"Baseball is a game of inches," Dad would always tell me.
He'd repeat this nugget of wisdom often, usually while we played catch on the strip of grass at the edge of our front yard between the sidewalk and the street. He'd have on his trusty old catcher's mitt, the kind that made the street echo with the best smack sound in the world if you hit it just right.
On that strip of grass, Dad taught me how to throw. From the first snow thaw in the spring until the last leaves had dropped in the fall, we'd be out there after school playing catch. He taught me how to field, slinging grounders and tossing pop flies my way. He even taught me to pitch—I was terrible. Still, he dutifully showed me the windup (step back, pivot, leg up, stride, release) and would crouch at the very edge of that sliver of grass to catch for me—perfect little league pitching distance.
Whenever I got that smack sound he'd shake his wrist in mock pain. "OUCH!" he'd exclaim loudly, and even though I knew he was faking, I wouldn't be able to wipe a stupid grin off my face.
Dad grew up in the small town of Warren, Pennsylvania, where everybody knew everybody, and where his mom, Grandma Smith, was famous for delivering her legendary apple pie to every new neighbor. The fourth of six children, his childhood was filled with love, laughter, and that delicious pie. It was also filled with competition. From a young age, he loved sports, and he played a lot of them—wrestling, basketball, and of course, baseball. He would turn anything from free throw shooting to Scrabble into an intense competition.
Both of Dad's parents were from Ohio. His dad was raised in Ashtabula, and his mom grew up in a Slovenian neighborhood on E. 64th Street in Cleveland—she didn't know English until she went to kindergarten, and she was the first person from her neighborhood to go to college. As it stood, my dad didn't have much of a choice but to be a Cleveland Indians fan—it was in his blood. He would tell us stories of going to games as a child, where giveaways such as "I Hate The Yankees Hankies" solidified his disdain for the Pinstripes. When we dug up my dad's old baseball card collection a few years back, the Indians pile was the highest—filled with (mostly worthless) cards from the 1960s teams. "I traded away all the Yankees for Indians players!" he told us, not a hint of regret in his voice at the loss of Mickey Mantles or Yogi Berras.
He attended games at the old Municipal Stadium with his father and grandfather when he was a kid. On August 25, 1963, he caught a foul ball and an usher had him fill out a form with his name and address. A week later he received an Honorary Contract signed by GM Gabe Paul naming him a "fan for life"—and he truly was. He stuck by his Tribe even when, for a stretch of 33 years (1960-1993), they weren't within ten games of first place in the month of September. We still have that framed contract on a mantel in our house.
After a brief stint in the Peace Corps post-college at Ohio University, Dad moved to Rochester, New York for work. There, he met and married my mom and settled down. He said he wanted four kids, she said two. Before long, they had six—as he would say, it worked out perfectly. I was number five (four daughters, two sons), and all us were indoctrinated quickly as Cleveland fans. Some of the first professional photos of my oldest sister feature her in a toddler-sized Indians uniform, ball and bat in hand. I was born in October of 1995—a great season for the Tribe—the same day Kenny Lofton scored from second on a passed ball in Game 6 of the ALCS. My dad always told me I would have been named "Kenny Lofton Smith" if I were a boy.
It was impossible not to be a Tribe fan in my house. I was a total tomboy, and all those games of catch solidified baseball as my "thing" with Dad. It was what we had most in common—we loved sports, we loved competition, and we were baseball nuts. I played baseball up through middle school before switching to softball, and I followed the Indians religiously. Sometime around the age of 11 or 12 I remember asking for a radio for my bedroom so I could listen to games. My dad taught me early that Indians radio announcer Tom "Hammy" Hamilton was the best in the business, and boy was he right. I'd have to twiddle the dial just right to pull the games from "The Jake" all the way to my bedroom, and on rainy nights I'd just hear static, not even Hammy's booming home runs calls able to cross that distance.
