Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Goodbye College, Hello Cleveland

Originally written January 14, 2010

The last few days of college are a bizarre time, particularly for those of us who are without a job or any real idea of where they’re going in life. I had no job lined up and prospects were pretty scarce. I applied to 100 or so over the final few weeks as I wrote my last papers and began packing up. Most of the calls had come from news clipping organizations I had little interest in working for that would have required me to be in the office by 4:30 a.m. on some days. Beyond that the ways to find a job writing in sports in New York without having ever actually interned for a major newspaper seemed few and far between.

I believe it was my stepmother, Audrey, who asked me what I wanted to do for a living the day I graduated. The latter of my two commencements ended at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston and as we went through the obligatory picture taking session by Ryan Field, Northwestern’s football stadium, she posed the question.

“I want to watch baseball,” I said. “For money.”

It was always good for a laugh, and yet I wasn’t particularly sure where I’d go. I had tried my best to balance mailing out resumes, packing my things, and squeezing in all the necessary goodbyes and drunken memories that the final two weeks after finals provide you with. Those goodbyes are tricky. You’re not sure which of the people you’ve spent the last four years with you’re going to still be in contact with and who you need to say goodbye to for good.

And there are some.

But you can’t afford to be too schmaltzy or else your life will never get where it’s going. You just have to take it in stride. And it ain’t easy. But you manage.

I tried not to let it on as I packed my room and scrambled to sell furniture that I wouldn’t be taking back east, but jobless me was a nervous wreck and what laid ahead was a mystery. Fortunately, I had one carrot to distract me from the uncertainty before my mother and I caravanned two cars full of four years back to New Jersey.

For me, I generally would drive from my childhood home in Millburn to Evanston in one shot if I were by myself – all twelve hours of it. My mother couldn’t stand to sit in the car that long in one day and whenever I made the trip with her, we would break it in two, often staying at the same Hampton Inn in Milan, Ohio that had a rather pungent textile factory across the highway from it. That wasn’t always bad, as we would usually eat at the same restaurant, a BBQ grill joint called the Roadhouse, which was the type of place that served you your rack of baby back ribs with a side of 5 oz. grilled sirloin.

But for the trip home my mother had suggested that we instead stay in a nice hotel in Cleveland and treat ourselves. The actual hotel itself that we stayed in was of little interest or import to me, but I did notice one thing that was.

The Indians were in town.

That sealed the deal. When I originally asked my mother if the Indians were in town she told me she had already checked and that they were not playing the Mets. Of course, given that they play in two different leagues, the chances that the Mets would be there that week were scant anyway, but Cleveland was playing Philadelphia. At the very least I could root against the rival Phils. I decided to be the generous one and buy the tickets – after all, my parents had just paid for four years at a private college, I could give my mom a break – and I found two seats in row GG not far behind home plate for the Wednesday evening tilt on June 20, 2007.

And the seats came out to a mere $50 each. I love being impressed by ticket prices that aren’t in New York.

Of course, before the game came there was still the nasty business of graduating, writing my final papers, doing my drinking, saying my goodbyes, packing for home and selling my furniture. The furniture would be the most immediately impactful as I slept on my own bed one night before selling it, then slept on the bed my roommate had left before selling that, and then spent the last night sleeping on our disgusting couch.

The abruptness of the transition is confusing if for no other reason than that you’re not always sure how sentimental to get. Luisa had come over to give me company while I packed my final things and when she left nonchalantly said, “Well, it was fun going to college with you.” It seems simple, but sometimes you aren’t sure how serious to take these things, particularly since in the case of Luisa, we have kept close contact since graduating and college no longer appears to be the basis of our friendship so much as one chapter of it.

This is the case with a number of my close friends, but not so much with others. Knowing who will and won’t stay a part of your life is probably the most uncertain and difficult aspect of transitioning to the real world. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I'm doing this: To have an excuse to go around the country and keep in touch with all of them.

