It is easy to get lost at Jacobs Field, even with all those schematics with the red dots and the YOU ARE HERE advisories posted throughout the new home of the Cleveland Indians. It happened to the Tribe's second baseman upon his first look at the ballpark before an exhibition game last Saturday. Carlos Baerga saw the place filling with people instead of gnats. The infield was level, the outfield had no football hash marks, and the manager wasn't afraid to drink the tap water. Heck, the Cuyahoga River wasn't even on fire. This is Cleveland? Baerga turned to teammate Paul Sorrento and asked, "Are we in our ballpark or on the road? I can't believe this."
The same feeling of displacement overcame most of the 40,523 fans on hand. The ballpark's unofficial grand opening moved them to a collective stupor for the better part of three innings—their open-mouthed silence broken only occasionally by polite applause. "I wondered what was going on," said Indian general manager John Hart. "Our crowds are usually raucous crowds."
Who could blame them? Clevelanders are left with nothing familiar to latch on to. It's all so new to them: the seats close to the playing field, the huge scoreboard with instant replays, the 119 luxury suites, the chicken fajitas served at the concession stands and the unobstructed views of—in the name of Mike de la Hoz, can this be true?—an honest-to-goodness contender. Then on Monday the Indians confounded and amazed a crowd of 41,459, winning on Opening Day for the first time in five years. Cleveland came from behind twice to beat the Seattle Mariners 4-3.
The Indians have been building toward this happy collision of a good team and a modern ballpark throughout the 1990s under a plan called the Blueprint for Success, which included dishing out multi-year contracts like so many caps on Cap Day. The idea was that the team and the ballpark would be ready at the same time.
Truth is, this sort of optimism has been 40 years in the making in the wasteland of baseball hope that is Cleveland. The Indians have not finished first since 1954, the longest drought endured by any major league city this century. And they haven't even bothered to come close since 1959, never having been in first place after July, never having finished within 10 games of first place in any full season and never having placed higher than third in the last 35 years.
Remarkably, Clevelanders have exhibited little angst about this run of horrible baseball. At worst, they are indifferent about it, as they were in 1985, when only 655,181 people showed up at cavernous, 74,208-seat Cleveland Stadium during the season; or in '56, when 356 people dropped by for a September game. "I remember the place was so empty and so quiet," broadcaster Herb Score, the former Indian ace, says of that game, "that from the pitching mound I could here the clacking of the typewriters up in the press box." At best, the fans are warmly sentimental and fatalistic about all the losing, as evidenced by the subtitle of a recently published book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, which traces the Tribe's struggles to the 1960 trade of the slugging outfielder: A Loving Look at a Thirty-Year Slump.
Now signs of change are all around the city, with Jacobs Field bearing the biggest red dot of them all. Revitalization? You are here.
The $169 million, county-owned park is the centerpiece of a sports and entertainment complex that in the fall will also house the NBA's Cavaliers, who had taken the well-worn path out of the city to the suburbs in 1974. So improved is Cleveland's image that President Clinton ventured into town on Monday to do something no sitting president ever dared to do before. No, he didn't drink the water at dreary, 62-year-old Cleveland Stadium, which will still serve as the home of the NFL Browns. Not even manager Mike Hargrove tried that during his last four years there. Clinton's presidential precedent simply was to watch the Indians play in Cleveland.
For the ceremonial first pitch, he donned a politically correct Indian cap—an old model bearing a C rather than the current version with the Chief Wahoo emblem—and pulled the string on a changeup that floated over the plate for a strike. But in order to see his beloved Arkansas play Duke for the NCAA basketball championship in Charlotte on Monday night, Clinton bailed out of Jacobs Field after seven innings, with Randy Johnson of the Mariners still throwing a no-hitter. The Indians showed more staying power.
Sandy Alomar Jr. broke up Johnson's no-hitter with a sharp single to right in the eighth, and Cleveland rallied for two runs in that inning to tie the score. The Indians fell behind again in the 10th, 3-2; forged another tie in the bottom of that inning; and finally won in the 11th, when Wayne Kirby scored Eddie Murray from third base with a two-out single. At that moment Hart's wife popped a bottle of champagne in their luxury box. "It tasted very sweet, very special," said Hart, who had arrived at the ballpark at 6:30 in the morning. "I came here and saw the sun peeking up. We've been working for this day over the last three or four years."