I guess I’m just a regular sports fan, Cleveland born and raised. I’m on a little cold streak lately. Like since the Browns won the NFL Championship on my 12th birthday.
I got my love for the Indians and Browns early, and I got it bad. But I missed the glory years of both teams and inherited a bit of a slump from my Dad. That never stopped me though, from being an unabashed fan, ticket holder, or apologist. At one point, I flirted briefly with the idea of having my middle name changed to “long-suffering”. The Browns tease me, and the Indians break my heart, but I always come back for more.
My consolation is that I have a few million compatriots in and of northeast Ohio who have been in this thing all along, and they will eventually bask in the glow of a major sports championship right along with me. But hey, let’s not wait too long. I was born in the Eisenhower administration for crying out loud.
The recent end of the Indians competitive run has prompted me to sit back and consider what it means to me that the Indians are starting over, after having taken us right to the brink in ’97. The “good times” that might now be referred to as the Early Jacobs Field Era (1994-2001) almost made up for watching 30 years of truly bad baseball. But not quite.
These days, I get to about 16-18 games a year at Jacobs Field, and have since the park opened, so I have seen much of the “Hart Years” in person. I’ve also been able to realize several “firsts” for Indians fans of my generation. I got to see World Series games, an All-Star Game, and saw our team literally dominate the AL All-Star team for several years. I have witnessed some absolutely electrifying moments at Jacobs Field in eight years.
But I’m reaching the big “5-0” this year, which means that I was born four short years AFTER the Indians’ last ticker-tape parade. My Dad used to take some or all of his six kids to a Tribe game whenever he amassed enough free “Grandstand Managers” tickets. When we got old enough to go without parents, the bus and Rapid Transit fare down the hill from Cleveland Heights and the bleacher ticket cost about $1.50 total, and I got to see Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew and Brooks Robinson come into town with the visitors.
In 2002, my seat is $27, a can of Budweiser is 5 bucks, and I’m watching Chad Allen, Todd Dunwoody and Heath Murray etch their names into the Tribe record books. I tell myself I’ll hang in for a while because I can see a pretty good nucleus of talent in the system for the “2004-2005 Plan”, and I realize the inevitability of rebuilding, unless you’re the Yankees.
And also because, after 50 years, I still believe in the inevitability of another title for the Tribe. The alternative is unthinkable.
The middle name thing aside, I’m really an incurable optimist. I’m the classic “wait-till-next-year” guy. While my friends and co-workers bash the front offices, seems like I’m the one giving the club the benefit of the doubt. When fans at the Indians game boo a player, I root for the uniform he wears. I’m sure we’ll sign Jim Thome. I was sure we’d sign Manny Ramirez. I was pretty sure Bill Belichick could take the Browns all the way. See how this optimism thing works?
But back to bad baseball: I bought a brother-in law an Indians Encyclopedia for Christmas a year or so ago, and we were looking up career stats for the player we grew up watching …you know, names like Max Alvis, Vern Fuller, Al Luplow, Charlie Spikes, Jack Kralick, Willie Kirkland, and dozens more like them. I was struck by one unavoidable conclusion. These guys weren’t very good. This was obviously not a complete revelation to me. Till the nineties, the start of Browns camp in July seemed like some kind of blessed relief for the Cleveland sports fan. But those 30 bad years sure take up a lot of Encyclopedia space.
Somehow the great players that I did get to see in Indians uniforms, (many past their primes) didn’t have enough supporting cast. But I feel privileged to have grown up watching Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Rocky Colavito, Gaylord Perry, Frank Robinson, and of course the modern day greats like Vizquel, Ramirez and Alomar.
But in 2002, it seems like we’re back to 1991. I can’t remember precisely, but was that the year of Bryan Clark, Jeff Dedmon and Chris Codoroli, the dreaded “Bullpen From Hell”? It’s a bit depressing, even for an incurable optimist.
I tell friends who remark that they consider me a very patient man that I attribute that trait entirely to having been a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan. And I’m dead serious. It’s that or just become a complete cynic, like many of my friends, and fans who sit near me at the Jake. They make me crazy with all the negativity and sarcasm. I prefer to convince myself that Ben Broussard, Alex Escobar, Brandon Phillips, Corey Smith, and J.D. Martin are all going to be studs, and the “Glory Days” are just around the corner, this time for the ring. What choice do I have? What am I risking? More disappointment? There is no such thing as more disappointment than blowing a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven.
But if the Indians play me for a sap by going through the motions, and I’m convinced they’re not committed to fielding a championship team, I guess I’ll finally stop buying tickets. I’m not sure I could ever just stop paying attention though. See, it’s really in my blood. And I suspect there are a million or so “regular” Cleveland fans that feel much the same way. So I guess I’ll watch, and wait. That’s what a fan does.