I was nine in the summer of 1977, and I lived and breathed the Cleveland Indians with my brother, Mike, and two neighbor kids who were close to our ages. Every morning I would wake up with the prospect of 16 hours of daylight stretching out before me like the ribbon on a birthday gift. We were all at the tail ends of large families—six in ours and seven in theirs. It was the 1970’s, and our mothers didn’t have the worries of missing children on milk cartons or poisoned Tylenol or pornography on the Internet. Nobody missed us or worried too much about us when we were out. We were free to spend each day of the summer as we wished. We would play baseball or whiffle ball all day with the neighbors, then my brother and I would watch the Indians on WUAB, the local UHF channel. That was when I learned the game, and that’s when I fell in love with the Cleveland Indians.
The 1977 Indians were not a very good team. Cleveland has had a professional baseball team since the Cleveland Blues of 1901 In the 115-year history of the franchise, the ’77 team ranks 98th with a .441 winning percentage. They had some fine players. My hero, Andre Thornton, was playing his first season in Cleveland. He batted .263 with 28 home runs—not his best season but more than respectable. Future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley was on the pitching staff. He only went 14-13 in 1977, but he also pitched the 200th no-hitter in modern baseball history. I didn’t know it at the time, but Eckersley already had problems with alcohol, and his best friend and teammate, Rick Manning, was sleeping with his wife. My father was sleeping with someone other than my mother, but I didn’t know that either and wouldn’t for a few more years. Baseball has a way of hiding secrets and acting as a balm for the truths we’d rather not face.
The ’77 Indians were ugly both figuratively and literally. Their road uniforms were especially atrocious—red jerseys and red pants that made them look like tall glasses of Hawaiian Punch. I was ugly too. For some reason, that was the summer my parents convinced me to cut my hair short. I was a tomboy, but until that point, I had long, straight hair. It got tangled, as the hair of an active little girl will do, so my parents decided that I should have short hair. The haircut itself was an unglamorous affair. These days, most people take their daughters to a real salon for their first “big girl” hair styling. That wasn’t in my parents’ playbook. My great-grandfather had been a barber, and apparently someone thought the barbering gene had passed to my eldest brother, John. He and I didn’t always get along, still, I don’t think he tried to give me a lousy haircut. So I had a bad, boyish short haircut, thick glasses, lots of hand-me-down clothes (primarily from my brother Mike, who was closest in age to me), and did I mention I was a little chubby at the time?
Our brother John worked as a soda jerk at a place called Meither’s Ice Cream, which was one of the last remaining soda shops on the east side of Cleveland. Mike and I would ride our bikes up, get ice cream, and play pinball. The Who’s film version of Tommy had come out a couple years before and helped to spark a little pinball revival. I fancied myself a pinball wizard (because I heard that song on the radio a lot). Like the Indians, I had flashes of brilliance and great games, but mostly I just lost quarters.
One day, while playing one of my better games, a girl a couple years older watched me for a minute and commented on my score. My brother said, “Yeah, she’s doing pretty good.” The older girl took in the bad, bowl-like haircut, the thick glasses, the worn, dark green T-shirt, and long cut-off shorts that had once belonged to my brother and said with disgust: “She? That’s a girl?”
I would like to say that I had a quick and cutting reply.
There was a ballgame on that night—in the childhood of my memory, there is an Indians game every day—and I watched it and dreamt of being the first woman in the major leagues. I knew I wouldn’t be. I knew no women played in the majors and that I would have to be spectacular to be the first. I wasn’t spectacular. I was just an awkward little girl who was made of about as much sugar and spice and everything nice as the Indians were made of future Hall of Famers. (So about four percent.) But I watched the game with my brother and learned a bit more about baseball and felt a bit less ugly, a bit less awkward.
I’ve watched my beloved Cleveland Indians go from ugly duckling to graceful swan and back again several times since I was nine. Each time, I believe the metamorphosis is permanent, but it never is. I’ve gone through periods in my life when I was called beautiful and periods when I felt like the biggest, ugliest lump of humanity ever birthed. I have my bad hair days. The Indians have their bad seasons. But each spring, each game, each at bat is an opportunity for something else, something lovely. That is what baseball does: It gives us moments of grace when we most need them. It teaches us unconditional love, it allows us unlimited opportunities to recreate ourselves. Even the least talented among us is worthy of being loved and admired. Even the ugliest among us can still become beautiful.
Susan Petrone is the co-owner and writer for ItsPronouncedLajaway.com, an ESPN-affiliated blog about the Cleveland Indians. In addition, she's the author of the novel Throw Like a Woman (2015) as well as other fiction that has nothing to do with baseball.