Last Saturday, I walked down the hallways of Cleveland Hopkins Airport for the first time in over a year. In fact, despite being born and raised in The Land, I hadn’t been back to Cleveland for more than two or three days in probably close to a decade. I have a complex love/hate relationship with my birthplace that has always vacillitated somewhere between how Zach Braff’s character from Garden State feels about his hometown and the way Ben Affleck and Matt Damon feel about Boston.
When I was growing up, though, I hated it here, and honestly not for any particular reason that could be blamed on Cleveland or my family or the people in it. I was always a bit of a nomad, and I caught the wanderlust bug real early in life. I wanted to see the world and learn everything, and Cleveland always felt like it was going to hold me back from doing just that. So I left the very first moment I could, and in the 16 years since I first left for college, I have never lived in Ohio for more than a year.
The weird thing is the older I got, the more I realized that no matter where I went, Cleveland came with me—that it was a part of my identity, of who I was and what I loved. When I moved in 2010 to join up with an old high school buddy out in San Francisco, one of our favorite games was holding back on telling new people where I was from in order to see how much time passed before they could guess I was from Ohio. It almost always happened within the first hour or so. You could hear where I was from in the way I spoke and my love for idioms and apologizing, or see it in the way I stood, always with my weight on one hip and a thumb through a belt loop. That was how I came around full circle to love my hometown again. No matter where I went, I was a Clevelander, and that was pretty great.
The thing was, despite spending most of my life in a messy rapport with where I was born, my love of Cleveland sports teams has never wavered. Whether it was rooting for Mark Price, Brad Daughtery, and Larry Nance at Cavs games or watching Eric Metcalf, Ozzie Newsome, and Bernie Kosar dazzle for the Browns, I have always lived and died with Cleveland sports. My one true love though was the Cleveland Indians. Kenny Lofton was my favorite athlete ever, and watching Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez hit monster home runs was what made me a sports fan. I carried a small AM radio everywhere with me as a kid so that I never missed Tom Hamilton spin tales of Carlos Baerga, Charles Nagy, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Omar Visquel. Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) was my holy land, the place I went to worship my heroes whenever my father would get tickets through work. My love for baseball and The Tribe has persisted my entire life as my heroes became C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, and Travis Hafner in the 2000s to morph into Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, and Jose Ramirez in the team’s current form. So when I heard that All-Star weekend was going to be in my hometown, I knew that I had come home.
At first, I was going to try and buy tickets to all the events, go try and soak up everything, but I ended up deciding against doing so 1) because I’m not made of money and 2) I wasn’t fully sure if that was the best way to get the experience I was looking for. The more I thought about it, the home run derby and All-Star Game itself are about ALL the fans (as it should be), not necessarily about Cleveland. I wanted to know how my hometown experienced hosting the All-Star Game.
So here was my plan: I wanted to go see at least one event in person, so I got tickets for myself and my father to go the Celebrity Softball Game and the Futures Game as that seemed like the event that focused on Cleveland the most and seemed like a ton of fun to see live but not that interesting to watch on TV. Then for the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, I would head downtown with my family and visit some of the iconic sports bars and breweries in Cleveland and try to get a read on the atmosphere of the city itself and ultimately find the answer to the question: “What is it like to have the All-Star Game in your city?” and perhaps more importantly, “What was it like for a Clevelander to host the All-Star Game?”
You’ll see dozens of articles about the game itself, but that’s not the experience 90% of us will ever have. I want to try give that insight. So no press passes, no insider scoops; this is just what it was like to be there and soak in All-Star Weekend.
Let’s start with Sunday night. Given that they were pretty affordable, I thought that the Celebrity Softball Game and Futures Game would be a great chance to reconnect with Progressive Field (it’ll always be The Jake to me) without ending up in the poor house and might end up being the most Cleveland-oriented events. My impression of the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game (and the Futures Game, if we’re being honest) was that they were about the league as a whole while the Celebrity Softball Game genuinely felt like a Cleveland tribute, so I felt like this was the one event I wanted to see live and inside Progressive Field. Right away I knew they were doing it right when I saw the team names.
Most years, the teams had simply been split up into the American League and National League team, and in recent years, MLB hadn’t really been able to put together a squad that seemed connected to the host city (of the 2018 participants, only Bill Nye was from Washington, D.C., with Tim Raines and Cliff Floyd being the only ex-MLB players with any local connection, and that was mostly with the Expos). This year was totally different as the teams were split up with one squad labeled “Cleveland” and their opponents were simply given the moniker “The World.” This might not seem significant at first, but spend just a day in The Forest City and you’ll see the phrase “Cleveland vs. The World” pretty much everywhere; it’s on T-shirts and posters, hats, you name it.