Still, at the time I was far more preoccupied with packing and getting on the road quickly on the 20th. The game itself was the night that we were leaving Evanston, which meant we’d have to make a quick exit to ensure we made it to Cleveland in time for the 7 o’clock start. This would be delayed by, as so often happens between children and their mothers at moments of heightened stress, a fight. In this case it revolved around a parking ticket my mother had gotten while we were loading up the cars that morning and my juvenile insistence that she simply ignore it so we could hit the road.

With the city backlog, my logic went, they’d never know the difference.

This, of course, did not sit well with my mother who made a point to go to the town municipal center and pay the ticket. Considering town hall was next to my apartment building, this wasn’t too big of a diversion.

After getting on the road, cooler heads began to prevail and we left one car behind the other on Lake Shore Drive, where I got my last looks at the city I had called home for four years. As I teetered between lead-footed and sentimental we eventually found our way onto I-80 and, with 90 minutes or so to spare, pulled into the Hilton Garden Inn in Cleveland.

My mother and I checked in and headed to the stadium just a few blocks away. Jacobs Field, or the Jake as it is colloquially known, is often considered one of the best parks in the Majors. This doesn’t come from any sort of trendsetting architecture. The modern trend of faux-retro parks still pulls its impetus from Camden Yards, which beat the Jake to opening day by a few years.

But indeed the intimacy and sight lines are among the best in baseball. To me, however, the most striking architectural feature is outside the stadium. The building’s structure features visible steel beams all around its exterior that give the appearance of an exoskeleton holding the stands up. What was most fascinating to me, however, is that the skeleton and its older style stadium lights are painted a bright white, making them stand out and giving the building an individualized and unique appearance that straddles the line between antiquated and futuristic.

The inside has a few features that might make it seem noteworthy, but nothing overwhelms anything else – with, perhaps, the notable exception of the 149-foot long video screen in left field. At the time it became my favorite park in the Majors. I can’t begin to imagine how much more pleasant it is to watch a game there than it was to do so in the Indians’ former home, the monstrous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which housed 74,438 fans as opposed to the relatively cozy 43,515-seat capacity of the Jake.

I decided, as I often do, to take a stroll around the park and view it from different angles and see what it has to offer. As I continued my walk I happened upon Heritage Park, a circular museum dedicated to the Indians’ hall of famers and major moments that resides behind the batters eye in center field. Apparently it had just opened that year, but regardless, I hadn’t seen a hall of fame section that was quite so aesthetically pleasing in its subtle appearance and seamlessly weaved into the style of the ballpark. As I’ve visited more parks that have added their own hall of fame sections, I’ve enjoyed seeing the different orientations, but this one teaches you about the club’s history while still maintaining its presence as part of a stadium.

And speaking of being part of a stadium, the outfield concourse at Jacobs Field features a beer garden. Yes, these are common now, but this was the first time I had spotted it, or perhaps as a 21-year-old this was the first time I took note. I don’t much like drinking at ball games. If you have too much the whole experience moves too quickly and you lose track of what’s happening on the field. In the case of baseball, I understand this is preferable for some people but I’m far more concerned with seeing the tension that develops between the pitcher and the batter, and having five too many beers in me makes that infinitely more difficult to keep track of. Regardless, I suppose having the open air beer garden is necessary considering Jacobs Field was paid for by a 15-year sin tax on cigarettes and alcohol.

I will say this, though. The fans at the beer garden certainly looked like they were having fun. In the end that, I suppose, is the key to the experience.

And speaking of beer, as I walked back to my seat I passed by a stand that was selling Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat on tap. Sunset Wheat, as any of my close friends could tell you, is my favorite beer on the planet. It’s like candy. The big problem with this lies in the fact that Leinenkugel’s, based in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, hadn’t spread much out east. In fact, I had never seen it east of Chicago in my lifetime, to the point that I had made sure to buy a six pack of it before driving back to New Jersey much like I had always made sure to bring a healthy supply of Yeungling back to Evanston.

