So I wanted to tell this story last year, but I figured it would be more appropriate to post it after the Tribe started at their new spring training home. This takes place in March of 2007.
My buddy Matt moved from my hometown (Mansfield) to Tampa the year before, and another friend and I resolved we would go visit him. I pushed for March, and though both of my friends are Indians fans, going to spring training was mostly something that was done at my insistence. I flew in on Wednesday, and after seeing some family, Matt picked me up on Thursday afternoon after he got off work. We picked Adam (my other friend in this story) up at the airport around 10pm in Tampa. Upon Matt's suggestion, we proceeded straight from the airport to the Applebee’s in Apollo Beach. Discovering that (for some reason that I still don’t understand) they had Yuengling on tap (?) and after a few shots of Jack and Jager, we proceeded to plan our assault on Winterhaven (this later involved certain parties vomiting in the landscaping).
After recovering most of Friday, we got on the road to Winterhaven at approximately 5pm. Our delay was caused by Matt’s insistence on going to work, as well as his dog Haley escaping and taking us on a tour of the various housing developments that encircle Tampa to the south. After a stop at a gas station to get a few essentials, we sped off towards paradise. Our plan assumed a large contingent of Cleveland fans tailgating in the parking lot at Chain O’ Lakes Park. We were disappointed. As we opened our cooler in the parking lot, we mostly received horrified stares from passing families and retirees. At about 7:45, realizing we were unlikely to find company, we bought our tickets in the bleachers along right field and entered the park. We had the pleasure of watching Matt Miller and Rafael Betancourt warm up, as well as Travis Hafner play first base. I pointed out minor league players to my friends, as well as the people around us, who almost certainly considered me insane, drunk, or both.
As the game wound down, our raucousness increased. We found scant encouragement from our neighbors, and a circle of empty bleachers began to surround us. The game ended, with the Tribe losing handily (to the Bears, I think…). As we filed out along with our (at this point amused) fellow fans, an idea hit me. It occurred to me that the lack of personnel on the field, combined with Adam’s lack of discretion, could be used to everyone’s advantage. As we passed the third base line, I bet Adam $100 that he would not run out on the field. Never one to ignore a challenge, Adam did not disappoint. As he walked briskly down the stairs toward the railing, I counted the money in my wallet: not nearly enough to pay him, much less bail him out. Nonetheless, I encouraged him to continue. He looked around, hopped the fence, and ran onto the field. After reaching center field, with Matt, myself, and most of the remaining fans cheering him on and laughing hysterically, he ran back, hopped over the railing, and demanded payment. I informed him, despite the fact that I did not have the money in my wallet, that I was good for it. We rejoiced.
Upon reaching the car, we were assured, after Adam’s recent accomplishments, that we would be joined by thankful and rowdy Indians fans. And we had the beer all ready to go. Much to our dismay, people filed to their cars, and waving at us enthusiastically (or urging us to move out of their way), drove away. Deciding that our accomplishments would not be ignored by the most faithful, we lingered.
We lingered until we were the only people in the parking lot, three sad men with more Miller Lite (I know, I know, not my choice) to drink than we knew what to do with. Then Adam had a brainstorm: If he had been able to make it onto the field, why couldn’t all of us? The lights were still on, the gates still open.
We marched towards the gates. I, despite my enthusiasm for this plan, never, even for a second, believed we would make it past the concession stands. But as we walked (briskly), we noticed there was not a soul around. No one. We walked down to the railing, looked around, and hopped it. We ran onto the field with reckless abandon. Before I knew it, I was on the infield. I was at the pitchers mound, grabbing the bag. I ran to home plate. I stood there, and looked around. All the lights were on, the stands were empty. It. Was. Beautiful. At this point, we noticed one another again. We pulled out our cameras and started flashing pictures. Me batting at home plate. Me catching, Matt batting. Running the bases. It was divine. Then, it came to a screeching halt.
I froze. I looked up. There was a man coming out of the press box. The jig was up. I began thinking "how I am going to talk us out of this?". As the man bounded down the steps, I looked at Matt. He was laughing. I didn’t understand. As the guy approached us, I saw he was carrying a bundle in his arms.
"You guys hungry?"
I didn’t know how to respond. Matt did. He reached over and grabbed the guys "bundle".
"Want me to take your picture?"
I was floored. This guy had just brought us all the left-over hot dogs from the concession stands (the "bundle"), and was offering to take our picture. We got together, and knowing how timeless this moment was, had him take approximately thirty pictures.
We continued wandering around until we were literally bored. We went into the dugouts, used the restrooms in the dugouts, ate hot dogs on third base, smoked cigarettes (a la Lou Piniella) in the dugouts. Finally, we scrambled back over the railing and headed back to the car. We opened up the cooler, grabbed a few beers, and toasted to the experience. Eric Wedge (I think) waved at us on his way out of the complex (despite our attempts to impede his exit).
At this point, we were a bit hungry. (As it turns out, this wasn’t our biggest problem.) We drove to the Applebee’s right by the park, saw Betancourt, Franklin Gutierrez, and a few other ballplayers I didn’t recognize. The beers kept coming, and we talked about how great the stories would be.
It was time for bed. We headed to the hotel, and as Adam went in, I began to consider: We had not made reservations. Hotel booked. Drove to the next hotel. Booked. Asked where one might be available. All Booked. Matt, not wanting to risk the drive back to Apollo Beach (and me not wanting to miss baseball the next day), insisted on sleeping in the car. Adam agreed, on the condition we buy blankets at Wal-Mart. Despite being followed around the store by a throng of laughing teenagers, we recovered the blankets, and headed for the parking lot. At this point, I had an idea: Why not sleep in the parking lot at the stadium? We had a parking pass already, why pay again? Convinced, Matt drove. We parked, front row, and reclined the seats.
Worst night of sleep, ever. I was up all night. Adam opened the back door at one point to extend his legs, and I had my right leg sticking out of the passenger side window. It had to be a comical sight. At around 7am, we were awakened (not really accurate, I didn’t really sleep) by an eighty year old man.
"How you doin, fellas?"
I didn’t really know how to answer. I was wearing a white T-shirt, a pair of cargo shorts and sunglasses, sitting in the passenger seat of a Trailblazer in a parking lot at 7am on a Saturday morning. Then he said something I didn’t anticipate: "You guys look like you had a rough night. A couple of the wives have a pancake breakfast every Saturday over there (as he gestured to the right (west?). You guys are welcome". We were floored, considering our position. We went instead to Burger King. After a "shower", and some god-awful hash browns, we decided to head back.
After the noon game, we drove home from Winterhaven a broken bunch. We discussed plans for going out that night, and when we got to Matt’s apartment we started drinking beer again. But before I knew it, it was Sunday morning, and I had a flight to catch. We had all slept for about 14 hours.
That year would go on to turn out pretty well for Indians fans. I am considering going to spring training this year, if only to give the same good luck I did in 2007.