By HOWARD BERGER
CLEVELAND (May 2) — A 5½–hour journey here by car from Toronto on Friday quickly turned into a quarter–century–old deja vu. Hanging around the batting cage and the Blue Jays dugout two hours before a Major League Baseball game was once my professional life. I did it between 1988 and 1994 as a reporter at CJCL AM–1430 and then The FAN–590 once my employer became (in September 1992) Canada’s first all–sports radio station. Hockey later intervened for 17 years, as I began following the Toronto Maple Leafs about North America. But, days of kibitzing around the batting cage were enjoyably renewed here on Friday.
A PERFECT WEATHER NIGHT FOR BASEBALL HERE IN CLEVELAND ON FRIDAY.
My son, Shane, was in another galaxy. After walking onto the turf at Progressive Field — home of the Cleveland Indians — and then into the visitors’ dug–out along the first–base line, we watched Blue Jays manager John Gibbons in his pre–game chat with the media; among which was Sportsnet reporter Barry Davis, a radio understudy of mine early in his career. I told Gibbons that Barry and I had worked together for roughly a decade, whereupon the manager offered me condolences. Jays third–baseman Josh Donaldson overheard the remark and just smiled. “I’m having trouble processing all of this,” Shane said, starry–eyed, about his first–such experience. Our field passes were arranged by the radio voice of the Blue Jays and my long–time colleague, Jerry Howarth, who later joined us around the batting cage with Gibbons. When I told the manager that Jerry had taught me everything about radio, Donaldson piped in. “You’re killing yourself!” he said — mocking my associations with Davis and Howarth. We had a good chuckle.
Moments later, I sauntered over to Jays catcher Josh Thole, who has the misfortune of tracking down R.A. Dickey’s knuckleballs every fifth start. “If I were your agent, I’d esure you were paid by the bruise,” I told him. Thole laughed and said, “I’d be a billionaire.” I asked him about the “art” of catching the knuckler. “There is no art,” he replied. “It’s 90 percent guesswork and 10 percent reflex. Even when I call a location for R.A., I have no idea where the pitch will end up. And, yes, I’ve had many black–and–blue marks on my torso. I like your idea for compensation.”
BLUE JAYS MANAGER JOHN GIBBONS CHATS WITH REPORTERS BEFORE FRIDAY’S GAME.
This was only my second time here in Cleveland. Until now, I’ve never divulged to my former radio bosses the trick I pulled on my first visit. I came here by bus on the Canada Day weekend in 1989 to cover the Cleveland Indy car race at the Burke Lakefront Airport — a larger version of what we have at Toronto Island. Five or six blocks west of the Indy site was the mammoth old Municipal Stadium — former home of the Indians and National Football League Cleveland Browns. It was an 80,000–seat monolith that the Browns routinely filled. The Indians, however, were lucky to draw 6,000 fans. Of course, I had never been to Municipal Stadium and I knew the creaky, old park was on its last legs.
On the afternoon of the Indy race, the Oakland A’s were in town to play the Indians. These were the A’s of Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Dennis Eckersley that would go on to win the World Series that year after the big earthquake in San Francisco. I briefly weighed my career options and decided to sneak over to the ballpark. I bought a cheap ticket in the second deck to the right of home plate and fulfilled a sports dream by catching three innings of the Oakland–Cleveland game. I then hustled back to the race site, praying I had not missed anything of note. Luckily, it had been uneventful and was just about to end. So — nearly 26 years later — I come clean to my former bosses: John Rea and Allan Davis. Thanks, guys, for the assignment(s).
Progressive Field — originally called Jacobs Field when it opened in 1994 — is about a mile south of Lake Erie, right in downtown Cleveland. It’s a beautiful ballpark and is situated across the street from Quicken Loans Arena — home of LeBron James and the National Basketball Association Cleveland Cavaliers. From my trusty NIKON, here are some more images of a Friday late–afternoon and evening at the ballpark:
BLUE JAYS TAKE BATTING PRACTICE 90 MINUTES BEFORE THE GAME.
JOHN GIBBONS (LEFT) CHATS AT CAGE WITH BLUE JAYS RADIO VOICE JERRY HOWARTH.
PAINTED LOGO OF THE HOME TEAM ON GRASS BEHIND THE PLATE.
BLUE JAYS PLAYERS STRETCH IN FRONT OF THEIR DUGOUT.
YOURS TRULY WITH BARRY DAVIS, WHO IS THE THIRD MEMBER (AND FIELD REPORTER) OF THE SPORTSNET BASEBALL CREW, ALONGSIDE BUCK MARTINEZ AND PAT TABLER. BARRY AND I WORKED AT THE FAN–590 FOR NEARLY A DECADE.
PRE–GAME VIEW FROM THE PRESS BOX AT PROGRESSIVE FIELD.
JOSH DONALDSON OF THE BLUE JAYS STEPS INTO THE BATTER’S BOX TO LEAD OFF THE GAME IN FRONT OF INDIANS CATCHER BRETT HAYES AND HOME–PLATE UMPIRE BILL WELKE.
SECONDS LATER, DONALDSON, HAYES, WELKE AND BLUE JAYS THIRD–BASE COACH LUIS RIVERA WATCH DONALDSON’S HOME RUN ARC INTO THE LEFT–FIELD BLEACHERS.
TORONTO CATCHER RUSSEL MARTIN TAKES A HEALTHY WHACK AT THE BALL.
BEYOND LEFT–FIELD IS QUICKEN LOANS ARENA, HOME OF THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS. LeBRON AND CO. SWEPT BOSTON IN THE OPENING ROUND OF THE NBA PLAYOFFS.
WIDE VIEW FROM THIRD–BASE SIDE AS DARKNESS SETTLES IN.
JAYS STARTER MARK BUEHRLE HAD A ROUGH NIGHT AND TOOK THE LOSS IN THE 9–4 CLEVELAND VICTORY. HERE, HE COMMISERATES WITH RUSSELL MARTIN.
LOTS OF BLUE JAYS FANS WERE IN ATTENDANCE, INCLUDING SHANE — ORDERING A DOG.
EXTERIOR OF PROGRESSIVE FIELD AFTER THE GAME.
SHANE RETURNED WITH THIS GAME–USED BALL — THROWN TO HIM IN THE STANDS BY RUSSELL MARTIN AFTER THE BOTTOM OF THE 8th INNING.
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