Baseball is a traveler’s allegory.
Every player wants to take a trip around the diamond, to first base and then to second and third. How he makes it around the bases matters little to him, whether by hits or walks, errors or wild pitches. Along the way, he might even steal a base or two.
But as much fun as the trip might be, and no matter how long it takes him to make the circuit, the trip isn’t done until he gets back home, where he started.
Our son Rob and I are both big baseball fans, so each summer, we try to make a dad/son trip for a weekend at a Major League Baseball park. In the spring, I found that his favorites, the Orioles (I know…), were playing at New York, Toronto and Philadelphia mid-summer. I told him to pick the venue and I would meet him there, whole trip on me.
Rob responded: “I was thinking Cleveland.”
Cleveland, as even casual observers know, is a case study in sports futility. The Cleveland Indians have gone 69 years since their last World Series win, the longest active drought in Major League Baseball. The Cleveland Browns are perhaps the worst football team in NFL history.
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost the NBA Finals this year despite having the best player in the history of basketball (though, in fairness, the Cavs did win the Finals once in their four seasons with LeBron James).
So why did Rob want to go to Cleveland?
As it happens, the folks at Anheuser-Busch were asking people the same question, though more tongue in cheek. They came up with one of the greatest answers in the annals of marketing: “Cleveland — The Town That Held Beer Hostage.”
Well, that’s not actually what the big brewer calls its promotional campaign for Cleveland. But more of that later.
We made it into Cleveland by lunchtime on a Friday, Rob from DC and I from Madison, Mississippi. We had tickets for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that afternoon. On the walk from our hotel to the Rock Hall, we looked for the little restaurant icons on our Maps apps to find a place to eat on the way, and chose Dave’s Grill & Bar for deli sandwiches.
Dave’s is in the sparkling North Point building. Outside the front door is a collection of sculpted symphony players and hidden speakers playing classical music that seems to come directly from the metal instruments. We ate on a patio overlooking four old freight rail tracks and watched a train of 50 cars rumble by beneath us.
We noticed on Instagram that Ohio Governor John Kasich was in Cleveland that same day visiting the the Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He’s a friend, so we tried to catch him while he was in town, but learned that he was already headed back to Columbus. He was kind to call us back, though, and we talked baseball and the Cleveland art scene. He’s a man of genuine intellectual curiosity and human empathy, and he made the point to Rob that the cultural richness of Cleveland is overlooked by most of the country.
To his point, everywhere we looked in Cleveland, cool art installations seemed to look back.
Just across the street from the frozen symphonians playing their magical notes is Willard Park, home of the semi-famous world’s largest rubber stamp. A sculpture of firefighters battling three tongues of flame that look like fingers from hell stands across the street from FirstEnergy Stadium, where the Browns play. A few blocks away is a powerful sculpture of 1936 Olympic gold medalist and icon of freedom Jesse Owens in full sprint, while an equally powerful, if troubling, multi-colored mural adorns the wall of an outdoor café across the street from the JACK Casino downtown. Several blocks away is another outside wall mural, styled “Life is sharing the same park bench.”
If there’s a Rock & Roll heaven… it can’t be much better than the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Sadly, Aretha Franklin, the first woman inducted into the Rock Hall, died the day before our trip. The Rock Hall paid tribute to her in several ways, and there was an early photo from her career mounted inside the hole in the letter “O” of the “Long Live Rock” marquee outside.
Entry to the Rock Hall leads the visitor down an escalator into a darkened hall featuring a theater poster listing the 2018 inductees — Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues, Nina Simone, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The first exhibit is a photographic tribute to “The Origins and Evolution of Rock and Roll,” where the first artist portrayed is Robert Johnson, he of Clarksdale, Mississippi crossroads fame, said to have cut a deal with the devil in return for his guitar playing skills.
But I don’t believe that story at all. Bluesman Robert Johnson is hailed as the progenitor of modern rock, and he did play the guitar in a way that moved one of the greatest guitarists of the rock & roll era, Eric Clapton, to say: “Robert Johnson’s music is like my oldest friend, always in the back of my head and on the horizon. It is the finest music I have ever heard. I always trusted its purity, and I always will.” It seems to me more likely that Johnson’s gift was from God than the result of some diabolical deal.
On the other hand, he did die young of poisoning by a jealous husband, so who’s to say?
Jimi Hendrix gets his own room. The Beatles and the Stones reign in massive video streams. Hand-written song lyrics to iconic pieces recorded by some of rock history’s most storied musicians are displayed under glass. Interactive opportunities abound, from punching up specific works by favorite artists to casting votes for a visitor’s candidates to be added to the Hall.
