Kelly Smith can’t help but believe something greater is at work here, something that goes well beyond pitcher Corey Kluber’s ability to mow down Major League Baseball hitters with the alacrity of a groundskeeper cutting the outfield grass. An American League-record 22-game win streak in September has Kelly thinking this could be the year the Cleveland Indians end their 68-year World Series-title famine. And if that happens, you’ll have a hard time convincing the Rochester native that divine intervention, prompted by her late father, didn’t play a role.
“I’m sure Dad has been nagging God that this should be the Indians’ year,’’ she says, chuckling. “Dad can be very persistent when it comes to his beloved baseball team.”
Kelly lovingly recounts a conversation her aunt had with her father just days before he died on June 4, following a four-year battle with cancer. Gary Smith was heavily medicated at the time, fading in and out of consciousness, but he perked up when his sister Janet Smith mentioned the Indians. “She told him, ‘Gary, you’ve built up some good credit here on Earth, so when you get to heaven, you can pull some strings and ask for some big favors, including the Indians winning it all,’’’ Kelly recalls. “Dad opened his eyes, and said: ‘I can ask for that? That would be great.’ We all just cracked up. We thought that was the greatest thing.”
Should Gary’s request come true, a baseball bond between a daughter and her late father will become even stronger. “There’s definitely a deeper meaning here for me because this was something I shared with my dad my entire life,’’ says Kelly, who turns 22 next month. “The Indians have been a constant in our relationship, something we could commiserate or celebrate together. If this happens it’s going to be so emotional for me. I really don’t know how I will handle it.”
It was preordained that Kelly and her five siblings would become Indians fans. Gary Smith made sure of that. His parents had passed down the love of the Tribe to him, and, like a family heirloom, the former Rochester Institute of Technology assistant athletic director passed it on to his kids. Perhaps no one became more ardent than his fifth child, Kelly. “Dad loved to tell the story that if I had been a boy, he was going to name me after former Indians outfielder Kenny Lofton,’’ she says. “After I was born, Dad suggested I still have the middle name ‘Lofton,’ but Mom nixed that. That’s too bad because I think Kelly Lofton Smith sounds pretty cool.”
Kelly grew up a self-described tomboy who loved playing catch with her dad in the front yard. Later, as a varsity softball middle-infielder for Our Lady of Mercy High School, she patterned her game after hustling Indians star Grady Sizemore. She fondly remembers attending her first Indians game as an 8-year-old, sitting with her dad in the nose-bleed seats in the upper deck of Jacobs Field. Her father loved having a ballpark hot dog lathered with mustard. Between bites and pitches, he would verse her in Tribe lore—everything from the flame-throwing exploits of Rapid Robert Feller to the deep devotion of John Adams, who bangs his drum in the centerfield bleachers at every home game to fire up the fans.
Kelly’s passion for the team continued during her undergraduate days at the University of Notre Dame. Whenever the English major phoned home, conversations invariably turned to the Indians. “Even when I studied for a semester in London, I found ways to listen to games on the internet,’’ she says. “It kept me connected to my dad, knowing that he and I were listening to the same broadcast at the same time. Our love of that team helped minimize the distance between us. Dad always said baseball was a game of inches. Well, those miles between us often felt like inches, thanks to the Indians.”
Daughter and dad never felt closer than they did last October while attending Game One of the World Series between the Indians and Chicago Cubs in Cleveland. The trip was arranged by family friend Mike Vadala. “That was such an incredible experience to be able to go insane with my dad every time Kluber struck someone out or an Indian got a hit,’’ she says of that 6-0 Cleveland victory. “Dad was pretty sick at the time, and I know he couldn’t have been comfortable out in that cold. But he never gave one indication that he wasn’t having the time of his life with his wife, daughter and beloved baseball team.”
About three weeks ago, Kelly attended her first Indians game since. She felt her father’s presence the instant she walked into Progressive Field. Cleveland won its 17th straight that day, and Kelly thought about how much her dad would have enjoyed the way this season is playing out. The Indians strong regular-season finish has Kelly thinking this will be the year. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas agree. They’ve established Cleveland as the favorite to win it all. The fact the Cubs ended their 108-year Series title famine last fall, a year after the Kansas City Royals snapped a 30-year drought, gives her hope. “They say good things come in threes,’’ she says. “Maybe it’s our turn.”
So many poignant stories came to light after the Cubs famine ended, including one about a son who went to his father’s grave and listened to all 10 innings of Chicago’s Game Seven victory on radio while sitting in the cemetery. Kelly is familiar with that story. “Just thinking about it gives me chills,’’ she says.
She would love to share a similar experience with her father.
“I know Dad’s working on it,’’ she says. “He’s up there, pulling some strings with the big man.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.