Impulsive Traveler: Winter sports in Cleveland
By Becky Krystal,
The lights above were so bright, they’d blind me if I looked straight at them. Thousands of stadium seats sloped gently upward from the field. A roar went up from the crowd, and my image blinked on the scoreboard above the bleachers.
Then I turned around, and there were the Christmas trees and twinkling lights. The illusion dissipated.
For one winter afternoon in Cleveland, I indulged in a fantasy shared by many a fan of America’s pastime: romping around a Major League Baseball diamond. Snow Days at Progressive (nee Jacobs) Field, home of the Indians, is now in its second year. From right after Thanksgiving to mid-January, the stadium dedicates itself to winter sports, with ice skating and tubing facilities installed in a place that typically sees a different sort of sliding.
My husband and I have been making annual summer pilgrimages to Cleveland for several years now to visit his family, and the trip always includes a baseball game. Thanks to his grandmother, we’re treated to premium seats just a few rows back from the first-base line.
I’d always figured that it would be nearly impossible to get any closer to the actual field, but for less than the cost of one of those game-day tickets, an all-access Snow Days pass puts you smack in the middle of the turf, with unlimited tubing, skating and holiday cheer.
After oohing and aahing at the spectacle — and downright brilliance — of it all, I girded myself for a trip down the tubing hill. Waiting in line, you get a behind-the-scenes view of what is not, of course, the kind of hill you’d find at a ski resort but rather an incline constructed of what I assured myself was a very sturdy structure of metal rods.
The Batterhorn (get it?) consists of about a half-dozen lanes that run 200 feet down to the level of the field. I was a little nervous, because it was my first time tubing despite my numerous visits to ski resorts. This seemed as good a time as any to give it a go, in a fairly contained environment with a high employee-to-visitor ratio.
Before I had too long to contemplate the situation, the keepers of the hill released me and my fellow tubers, propelling us down toward another set of red-jacketed employees. I unintentionally did a 180 and rapidly decelerated to a stop at the bottom.
“It was way faster than I thought it was going to be,” said University of Mount Union student Andrew Brown, whom I met on the Frozen Mile skating loop after happily abandoning the tubing hill. “It was scary, but it was fun,” added his companion, Gina Serluco. I decided to follow their lead and stick to skating for a while.
The Frozen Mile is a bit of misnomer. To get a mile of skating in, you have to take five laps around the ring. (A separate full ice rink was added this year, which hosted a youth hockey game — the source of the cheering crowd — the day I was there.)
I slowed down to admire the icy prowess of Slider, the Indians’ magenta Muppet-like mascot, who was skating against the flow of traffic while doling out high-fives.
I observed his very large skates and asked him what size they were. He shrugged and bestowed a gallant kiss on my gloved hand with a cartoonish puckering sound.
If you’re a regular Progressive Field visitor, you might also hope to catch a glimpse of Ketchup, Mustard and Onion, the costumed hot dog characters who race between the innings at baseball games. I spied (Ms.) Onion and (Mr.) Mustard, who offered me no explanation as to why he wasn’t on skates.
I lost track of how many loops I made around the Frozen Mile, part of which travels under the tubing hill, providing a soundtrack roughly akin to passing under a highway overpass. Each time I completed the circle, I found something new to contemplate. Several dozen Christmas trees lined the ice, some decorated with Indians paraphernalia. There were wooden cutouts of frolicking children and snowmen. I enjoyed the novelty of being in the stadium, peeking into the bullpen as I glided past or watching myself on the scoreboard’s big screen, a distraction that nearly caused me to topple over.
My feet and face sufficiently numbed by the 25-degree air, I returned the skates and settled in with a cup of free hot chocolate. The rising moon peeked through the gap between the upper and lower decks.
I decided that it would be a shame not to try the tubing hill at least one more time. I got in line behind a trio of laughing young women who, once our ride was over, told me that they’d hit a wine bar before coming to the stadium. Smart.
“This is really unique,” Cleveland resident Rachelle Keng said. “You usually can’t go tubing in a city.” A recent transplant from Michigan, Keng was showing around Doris Leung and her friend Elaine Lin, both of Toronto. They were all used to the cold. I was not, I realized, glancing at my meshy running shoes. It was time to go.
The next morning my husband’s grandmother and I visited the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Its glass-enclosed Madagascar desert habitat did a pretty good job of erasing the memory of the previous night’s chill. It did such a good job, in fact, that I decided to continue my winter sports adventure by trying out the skating rink next door.
There was a twist, though. The Rink at Wade Oval, located in the city’s culturally rich University Circle neighborhood, isn’t made of ice. The surface is a synthetic material that I can best compare to a plastic milk crate.
University Circle “ambassador” Pleurat Dreshaj handed me a pair of ice skates, informing me that the fake stuff is about 70 percent similar to ice.
I found his estimate rather generous. It was difficult to glide, and the most effective way to move across the surface was to take quick baby steps while leaning dangerously forward. I had the rink to myself for a little while, but soon enough, several families joined me.
Currier & Ives it wasn’t. Still, with snowflake ornaments hanging from the trees, holiday tunes playing and a somewhat functioning propane heater in the seating area, it was close enough to a Christmas greeting card scene.
Now if only Slider were in the picture.