By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
Growing up a baseball fan in Northeast Ohio in the 1960s and ‘70s, it is remarkable I developed a life-long passion for the game.
The hometown Cleveland Indians never provided much reason to care at all during an era lost in the wilderness.
After finishing in second place in 1959, the year I saw my first baseball game, the Indians’ impetuous general manager traded the home run champion for singles hitter Harvey Kuenn before the next opening day, and the so-called Curse of Rocky Colavito doomed the franchise for decades.
They would post losing records in 13 of the next 16 seasons before I moved to Florida in 1976, while never finishing closer than 14 games out of first place in that time, and the string of futility continued until the mid-‘90s.
Somehow, the game transcended the losing to the point that I always cite my religious affiliation as Church of Baseball, even though baptism came in dank and cavernous Municipal Stadium, which only drew more than 1 million fans in one of those seasons while following the team in my youth.
Still, the image is strong of walking down the ramp into the seating bowl and seeing the field so brilliantly green with patterns neatly mown into the grass and the infield dirt perfectly graded. That’s what hooked me – that and the tangy brown mustard they served with the hotdogs that tasted like nothing found anywhere else.
I reflected on all of that when I covered baseball in Cleveland for the first time, as beat writer for the Miami Marlins who played a three-game series at Progressive Field during 2016 Labor Day Weekend.
That was seven weeks before the Indians would open the World Series in that ballpark against another cursed franchise – Cleveland hasn’t won the title in my lifetime (since 1948), the Chicago Cubs’ not since 1908.
Cleveland’s baseball fortunes took a more positive turn after Progressive Field opened in 1994 (originally known as Jacobs Field). But in the 1997 World Series, when the Marlins extended the Indians’ championship drought in a seven-game series decided in extra innings, I found myself rooting for the upstart team in my adopted home.
The vibe was different with a month remaining in the 2016 season, Cleveland having shed its losers stigma earlier in the summer with LeBron James leading the Cavaliers to the NBA title in the arena next to the baseball park.
The Indians won all three games of the weekend series, including a dramatic comeback in the ninth inning of the Sunday matinee finale. But what stands out is what happened afterward.
Following the game, the Indians had an event thanking season-ticket holders by allowing them to play catch on the field and providing free food and drink in the club behind home plate at Progressive Field.
More than two hours after the game, when I finished my story and strolled into the stands behind home plate, many were still in the outfield having a joyous time with good tunes blaring from the PA on a balmy late-summer night.
It was a scene unimaginable while growing up a Tribe fan. There were games that didn’t have that many people in the stands. There was little exchange of appreciation between the team and the fans in those days.
Watching the scene, I felt very much the outsider in the city of my birth. That is, until a vendor walked up and said, “These are for you,” and handed me two hot dogs.
A co-worker, who used to work in Cleveland, later asked if I got ballpark mustard on the hotdogs. Of course, found it in the dining area overlooking the field behind home plate.
Subsequent research revealed a lot about that mustard which I never knew. Turns out there is a raging mustard debate in Cleveland between Bertman’s Ball Park Mustard, served at Progressive Field, and rival Stadium Mustard, available at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ and Browns’ venues and many others around the country.
Bertman’s has been the staple of Cleveland baseball since the early 1920s, when famous hotdog eater Babe Ruth was a frequent visitor. There is speculation about whether the Babe, who hit his 500th home run at Cleveland’s League Park, sampled the mustard and was fond of it. No one knows for sure.
These days, polls are conducted and opinion is divided as to which is the better mustard. Stadium Mustard came along in 1969 but claims to have obtained rights to the original recipe, though Bertman still boasts the distinction on its label.
It’s one of those quaint feuds that goes down so well with a beer at a ballgame.
At this writing, the Indians and Cubs are beginning their struggle to see which franchise buries its curse, and I’m planning to obtain a bottle of both mustards to conduct my own taste test. Both contests should be epic.