It’s sort of the city’s unofficial motto, a defiant declaration of a blue-collar city that knows most people think of it as a joke. Residents have somehow taken the fact that the entire world makes fun of them and turned it into something that galvanizes the city. They really do believe that it’s Cleveland vs. the world and that it’s an even fight. I love it. I might be reading too far into the meanings and intentions behind the team names, but it felt like an appropriate touch right off the bat.
The teams were on point too. Team Cleveland wasn’t just an homage or honorary title the squad was littered with players who all were either from Cleveland or had strong ties to Cleveland, and every one of them seemed ready to show out for the city. Here’s Team Cleveland’s roster and their credentials:
|Team Member||CLE Cred|
|The Miz||From Cleveland, former WWE Champion, contestant on The Challenge, all around best dude ever|
|Drew Carey||From Cleveland, The Drew Carey Show is set in CLE|
|Machine Gun Kelly||From Cleveland, usually involved in anything that has to do with Cleveland|
|Allie LaForce||From the Cleveland area, WNBA star|
|JR Smith||Won an NBA championship with the Cavs, played with them for five years|
|Kenny Lofton||Played 9.5 seasons with the Indians, went to two World Series with Cleveland, most stolen bases in Indians history|
|Carlos Baerga||Played 6.75 seasons with the Indians, went to 1995 World Series with CLE|
|Jim Thome||Played 12 seasons with the Indians, single season and career leader for Indians in home runs and walks|
|Travis Hafner||Played 10 seasons with the Indians, led the league twice in OPS, received MVP votes in 2004-2006|
|Simone Biles||From Cleveland, Gold Medal winning gymnast|
|Joe Thomas||Former Browns lineman for 11 seasons (his entire career), 10 Pro Bowls and future Hall of Famer|
That’s a ton of Clevelanders alongside players who resonated with this city in a huge way. Pick any player from those 1990s Indians teams and the crowd would have gone nuts, but somehow they picked the perfect ones, the iconic players we’ll always remember for this event. It was incredibly fun to see all those blasts from the past.
One other thing I wanted to mention before I get to my favorite parts of the game: Things like the Celebrity Softball Game are exactly what make baseball distinctly great. Other sports have their celebrity games, but none of them have the pure joy that a group of people can have just hitting a ball with a bat and chasing it around a field. There were smiles and jokes and grandstanding, and it all felt so perfectly sincere, like they were truly having fun. I love basketball, but even the celebrity games during the NBA’s all-star weekends are taken pretty seriously. It was a cool moment to see a group of famous people enjoying baseball just like another fan.
Anyway, on to my favorite moments:
As the loudest proponent of Cleveland ever, it was great to see The Miz. The old-school Indians players were awesome too. But the best was J.R. Smith. The first thing anyone ever brings up with J.R. Smith is his behavior. Whether it is because of his off-the-wall antics or in spite of them, Cleveland has always had a soft spot for J.R. He was a major part of the only championship-winning team in Cleveland since the 1950s. He was instrumental in setting Cleveland free in giving the city a response for whenever someone called them losers: They could be like “Ah, ah, ah, what about the 2016 Cavs?” He helped take down the greatest team in NBA history.
Talented but dismissed by most as a joke, devoured by his own vices and failures, Smith came to Cleveland in 2015 looking to prove his doubters were wrong just as the city was trying desperately to reinvent itself as a hub for medical research, technology, and treatment (it was successful, by the way; the Cleveland Clinic was rated No. 2 this past year on the U.S. News Honor Roll Rankings of hospitals in the U.S.) and shed its shaky past reputation as well. In a way, J.R. Smith had become the perfect living metaphor for the city itself. To have both the player and the city achieve some level of redemption at the same time completed the metaphor.
It felt right having J.R. on a celebrity softball meant to celebrate Cleveland. He may not have been born here but he was Cleveland.
So when J.R. came up for his first at-bat, it felt so good to be in the crowd as it went completely wild. Then J.R. did everyone’s favorite thing of the entire evening and ripped off his shirt.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 9, 2019
In case you don’t know why this is hilarious, this article from SB Nation chronicles J.R.’s wonderful shirtless escapades after the Cavs Game 7 victory back in 2016. In case you were wondering if this continued through the victory parade, the answer is a resounding yes. When he ripped off his shirt, it felt like a celebration of that exorcism we all went through three years ago. It was awesome.
Add in the fact that J.R. then went on to hit an inside-the-park home run and was easily the most jubilant person in seemingly the entire state of Ohio, and it was the perfect thing I needed as a Cleveland fan to kick off the week.
The Former Indians Players Hitting Bombs
There is a quote from that J.R. GQ article I linked above that I feels gets at the heart of Cleveland sports fans.
“You have to understand what it’s like to be a fan in Cleveland. Yes, Cleveland never wins. Anything. Ever. But it’s not just that Cleveland fans are spiritually destitute. It’s that Cleveland loves its sports stars like no city that has lots of other things to love could.”