Dad was always on the lookout for ways to get us to Indians games. I remember when he surprised us with opening day tickets for my first-ever game. We drove the four hours from Rochester and sat way up in the right field nosebleeds—I was (and am) terrified of heights and could barely look down. Dad pointed out Indians legend John Adams to me across the field up in the bleachers, faithfully banging his drum. I was hooked. We went to more games over the years, making the trek to Cleveland whenever we could. Once, Dad bought about 30 tickets in the left field bleachers and we took most of the neighborhood with us (a majority of them Yankee faithful). He was always trying to convert new fans.
After graduating high school, I ended up in Indiana at the University of Notre Dame—good thing Cleveland was a perfect halfway point for the drive to and from school. My freshman year (2013) was a fun year for baseball. I remember listening to the Jason Giambi walkoff home run that kept the Indians' pennant dreams alive in late September. I was in my dorm room, and the first thing I did was run out into the hallway and call my dad in excitement.
A few months into that first semester, my world changed. Dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 Bladder cancer, with a timeline of 1-2 years left to live. The distance from school to home felt impossibly far.
Dad was nothing if not a fighter—like I said, he had a competitive spirit. Through all the pain, he fought. He was a healthy guy (he worked out every day before work) and he was determined to beat this new challenge. He never got down. Every time I talked to him, he was planning a new trip out to visit me for a football game, or reminding me to tell my mom how great she was (and she is great). Inevitably, every conversation we had would turn to the Tribe—how their pitching was looking this year, injury reports, trade rumors... the conversations were endless.
Of course, we made it to some games together. My junior year, a rescheduled Cubs game in Chicago lined up perfectly with my college move in, and so Dad once again went crazy buying tickets. It turned into a de facto family reunion with aunts, uncles, cousins, and most of my roommates coming along for the ride, some flying in from as far as New Jersey for Dad's first trip to Wrigley. The Indians lost on a walkoff home run, but it was just about as close to perfect as a day can be.
Then, the 2016 season rolled around. Last year was, simply put, magical. Dad and I were both equally enamored with Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Corey Kluber, and the other stars of the team. They were fun, and they were good. I studied abroad in London in the spring, but I still found ways to follow my Indians. If there was a day game, I'd listen to it on my walk back from class, Hammy in my ears, drowning out the city chatter or the rattling of the Tube, bringing a little bit of home to life abroad. I remember sending Dad a photo of myself from the bridge by my flat: headphones in, Tribe game on, Big Ben in the background, with a caption of "nothing's changed," even thousands of miles from home.
221,696,640 inches, to be exact.
When I came home for the summer, Indians games on the radio were a constant - and they were winning. The spirit was infectious: more so than ever before, there was the feeling that this was the year. My dad would often go to bed early, falling asleep listening to the games. First thing in the morning he'd greet me with, "So how ‘bout those Indians?" and we'd talk about that great play Frankie made, or J-Ram's clutch hit, or Carlos Carrasco's latest gem. For a few weeks from June to July, they just couldn't lose. Every game, the team found another way to win, to Dad's and my delight. As they neared the franchise win streak record, we toyed with the idea of driving 3 hours north to Toronto to see them potentially break it. Ultimately, Dad decided it would be too difficult. Instead, we listened from home as they went a marathon 19 innings against the Blue Jays to win their fourteenth straight. The streak was two weeks of pure magic, and some of the best time I shared with Dad.
As fall arrived and I left for my senior year of college, Dad's health started to decline more. Cancer is unforgiving, and it doesn't care if your favorite baseball team is having a season for the ages. Still, Dad and I always found time to talk the Tribe whenever I called home. It was easier than talking about scarier things, and it was something we both loved.
