BY CAROLYN LaWELL
INDIANAPOLIS | Cal Burleson has headed to the Indianapolis Indians offices just about every day since 1975. First he was a ticket manager, then the business manager, then the publicity manager, the assistant general manager and now, after almost four decades, right at the top as the vice president and general manager.
By the time he was a junior at Tallmadge High School in Ohio, Burleson knew he wouldn’t be able to pay the bills playing shortstop. He set goals to earn a degree from Ohio University’s master’s program in sports administration and start a career on the business side of baseball.
In the spring of ’73, bright-eyed graduates found minor league baseball jobs the same way they do today. Burleson went home, worked in a factory and waited until the Winter Meetings. He drove to Houston, handed out resumes, interviewed with teams and landed a job offer from the Jacksonville Suns. He worked a season with the team, then headed to the next Winter Meetings, this time in New Orleans, and started the process again. That December, Max Schumacher, who has worked with the Indians since 1957, offered Burleson a job in Indianapolis.
"I don’t know if I’ll ever find one moment that will replace Billy Moore when we went from losing to winning with one swing of the bat." - Indianapolis Indians VP and GM Cal Burleson
He drove to Indianapolis and has never left.
We talked with Burleson about his biggest changes and most memorable moments during his nearly four decades with the team. This is what he said.
Biggest change: Victory Field
Victory Field, positioned on the west edge of downtown and with one of the more magnificent minor league stadium views, opened in July 1996. From 1931 until then, the Indians played at old Owen J. “Donie” Bush Stadium, which was recently demolished and is being converted into an apartment complex.
“The biggest change is the move to Victory Field, as minor league teams had the opportunities to play in tremendous facilities that became key parts of downtown communities all around the country,” Burleson says. “It was a great example of a challenge becoming an opportunity. Major League Baseball came out with a set of facility standards that the majority of minor league teams were either borderline or deficient in, so we created a need for upgraded facilities. That developed an opportunity for baseball owners and municipalities and governments of various persuasions to come together in partnership to build new ballparks. You have a new generation of minor league ballparks across the county that have just skyrocketed interest in minor league baseball.”
Greatest moment: Game 7, 1986 American Association Championship
The Indians won their first championship during Burleson’s time with the team back in 1982. They went on to dominate the league and win four straight titles from ’86 to ’89, then again in 1994 and 2000. Burleson’s most memorable moment with the Indians was that last game of the 1986 season, that second championship run.
The Indians, then the Triple-A affiliate of the old Montreal Expos, won the Eastern Division. The Denver Zephyrs, then the Cincinnati Reds affiliate, took the Western Division. The teams battled for the American Association Championship in a series that went right down to the ninth inning of the seventh game.
“Going into the ninth, we were behind 4-2,” Burleson says. The Indians scored a run to draw closer, then “we get the bases loaded, two outs. Rob Dibble is on the mound for Denver. Billy Moore is at the plate for Indianapolis. With the count of two balls and two strikes, he hit a two-run single to win the championship 5-4. I don’t know if I’ll ever find one moment that will replace Billy Moore when we went from losing to winning with one swing of the bat. There have been a lot of great moments winning championships. I have to focus on that.”
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Time for minor league trivia. In 2011, the Indianapolis Indians wore this number on their jerseys to commemorate a significant anniversary of professional baseball in Indianapolis. What was it? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Indianapolis starting pitcher Daniel Cabrera fired a complete game, allowing just two runs on six hits, but it wasn’t enough for the win. Columbus Clippers starter Jeanmar Gomez shut out the Indians on a pair of singles for the 2-0 victory. Clippers leftfielder Tim Fedroff tripled to center to start the third and scored two batters later on a wild pitch by Cabrera. Clippers rightfielder Vinny Rottino was the only other player to cross home plate after he hit a solo homer in the fourth.
Now when the Indians celebrate a win at Victory Field, they have an actual victory bell to continue the celebration. The Indians unveiled the Max Schumacher Victory Bell on opening day in 2011 to honor their longtime leader. Schumacher started his career with the team in 1957 as a ticket manager and was general manager by 1961. He was named president in 1969 and has reportedly led the Indians as a profitable organization every year since 1973. The bell, which is engraved with Schumacher’s name, sits on the concourse beyond right field, weighs 990 pounds and is about 37 inches wide. Local celebrities, season-ticker holders and guests of the team ring the bell after an Indians win.
Want the answer? The Indians wore a patch with the number 125. Professional baseball in the Circle City dates back to 1877 when the Blues played for two years. Ten years later, the Hoosiers started a long history of consecutive baseball seasons in the city. The name “Indians” has always been the most popular moniker, though, with the 2012 season marking the 113th time an Indianapolis team with the name took the field.
And in random statistical news, the national anthem lasted 1 minute, 39.7 seconds, the first pitch was a strike (for the 16th straight game), the first batter flied out to left (for the third straight game) and we saw fewer runs than any other game on our schedule all season. We dined on a delicious press box buffet of chicken and fruit. We thought about ice cream later. Then we thought better.
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