Cheers To The Tribe: How One Soldier Grew Up With Baseball In His Blood
Childhood dreams have an interesting way of coming to life, one way or another, if you stick with your passions long enough and work on yourself hard enough.
That was exactly the case for one lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, whose goal as a young kid was to become the best baseball player in northeastern Ohio. When that ambitious teenager grew to adulthood, the call to serve his country overcame his desire for ballpark stardom. But he never truly gave up the game, and his name found its way to the scoreboard at the Cleveland Indians’ Jacobs Field after all, though not in the way he might have originally imagined.
This is the story of how one man’s bond to his hometown and his home team, as well as his love for the game, kept him close to home over the years – from The Army to The Coast Guard, from Germany to Iraq – until he finally returned home to Cleveland, just in time for the 2016 World Series.
Every artist and athlete remembers their first time practicing their craft. For some, that’s the first time stumbling across a frozen pond with a hockey stick. For others, it’s the first time whacking a pair of drumsticks on a snare. For David Nodal, that moment came when he was 4-years-old outside his parents’ place, 25 miles west of Cleveland in Amherst, Ohio, learning that great American pastime, baseball.
“I remember the day my uncle taught me how to play baseball. He used a dinner plate as home plate. I never forgot that. I also never forgot the first time I hit the ball that afternoon in my parents’ backyard. I was instantly hooked and played baseball until I was 27.”
While growing up in the Buckeye State affords Ohioans plenty of great sports teams to watch, growing up a Cleveland fan was difficult for many, due in part to the supposed curse on the city’s major league teams. Between the Browns of the NFL, the Cavaliers of the NBA, and the Indians of the MLB, Cleveland had not experienced a championship title since 1964.
Despite the bad luck, Clevelanders backed their teams with staunch loyalty, with a young David Nodal among the pack backing the Tribe.
“My first Indians game I can remember was in 1991, when I was 8-years-old, at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. I’d have to say Jim Thome was the first major player I was obsessed with. But the more I grew up and played the game, I modeled my own style after Kenny Lofton. I was a left-handed outfielder like him as a kid. I also got a lot of base hits and stole bases, just like Kenny.”
Kenny Lofton, as any Indians fan can tell you, was the best stolen base runner the city had ever seen. With his 450 stolen bases as an Indian, he still to this day holds first place in the category for the franchise. And though he played for more than 10 different teams during his career, most will agree that Lofton was always a Clevelander at heart.
“I remember 1994 well, the year they started playing at Jacobs Field, aka The Jake, now known as Progressive Field. As a fan, I participated in countless games as a part of the 455 consecutive sellout games at the Jake. All throughout the ‘90s.”
“I also remember watching the 1995 and ’97 World Series at home with family, and also with baseball and basketball teammates in Lorain and Elyria, Ohio. I started high school in 1998. It was then when my main goal to become the best baseball player in my area was born, after watching those World Series runs by the Indians.”
During high school, David would come to realize those goals and become one of the best players in Lorain County, Ohio from 1999 – 2001. He attended a small private school in Lorain, Ohio called North Coast Christian Academy, a school known for their basketball team. He and his friends all wanted to excel on the court, but as underclassmen they started to realize they were better at baseball.
David would lead the country in stolen bases and batting average during his senior year. He also threw the school’s first no-hitter and hit the first home run. That great playoff run in his senior year earned David and his teammates some national attention from small private colleges, including baseball scholarships from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Unfortunately, a knee injury would nearly stand in the way of David’s dreams, but he persisted and ended up on the baseball team at Cleveland State University and Lorain County Community College.
“I participated in the Horizon League Baseball Tournament at Jacobs Field in May of 2002 with CSU. I met Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar – one of the best defensive duos in the history of baseball ever – in the batting cages while taking batting practice that weekend! I’ll never forget that!”
“I met a few players at CSU who helped my strength and conditioning out considerably, which prepared me for Army boot camp, one of whom was Stipe Miocic, UFC Heavyweight Champ. Stipe and I remain good friends to this day and he’s still one of the best 3rd basemen I’ve ever seen play baseball … besides Jim Thome, of course!”
While at CSU, David also worked in merchandising stands for the Browns and Indians. His brother got him the job and he was often reminded at work that he couldn’t just stand there and watch Jim Thome swallow ground balls at third base.
