A Six-Degrees-of-Separation Story:
How one diehard fan’s personal relationship with the Cleveland Indians changed from ordinary to inconceivably grand
In what can best be described as simple good fortune, my fifty-plus years as a multi-generational, die-hard Cleveland Indians’ fan has been intertwined with the same number of years as a baseball player, coach, scout and instructor. Throughout nearly my entire life, participating in the game of baseball and rooting for the Cleveland Indians has been synonymous.
Like most passionate Indians’ fans, each generation in my family has had their own favorite Indians player. My grandfather’s was Tris Speaker, my father’s was Bob Feller, mine was Rocky Colavito, my son’s was Jim Thome, and my grandson’s is…well, I’ll get to that in a minute.
In nearly every one of those cases, from my grandfather to my grandson and everyone in between, part of the process of picking a favorite player usually began with a personal encounter of one sort or another. My grandfather and Tris Speaker rode the same streetcar to League Park, my dad and Bob Feller crossed paths numerous times during WWII, and Jim Thome handed my then-seven-year old son a broken bat that he had just hit a Spring Training home run with.
My own defining personal encounter began when I was a wide-eyed five-year old and Rocky Colavito and I got our hair cut at the same two-seat barbershop on Triskett Road. From that magical moment on, The Rock was my favorite Indian (and yes, I was appropriately crushed for weeks after that devastating April day in 1960 when Frank “Traitor” Lane – sorry…“Trader” Lane shipped Rocky off to Detroit).
While all these family-player connections made for good stories, the adoration involved was understandably one-sided and the relationships weren’t what you could call truly personal – and as such, we all ended up liking the player while loving the team.
But all that changed after the 2008 season, and then again during the 2010 season…and then, this past year, my own personal relationship with not one, but two Indians’ players reached unimaginable heights.
The first part of my personal Indians saga actually began back in 2004-2005, when an unrelated set of circumstances led to me accepting a one-year stint as the Coach of the Fort Pierce (Florida) Central High School baseball team – and that same year a young ballplayer who I had known for several years transferred to Central for his senior year. Thanks in a major way to the sublime natural talents of this young man, that baseball season became one of those dream seasons that few coaches are ever blessed with: in addition to setting several team, district and state records – and entirely re-writing the individual record books – our team won 30 games in the exceptionally challenging Florida Class 6-A division (reserved for the largest of Florida high schools).
But far more important for me than any record was watching this particular player develop into an incredible young man – a great representative for his team, his high school, and for the sport of baseball. On the field and off, he became everything that a coach lives for: a humble, respectful, eager, team-first player with “coachability” that was off the charts.
And what made that dream season even more special for me was that while I got to enjoy watching this young man play the game with a joy that was contagious, I also got to witness this deserving ballplayer finally have his game gel – to succeed like he had never before – and to have others sit up and take notice every time he took to the field.
A footnote to this story is that during this time I served as an unpaid roving scout for the Indians, covering Florida and specializing in players that somehow flew beneath the radar of most teams. Surprisingly, my great Central H.S. player was one of those, and my scouting reports on him seem to fall on deaf ears. Despite my assessment of him as a “can’t miss, five-tool player with a swing as pretty as Ken Griffey’s”, the Indians showed little interest, and at that point, me being his coach took over and I worked hard to get other teams interested in him…which they did…in droves. My budding star’s game culminated and his talents shone through as we made our way to the state playoffs, and although we fell short of our goal, there was no denying that this was a very special young ballplayer with incredible potential.
The Milwaukee Brewers saw that and they drafted him in the seventh round of the 2005 Major League Draft. From then on things only got better – or more accurately, I should say, he only got better – and he excelled at every level in the Brewer’s organization (something I naturally followed with great, immense pride).
Then, on October 3rd, 2008, life bestowed a gift on me, as “my guy” was the Player-To-Be-Named-Later in the Tribe’s infamous C.C. Sabathia trade. Finally, someone I knew – and knew well – would suit up for the Cleveland Indians! And while Rocky will always have a permanent place in my heart, from that October day on I had a new favorite Cleveland Indian.
The second part of my personal saga had also begun in 2004-2005, when my son Charley – an incredible Florida high school middle infielder in his own right – received a scholarship to play baseball at Stetson University. Once there he became good friends with a tall right-handed pitcher out of Texas, and the two of them eventually ended up rooming together and forming what would become a great, lasting friendship. And as always seems to happen with college teammates, their friendship extended to both our families and this young Texan quickly became a fixture in our lives.
Like with my talented high school player, my scouting reports on this stoic Stetson pitcher also failed to impress the Tribe’s front office. Despite my claims that this kid had everything you could want in a pitcher and a ceiling that was unlimited, the Tribe passed on him. From that point on, my friendship with him and his family took over and I dialed up every scout I knew, which may or may not have had something to do with the San Diego Padres selecting him in the fourth round of the 2007 Major League Draft.
