Not the Cleveland Lowenstein remembers

June 13, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Indians have accented their fine, new ballpark with a dominating team, a feat the Orioles have yet to accomplish in four years at Camden Yards.

The Indians are drawing 35,000 fans a game to Jacobs Field, lead the American League in hitting and pitching, have baseball's best record and have won 14 of their past 16 games after beating the Orioles last night. Not much left out of that package, huh?

Attendance and interest may be lagging in other major-league outposts, but right now this is Baseball City, USA. And John Lowenstein is still shaking his head about it even though this is his third trip here since the new park opened last year on the outskirts of downtown.

"I still have to pinch myself sometimes," he said last night,

sitting in the TV booth where he announced the game.

Lowenstein became famous as an Oriole in the late '70s and early '80s, but before that he was that dreaded baseball creature, the Indian lifer. The Tribe scouted him, signed him and gave him his break into the bigs. He played here for eight years. Eight solitary years.

The Indians finished 32 games out in his rookie season. They never finished closer than 14 out before he left.

"In my days, we would come out a few minutes before batting practice and shoot at the pigeons with pellet guns," he said. "I'm talking about the players now. It wasn't dangerous or anything. There wasn't anyone else in the ballpark."

In those days, the Indians didn't draw and didn't win; they were easily baseball's most desultory franchise, a standing industry joke.

"I think I knew all of the fans personally," Lowenstein said. "There weren't many, of course. After awhile you knew all their voices, not to mention their first names."

The team played in huge Municipal Stadium, a wonderful setting for football but a true baseball horror with a tiny crowd rattling around inside and the wind whipping in from the lake across the street.

"The downtown area was empty in those days, just a dead zone with nothing happening and no one around, and we used to feel it put us two runs down just to have the other team drive through downtown on the way to the park," Lowenstein said. "We felt like they had to be encouraged to see the lack of support for the home team."

Downtown Cleveland has undergone a wonderful transformation in the past decade, coming back to life much as Baltimore did in the '70s and '80s. Taking a walk through town yesterday afternoon, Lowenstein said he came across some fans from the old days.

"All 15 of them!" he said. "God bless 'em, they never forget."

Contrasting Lowenstein's memories with today's Cleveland baseball experience is enough to make Ken Burns weep.

Last night, a big crowd arrived early on a cool, clear evening and ate dinner before the game as the sun slowly set, the low-key party atmosphere almost identical to that at Camden Yards. Then the Indians went out and beat the Orioles to run their record to 31-11.

Going from the old days at Municipal Stadium to last night at Jacobs Field was, well, a leap Lowenstein could never envision.

"I lived here for eight years, and I enjoyed it very much. It's a nice place," he said, "but I have to be honest, I never thought I would see the day when baseball would be so big here. This was a football town all the way when I was here. Everything was Browns, Browns, Browns. The Indians were nothing."

Imagine his shock when he went on his walk yesterday afternoon and came across . . .

"Indians memorabilia stores! Incredible!" he said. "Entire stores with just Indians stuff in them. You have no idea. In my days, I think a couple of guys standing around outside the ballpark had all the memorabilia. And believe me, no one else wanted it."

Things are different now, completely different. The new ballpark was guaranteed to energize the franchise, as it did the Orioles, but the Indians have doubled the process by putting together a superb team truly without weakness.

The formula they used was pretty simple: Draft smart, nurture the talent and fill in the gaps with a couple of smart trades and free-agent signings. The result is one of baseball's best lineups of the past decade, an accomplished and experienced starting rotation and an unsung bullpen that is the rage of the league.

"I have to be honest. It does stir something in my heart to see it happening," Lowenstein said. "To go for so long with nothing happening, and then come in here and see this, it does move me. This was the team that gave me a chance. And things have been rough here for so long. But, boy, not anymore."

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