Lunch with Rocky

My mother stood with an old hero Saturday afternoon, getting her Cleveland Indians’ jacket autographed.

“I had two turtles,” she told the 80-year-old slugger. “One named Rocky. The other was Tito.”

“Wow,” said the event’s guest of honor, Rocky Colavito. “I’ve heard of dogs and cats being named after me, but never a turtle.”

Some moments in our lives are priceless. For me, that was one of them.

The Indians’ held an 80th birthday luncheon Saturday afternoon for Colavito inside Progressive Field. On hand for the event also were former Indians’ third baseman Max Alvis and starting pitcher Gary Bell. The event was to benefit Cleveland Indians Charities.

As soon as I found out about this, I bought two tickets. My mother would have to be there.

She grew up in Cleveland in the ’50s. Colavito was her favorite player. She used to tell me stories about how Rocky hit four homers in one game against Baltimore, about how he almost pushed the Tribe to the pennant in 1959, and about how she – and the city of Cleveland – was crushed the next season when he was traded to Detroit.

Colavito has long been almost a mystical character in Indians history. The Indians may have had better power hitters, but few more popular.

In 1989, when I played rec softball, one of my coaches gave me an abbreviated history lesson.

“He hit four homers in one game,” the 40-something coach told his 9-year-old pupil. “And the next day, the traded him.”

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Colavito hit four homers June 10, 1959. He wasn’t dealt until the following spring. But the legend of Colavito stated that his trade (by the reviled general manager Frank Lane) triggered the Indians’ 41-year postseason drought. Sports writer Terry Pluto even wrote a wonderful book in 1993 called “The Curse of Rocky Colavito.”

There wasn’t much talk about curses Saturday, but Colavito did detail each at-bat of his famous four-homer game, then talked about each time he was traded from the Tribe (that’s right, Cleveland dealt him twice).

As remarkable as anything was Colavito’s memory. He remembered every at-bat in his season-opening game in 1960, his first for the Tigers.

Alvis and Bell also told stories from that time period. Both of them had very good careers with the Indians. Alvis was a two-time All-Star third baseman, while Bell won 96 games over a decade long-tenure.

Alvis and Bell told a good story about former Washington power hitter (and Ohio State Buckeye) Frank Howard.

Alvis knew that Howard hit Bell hard, so he backed up into short left field. Bell, from the mound, yelled to Alvis.

“Move in a bit,” he said.

“No,” Alvis replied.

“Just a few steps,” Bell said.

Again Alvis declined.

“He may bunt,” Bell said.

“Then that would be good for both of us,” Alvis said.

When Alvis finished telling the story, the audience roared with laughter. One thing about ballplayers – they’re great storytellers.

When it was over, my mom got her jacket signed by Bell, Alvis and Rocky. I got my picture taken with them.

It was supposed to be a day for mom. But after talking to Alvis about finishing his career with the first-year Milwaukee Brewers – Alvis told me Tommy Harper’s breakout season took away his playing time – and talking to Bell about the 1967 World Series when he pitched for the Red Sox – I realized it also was for me.

Baseball is a sport of history and statistics. But for me, it’s also about family. My mom named her turtles after Rocky Colavito and Tito Francona. Years later, Mom paid extra money so I could put “28” on the back of my baseball uniform for my favorite Indian, Cory Snyder.

I doubt my children will ever take me to an event to celebrate Snyder’s birthday. But who knows?

It’s baseball.

“The Cleveland Indian fan is the best fan in the world,” Colavito said. “I love you so much.”

For the fans there who gave him a standing ovation, it certainly was mutual.