BEACHWOOD, Ohio -- Two seasons ago, John Gaull headed to Progressive Field to catch an Indians game with his son, Joshua. They could not have predicted the journey that one baseball from that contest would take in the following years.
Cleveland reliever Tony Sipp finished off a Red Sox hitter with a strikeout to end an inning on that April evening. The ball used was then tossed into the stands as the Indians headed off the field, and it wound up in Josh's hands as a memorable souvenir.
On Friday night, during the team's first stop on the "Tribe on Tour" at Beachwood Place Mall, the baseball was once again handed to Sipp. Getting the pitcher's autograph was one of the main goals John Gaull had after making the trip from nearby Maple Heights to Beachwood.
"We brought the ball," Gaull said with a satisfied smile. "And we got Sipp to sign it."
It was an obvious highlight of another memorable day for Gaull and his wife, Julie, who brought 12-year-old Joshua and their 8-year-old nephew, Jake. They were among a large crowd of fans who headed to Beachwood Place for the chance to take part in some baseball-themed games and, more importantly, meet members of the team.
Cleveland's star outfielder, Shin-Shoo Choo, drew a crowd wherever he walked, and Indians manager Manny Acta smiled as he sat at a table, chatting with fans before they headed in for some games and a chance to win prizes. Indians players Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley were also on hand.
At one point, the line to get into the event -- the first within a four-day tour that includes stops at three more Northeast Ohio malls through Monday -- stretched more than 800 fans deep. The players positioned themselves at various points along the line to help make the wait a little easier for all the fans.
"That helped a lot," Julie Gaull said. "I loved it. To me it was worth the wait."
Gaull, who had a camera in hands, said her favorite part of the evening was having a picture taken of her family. That probably didn't matter much to the two young boys. To them, there were other highlights.
"Meeting Choo," said Josh.
"The Home Run Derby," chimed Jake.
That would be the customized, Indians-themed Nintendo Wii video game that allowed kids to swing for the fences. While they tried to knock one out of the virtual yard, players spent time watching from behind home plate. LaPorta said he really enjoyed the chance to spend time with fans in the unique environment.
"I think it's great," LaPorta said. "It's nice to be able to have them be a part of this and be able to interact with us. I think it's more of an intimate setting, which is nice. If I was a fan, I would appreciate that more."
On Saturday, the Tribe on Tour rolls into North Olmstead from 12-4 p.m. ET at the Great Northern Mall. On Sunday, the event moves to Summit Mall in Akron from 12-4 p.m. ET. The tour wraps up Monday, when fans can head to South Park Mall from 5-9 p.m. ET in Strongsville to meet members of the team.
The Indians are hoping that focusing on Northeast Ohio will help bring more local fans out to Progressive Field throughout the upcoming season. Coming off a 93-loss season, during which the team had the lowest attendance in baseball, the Tribe knows outside expectations are low.
LaPorta hopes fans will recognize that, with such a young team and so many talented prospects coming through the system, now is as good a time as any to get to know the current team.
"We've got a lot of young guys that are really excited to play," LaPorta said. "A lot of us have our at-bats under our belts. We're not seasoned veterans by any means, but we're not rookies now. I think we can continue to build on that.
"We're bringing a new era of baseball for the Indians, I think. I'm extremely excited for this season."
Acta knows the only way to convince the fans to flock to the ballpark is to produce better results on the field.
"We just have to continue to develop our kids," Acta said. "Our fanbase is there. Just because we don't see a sellout every night like they used to in the '90s doesn't mean we have lost our fanbase. Our fans are just like every fan in the world.
"Everybody wants to win. Once we get this thing right and bring excitement to Progressive Field, along with more 'W's', they'll show up."
They certainly showed up at Beachwood Place Mall, and that is something Acta and the rest of the Indians' representatives at the first tour stop appreciated.
"It's good," Acta said. "It's great that we get to interact with our fans. I think that they deserve to get an answer for the questions that they have. To meet them face to face, it's always a good starting point."