BY CAROLYN LaWELL
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida | Joe Rowe is a Yankees fan. Born and raised in Clark, New Jersey, he still wears his navy jacket with the Yankees logo on the left side of his chest, over his heart. And he watches them a few times every year when he can catch them on TV.
But when the Cubs came to Daytona in 1993, Rowe knew they would be his team.
He was there for the Cubs’ first game in Jackie Robinson Ballpark, and he was there Friday night to see the team’s season opener: Section W2, Row 1, Seat 3 – even though the team put his name in Seat 2 – just to the right of the Cubs’ dugout and behind the batters taking practice swings before their time at the plate. “I get to talk to the guys when they’re on deck. I just love it,” he says.
Rowe is, after all, known as “Front Row” Joe, and Friday night was his 1,137th consecutive Cubs game.
“He’s the greatest fan in the minor leagues. Certified.” – Andy Rayburn
“It didn’t start out like this. I didn’t want it to, anyway,” he says. “I was just going to be a casual fan and the streak just happened.”
Rowe’s streak started right after the All-Star break in 1995, and nothing has kept the 57-year-old retired car dealership worker away from the stadium. After his stepmother died, he changed his number during the afternoon so he could make her wake and come to the game late. Once, his potassium level dropped while standing on the field prior to a game and he was rushed to the hospital. “But I was here the very next night,” he says.
“I’m a passionate nut, to be truthful with you,” he says, wearing a blue Cubs ball cap with an “I heart Cubby” button pinned on the side. “I’m a passionate nut when it comes to baseball. I like football and hockey, but my passion is baseball.
“The food, the ambiance, the people, I love it all, every aspect of it,” he says, standing in front of a green stadium seat that has a silver plate scribed with his name.
Rowe’s passion is revered by the organization, players and fans.
It was former Cubs general manager Buck Rogers who originally told Rowe they wanted to put a sign in left field to mark his streak. “They just said, ‘We signed you to a sponsorship,’ and I couldn’t believe it,” Rowe says. A local restaurant sponsored the sign. “I’ve been walking out ever since.”
Prior to every game, he walks along the third base line and out into left field to change the number on the outfield fence that tracks his streak. Friday, he tore down a “6” and replaced it with a “7,” pressing the Velcro until it stuck. When Rowe takes his game day walk to change the number, players stop warming up to shake his hand. Cubs owner Andy Rayburn ventures out to the warning track with him. Fans yell his name and cheer from the stands.
Rayburn bought the team in 2000, one of their five Florida State League championship seasons. Though Rayburn didn’t take possession of the team until the week following the last game of that season, he and his wife, Heather, went to the game. This is how Rayburn remembers that night.
“I was jumping up and down right here, right in there,” Rayburn says, pointing to a spot behind the home dugout. “I was all jacked up, because I was about to take possession and what a great way to start, and jumping up and down next to Joe, and I grab my old Cubby shirt, and he looks at me and he asks, ‘Who are you?’ I tell him. He asks, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘Ohio.’ All of a sudden, he looks at me and he asks, ‘Are you the new owner?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I am. Who are you?’ He says, ‘I’m Joe Rowe, and I’ve been to 342 games in a row.’ ‘You have?’ ‘Yeah, I have.’ ‘Joe, you’re the first member of our VIP Club.’ That stunned him. ‘I can’t believe this. Thank you. What’s the VIP Club?’ ‘Joe, I don’t know, but you’re the first member.’”
Rowe says the fame has been a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s provided several unforgettable experiences. He met Chicago Cubs broadcaster and former player and manager Bob Brenly. He proudly wears a Cubs 2004 Florida State League championship ring given to him by the team. On Friday night, he unzipped his bag, dug out the ring box, opened it and slipped it on. He only wears the ring for special occasions, and opening day is one of them.
Rowe’s love of baseball dates back to high school. “I wasn’t quite good enough to play the game, so I figured the next best thing I could do was be a fan,” he says. A literal diehard fan, Rowe says he’ll have to die before his streak does.
“He’s the greatest fan in the minor leagues,” Rayburn says. “Certified.”
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