Cheering in a foreign land
PHOENIX — It was all going smoothly until the seventh inning.
It’s not that I was hiding my allegiance. The Cincinnati Reds’ T-shirt I was sporting all but gave that away.
Still, this was Arizona. And the thousands in attendance probably wouldn’t care that I had flown in from Ohio. Cheering for the Reds too loudly probably would upset them. The Diamondbacks are a playoff contender.
“Don’t show anyone up,” I thought.
And yet, when Cincinnati starter Homer Bailey left the mound in the top of the seventh with two outs, I wanted him to know I appreciated his effort.
So as he headed for the first base dugout, I applauded with enthusiasm. The Reds were leading 2-1, and the oft-injured right-hander had given his best performance since returning from a lengthy stint on the disabled list.
When Bailey reached his teammates, the applause stopped.
But my Uncle Gary wasn’t going to let it pass.
“A little more of that,” he said with a laugh, “and you’ll be walking home.”
He was joking.
Like me, my uncle is a Cleveland area native. But he’s lived in Arizona since the 1970s. He attended Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when the Diamondbacks — just four years old — shocked baseball by taking down the mighty New York Yankees for their only title.
My uncle follows the Diamondbacks with an intensity, as does his stepson, Zac.
They were my hosts.
But more importantly, they were my way out of downtown Phoenix.
So for the rest of the game, my reactions to what played out were muted. And when Reds’ closer Raisel Iglesias recorded the game’s final out — securing a 2-1 Cincinnati win — I barely reacted.
Suddenly, I was a stranger in a strange land. And I had to check my outward rooting interests.
But as left the park, I was reminded of the last time I felt this way.
As my passion for baseball continued to grow through my childhood, my father promised that at some point, we’d travel from our suburban Cleveland home to Detroit — and old Tigers’ Stadium — for a game.
That day finally came in September of 1992, when the Tigers hosted my other favorite team, the Cleveland Indians.
(As many longtime readers of this column know, my father grew up in the Dayton area and was a fan of the Reds. His influence, as well as that of his sister, allowed me to attain a sort of “dual citizenship” as a baseball fan, cheering for both the Indians and the Reds. But should a World Series between the two ever arise, rest assured, I’d be wearing dark blue.)
The trip was wonderful for me. It was just the third park I’d ever been to. The others, the gargantuan Cleveland Municipal Stadium and the cookie-cutter inspired Riverfront Stadium, each had a degree of charm.
But neither could compare to Tiger Stadium. I didn’t know you could sit so close to the players, and we didn’t even have outstanding seats.
And even though neither team was going anywhere in 1992, the game felt big. Maybe it was because Detroit still was managed by the legendary Sparky Anderson. Maybe it was because one of the game’s most feared sluggers — and one of my favorite players — Detroit’s Cecil Fielder, was in the lineup.
Or maybe it’s because I was 12.
But the memory remains special. Fielder lived up to his billing, blasting a home run in the fifth. But the game was tied at 4 when the Indians’ Jesse Levis launched the first homer of his career.
Still, after getting instructions from my father to not upset Detroit fans if things went well for the Tribe, I remained tepid.
That is until the top of the eighth, when Carlos Martinez — a player who’s imposing look exceeded his ability — hammered a two-run double to put the Indians up 7-4.
I lost it, leaping from my seat and cheering my team on.
I didn’t even notice when my father gruffly told me to sit down. Still, the only reaction I got from the Tigers’ partisans consisted of some good-natured ribbing.
But my father had had enough. He rounded up my 10-year-old brother and I and took us to the top of the stadium.
My dad had done this before … he wanted the two of us to get a view from the top of a park. Just two years earlier, he had done this at Municipal Stadium, and the three of us looked on from the top row of an 80,000 seat mausoleum with about 10,000 souls in it. My brother, eight at the time, was terrified we were stealing someone’s seats.
But back to 1992.
As my father, brother and I reached the top of Tiger Stadium, the home squad put a rally together.
Mickey Tettleton singled and Dan Gladden walked. That brought up future All-Star — and future Indian — Travis Fryman.
I knew Fryman was a good hitter. But what concerned me the most was the large presence of Fielder in the on-deck circle.
Indians manager Mike Hargrove brought in the submarine-styled Steve Olin from the bullpen to pitch.
The tension built in me as the count on Fryman went to 2-and-2.
Remarkably, I made some 12-year-old baseball analysis.
“Olin needs to get Fryman,” I said. “If Fielder hits a home run to start the ninth, who cares? The Indians are up three.”
To my amazement, my father responded “That’s a good point, Zach.”
But my father also had a message.
“Whatever happens here,” he told his sons, “don’t react.”
“Fine,” my brother and I said in unison.
Then Olin made his side-winding approach to the plate.
The ball hit catcher Junior Ortiz’s mit.
“YES!,” I screamed. Then I sat down an apologized.
“It’s OK,” Dad said. “I was cheering, too.”
I can honestly say I’ve never had a happier moment in a ballpark.
The Indians won the game, 7-4. And while the game is a happy memory, there were some epilogues that were written, and not good ones.
It was the last time I saw Olin pitch. The promising reliever was killed — along with fellow Tribe reliever Tim Crews — in a boating accident the next spring.
Martinez and the Tigers’ Tony Phillips — both in their teams’ lineups and in the prime of their lives that day — each died a few years ago.
We never went back to Tiger Stadium. The Tigers left after the 1999 season.
The Indians would be great within a few years, but everything seemed different by then.
But no matter what happened, I always have remembered that day. Being a fan of the opposition is different. You want to cheer, but you don’t want to do it alone.
And that’s how this past Sunday was for me.
A stranger in a strange land.
But it’s OK when your team wins.