These are two different pieces I wrote about Opening Day of the baseball season, an unofficial official holiday here in Northern Ohio. “Deb Fisher’s Indians Opener Story” is from 2003, and the other piece is from over twenty years ago and has appeared in several different forms in several different publications.
I’ve been asked again to write another story about Opening Day here in Cleveland. First I thought about just sending along the essay I wrote years ago about going to Openers with my brother Larry, my dad, and grandfather. But a lot of people have read that over the years, and I didn’t want to go send along old material (if you wish, you can check that one out at www.gregcielec.com under good old stuff).
And then I was going to write about the time when we were still in high school when Johnny Wilson took the ACT test for Jack Cornhoff so Jack could go to the Opener. It’s a really very entertaining story, especially if you know Jack and John, but then I heard Deb Fisher’s Opener story and I knew immediately that was the one I wanted to write about. Johnny and Jack’s story will have to wait until next year.
We here in Northern Ohio have some pretty stupid rituals, none more contradictory than our two spring holidays, St. Patrick’s Day and the Indians Home Opener. Both days are when thousands of us, from the time we are in our teens until we are walking with canes, stand outside for hours in ungodly cold, wet, windy weather, drink as much beer as possible, and do two things we have dozens of opportunities to do during the summer when the weather is a bit more cooperative, watch a parade and a ballgame.
We have Memorial Day Parades, Fourth of July Parades, and Labor Day Parades. Plus all of the parades that deal with all of the street festivals that happen every weekend all summer long. If you want to stand outside in sunshine and eighty degree weather, wearing shorts and a T-shirt and drinking cold ones and watch a parade, the opportunities are endless.
And, as far as the Indians go, they play eighty other home games a year, and believe me when I tell you this, there will be no problem getting tickets during June, July, and August this year. But no, we have to stand outside with that Canadian wind whipping in from the north, just to make sure it’s cold enough it’s last 120 miles goes over a semi-frozen lake, with our drinking gloves on, and trips to bathroom are real adventures with all of the layers of clothing.
But these rituals have gone on for generations and will continue for generations to follow. It’s just something that you do, that’s all.
We had first met Deb Fisher and her crowd four or five years ago in Baltimore. Our football team at John Carroll had played Catholic University in Washington, and the coaches had a free day the next day because we did not have a game the following Saturday. So me and several of my coaching colleagues headed to Baltimore the next morning where, as luck would have it, the Tribe was playing the Orioles. What a day it became! The game got rained out, we met up expectedly and unexpectedly with several groups of old friends, and somewhere along the way Deb and her friends blended into the party. We were in Phillip’s Piano Bar, it was pouring outside, and there were all these Cleveland people singing along to the Dixieland Jazz Band that was playing. What an afternoon! (Someday ask Jim Yarnell, Jim Thompson, or Dave Hostetler about the ride back to the airport in our rental car. Unbelievable. Things somehow always seem to happen in Baltimore, someday I’m going to write My Baltimore Story.)
Since then I have crossed paths with Deb and her crowd once or twice a year. This past winter I met her for cocktails at one of the establishments in the Warehouse District. I knew Deb had had a rough past year, which included having surgery to replace a hip and the death of her best friend, Glynda Harrison.
Deb is always fun to go out with, she knows lots of people and she can take over a room when the situation arises. One of the reasons I was meeting up with her was to see what her plans are for Opening Day. Last year she didn’t make it to the game, on account of what had happened to Glynda. What I didn’t expect to happen, was that I was going to hear about Deb’s Indian Opener adventures with her recently departed friend.
Deb and Glynda first met back in the Seventies when they both ended up on the same softball team in Lakewood. Deb was one of the team’s stars, Glynda was a role player. “She use to complain that she didn’t have enough hands,” Deb said. “If she had to wear a glove on one hand, how was she suppose to hold a beer and smoke a cigarette at the same time?”
They started going to the Opener together in 1975. It was back in the days of John Lowenstein and Gomer Hodge and Frank Duffy. Just as Roger Kahn said in his great baseball book about the Brooklyn Dodgers of his youth, The Boys of Summer, you admire a team in victory, but you fall in love in defeat. And Glynda and Deb fell in love with those mediocre Tribe teams, just like a lot of us did, and the start of the baseball season became a holiday.
Glynda was a real sports encyclopedia, especially about Cleveland teams. Her roots went all the way back to when she went to games with her grandfather when she was a little girl. “I would match her Tribe knowledge against anyone,” Deb stated impressively.
Deb and Glynda, along with a revolving group of friends, made the Opener a tradition for years. Even when they both moved away for awhile in the early Eighties, when they both moved back they started it back up again like they were never away.
According to Deb they had a simple game day routine, always reliable for a good time. “We’d go to a bar. Go to the game. Go back to the bar.”
Years passed, Glynda went from being a mom to a grandmother, yet she never missed an Opener with her friends. Eventually even the Indians had a great run. Then, as it often happens to too many of the good ones, tragedy struck. “She had been complaining about really bad headaches for about ten months,” according to Deb. “And she had been seeing a doctor for seven months. He diagnosed it as a sinus infection, over and over. But it wasn’t a sinus infection, but a brain aneurysm. It finally burst, they performed surgery, she lasted for two weeks in a drug-induced coma. Every time they tried to bring her out of the coma she would start stroking out. A massive stroke finally killed her.”
Glynda’s funeral was just days before last year’s Indians Opener. Even without Glynda’s sudden death, the Opener looked in doubt for last year for Deb anyway, because she had just gotten her hip replaced. Between Glynda’s death, and her hip surgery, last spring was not good for Deb. But for as uncomfortable as her hip surgery left her, nothing compared to the void left inside of Deb because of the death of her close friend. She knew she had to do something on Opening Day to honor Glynda’s spirit.
Deb picks up the story there. “I had just had my hip replaced, so I knew I couldn’t go to the game and uphold our ritual, so we did the next best thing,” Deb said with a smile coming to her face. “We tailgated at her grave site. We put Chief Wahoo flags around her grave, set up lawn chairs, and had peanuts and beer. We even put a couple of upside down bottles of beers on her grave and we listened to the game on the radio. It was four of us, our baseball friend Nancy and two of her sisters, Dana and Debbie.”
What was her family’s reaction, I asked. “Her kids were pissed because they weren’t invited. They’ll be there this year. Her daughter was mad because we left peanut shells all around the grave.”
Deb and her friends have big plans for this year. “We’re going to do pretty much the same thing this year, but with a lot more people. Some guestimates are as high as forty people. Mostly her family and tons of friends that understand what Glynda was always about. In fact, I think she’s mad at me because she didn’t think of all of this first. Actually, I think it would make her very proud that she is still making people smile and have fun, just in a very unorthodox manner.”
The Indians Home Opener this year is on Monday, April 7 against the White Sox. If you don’t have a good ticket to the game, but still want to get caught up in the spirit of the day, think about heading out to the Catholic Cemetery out in Avon. First pitch is at one.
So that’s Deb Fisher’s Opener Story, the one she told me in the bar at the Metropolitan Grill looking out on a frigid winter night, with snow in the streets and frost on the windows. A perfect winter’s day to talk baseball. I hope she doesn’t mind me writing about it. Because it’s a good story, and like all good stories, it needs to be told at least once again.