Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Cleveland Rocks!

Over the past few years, as my son has become more and more of a diehard baseball fan, he's begun lobbying for trips to major league cities so we can see "real" baseball. (No offense, Rochester Red Wings, we still love you.) Last summer we trekked to Philadelphia and he experienced his first big league game, seeing the Cubs take on the Phillies. Previously a Yankees fan, he made room for another favorite team, with the Phillies later sending him into quite the playoff frenzy when they turned a wild-card spot into a World Series run.

Over the winter we began sizing up other reasonably nearby cities, looking for a good fit for another MLB encounter. The main criteria were distance and cost. We honed in on Pittsburgh and Cleveland, both about four hours away, eventually settling on Cleveland. We dug into hotels and local attractions, and booked a room at the Hyatt Regency at the Arcade downtown. That was February, and it all seemed so far away. In June I bought tickets for two games, Saturday night against the Phillies and Monday against the Royals. And a bonus game on Tuesday to see the nearby Class A Lake County Captains take on the Beloit Sky Carp.

When people would ask if we had vacation plans for the summer, I found myself almost making excuses for our destination, as if anticipating the questions before they were even asked. "We're going to Cleveland--to see some baseball games." Because Cleveland? For vacation? Huh.

Well, now that we've been there, I will make no excuses, no apologies, no explanations.

Cleveland Rocks!

It was awesome. It blew Philadelphia out of the water. I loved it, and I would go back in a heartbeat.

We drove down Friday. It's just about a four-hour trip, not including stops, almost all on I-90, which took us right into the city. We arrived around 3:30 and handed our car over to valet parking. The hotel would have been worth a sight-seeing stop on its own had we not been staying there. The Arcade is fascinating enough to be a popular wedding venue. In fact, there were two when we were there, on Friday and Saturday evenings. We could see them partying it up from outside our room on the fourth floor (and hear them, until about 11:00 both nights).

We took a walk that first night to familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood. All we could tell from Google Maps ahead of time was that Progressive Field was only a few blocks away. We had no idea whether that meant a leisurely walk (safe?) or a cab ride (sketchy?). It turned out to be the former, and we walked it a dozen times over our five-day stay. The first block passed through East 4th Street, most of which was pedestrian only and lined on both sides by restaurants (bars, really) teeming with folks. After the three of us had dinner Friday, my son and I decided to head back to the park to see what we could see without tickets. We found a spot beyond right field where through the bars in the fence you can see straight through to home plate. We watched three innings from there, and were tipped off by an usher that just on the other side of the fence was a marker recording the longest home run in stadium history, hit by Jim Thome. If someone had replicated that blast we might have been odds-on favorites for the ball.

We headed back to the hotel when it started getting dark and were back in our room long before the postgame fireworks show, which we could see reflected in the windows of the building behind our room.

We returned to the stadium Saturday. Twice. The first time we hit the team store, loading up on Guardians gear. The second time was the main event, which we took in from the Discount Drug Mart Club up on the 300 level. I didn't realize it at the time I bought the tickets, but they included dinner. It was a great first game at Progressive Field, aside from the outcome for Phillies fans, as the home side topped the visitors 1-0, with the only run courtesy of a popup that dropped between second baseman Bryson Stott, right fielder Nick Castellanos, and center fielder Brandon Marsh. We can argue all day about who should have taken charge, but there is no question that it should have been caught.

Sunday's original plan was to spend the afternoon at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a mere 20-minute walk from our hotel the opposite direction of the ballpark. But a boy with a phone happened to notice there were still tickets available for the finale of the three-game set between his Phillies and the Guardians. I explained over and over that we had to consider Mom's feelings in all of this, and she was already being an awful good sport agreeing to attend three games during our five-day trip. But ... but ... but ...

We agreed to let Mom decide. And she was fine with another ballgame. So we secured $20 tickets up high in left field, so far under the scoreboard that it would serve as our umbrella when the rain came late in the proceedings. This was another tight affair, with the Phillies taking a 4-3 lead in the sixth and holding on ... until David Fry clanked one off the railing beneath us in the bottom of the ninth. The ball fell back onto the field, briefly confusing both sides until the umps ruled it had cleared the yellow line. And with that, we had extra innings. The Phillies looked to break the game wide open, plating four runs in the top of the 10th. On came Jeff Hoffman to finish the Guardians off. A walk, a single, and a walk later, he was gone, the lead down to 8-5, and looking mighty precarious at that. Yunior Marte managed to finish off the home team with no further damage, earning a gigantic sigh of relief. I later read a recap in Craig Calcaterra's Cup of Coffee newsletter describing how the Phils turned it into a "laugher" with their four runs. It was anything but. I was so sure they were going to blow it I was already mentally explaining to my son why we shouldn't let this ruin our trip. Instead we celebrated as the skies opened up, waiting out the rain underneath the massive scoreboard.