After Cleveland State, David joined the Army as a Combat Engineer and was sent overseas to Bamberg, Germany for three years, during which time he represented “The Land” everywhere they went. At the time, Lebron was still in high school and Ohio State was the only good team in the Buckeye State, recalls David. But that never stopped him, and even half the world away he remained a religious Tribe fan.
He and his fellow Tribe-fan soldiers would watch Indians, Browns, Cavs and Buckeye games on the Armed Forces Network (AFN) in Germany, which made sure to play as much American sports as possible on all their channels. They would often wake up at 2 or 3 am to watch the games live.
“I had a roommate from the Detroit area, he always gave me a hard time about the Indians vs Tigers games. He passed away in Ar Ramadi, Iraq in 2006. Two years ago, I went to an Indians game in Detroit, and I felt like he was there with me in Comerica Park.”
“I also had squad leaders from the Cleveland area in Germany. We used to go to a German/American sports bar in Bamberg called ‘Playoffs.’ We watched a lot of Indians and Cavs there. We became frequent customers and the bar owner would stay open sometimes until 6 am so we could watch games live. We often went to work without even sleeping!”
After the Army, David moved back home to Lorain, Ohio. He collected his GI Bill at Lorain County Community College and walked onto the baseball team there. He played as starting pitcher and 1st baseman for two years while getting his associate degree in Mechanical Design. Not long after, David would again hear the call of duty and prepared for another deployment overseas, but not before a stop by his old merchandising grounds, The Jake, where a surprise would be waiting for the lifelong Indians fan.
“On August 4, 2005, my mom coordinated with my old boss at the Indians and got a “Special Tribe Welcome” sign put up on the scoreboard at Jacobs Field with my name on it. It was a small message to me before I left for Iraq in October of 2005. I was deployed to Fallujah and Ramadi with the 2nd Marine Division that year.”
“In 2007, I returned home from the Army and went to the ALCS for game 3 of the Indians vs. Red Sox series. We were up three games to one that series, and Curt Schilling and his damn bloody socks beat us and went on to win the World Series that year.”
The 2007 American League Championship Series had brought Cleveland together in ways the city saw again recently when the Cavs broke the city’s dry-spell with a championship win over the Golden State Warriors in June 2016. Only instead of Lebron James’ return to the city, it was David’s childhood hero Kenny Lofton who had returned to win them a championship. And he nearly did, and set a new MLB record for playoff steals in Game Four. Unfortunately, it was not enough, and the losing drought continued for fans of the Tribe.
“I remember thinking after that series that the curse is still alive and well, and that Cleveland sports was fairly dismal after that Indians collapse and Lebron leaving Cleveland. Ironically, we now have the same manager that beat us during that series, Terry Francona, whom I view as a baseball genius … especially after Saturday night’s win!”
Despite the Tribe’s tough times in the mid-2000s, David continued to be an avid fan of all teams Cleveland. He also continued to play ball himself, a lifelong passion that was as difficult for him to let go as it was easy for him to pick up.
In 2010, David played his last full season. He played on the same community college team in a Nike wooden bat league at a new stadium in Lorain, Ohio called The Pipe Yard. It was a fitting way for David to make his final swings, at the sport he had grown up on since playing in his parents’ backyard at 4-years-old, especially because the Pipe Yard was named after the local steel mill where his father worked for over 40 years.
From 2012 – 2016, David joined the Coast Guard and moved to San Diego, California, during which time his commitment to Cleveland sports only grew – despite the coastal time zone change. He even met his childhood idol, Kenny Lofton, at a Cavs vs. Clippers game in LA.
“The wife and I followed the Indians to San Francisco, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego in 2015. They lost every single game, but still even as Tribe fans on the losing end, we had the time of our lives!”
Also during his time serving on the Coast Guard in San Diego, David bought Cavs season tickets and started a nationwide watch party club called Cavs Cavalry, a collection of Clevelanders living across the country who share a true passion for their hometown sports. David and the other founders linked up with Cleveland bars in LA, San Diego, Chicago and Florida, which all serve as Browns, Cavs and Indians bars.
“If I were to describe my relationship to the Indians, it would be a story of pride and tradition. Unlike the Browns, for example, it’s a very love/hate relationship! But I became an Indians fan because my Dad and uncles were diehard tribe fans. Then baseball became my main sport, so I began to take pride in every homerun, strikeout and win.”