And Johnny Cash’s bus is parked outside for fans to walk through, weather permitting, complete with an Ohio affinity license plate marked “JCASH1” on the front.
For our evening respite on our walk back to our hotel, we found the Brickstone Tavern immediately across the street from Progressive Field where the Cleveland Indians play.
A delightful young woman named Tanae was our server. We asked if she knew anything about refrigerators full of Bud Light locked up with chains, and she looked at us like we were playing a joke. I assured her we were telling the truth.
In a promotion dazzling in its brilliance, Bud Light has stationed chained coolers full of Bud Light around Cleveland, with WiFi controlled locks, that will be opened instantly upon the Cleveland Browns’ first victory of this NFL season. Lucky fans who happen to be near the beer when liberated may have it all, free of charge, to celebrate the win.
The Browns, at 0-16 last season and 1-15 the season before, are painfully tagged with the worst one year and two year records in the history of the league. As a way to build anticipation, Bud Light came up with the beer-held-hostage idea, envisioning throngs of thirsty fans crowded around the coolers on the off chance that the Browns actually have a fourth quarter lead this season.
Tanae became animated about helping us and asked her co-workers if any of them knew where one of the locked coolers might be. She came back with the report that they are at FirstEnergy Stadium and a place called the Barley House.
And there was more open air art. Just across the street from the Hotspot, the cafe where we had breakfast the next morning, stands a retired fire station converted into office space. It’s adorned with red lights and a siren mounted over the front door. Out front was an apparently random work of art featuring two electric guitars propped against the air. Next door was an impressive Catholic church with large icons of Jesus, Mary and the disciples mounted along a retaining wall overlooking the street.
Rob and I had come to Cleveland in pursuit of his goal of seeing a game at every major league ballpark, an odyssey he is calling the #tourdeballparks. He hadn’t yet been to Progressive Field (it’s still Jacobs Field, to me) in Cleveland, so we scheduled this stop on my dime. Seems he was making the more exotic locations on his own. The Indians were to host the Orioles for a three-game weekend series, and we had tickets for the afternoon games on Saturday and Sunday.
But what an unexpected bonus we got, with a tip of the hat to the ancient travelers to Serendip. Some weeks after buying our tickets, we realized that at the Saturday game we were going to get to see newly inducted baseball Hall of Famer Jim Thome honored by the Indians. And the first 20,000 fans through the gate were to receive free Jim Thome jerseys.
Next door to the baseball park is Quicken Arena — the “Q” to locals — where the Cavaliers almost won it all this year. They’re redoing the Q in a project they call “Transformation.” With LeBron gone, transforming the arena seems the least of the Cavs’ concerns.
From the Q, we made our way down to the lakefront and to the football stadium. We were disappointed to arrive there only to be told that we could not go inside to see the Bud Light locked up tight. But the helpful clerk at the Browns’ gift shop told us he was sure we could find one of the beer jails in town, and also suggested the Barley House. He did say, “We’ll get them open at our home opener,” but he didn’t sound very convincing — or convinced — to me.
A few blocks from the stadium we found the Barley House, a bar that looks like a bar near where the Browns play should look, sort of a Cleveland version of Cheers. The sign out front said “Sit Long. Talk Much. Laugh Often.” The Bud Light refrigerator was prominent inside, and chained and locked as advertised.
We wound our way back to Progressive Field to wait in line for the gates to open. Rob and I scored our Thome jerseys before finding our tenth row seats behind the Indians’ dugout.
Along the way, we found a brass marker set in the walkway of the upper concourse showing the spot where Jim Thome’s longest-ever home run had landed in 1999. The ball hit 511 feet from home plate. To put that distance in perspective, the deepest centerfield wall in Major League Baseball is only 436 feet from home.
Jim Thome’s #25 was retired in a touching ceremony before the game started. He took the podium for his remarks to strains of Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” At the conclusion of his talk, he was asked to take one more home run trot for the fans, and he took his son with him around the bases.
The Indians lost to the Orioles that day, one of the best teams in the league losing to the worst. No one seemed to mind.
Albina from Albania served Rob and me back at the Hotspot on our last morning before we flew out. She has been in the U.S. for two years and chose Cleveland because she has siblings there. She said her work at the Hotspot is temporary, until she can get into nursing school.
Albina told us she won her green card in a lottery with 9 million people, from which only 2,500 were drawn. “Some people want to win money in a lottery. But I won the best prize. I come to America.”
Cleveland is a gem for the viewer whose eye isn’t clouded by old ideas of the industrial Midwest. There’s plenty of sparkle in this town and its people for the traveler willing to take a trot around the diamond.
And here’s hoping they break those free beers out early this football season.