Monday morning, after a hearty breakfast at Betts (no affiliation to Mookie that I'm aware of), we returned to the Guardians team store, because we hadn't given the team quite enough of our money yet. On our way in, we noticed a sign about stadium tours. We secured tickets for the 11:30 tour and waited. This turned into one of the absolute highlights of the trip, as we got to sit up in the press box and down in the home dugout. Many great behind-the-scenes views, including seeing Terry Francona's scooter in the tunnel outside of the home clubhouse. (Didn't get to go into the clubhouse, unfortunately.)

Back at the hotel, I booked three admissions for the Rock Hall and we were off once more, down to the lake and the intriguing building that houses the music museum. Highlights: The hip-hop exhibit when we first entered, the history of rock that took us from the jazz/blues/gospel roots to the early days of rock, the Elvis, Beatles, and Rolling Stones exhibits, some of the other random displays featuring various pioneers from different cities. The cons: well, it's hard to be specific, but somehow I just thought there would be ... more. My wife kept wondering when we'd get to the Prince stuff or the Heart stuff. The answer was pretty much never. There were a few things, but nothing in depth. If there was anything on The Police beyond the plaque denoting when they were inducted I must have blinked and missed it. On the whole, it was mildly underwhelming. I still rate it as a must-see, if only because how often do you get the chance? But it ranked a distinct third on our Monday triple-bill, behind the ballpark tour and the Guardians-Royals game. Finally unconflicted of who to root for, we were let down when Cleveland lost to the lowly Royals 5-3. We had incredible seats, at least, sitting three rows behind the visiting dugout. Close enough to score a rally towel and a t-shirt when they were tossed into the crowd.

It wasn't just the score that felt like a letdown as we headed back to the hotel after the game. Three games in three nights (not including our knothole gang effort Friday) was more concentrated major league action than I'd ever enjoyed. Still, we were all a little sad to be saying good-bye to Progressive Field, even with the Lake County Captains booked for Tuesday. And primo seats, I should add, second row, behind home plate.

Still, it didn't feel right. So when we got back to the hotel, I was back on the MLB Ballpark app, and soon enough we had tickets in right field for Tuesday night. The Captains got bumped in favor of their big-league affiliate. The ability to walk to the park in 10 minutes versus having to get the car from the valet and drive to Lake County (approximately 25 minutes away) didn't hurt. But honestly, it really came down to reading the room. The boy and the wife both clearly wanted to stay in town. In the end, I went with the least stressful option. We got to see the Guardians roll to a 5-1 win, with rookie Bo Naylor taking veteran Zack Greinke deep twice. It was over almost too soon, the final pitch coming just 1:59 after the first. This time, when we made the familiar walk back to the Hyatt, we knew it was really over.

Baseball, baseball, baseball ... yeah, this has kind of turned into a game log. But there was so much more to Cleveland, even though it's hard to separate the city from the sports teams it loves and supports. The Guardians are essentially a .500 club at this point. Thanks to a weak AL Central, they're one hot streak away from contending. One senses that even if they don't catch that wave, the fans will come out and support them. Maybe it's not the sellout draw it was in the glory days of Jacobs Field, when they sold out as a rule. I mean, I was able to get relatively cheap tickets at the last minute twice. But still, there is a distinct vibe.

There's also a pride in the city. When we were in Philly last year, we searched high and low for souvenir t-shirts. In the end my wife ordered a hoodie online for my son--after we came home. Within a block of our hotel we found two stores that sold really nice Cleveland stuff. And we bought a ton of it. Shirts, hats, books, a magnet, a mug. The locals aren't shy about flexing for The Land, why shouldn't we jump in on that action?

A little background on me and Cleveland: This wasn't my first time in The Land. I was born in Painesville, not far to the east. We lived in Mentor until I was almost four. My dad used to teach at Cleveland State. He may or may not have cost himself tenure by protesting companies like Dow Chemical that polluted the nearby environs. I haven't really been back since. My impression of the city was a burning river and The Mistake By The Lake. Still, it had baseball and was close enough to give it a chance. I was honestly set on swinging by the old neighborhood to check out my childhood home. We never made it to Mentor. We were too busy downtown.

As for that burning river, it's now a thing of pride. We took a cruise up the Cuyahoga River and out onto Lake Erie on the Goodtime III on Tuesday. We passed by condos in the Flats that were so eye-catching my wife suggested we should retire there. We saw great blue herons and other birds. All along the river there are projects in various states of progress, transitioning what was once a national punchline into a local attraction.

Cleveland is a beautiful city. It was clean (unlike Philadelphia, which looked like it was in week three of a garbage strike when we were there last summer) and walkable. There is so much public art, from the FREE stamp to the chandelier in Playhouse Square. We went into a Heinen's grocery store that was repurposed from an old bank, featuring a rotunda with a stained-glass ceiling. We ate breakfast in a cool park next door to the downtown library, where we encountered squirrels that walk on all fours like bears. We went with mild expectations and were absolutely, 110% blown away.

Cleveland Rocks. Seriously.

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