When the playoffs started up, I was lucky enough to make it to Game 2 of the ALDS against the Red Sox. I remember talking with my dad on the phone about my reservations at the cost of the ticket. "This is once in a lifetime," he assured me. After I eventually bit the bullet and purchased the cheapest seat I could find, he shot me a text. He had transferred me enough money for the ticket, plus a few bucks. "Buy a hot dog at the game, on me," he told me. "Don't forget to get the Stadium Mustard." I even celebrated my 21st birthday in Cleveland, outfitting all my roommates in Indians gear so we could hang out on E. 4th street and watch the Trevor Bauer Bloody Finger Game. When the Indians won the Pennant, I was on fall break in a cabin in Tennessee. I popped some champagne and called Dad.
48,502,080 inches between us.
Within an hour, I had a text message from a family friend of ours, Mike. He wanted to try to get tickets to the World Series to take my dad. Was I available? I don't think I've ever responded to a text as fast as I did then.
Sometimes I still can't believe I got to attend a Cleveland World Series game, let alone with my Dad, the biggest Indians fan I know. My attendance was supposed to be a surprise for him—Mike had gotten a few tickets for my mom, my dad, and another friend. There was one extra, and he vaguely told Dad he'd find someone else to take it. They were watching a football game together when Dad turned to Mike and sheepishly asked, "Hey, if no one steps up for that extra ticket, what would you think about my daughter Kelly coming along?" Mike cracked up. "She's already coming," he told my dad. He made Mike say it three times before believing him.
I drove to Cleveland from school the night before Game 1 and met my parents, who happened to be celebrating 30 years of marriage, the aptly nicknamed "Diamond" Anniversary. The next day, we watched Corey Kluber blank the Cubs in a brilliant 6-0 victory. My dad spent way too much money buying me a souvenir cup of beer, the first and only drink he ever bought me. Roberto Perez hit two home runs. I was on top of the world—and I got to share that experience with Dad.
Just a few inches apart.
Game 7. My friends and I watched the game at my off-campus house. I am a bit—okay, very— superstitious, so when the Indians started losing I decided I shouldn't be watching on TV anymore. I took my friend Claire—a Clevelander and fellow Indians fan—and we went to my bedroom to listen to the WTAM feed. I'll never forget jumping up and down on my bed with her when Rajai Davis hit the home run. After the initial celebration, the first thing I did was call Dad. "I think this might be it," I told him. We were inches from victory.
That game, of course, didn't end how we wanted it to. I think I cried for about two hours that night, but it wasn't just about losing. I knew, in the back of my mind, that this was my dad's last chance to see his Indians win the World Series.
Still, last season gave me immeasurable happiness throughout the year. Through the joy and elation of the 2016 season, I always had something to talk to Dad about, and something we could celebrate together without fail.
If I had the chance to trade away a year of shared excitement and happiness with Dad for an Indians World Series title, I'd take that year every single time. "There's always next year," as Indians fans know well. The joy that Dad and I got out of the 2016 season can never be replaced.
Dad took a major turn for the worse in May. He wasn't able to make it to my graduation, and I rushed home immediately afterward to be there with my family. We spent the final weeks of his life together in our house, and, of course, we didn't miss any of those Indians games. In one of his last days, my aunt told him he could call in a few favors once he got to heaven. She suggested that this might be the year the Indians finally win the World Series, and he excitedly responded, "I can ask for that?" Knowing Dad, he's already pulling strings with the Big Man to try to get the Tribe back to the playoffs this year. I sat with him and held his hand many times in his final days, cherishing the moments I had to be near him.
0 inches apart.
Dad passed away on June 4th—the Indians won that day. He was a fan his entire life, through the ups and the downs, and he passed that on to all his kids. He never saw a World Series brought to Cleveland, but I think the Indians gave him some of his greatest happiness, and some of his greatest bonds with his kids. He was buried, of course, with a Tribe hat—always their biggest fan.
I want to say a heartfelt thank you to the Cleveland Indians. Thank you to the players and the organization that brought me closer to my dad than anything else.
Thank you for making the miles between us feel like inches.