Adams wants to drum for another four decades
Indians superfan has been a staple at games in Cleveland since Aug. 24, 1973
One by one -- boy, girl, boy, girl -- 16 high schoolers filed into the row in front of John Adams and his bulky bass drum. A guy in the group spun around, eyeballed Adams and his instrument, and posed a question that, at the time, seemed harmless.
"You're not going to hit that, are you?"
Anyone who has watched a baseball game in Cleveland over the past four decades recognizes the man with the mustache in the button-down shirt and jeans sitting atop the left-field bleachers, beneath the massive scoreboard. People from all over the globe know his story:
Some guy lugged a bass drum into the ballpark because, in the bleachers -- a sea of redwood benches -- he needed a device to supplement the rattling created by the stadium's seat-clangers. When a local reporter wrote that the guy would become a regular attendee, he felt compelled to oblige.
So he returned for the next game. And the one after that. And the one after that. For 40 years.
That is the story Adams narrates to visitors who brave the uphill trail to the peak of the bleachers at Progressive Field. He has met fans from every continent except Antarctica, "because no penguin has come up the steps to say hello," he said. Adams has interacted with natives of Hong Kong, Austria, France, South Korea, Denmark and Japan.
Fans ask to take pictures with Adams. In 2008, he flew to Los Angeles to accept the Hilda Award, a recognition for his devotion from The Baseball Reliquary. Adams has twice tossed out the ceremonial first pitch, and the Indians once held a bobblehead giveaway in his honor.
Adams stresses that he is simply a fan. He does not understand the adulation, though he does appreciate it.
See, it always comes full circle, back to that first night on Aug. 24, 1973.
After all, what if the Indians rejected Adams' request to tote the 26-inch drum to the ballpark? Or the eight couples from East Tech High School had selected a different date night venue? Or that one guy did not make a beer run at the top of Section 55? Or he did not find such an affordable drum set? Or Bob Sudyk did not report that he and his apparatus would be in the stands at subsequent games?
The sequence of events that evening paved the way for Adams to become the ballpark entity he is today.
Said Adams: "Am I not the luckiest guy in the world?"
Adams was a little drummer boy. He played in his high school band and he owned a drum, one he deemed too valuable to introduce to the ballpark scene.
The Indians typically attracted fewer than 10,000 fans per game to Cleveland Municipal Stadium. On that Friday night in late August, 5,736 people -- and one drum -- occupied the seats as the Tribe trounced the Rangers, 11-5.
The stadium hosted a capacity of 78,000. To compensate for the usual lack of bodies in the ballpark, those in attendance jolted the metal seats in front of them to generate noise. This was not possible in the bleachers, where Adams always sat, so he purchased what he described to be a "junky" drum set for $25 and asked the Indians for permission to bring it inside. The club gave its consent.
That night, Adams assumed his typical position toward the bottom of the bleachers, near Officer Jackson, the policeman who often surveyed the area. The East Tech students foiled Adams' plan to bang the drum, however, when one of them questioned his intentions.
Shortly thereafter, another man headed to the top of the section in search of beer. On his way, he noticed Adams' drum and asked the 21-year-old when he was going to put it to use. Adams replied that he did not want to bother anyone, hinting at the cluster of teenage couples. So the man directed him to the section's last row, where he could sit far enough away from the crowd and plug away at his drum without disturbing anyone.
Adams missed Saturday's game because of work, but he returned to the ballpark with his drum on Sunday. A photographer for the Cleveland Press snapped a portrait of him, and Sudyk later called him for an interview. The reporter asked whether Adams planned to attend the Indians' next game that Tuesday. Adams told him, "No."
"When the article came out," Adams said, "at the very end, it said: 'If you want to hear John's drum, come to the game tonight.' So not to make a liar out of the fifth estate, I said, 'Oh, why not?' So I went down there that Tuesday night and Wednesday night."
Still, for an English major at Cleveland State who worked in a phone company's accounts information department and was pursuing his Water Safety Instructor certification, there were not enough hours in the day to accommodate a daily trek to the ballpark.
