Tribe/Time

Jamie Zipfel
10 min readJul 2, 2023

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A sunset view of a baseball stadium.

NB: This story includes outdated language for Indigenous people. I’ve addressed that usage in the story itself, but I thought I’d just let you know in advance.

You can hear it, the distinctive crack the ball makes when it meets the bat in exactly the right spot. When it happens, you know instinctively that this isn’t a lob off to right field, it isn’t gonna bounce the pole — this one’s going all the way. And because sound moves faster than neurons fire, you know it a split second before the players do. If you’re paying attention, you can watch time stop in midair: the pitcher tracking the ball with his eyes, the batter deciding whether it’s worth it to run like hell to first or if he can afford to coast it, just a little. If it clears the fence, he’ll no doubt slow down to a brisk jog in the name of conserving energy and milking the roar of the crowd. That moment, when time stops, is why millions of people watch 180 games a season at three hours apiece of a sport where nothing much happens most of the time.

Far as I can tell, I’ve been watching Cleveland baseball since I was in utero. My mom jokes that when she found out she was having kids, it didn’t matter if we were boys or girls, so long as we were Indians fans. I have vague memories, some of my earliest, of Tom Hamilton announcing Kenny Lofton or Jim Thome coming up to the plate with as much bravado as he could muster. My aunt met Thome once inside a Macaroni Grille on an otherwise unremarkable day. Nice guy, she’d say, and it became a bit of family lore because none of us ever got any closer to our heroes.

But that’s the trouble, with baseball and heroes and everything else. Thome and Lofton retired, replaced by Travis Hafner and Jhonny Peralta. Tito Francona took his father’s place in the dugout, trading in his wad of chewing tobacco for Dubble Bubble, which he consumed by the bucketload. Sandy Alomar, Mom’s favorite catcher from back in the day, now holds court at the first base line, advising runners on when to book it and when to stay put. Everything changes, and nothing does.

Back then, when supper was finished and the dishes were put away, we’d all pile into the living room at my grandparents’ place. It was my responsibility to flip the channel dial during commercial breaks so we could “see what the boys are up to”, as Grandpa would say. My job complete, I could crawl back into his lap and steal a forbidden Tootsie Roll from his stash inside the corner table. If the game was good, we’d all quiet down, but if it was a snooze, Hammy’s announcing would become background static as we gossiped about school or work or the news. During the World Series in ’95, we didn’t speak at all as the Indians took on Grandpa Bud’s beloved Atlanta Braves. I don’t remember who won, only that these evenings, passing in their predictable way, are what home feels like to me.

Just as much a ritual as our weeknights was the yearly pilgrimage to watch them play live. It didn’t matter if the closest ballpark was Detroit or Kansas City or Jacobs Field, we’d be there when the gates opened. Some were nosebleed years, others we spent behind home plate. It didn’t matter. We were all together, crunching peanut shells under our feet and slurping overpriced soda. It didn’t matter where we were, so long as there was immaculate grass and dirt underneath us, and nine players in their snappy blue uniforms.

Time marches on. We moved, then moved again. Hafner got older and slowed down, but never lost his fight. At one point, he got sent down to the AAAs and we caught him playing for the Columbus Clippers alongside all the other old & injured Indians. I watched him blast a homer right over the Toledo Mud Hens scoreboard and damn near into the river, for a fraction of the price of a seat at the Jake. Jacobs Field became Progressive Field, another sign of the times. My friend Jason was particularly distraught about this, as his granddad had been the lawyer who’d secured naming rights for Mr. Jacobs way back when. It wasn’t just a generational thing for our family, but for everyone we knew.

As I grew, baseball became a form of social currency, a way to make friends. Sports isn’t usually a proper interest for a girl, but I wasn’t a proper girl, anyway. The fact that I could converse intelligently about batting orders and ERAs made me something of an oddity in the freshmen class. But it also purchased me respect among the debate boys, giving me a new tribe. They welcomed me into the fold for the low, low price of a weekly conversation about the Indians’ playoff prospects. This was easy enough — there were none.

As reliably as the announcement of the pitchers’ report date meant a sure sign of spring, the Indians would start off strong and run out of steam. Or worse, they’d dominate all year only to choke at the All-Star Break. By then, Mom’s favorite player was the shortstop Jason Kipnis, an all-American-looking guy with a razor-sharp eye and a jawline to match. But my favorite was Carlos Santana, a power hitter who looked a little like a bulldog, daring anyone to try and meet him at first base. Between them was Puumba, a player whose name I forgot because he reminded us so strongly of the warthog from the Lion King.

That was the year we lost my grandparents in quick succession. We thought about canceling our yearly trip to Cleveland, but decided against it. Instead, we tried to drown our sorrows in stadium mustard, and we all just let the tears stream in silence after Mom said, “It’s a beautiful day to play ball, isn’t it?” It was a perfect summer day. No one spoke for the first three innings.

A few years later, I moved off to college. I didn’t own a TV (or much else), but I got the updates texted to me courtesy of Google or my mother. It was one of the things that kept us connected those first few months. As much as I craved freedom, I never saw our conversations about the Indians as prying or overbearing — the way I saw so many of our conversations back then. Talking shop about the boys was one of the only things that could reliably keep the silence from turning into dead air. When she got sick, I knew that the drive home would end with me picking up a blue Slurpee for her and turning on the game. She was often too tired to talk, so we’d let Tom Hamilton fill the living room and drown out the ksssh-hisss of her chemo pump. That season went on forever, in the way that they do when you have a secret fear that it might be the last one.