I don’t really buy beer at baseball games, both because it distracts me and because, usually, it’s outrageously expensive. I don’t need to spend $9.75 on a Miller Lite. But with the prospects of never seeing Sunset Wheat when I returned to the east coast staring me in the face, I bit the bullet – it was only seven dollars – and bought myself a beer to take back to my seat.

Ironically, I would see a six pack of it at the Kings Supermarket in Short Hills, New Jersey a week later. Leinie’s, evidently, had chosen to expand just in time.

The park was more than 50% full that night, but I was still surprised with the turnout after being accustomed to always seeing a full house on TV. In fact, Cleveland sold out the first 455 games at the Jake, a Major League record at the time, which is commemorated with “455” being among the retired numbers that hang against the brick walls in the right field portion of the upper deck.

Granted it was a week night, but the night I was there, the official attendance was a mere 53.7% of capacity at 24,278. For me, however, the average crowd didn’t take away from the game, which, for its first 5 ½ innings was a rather taut affair. Cleveland and Philadelphia had been tied, 2-2, leading up to the sixth inning, when the Phillies took a 4-2 lead courtesy of a two-run homer by Rod Barajas. The Indians responded in the bottom half of the inning by scoring eight runs and having eight consecutive batters reach base to put the game away. C.C. Sabathia pitched six innings to earn the win, becoming the first Indian to get 10 wins in seven consecutive seasons since Addie Joss turned the trick for Cleveland a century earlier from 1902-1909.

As a rule I will almost never leave a game early, particularly if I’m in a new stadium. My diligence paid off in the top of the ninth inning when Shane Victorino came to bat for Philadelphia with two outs. Victorino had two strikes on him when he fouled off a high pitch that banged off the fa├žade of the second deck and dropped down directly in front of my mother and I.

I never will understand why we scrape so violently and irrationally for a dinged up piece of cowhide, but there I was diving to the ground with my sole competition a glasses bedecked woman who appeared to be in her mid-30s. The woman may have been closer to the ball.

But I don’t care. I got it. It was mine. After two decades of watching baseball games and dozens of close calls, at long last, I had caught a foul ball.

The man sitting to my right asked if he could look at it, and perhaps I was too used to trusting everyone in the Midwest as I handed it over to him. Fortunately, he, too, was a trusting non-east coaster. He glanced at the black scuff mark left by Victorino’s bat, handed it back to me and, with a smile, said, “Congratulations.”

On the way out of the park my mother anxiously told me to stop staring at the ball as we walked back to our hotel for fear someone would steal it. Once we returned, I began telling the world, which seemed far less excited about it than I was, before finally getting some rest for the next day’s drive home.

24 hours later, I pulled into our driveway behind my mother, walked inside, and that was it.

College was over.

I remember the morning after my bar mitzvah dealing with the depression that comes after the passing of a major life event. I was older and more capable of handling it now, but this was far more daunting. I now had to find a way to move on. I had to find something to do.

My first post-college job interview was with an HR person at Time Inc, who was testing my worthiness to be employed at SI.com. I admit that I was unprepared. At the very least I should have gone to the website that morning to familiarize myself with it. Of course, that problem didn’t really prepare me for the woman’s first question:

“If an unexpected occurrence were to arise in the office, what contingency would you have prepared for that paradigm?”

I stumbled my way through some nonsense response that showed how unprepared I was and probably cost me the job immediately – I was ushered out of the office shortly afterwards – but what I wanted to say to her was, “You know people don’t talk like that in the real world, right?”

After killing time with my friend Matt for a few hours, I headed to Chelsea Market to interview at MLB.com for the position of a night shift web producer. The atmosphere was far more relaxed and much less formal, and the first thing I had to do was take a written test on baseball trivia. At the very least, even if I blew another interview, at least I’d have some fun.

Afterwards, I went home to continue my post college malaise as I tried to find direction and, most importantly, a source of income, uncertain of what the immediate future would bring.

Two nights later I got an e-mail from the night production manager at MLB.com. I would be watching baseball for money.

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