Even when approached by Indians promotions director Jackie York, Adams declined.
"She said, 'We really like what you're doing here, banging on the drum for the team. Would you come to every game?'" Adams said. "And I said, 'No.' And I've come to virtually every game since."
As a young child, Adams would sit at the kitchen table and wait to hear his father utter one all-encompassing word.
The two letters signaled that the boys would take the Union Ave. bus to downtown Cleveland. They exited the vehicle at the corner of E. 4th and Prospect, and from there, they journeyed toward Lake Erie, a voyage through the jungle of brick and asphalt and concrete.
"You walk into the place, and when you walk up the ramp, everything is in color," Adams said. "I always think of that like when Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz' opened the door and there was the land of Oz and all of the vibrant colors."
Adams caught 15-20 games per season as a kid. He has drummed at more than 3,000 contests since that fateful night in August 1973. And yet, the luster and allure of the sport, the setting and -- especially -- the people have not wore off in the slightest.
"Every Opening Day, all of those memories come flooding back to me," Adams said. "That's why I tell people: 'Get to a ballgame and make a memory.' It's still there. The magic is still there for me. The fun is still there for me."
Adams estimates that he spends $200 each year on drum maintenance. He replaced the eroded rims and he had his neighbor, a welder, fuse a few tension rods back together. He routinely changes the drum head and the mallets.
The upkeep has allowed Adams to bang away at the same instrument for 40 years. Perhaps Cooperstown will ask for the drum when Adams ultimately lays his hobby to rest.
Who knows, though, when that time will come? Adams wants to continue for another four decades.
"As long as I can make [it up] the steps, I'll be fine," Adams said. "Going down the steps is easy -- gravity is on your side. When I can't make it to the top, I guess it's time to call it quits."
In 40 years, Adams has missed 38 games, all for work-related reasons. He is still employed by the same phone company that signed his paycheck in 1973, only now he designs computer systems. Back then, Adams logged which customers paid their bills.
To Adams, work remains the chief priority. He teaches a class at Cleveland State, professes about water safety and somehow manages to fit 81 home games onto his annual itinerary.
The ballpark, he said, is his "escape from reality."
"When you go to the ballpark, it's just like a magical land," Adams said. "You're sitting next to your new best friend and you can solve half of the world's problems."
The tempo to Adams' drumming always matches the drama unfolding on the field. When the Indians place a runner in scoring position, he taps away to a steady, anticipatory beat. A clutch hit triggers a barrage of bellowing notes.
Bob DiBiasio, the team's senior vice president of public affairs, refers to Adams as the "soundtrack for Indians baseball."
"Indians players count on him to rally the crowd behind them, and opposing teams know the beat of the rally drum is only a baserunner away," DiBiasio said.
Adams has become a ballpark staple, an influence fans rely upon during the home slate of the schedule. The 61-year-old prefers to downplay his influence.
"All I am is a guy cheering his team on. That's all. And that's all I ever intended it to be," Adams said. "That's the full purpose: I go down, I have fun, I root for the team and I'm enjoying myself. It's meaningful to other people, and I appreciate it more than they'll ever know that someone would take time to come say hello. That's high praise for me."
Fans will remember the peanut vendor with the gravelly voice and the trio of hot dog mascots who scamper across the grass, but Adams' drum sets him apart.
When the beat reaches its crescendo, the Indians have executed. Seconds before a pitch that precedes a walk-off home run, fans can hear the cadence of the drum. When the ball sails over the fence and fans feel euphoric, Adams' presence looms largest, as the man works his arms like a possessed bodybuilder.
Maybe fans have been conditioned to associate Adams with baseball's best moments. Maybe they are just impressed anyone could survive the peaks and valleys of 40 years of Cleveland baseball.
No matter the case, to the East Tech kid who proposed the stirring question on Aug. 24, 1973: Yes, John Adams hit his drum that night. He has not stopped in the 40 years since. Why would he?
"I just feel so blessed and lucky," Adams said. "It's quite an adventure, and there's still a lot more adventure to go."