A beer in his hand, a small radio clipped to his Indians T-shirt and a perfect view of the action at Jacobs Field in front of him. To Gene Witts, this is paradise. "Some people go to Florida or wherever," he says. "But my vacation is here at Jacobs Field."
And it's been an extended stay. Like the 19-foot left-field wall, the jumbo scoreboard atop the bleachers or the Batter's Eye bar, Witts is a Jacobs Field fixture. On Sept. 12, the Indians will play their 1,000th regular-season game at The Jake. The 72-year-old Witts will have been there for 999 of them. Which, of course, raises the question: What's up with the one absence? "It was June 18, 1994," says Witts, grimly reciting the date as if it was the day a relative had died. "A friend of mine had a friend coming in from Arizona, and I said, 'You can take the tickets.' I had two season tickets in section 138. It was a soldout game, and they beat Roger Clemens [and the Red Sox]." Where was Witts? At his Lakewood home, much to his chagrin. "I thought it would be nice to just stay home and listen to the game," he says. "But it drove me nuts!" One hopes the visitor from Arizona had a good time, because that would be the absolute last time Witts would be giving away his ticket. "It was so exciting in the '90s," he says. "You just didn't want to miss a game." So Witts, who retired from his job at East Ohio Gas in 1994, simply didn't. And when the glory days at The Jake began to fade to black earlier this decade, he might have moved his seat from 138 to the right-field mezzanine, but he didn't let his streak die out. Counting the 26 playoff games that have taken place in the building and the 1997 All-Star Game, Witts has been to 1,025 games at The Jake. The way he sees it, he might as well take advantage of the beautiful facility, which looks as good now as the day it opened in '94. After all, Witts did his due diligence just to get the place built. "When I worked for the gas company, on lunch breaks, I'd stand outside passing out leaflets [supporting the Gateway project]," he says. "I also bought one of the bricks out front. This place is just a part of me."
And he, clearly, is a part of it. So much so, in fact, that his family members have resigned themselves to the fact that family functions that take place on Indians home dates won't have Witts in attendance. Thus, they plan accordingly. "I give everybody the magnet schedules," Witts says. "I get as many as I can. They schedule their events around the Indians. My nephew was getting married, and they wanted to schedule their wedding date according to the Indians' schedule!" Why such fascination with the ballpark? "It's just a great place -- the coziness and everything," he says. "I like everything about it. The best part is the help. I have never, never, never met such nice people." One of those people is beer vendor Robert Zuercher. Before every game, Zuercher sees Witts walking on the bridge that connects the ballpark to the season-ticket holders' parking lot, and, each time, he has a cold Miller Lite waiting for Witts. "He always has his regular," Zuercher says. "Every game, it's two beers. No more, no less." Witts also has plenty of stories to tell. "I talk to him every night," Zuercher says. "He talks about going to games in the early '50s. He knows baseball, inside and out."
When he sees the retired No. 455 -- paying tribute to the consecutive sellout streak at the ballpark from 1995-2001 -- Witts beams with pride.
"I'm part of that 455," he says. "That's my moment of glory."
But it doesn't have to be a sellout, Opening Day or a playoff game to make Witts happy. To him, a day at the yard is a day away from everything else. And in his view, no finer retirement life exists.
"You forget what's happening in the world -- if there's a war or whatever," he says. "You're in your own little world. We all need that peace in our lives. I come here, and it's like visiting a friend's house. You just feel at home."
A dedicated fan offers his guide to The Jake
|Best seats: Right-field mezzanine|
|"I like that where you can get away from everybody and stretch out. These seats are the best-kept secret in Jacobs Field."|
|Best game: Oct. 24, 1995, Game 3 of the World Series (first Series win for the Tribe since '48)|
|"Probably everyone's favorite. That day, I had pulled my back. I could barely walk. My friend asked if he should get a wheelchair for me. I said, 'No, I waited so long for this!'"|
|Best food: Funnel cakes|
|"Oh, I absolutely love them. I really shouldn't be eating them. I can't do that every night, but it's my favorite. It's a treat for me."|
|Best promotion: Player magnets|
|"I put them all on my refrigerator door. When the players leave, they go on my freezer door. Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez are the only two on my freezer door upside down. Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel are on top and will never come down."|
: : : This Edition: Sept. 06, 2006 : : :
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.