Friday, April 17, 2015

Rocky Colavito

"You can't tell how much spirit a team has until it's losing."

If you have never done so, at least once before you die buy yourself some "fan gear" for your favorite team [if you don't have a favorite team, at least borrow one for a day or two] and go to a baseball game.  Even if it's just a hat or a t-shirt, wear it with pride and notice how you are in the midst of a great number of people who are doing the same.  Seriously, put down The New York Times, turn off NPR, and enjoy a less precious existence for a few hours.  It's almost as restorative as a good liturgy.

It was something I learned from my grandfather, who came to the United States from Scotland after being laid off from the Clydebank shipyards.  Goodyear Tire and Rubber was hiring foreigners, so off he went, intending on staying in the U.S. until he could be re-hired back in the home land.  After living a short time in this new country, he realized its superior potential for advancement, gloried in its absence of a rigid class structure, and personally celebrated its encouragement of innovation.  So much so that, rather than return, he sent for his wife and daughter to join him in this new adventure.  He was 40-years-old and should have been settled in his ways; I cannot tell you how glad I am that he resisted that convention.

There was only one problem, though: European football was not played in the U.S.  Since generations of my family have lived and died along with the fortunes of the Glasgow Celtic Football Club [aka one-half of "The Old Firm"; aka "The Bhoys"; aka "The Hoops"], he needed to find a replacement.  Its unlikely source was baseball.  Specifically, the Cleveland Indians.

From the 1930's through the late 1950's there was a train that ran directly by the stadium so that Gramps and his "mates" [they were all Scottish immigrants] could attend games.  Around the time the train stopped running, he had a grandson with whom he could share this transplanted love and a son-in-law who could drive him [like many of the immigrant class of his generation, Gramps never bothered to learn how to drive], and so it was that I was introduced to that cathedral of Doubleday that sat on the shores of Lake Erie.

I attended my first professional game here; I plan on attending my last game at its replacement.  I don't remember much about the game itself as much as I recall the sheer theater that was the crowd, but there was one name that I kept hearing over and over again from the loudspeaker, from the fans around us, and from Gramps.  A musical name, rendered even more so in the manner in which it was pronounced in a Glaswegian accent:  Rocky Colavito.  Without question, he was the best the Indians had to offer and the one with whom the hopes and dreams of the city rested.

I imagine every team in baseball, a sport that is rife with superstition, has its version of the Red Sox's "Curse of the Bambino".  For those who don't know what I reference, in 1919 the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, a supernatural folly that ensured that Boston would not win the World Series until 2004.

Cleveland, too, had its curse and, as with Boston, it involved a very ill-conceived trade.  Rocky Colavito was not only a talented right fielder and formidable hitter, but his personality was well-fitted to that of the working class Clevelanders who came to watch his art.  As the Indians are perennial losers, often with the most mediocre of players, Colavito stood out not only for his talent, but for his positive attitude.  He would even stay in the stadium to sign autographs, even if those seeking them numbered in the hundreds.  There were those in the corridors of power who were seriously talking about having him stand for mayor upon his retirement from baseball.

And then, in 1960, he was summarily traded to the Detroit Tigers.  I know!  What?!  Not only were the Indians robbed of their best player, the people of Detroit really didn't like Rocky and attacked him in their sports pages on a daily basis.  For this, the gods of baseball ordained that Cleveland would never know anything other than frustration in their quest for the sport's holy grail.

This remained true when the new manager of the Indians decided, at great cost to the starting line-up, to bring Colavito back to Cleveland in 1965.  His return was greeted as something akin to Mohammed's return to Mecca.  In thanksgiving to his favorite city, he made the All-Star team in 1965 and 1966 and placed fifth in the 1965 MVP vote with 108 RBI and 93 walks, a league record that year, finishing in the top five in home runs, hits and runs.  The Indians still didn't get close to the World Series, but what the heck; Rocky was back in town.

Unfortunately, my grandfather had died the year before and we weren't able to share in the great return [he died peacefully right after watching an Indians/Tigers game on television; the Indians had lost, of course], although in his spirit I have made sure that a trip to a ball field with my step-son and sister's kids is required annually.  I always buy them a pin and/or cap.

Colavito would retire from playing and become a coach for the Indians and, later, the Kansas City Royals.  In a moment that was found embarrassing in Kansas City but admirable in Cleveland, he would make the news again in 1982 when, after being clobbered in his car by a drunk driver, he would be arrested for assaulting a couple of police officers who were a little too lippy with him as he was administering "street justice" to the offending motorist.  [I'm the first to admit that my hometown has a fluid and feisty ethical sense.]

The next year I recall idly watching a Yankees/Royals game on television [I was living in NYC at the time] when I saw a bench-clearing fracas over an argument about the amount of pine tar that was used on a bat.  In the middle of the action, I recognized a familiar face arguing with an umpire so successfully that he was ejected from the game.  Regardless of the circumstances, it was always nice to see Rocky on a ball field.

While he played or otherwise worked for many teams during his career, Colavito has had three books written about his influence on Cleveland and its team, is a member of the Indians' Hall of Fame, and was voted "most memorable personality" in the history of Cleveland baseball.  Still active into his 80's, he blew out the candles on his birthday cake before a full stadium in Cleveland just last year.

Back in the days when there was little to cheer about with our hometown team, it was always heartening to watch a player who cared as much about spirit as victory and brought passion to every inning of every game.  It is on such small and humble things that memories are built, and those I cherish with greater devotion as my years increase.