On a bleak January evening in 2002, two ambitious 18-year olds on winter break from college sprawled a U.S. map across a Cape Cod living room floor, sifted through a stack of ink-splotched MLB team schedules, and plotted a summer road trip for the ages: eleven games in eleven different ballparks in nine cities over ten days.
Over the last twelve summers, I’ve chipped away at my goal of seeing a home game in all 30 MLB cities. At press time, only one remains: Minneapolis. Today we look at Progressive (nee Jacobs) Field, home of the Cleveland Indians.
Rick McNair previously profiled the Mistake by the Lake. It was replaced in 1994 by “The Jake,” one of the early triumphs of the retro ballpark movement of the 90′s and 2000′s. Two years after the opening of Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Cleveland unveiled its new gem, clad in stone and brick masonry with steel architectural supports that reflect the city’s industrial heritage. The ballpark combines an asymmetrical playing field and 19-foot “Little Green Monster” in left with amazing sight lines – a huge improvement over Municipal Stadium.
In the 90′s, Jacobs Field was the hottest ticket in baseball. The Indians sold out 455 consecutive home games at the 43,000-plus capacity yard. Combined with Gund (now Quicken Loans) Arena downtown and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, these late-20th century developments took Cleveland from a blighted city with few tourist attractions to one that could at least boast a few world-class facilities.
Nor could the Indians come away with their first World Series title since the Bill Veeck era. An anecdote: the first hit at the ballpark was a home run by Eric Anthony of the Mariners. It’s telling that the first hit was a home run, as the Jake hosted many powerful Cleveland teams featuring Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and others. In fact, the 1999 Indians were the first team to score 1,000 runs in half a century, and no one has been there since. That same ’99 team also relinquished a 2-0 series lead in the ALDS to the Red Sox. Remember, it was an opposing player who hit that first home run; those Indians teams of the 90′s were not known for their pitching.
The Indians have had trouble filling The Jake (now Progressive Field) in recent years. They traded away most of their stars, or allowed them to depart as free agents, following the turn of the century. The franchise had rebuilt by 2007, when they again blew a postseason lead to the Red Sox, this time in the ALCS, falling short of the World Series despite a 3-1 advantage. The franchise then confronted new dilemmas. Trading C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee instead of paying them big money. Career-threatening injuries to Grazy Sizemore. The disappearance of Travis Hafner‘s felled tree of a bat. And just like that, the Indians were back into the cellar.
The team has retooled yet again and has a steady manager at the helm in former Boston skipper Terry Francona. The Indians even made the playoffs last year; well, kind of, as they lost the play-in game to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Tribe ranked second-to-last in MLB in attendance last year, finishing ahead of Tampa in that department. I’m not going to chide a municipality in the economic doldrums for not supporting its baseball team, but it’s a shame, because Progressive Field is one of the best I’ve seen.