Progressive Field a marvel in need of careful handling
Tribe will celebrate the ballpark's first 20 years while trying to plan well for its future
CLEVELAND -- It was built on the site of the old Central Market, a spot once given to public gatherings and the fragrant scent of olives emanating from Gust Gallucci's Italian deli, before ultimately, time passed, tastes shifted and the effects of neglect set in.
In the years leading up to the construction of Jacobs Field and the neighboring Gund Arena (now Quicken Loans Arena), it was difficult to point to that condemned southernmost section of the downtown cityscape and envision it becoming the crown jewel of a Cleveland renaissance. But 20 years have passed since people first convened upon the Gateway complex, and it is, by now, well-established as an entertainment institution in this town.
On Friday, folks will convene again at the ballpark now known as Progressive Field, exactly 20 years to the day since an Indians opener that stands as the most meaningful moment in the 113-year history of the charter American League franchise.
The rebirth of a once-flagging franchise occurred that day, April 4, 1994, and only in retrospect can we truly appreciate the unique era of excellence and excitement it launched.
"Very rarely do you ever experience a situation where reality exceeds expectations," said Bob DiBiasio, the Indians' senior vice president of public affairs. "But it happened that day."
Fans streamed in that day, and they were so taken by the newness of it all that some could actually be seen walking their hot dog wrappers to the garbage cans instead of dropping them to the floor. President Bill Clinton threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The Mariners' Randy Johnson took a no-no into the eighth, frazzling the great Bob Feller, who, concerned that his standing as the only pitcher to toss an Opening Day no-hitter was in jeopardy, paced the press box in frustration and eventually showed up unannounced in the ESPN booth to try to jinx the Big Unit.
And as if all that weren't occasion enough, the Indians rallied late and won it on a two-out 11th-inning hit by Wayne Kirby, of all people.
To honor that day, the club will raise a flag on Friday commemorating the eight postseason appearances those 20 years have brought. The Indians will acknowledge the season-ticket holders who have been there from the ballpark's beginning and have stuck with the Tribe long after the famed 455-game sellout streak ended. They'll bring out former skipper Mike Hargrove to throw out a first pitch to Sandy Alomar Jr.
Yes, they'll briefly celebrate the past of a park that has packed a mountain of memories into its two decades.
And then Danny Salazar will throw the first pitch of the 2014 home slate, propelling Progressive Field into a future that is quite unclear.
Aesthetically and structurally, the ballpark has retained its beauty, and the magic acts it has housed only add to its allure.
Most walk off wins 1994-2013
"The vibe is always there," said Jim Thome, whose profound power at the place he called home for 13 years inspired a soon-to-be-installed statue. "As an ex-player, that doesn't really leave you. It doesn't go away. When that ballpark gets rocking, you can still feel the vibe."
But beyond the vibe and beneath the surface, Progressive Field is a 20-year-old building in need of upkeep, a relic to a bygone era of luxury-suite sustenance in need of rethinking.
Cuyahoga County voters will have some say in how the upkeep is handled when they say yay or nay to a "sin tax" extension on the May 6 ballot. The proposed issue is an extension -- not an increase -- of current taxes on alcohol and cigarettes that would raise an estimated $270 million for the maintenance of Cleveland's professional sports facilities over the next 20 years.
Because the county is, by lease, legally obligated to foot the bill for major capital repairs, a defeat of the sin-tax extension (the current arrangement runs through July 2015) could eventually mean cutbacks elsewhere. Wherever the funding emanates, the Indians' requests for maintenance money over the next decade will go beyond the oft-reported hope of upgrades to scoreboard controls and into the realm of concrete repairs, heating and cooling systems, storm and sewage pumps -- the nitty-gritty, not-so-pretty areas of improvement that all buildings abused by two decades worth of Cleveland winters require.
So the sin-tax issue is an important one for the future vitality of Progressive Field.
It is, however, only one piece of the park's future.
The Indians have, in recent years, reimagined the use of the 115 luxury boxes that were once considered instrumental but now are considered detrimental to the ballpark's ability to generate revenue.
"No one would build a ballpark like that today," team president Mark Shapiro said. "From the standpoint of the amenities and then market-wise, it certainly wouldn't be that size and it would not have the same level of premiums."
Ten suites were converted last year into the 5,000-square-foot Collection Auto Group Club, which provides fans with a vantage point adjacent to the radio and TV booths and includes balcony seats and TVs galore. Another area of suites was morphed into the Kids Clubhouse, which houses a climbing wall, batting cage, pitching machine and other family-friendly activities. The once-private Terrace Club restaurant is now open to the general public.
But for the cost, the Indians probably would have eliminated entire seating sections and totally reconstructed the suite levels by now. As it stands, Shapiro, without divulging any details or timetables, sees the above adjustments as mere precursors to a grander plan.
"We're in the process of building toward a bigger project," he said. "A bigger-scale project for fan amenities and the fan experience."
The challenge presented to the Indians in recent seasons is one the Central Market once faced. Tastes and trends have shifted again. Fans can watch games in the comfort of home on gargantuan high-definition television sets. The downtown Cleveland job force has shrunk, as has the region's population. And as the Indians learned last year, when they had the third-lowest average attendance in the Major Leagues while winding their way to the AL Wild Card Game, it takes more than just a winning record to entice fans to come through the gates.
So the Indians approach the 20th anniversary of Progressive Field knowing it will need support -- both in county funding and internal creativity -- to maintain its glow.
"We want to provide a fan experience that engages the next 20 years of fans," Shapiro said, "without violating the integrity of what is really an iconic, incredible building."