CLEVELAND — Twenty years later, to the day, another gray-haired southpaw opened the Indians’ home season with a ceremonial first pitch. Mike Hargrove doesn’t have the international clout of his predecessor on the mound — President Bill Clinton — but he’s beloved by Cleveland fans.
The Indians celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of Progressive Field on Friday during a come-from-behind 7-2 win in the rain-delayed home opener. Yan Gomes and Nick Swisher homered in the sixth inning to wake up a dormant offense and the bullpen slammed the door as the Indians improved to 3-1.
Three hours earlier, and more than two hours behind schedule, Hargrove took the mound to loud cheers and delivered a one-hopper to Sandy Alomar.
Two decades earlier, Clinton left the White House to christen Cleveland’s new gem.
“I’m probably a bad person to ask about Clinton. I didn’t vote for him, but I ended up liking him,” Hargrove said Friday.
The ballpark was called Jacobs Field, Hargrove was the manager and Alomar the catcher. The Indians were about to launch the most successful stretch in franchise history. A strike ended that 1994 season prematurely, but the Tribe went to the playoffs six out of the next seven seasons — emphatically ending a 40-year postseason drought — including trips to the World Series in 1995 and ’97.
“It was special, coming into a brand-new place that you knew that was your home,” Hargove said. “Opening Day and the president here and getting to meet him and talk to him at all, it was a real honor. And it was very, very exciting.
“You can’t do it justice with words. Opening Day has a special feel about it anyway and you wish that every day could be Opening Day. And then you add those things to it, and you had a decent ballclub, it was fun.”
On his drive downtown Friday morning, Hargrove thought about the man who built those teams — former general manager John Hart — and wished he would’ve been in town to enjoy the anniversary celebration.
“I’m sure that he has a lot of warm and fuzzies,” Hargrove said.
Alomar also got to interact with Clinton as he practiced throwing in the indoor batting cages before kicking off Cleveland’s housewarming party.
“Time flies, man,” Alomar, now the first base coach, said outside of the clubhouse. “It was just like the other day.”
Fast-forward 20 years. The press box ceiling leaks in a spot, a few of the bulbs on the toothbrush lights that rise into the downtown sky are burned out and the green paint throughout the facility has dulled. Despite a few reminders of its age, the ballpark’s held up nicely.
Perhaps better than Hargrove.
“When I stand up out of my chair, then it feels like 20 years,” Hargrove said with a laugh. “I think the ballpark’s aged really well.”
“They keep it up in such a great condition,” Alomar said. “The maintenance is so good here that the ballpark still looks brand-new. It’s been a blessing for the city and the team.”
Injured designated hitter Jason Giambi joined the Indians last year, but he’s been in the big leagues since 1995. He’s always been a fan of Progressive Field.
“When I first broke in and played here, this was the place to be,” he said. “The sellouts, the great teams they put on the field. It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous.
“It’s got a lot of nuances that are great, with the left-field wall, the seats on the field. They did an incredible job when they built this place.”
The delayed start, falling temperature, whipping wind and early deficit teamed to muffle the noise from the sellout crowd that was quickly thinned by the rain and cold. But the electric atmosphere in October for the wild-card loss to Tampa Bay reminded everyone who witnessed the ’90s what a full, engaged stadium sounds and feels like.
It was an everyday occurrence in the 1990s. The ballpark hosted 455 straight sellouts, countless ninth-inning rallies and an almost annual raising of a division championship banner.
The first might’ve been the most special.
When Jim Thome caught a popup a step into foul territory in 1995, the Indians were headed back to the playoffs for the first time in four decades. They were the best team in baseball and had captured the hearts of the area. The players gathered in the outfield to hoist the banner as division champs.
It made Alomar’s list of favorite memories from the ballpark that has doubled as his longtime office.
“Any postseason game, any game that meant a lot to this organization and to the franchise and to the players, those were the most memories I have in this ballpark,” he said.
Twenty years worth.