It’s true. We don’t just love our former stars like Boston or New York fans fervently do. Our identity feels wrapped up in them. Any time a former star embraces us back, they become more like family to us. So when players such as Lofton, Thome, and Baerga go from event to event talking about how great Cleveland is and how great the fans are, it does become something more. Once they added Hafner to that trio for the Celebrity Softball Game, I was definitely pumped. They did not disappoint.
All four former MLB players homered for the Cleveland team, but words don’t do justice to the bomb that Hafner hit over the right field wall.
Pronk didn’t just clear the regulation softball fence; he hit that softball 325-plus feet to clear the major league fence. When you consider that in baseball much of a hit’s momentum is provided by the pitch’s velocity, then you have to be a bit awed by being able to hit a ball with little velocity that far. It was pretty cool to witness. Seeing my childhood hero Lofton hit a home run was also one for the memory banks, but Hafner’s homer took the cake.
Drew Carey Tribute
Drew Carey is synonymous with Cleveland, not just because he is from here or because he set his TV show here but because of how he seemingly acts as something of an ambassador for the city of Cleveland, and we love him for it. The Drew Carey Show was our Cheers or Friends or Seinfeld, where the setting was as much a character in the show as the characters themselves. So when Drew Carey was named to the roster of the Cleveland team, you had to know some kind of tribute was coming. Despite that, nothing could prepare us for the awesomeness that was coming as MLB refilmed the title credits sequence for The Drew Carey Show nearly shot for shot using MLB mascots, and it was delightful. Check it out.
For the record, in case you were wondering what was up with the hot dog mascots: They are the mascots that run during the race held every Indians home game. Every team has some variation, and we just happen feel very passionately about hot dogs in Cleveland.
MTV’s Johnny Bananas played pretty well, took the game very seriously, and made the final out on Baerga to win the game for The World team. I already hated you, Johnny Bananas, but this sealed the deal. Also Sarah deserved her share! That is all.
MLB Futures Game
The Futures Game was a ton of fun, if less personally connected. There’s something to be said for getting see the future of baseball before the players become stars. There was so much raw talent out there it was honestly a little overwhelming, especially given that my background is in data and not in scouting. Knowing too that it was going to be pretty hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from a single game, I simply tried to focus on the excitement and energy of it all.
Some highlights I remember from the game are Jo Adell making a beautiful diving catch out in right field that took my breath away to see live. Seeing Daniel Johnson and Nolan Jones represent the Indians was a fun look into the future of my favorite team. Sam Huff’s game-tying home run in the seventh inning was a monster shot, and it brought the entire crowd to its feet. Even though he got called out, Taylor Trammel’s attempt to steal home was maybe the most exciting play of the night, and it didn’t even work!
It’s truly fun sometimes to watch a game where I have no real opposition interest. I want all these players to succeed.
For me, the night’s top highlight though was getting to watch Padres phenom Luis Petino warm up in the bullpen. I love watching baseball in parks that have their bullpens in the outfield. I think one of the hardest things to comprehend about baseball is just how fast a 90-plus mph fastball feels. Like, we know it’s fast, but you don’t understand—I mean really understand—a 99 mph fastball until you see it up close and personal, so once I saw Petino was warming, I knew I had to check it out. Petino has an interesting windup that reminds me of drawing the string of a bow in how it draws back until it sharply reaches its limit, clearly full of potential energy, and then all at once, it’s released at its target.
This video is from when he was just getting started but it gives a decent idea of his motion:
If you have the volume on, you can hear how loud that sounds, and he isn’t even throwing full force yet. Once he got going, the poor bullpen catcher was in for a tough time, getting knocked off his feet multiple times by a 99 mph fastball from Petino. One particular fastball got by the catcher and crashed into the padding that lined the bullpen, leaving an indention in the material. When the game ended 45 or so minutes later, that indention was still looked fresh.
Heck, for all I know, it’s probably still there a week later. Throwing in the upper 90s certainly doesn’t guarantee success, but I know I’ll be following his career just to see that incredible power unleashed upon unsuspecting hitters.
This experience was just one of many that created a bond with these young players that can’t be replicated except to see them live in this setting. It was really something else.
After the game, my father and I headed home knowing that the real late night and chaos was coming the next day, and we wanted to make sure we were well-rested, for the Derby especially. Later in the week, I’ll be back with my write-up of the best Home Run Derby of my lifetime and what it was like to experience it in a classic Cleveland bar downtown.
I may not have ended up in the actual stadium, but it was actually one of the greatest nights of my sports fandom.
Thanks so much for taking this journey in The Land with me. We were one night in, and I was already incredibly grateful for the chance to experience the biggest night of my favorite sport in my hometown.
Featured image by Daniel Port