In a repeat storyline, this young man progressed quickly through the ranks of the Padres’ organization – which I also watched with great pride – until lightning struck again, this time on July 31, 2010, when the Padres traded him to the Indians in a three-team deal that sent Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals and Ryan Ludwick to the Padres. And with that, I had two favorite Indian players who I knew really well!
Not lost in all of this was the ironic fact that exactly fifty years earlier I had lost my favorite Indian via a trade, and now I had two favorite Indians, each arriving here thanks to a trade.
In case you haven’t figured it out, the young man I coached in high school is Michael Brantley and my son’s best friend is Corey Kluber. In a remarkably short period of time with the Indians, both have made their mark in a big, big way, and it is safe to say that they’re two of the finest young players ever to wear the Cleveland Indians uniform.
And for me, I have been blessed with having two favorite players who can pick me out of a crowd (and several times have) and I’ve developed a relationship with them and the team that transcends anything that a diehard fan like me could ever imagine.
With every gapper that Michael has slugged, with each sweet diving catch he’s made – and for me, with each time he’s flashed that engaging, contagious ear-to-ear smile – I see that young ballplayer in the Cobra’s uniform that made each and every day I coached him a true privilege. And with every stunningly great pitch that Corey has thrown and with every knee-buckling strikeout he’s notched, I see past that Klubot exterior, truly knowing the friendly spirit that lay beneath.
People who know of my relationship with Michael and Corey sometimes ask me, “what’s he really like?” Interestingly, they share more things in common than just the same corner of the locker room – and that begins with a dichotomy of sorts.
With Michael, his persistent big, bright, organic smile (which perfectly symbolizes the genuine joy he has for playing the game) masks the heart of a lion. To say that he is a gritty, dogged competitor is a profound understatement; he always gives you 110% – in season and offseason – unselfishly doing whatever it takes to better himself and the team.
That dichotomy holds true for Corey as well, but in the reverse manner. His stoic, unflappable, steely exterior masks a personality that is one of the friendliest, most engaging, and incredibly good-natured of anyone I’ve ever met (and yes, Corey Kluber has smiled – honestly – I have witnessed it – dozens of times in fact!)
Like every fan that has a favorite player, I too live-and-die with their every at-bat and every pitch, exalting when they succeed (which in Michael and Corey’s case seems to always occur) and commiserating when they don’t. As such, my pride has grown as their accomplishments have mounted, and it is this living vicariously through them that transformed “my 2014 season” into what can only be described with adjectives that are difficult to find or to overstate.
With Michael dominating every offensive and defensive category – leading the team in batting average, RBIs, OPS and a multitude of other tallies, and Corey dominating the Tribe’s pitching stats in wins, WHIPs, ERA, Ks and nearly every other category, it was easy for me to declare that 2014 was the best baseball season of any in which I “participated”.
Naturally, my dream season – and the celebration of it – culminated when it came time for Major League Baseball to hand out the annual post-season awards. First, Michael placed third in the AL MVP and won the Silver Slugger, then Corey captured the Cy Young. Wow!
In the months since those results were announced I’ve found myself having to repeat them over and over because it all seems too unreal. But as the reality has begun to set in, I’ve come to recognize that Leo Durocher couldn’t have been more wrong in opining that, “Nice guys finish last” (or that Mort Walker must have been prophetically talking about Michael and Corey when he said, “Nice guys are winners before the game even starts”). I can’t imagine two nicer guys than Michael or Corey, and to say that they’re winners in all of life’s categories is equally true.
All my incessantly enthusiastic talk about Michael and Corey has not evaded the attention of my impressionable five-year old grandson either. Therefore I shouldn’t have been surprised when a recent dinner table conversation landed on the topic of our favorite Indians players, and as I rattled off “Bob Feller, Rocky Colavito and Jim Thome”, J.W. quickly added, “…and Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber!”
Life sometimes has a way of coming full circle, and when it does, the rewards are often unrivaled. I was once an impressionable five-year old when Rocky Colavito became part of my life, and his personal charm and incredible career as an Indian kept him on the baseball pedestal I created for him. Now, another five-year old has not one, but two favorite players who are building stellar careers with the Tribe.
We rabid fans have a way of looking past a player’s personal or professional shortcomings, sometimes even ignoring major flaws. But every once in a while (like once every generation maybe?) a player comes along who is a great ballplayer and an even greater human being. And when that player ends up wearing the uniform of the favorite team of a child of any age, it is truly a gift from the baseball gods.
Honestly and without any reservation, I can’t think of two athletes more deserving of a fan’s adoration than Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber. We devoted fans of the Cleveland Indians are incredibly fortunate to have these two on our team, and for me…well, let’s just say that I am incredibly fortunate to know them as friends.