The first time that I met John Addams I was 16. It was the last game of the 1990 season. I had all the makings of a great day: A brand new drivers’ license, about $50 in my pocket from my summer job, the day off from school, and two parents that worked. The car I took to that job was in the driveway.
Would I have gotten permission to drive downtown from my parents? Hell, no. But if I left the game by 4 p.m., I could make it home before they got back.
Old schoolers, just read and reminisce. NuSkoolers, read and learn.
This was the era when the only Indians player who was a household name was rookie phenom reliever Rick Vaughn, and the idea of his team making the postseason was just as comic as the lines his teammates delivered.
If you’ve never been there, you can’t really fathom the size of old Municipal Stadium; how far back the last rows were from the field, the vastness of the park.
Even walking around the outside of it felt like a three-day hike.
The stadium held 80,000 fans. If you were one of the usual 15,000 in attendance, you really know what the words “empty” and “dispersed” meant. But when it was full, like it was for a double-header in 1986 against the Yankees, cheering with 80,000 was pure electricity.
I paid the $5 to park just behind the closed end of the stadium and shelled out something comparable for the ticket.
I only remember two things about the game. First, there was some question if George Brett would play. If he did play, he could jeopardized his chance at winning a third batting title.
He didn't start, but he pinch-hit late in the game, getting a hit to become the first player to win batting crowns in three different decades.
The second thing was much cooler in my book. After trying out all the seats I could find, including the front row next to first base and the upper deck, I decided I was going to meet John Addams, The Guy with The Drum.
To a truly knowledgeable Indians fan, the name John Addams needs no explanation. Since 1973, he has been the guy in the outfield banging away on his bass drum at every home game. At old Municipal Stadium, he sat high in the right field bleachers.
Another endless walk and there it was. The Drum. It seemed smaller than the ones we had in junior high concert band. Or maybe it just looked smaller sitting on those old, rickety seats.
Oh, the man, too. From the loud, echoing beats that thundered through the cavernous old stadium, I expected Adams to be tough, demanding and grouchy.
Instead, I got Ned Flanders. I nervously stuck out my hand, expecting him to not lower himself to a dork like me, but he took my hand and shook it firmly, as I—an aloof 16-year-old—tried my best to squeeze back.
He was very warm and friendly. Since the Indians were not yet trendy, he was more comfortable with his humble, but still against-the-grain, status.
We talked baseball for a while. We both agreed that Brett shouldn’t have taken himself out of the lineup since Ted Williams didn’t in 1941 when he could’ve jeopardized his .400 batting average that year.
I wanted to talk about The Drum, but I held back, figuring there had to be more to him than that drum.
He got up to go to the bathroom. “Could ya watch it for a bit?” he said. I looked down. There they were. The two mallets. In my hands.
One thought ran through my head, just like in Little League: “Please, don’t hit the ball out this way!” Fitting that I was in right field then, too.
But no, just as had happened in the summers of my youth, the batter, an Indian whose name my nerves wouldn’t let me remember, hit the ball out of the infield. The crowd, such as it was that day, cheered heartily.
“Hit the drum!” A woman in front of me turned and yelled.
From my junior high band days, I had learned how to softly hit the drum, so I kept a good, mezzo piano rhythm to lead the crowd.
Which was barely heard past the woman who yelled at me to hit it in the first place.
“C’mon, kid! HIT it!” she screamed. Like Ron White would later exemplify in his comic routines, my mind hit that falsetto “Yes, Ma’am!” and I began whaling on it like a banshee. I thought I was going to pound right through the skin.
I actually handled an at-bat or two. Pounding away only between pitches, stopping when the Royals pitcher was winding up.
Hearing the clapping set to my rhythm made me feel like a god.
I sped up a few times, I slowed down a few times. They all kept in rhythm
Finally, Addams returned, just as I was getting the hang of it. I had kept the curtain up.
“Thanks,” he said. “How’d you do?”
That woman turned around a last time. “It took a little coaching but he did alright.”
I handed the mallets back to him and he resumed his work.
The hardest part was keeping the whole day a secret from my parents when they got home.
Twenty years later, I’m taking seven-year-old Bryan, my girlfriend’s son, to his first Indians game. He’s amazed at the size of Jacob—er, “Progressive”—Field, Heritage Park, and the digital scoreboard.
I’m amazed at the $15 for parking and the $25 for tickets out in right field (If he was older or more familiar with the park, I’d teach him the art of roaming, but not the first time and not that young.)
Realizing it was a nice even milestone from that day in October 1990, I wondered: Was I the only one who had done something like that? Chances are he wouldn’t remember, but what if he did?
I headed over to his perch, now just beneath the middle of the main scoreboard in left field. There he sat, at the top of the quarter-filled bleachers, like Buddha on top of a mountain.
Understandably, he seemed older than in 1990, but as I talked to him, I began to recognize the parts of the journey all Indians fans had taken since Mike Hargrove took over.
I don’t think he wanted to admit it, but recalling my memory of that day I think made him sentimental for that time when being an Indians fan took true dedication.
All the cool fans were with the Blue Jays and their SkyDome, or the A’s with Canseco and McGwire (before we knew about the steroids).
But being a Tribe fan meant putting up with our cavernous dump of a park and rooting for a mediocre team that would never get it right.
Now, we had this nice place; intimate, with clean aisles, comfortable seats and sideshows like Heritage Park. And the joke of Major League—putting the Bad News Indians in the postseason—was a thing of the past.
A whole generation of fans also emerged when the Thome/Lofton/Vizquel unit of the ‘90s ruled the AL Central, making it cool to cheer for the Indians and to remember "back in the days" when things weren't so good.
Now that time in the sun was over, leaving us with a nicer ballpark but the same 30-year rebuilding project and the fresh sting of “what could’ve been.”
But as for The Drum, even after the high-powered offenses of the 1990s, it has held up pretty well.
It looked like I was ahead of the curve.
“Oh, thousands have taken a hit,” Addams told me. “All walks of life. Different countries, all ages.” He said the age range has been from six-month-old babies to "kids" of 89.
But they don’t get the same experience I got.
“I only let ‘em have one hit. Sometimes, they can’t count, but I’ll stop it,” he said.
And with the new ballpark went the opportunity I had. See, the bathroom’s a lot closer than it was in old Municipal Stadium.
In 1990, I talked with him for a few innings and no one even approached him. Now, the later innings seem to have a nightly ritual of kids wanting to take their turn, lining up as if to see Santa at the mall.
“Two minutes, I’m back,” he said.
As for my fears about breaking the skin, it turns out I shouldn’t have worried. A couple weeks ago, at a special event for season-ticket holders, he got a chance to take batting practice using The Drum instead of a bat.
“Talk about hitting booming line drives,” he said. “You could throw a 100 m.p.h. fastball and it wouldn’t break.”
Well, if it could survive batting practice, I figured it could also survive a 7-year-old. Like I was back then, Bryan was nervous about this man who hit the drum so loudly, but his first impression was just like mine.
As the line wound down, Bryan snuck in his hit before Mom could take a picture, but Adams posed for another, just like Santa would.
We all got up to leave. I thanked him for making Bryan’s first game even more memorable and shook his hand firmly.
“I dunno, Maybe we can do this again in twenty more years,” I said.
“Definitely.” he said.
On our way down the steps, Bryan asked me, “John, why didn’t you take a turn to hit the drum?”
“I already did,” I answered. “Earlier.”
Oh, and Dad, if you’re reading this. I took the Chevette downtown when I was 16. Sorry.
(Photo by Carrie Birdsong)