field for that evening.


To this point in my life I hadn't watched a single baseball game in my life. Not one. Nor did I have any knowledge for the Cleveland Indians. I knew nothing about the history of the franchise or the ballplayers--past or present. Everything was brand new as I walked into the ballpark that night with my Dad and younger brother, Eric.


I recall looking out on the field in complete awe at how green it was. Then feeling so captivated by the massive scoreboard with the script "Indians" above it. My Dad then began to explain the rules of the game and quickly I began to grasp the beauty of this new, intriguing sport.


I recall him explaining how exciting it would be to see a homerun with the bases loaded which was called a "grand slam." The term etched into my mind as I couldn't wait to see it happen on the field. It never happened. But what did was so much more wonderous....



The Dawn of Glory Days


Now for some context on the 1994 season for the Cleveland Indians. Jacobs Field had just opened its gates back on April 4th two months earlier. The franchise had endured four long decades without a playoff appearance since the 1954 World Series.


The fans were staving for a winner. The old Municipal stadium was known as "the mistake by the lake" and few fans were showing up for games to watch a team that consistently was terrible on the field (basically what the Browns have been since 1999s).


Everything changed with the opening of the new ballpark, Jacobs Field. Thanks to the farm system being reloaded with big prospects (Thome, Ramirez, Belle) some great trades for high impact players (Vizquel, Lofton, Baerga) and big free agent signings (Murray, Martinez) the Indians were stacked with a deep, talented, and young roster.


The Indians got off to a decent 13-9 start in April, then fell to 15-17 by May 13th. A winning streak of six began the next day as the Tribe began to find its identity. Walk-off wins at home began to become more frequent as they had an incredible six of them by June 1st.


This current homestand began with the Indians facing the defending World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays on Monday, June 13th tied for first place with the Chicago White Sox with a record of 33-25. Cleveland won the first two games of the series by the scores of 7-3 and 7-5.



Witnessing a Walk-off


Of course during the game as a 10--year old boy, I knew none of these stats listed above. I was just enjoying and savoring the first baseball game of my life cheering for the hometown team.


The Blue Jays quickly took a 3-0 lead by the 3rd inning off of starting pitcher, Charles Nagy, and that's how the game remained into the bottom of the 8th.


The score wasn't bothering me though as I simply didn't want this amazing experience to ever end. In the blink of an eye, though, the game was tied. Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton hit back-to-back doubles, then Wayne Kirby blasted a ball to the right field seats for a 2-run homer to tie the game at 3-3!


I had just seen the first homerun of my life in person with a sold out crowd cheering wildly all around me! There was magic in the air!


The score remained 3-3 at the end of the ninth. We were going to extra innings! Thankfully since I was out of school, my Dad allowed Eric and I to stay for extra innings. Little did we know that the game was far from over.


And so it went on and on seemingly with no end in sight. No runs were scored in the 10th, 11th, or 12th innings. Jose Mesa at this time wasn't the closer, but did pitch 3 shoutout innings to preserve the tie into the bottom of the 13th inning.


Due to a pure adrenaline rush of emotions, I fought off sleep as the clock was nearing 11 PM, way past by bedtime. After Sandy Alomar grounded out to lead off the inning, up stepped the young third baseman, Jim Thome.


What happened next is forever etched into my memory. Thome blasted a 3-2 pitch deep over the center field wall to win the game!


In the midst of jumping up and down hollering with over 40,000 other fans I was fully awake and in awe at what I had just witnessed. A walk-off win at my first ever Indians game!


Beholding Baseball


Little did I know that this sweep over the defending World Series champs was the start of a franchise record 18 straight wins at home!


The next night on June 16th, the Indians would arguably have their most memorable comeback of the season scoring 3 runs in the 9th capped off with a 2-run single by Albert Belle for another walk-off win!


The Tribe would go an outstanding 18-9 in the month of June. Once the laughing stock of baseball, the Indians were now captivating the city of Cleveland, destined to make the playoffs for the first time in forty years.


Then tragedy struck only two months after I had attended my first game---the infamous 1994 MLB strike began on August 12th.


My attention towards baseball temporarily went to other things until the magical, amazing summer of 1995 took me (and all of Northeast Ohio) by storm.


Looking back I feel so blessed recalling what took place that incredible night when I first attended an Indians game. It perfectly captured the essence of what made that team of the mid-to-late 90's so special----exciting, comeback walk-off wins. Having shared the experience with my Dad and brother made it a moment in time I'll always cherish.



The Beginning of Belief


Nearly three decades have passed since that life changing week I spent in Cleveland. At the time I didn't fully grasp the significance that those two days at the old and new ballparks would have who I am today.


My passion for baseball and the Indians has continued on through the good and bad times since 1994. I've attended over 60 games at the Jake creating new memories with family and friends. Educated myself on the rich history of the national pastime. Played church softball for many years. Collected fun baseball memorabilia. Spent countless hours investing in watching, learning, and enjoying the game.


Experienced the joys of the Indians World Series appearances in 1995, 1997, and 2016 ballclubs that ultimately were met with heartbreak. Endured through long, losing seasons such as 2003, 2009 and 2012. Grown to love ballplayers such as Jim Thome, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and now Jose Ramirez.


All the while watching the long championships droughts of the Red Sox, White Sox, and Cubs (against the Indians no less) end in glorious triumph, yet choosing to keep believing each new year is Cleveland's turn to end their long tenure of suffering as my teens, twenties, and thirties have all passed me by.


No matter what the future holds for me or the franchise, I'll never forget the night this Indians fan was born in Believeland! It was truly an unbelievable moment in my life!

Photo Note: I recently found the ticket from my first Indians game. Crazy how affordable tickets were back then!


Sources:


Photos courtesy of Flickr.com, except first and last photos are my own


Stats and data were researched and confirmed via baseball-reference.com


The June 15th walk-off I witnessed in person can be seen in this video at the 2:57 minute mark: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=518225822688304

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