She made it, all told, and I graduated. A couple years later, I called up somebody in the office and played the “cancer survivor” card to get her a first pitch for her birthday. This was back when the team was “on a downswing”, so if I could fill twenty seats at a 50% discount, she could have the pitch. I called all her friends, and some of my friends, and the quorum of us caravanned to Cleveland. We stopped at all the rest stops on the way so she could practice her throw.

The day was magnificent. They let us tour the locker rooms (empty, unfortunately), and there was something sacred about being where the magic happened. About being let in on the inside baseball that makes baseball. I couldn’t believe I’d pulled it off until I stepped out onto the field a few steps behind her. I looked at the dugouts, the scoreboard, the expanse of brown and green between here and there. I’d always wondered what it looked like from down here. For her part, Mom looked radiant, as joyous as I’ve ever seen her. She strode out to the mound, all confidence — and then grounded the ball about fifteen feet in front of the catcher. “It’s further than it looks,” she said defensively. We still haven’t let her live it down.

For a moment, we thought that might be the kind of thing we could do for special occasions — my aunt’s 40th birthday, perhaps. But as it turned out, it was sort of a miracle of timing, because the next season, the Indians got good. Like, really good. After a lifetime of being given the side-eye when you tell someone who your team is, our boys were finally on top. Kip and Santana were joined by Frankie Lindor, who would be at third by the time you realized he’d left second. Every time he stole a base, Hammy could barely squeak out “he’s got wheels!!” before he’d arrived, uniform only a little dusty.

It was top viewing all season. We made a special late-autumn trip to Progressive Field during the playoffs, in the rafters on folding chairs at the edge of fiscal responsibility. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. By the time they made it to the bottom of the ninth, Game 7 of the Series, I thought my heart would explode out of my chest. Tito was pacing a path in the dugout floor, chomping Dubble Bubble like his life depended on it. We teetered on the edge of the worn leather couch in the living room until the very last minute.

They couldn’t do it. The Cubs may have finally broken their curse, but we were crushed. And just like we had at the end of every season for as long as I could remember, we all shook our heads solemnly and said, “there’s always next year”.

And there was. It didn’t matter if Mom and I were freezing our asses off at an opener in March, huddled together for warmth, or if we’d managed to pick the kind of perfect summer day that Grandpa would’ve remarked on, Indians baseball was the constant while the rest of my life was in flux. I’d said goodbye to Joe, the White Sox fan, a few years earlier. No self-respecting Chicagoan roots for the White Sox. A new job in Detroit gave me four tickets when they were playing the Tigers, gratis. I took a guy I was seeing, who only understood cricket. He didn’t understand that I wanted to watch the actual game, instead of being regaled with the finer points of a game I’d never seen and was fairly sure wasn’t played on this continent.

Besides my questionable taste in seatmates, other changes were brewing. Santana got traded, the end of an era. And then, of course, came the move. Once we crossed the ocean, games now began at three a.m. Even if we were awake to watch, finding a channel that reliably broadcasts them is a challenge. We still get to games as often as we can, but it’s tough getting all of us together and free on the same afternoon, even if we are all in the same country. The era of easy summer road trips ended.

Not long after, the Indians announced they were changing their name — a long overdue move, considering the super off-color caricature that served as our mascot. He was named, I shit you not, Chief Wahoo. While I expected the name change to be dinner table conversation for a night or two, the response from the family surprised me. It divided us along deep-seated political lines, the kind we usually tried to ignore. Along with COVID and the Trump election, this was the thing that tipped the scales of family unity. I was intent on being a fan of Cleveland baseball — I didn’t care what they called it, and this seemed like the more respectful move. But for my mom and aunt especially, the loss of the name represented the loss of something intangible. For them, it felt like losing all that tradition we’d spent years building and growing. In the end, no matter which side we came down on, we all bought new merch: me to phase out anything that still said “Indians”, and my mom and aunt trying to buy up what they could before it stopped being an option.

It’s not that I’ve lost my love for baseball. It’s so much a part of the story of our family that I don’t think I could leave it behind. It’s more that there’s an empty space for me now where baseball used to be. For much of my life, being a fan meant having a tribe — which, until recently, we meant literally. It was a place to belong, a thing that drew our family together even when we were fighting about everything else. Whether I’m at the corner of Carnegie & Ontario or thousands of miles away, having a team to claim as my own meant knowing exactly where I belonged.

I walked away from that feeling, and I didn’t realize I’d left it along with all the other traditions and ways of being that define “back home”. I could pick a new sport, I guess, but this kind of long-term relationship is difficult to replicate. And while I have a community here that I couldn’t have without leaving, it still feels like a loss. Belonging as an expat is hard, especially when we don’t all share the same background noise with which to fill the silences. The thing that draws us together, more than anything else, is that these are the only people who understand what it means to leave that stuff behind. All of us watch family go to events and holidays without us, keeping traditions alive in our absence. We watch the time pass: babies being born, childhood homes being put up for sale; weddings, funerals. Eventually, we all go, too, moving on to get married or care for aging parents. Nothing stays the same for long.

And that feeling, the longing for the familiar despite not wanting to return to the place that feels most familiar, is difficult. Knowing that I can’t go back, that there’s no home for me to go back to that looks like the evenings in my grandparent’s living room, is tough to grapple with. So is feeling like your traditions are changing without your notice. My family, much like Cleveland baseball, has been both a constant and a variable my entire life.

It’s only been four years. The blink of an eye. The crack of a bat, in universal terms. And while I wouldn’t trade it for the world, some days I’d give anything to break the desert heat with an overpriced beer, a mediocre rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, and for someone to shout, “Play ball!”

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Jamie Zipfel

A writer/teacher/designer split between the Midwest and the Middle East.