CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers and Indians play in the same footprint in Cleveland, the same city block. This was an uninteresting factlet for 20 years or so. The two teams shared a general geographic area because it was a marriage of convenience. A bunch of rich people decided that was where all the sports should go, so that’s where they put all the sports.
On Tuesday night, though, Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena were so close together because that’s where the Tesla coil of the universe was shooting its current. The entire sports-loving world was focused on a few acres of Cleveland for the first time in history. The Cavaliers were getting their championship rings a couple hundred feet away from where the Indians were trying to win their first World Series in 68 years. It’s a coincidence that isn’t as easy to wave off as you think.
The basketball arena is visible down the third-base line of the ballpark, with a large, open area behind the left-field foul pole providing a clear view. Between the two structures is a small plaza, and before the first pitch of Game 1, it was absolutely teeming with fans. There were Cavs jerseys and Indians jerseys and more jerseys and hats and jackets and jerseys, all mixing together like different dyed cells in a laboratory experiment.
One set of fans was there because it did happen.
The other set of fans was there because it could happen.
They made for a nice mix. It almost makes you forget that about four months ago, they were all pretty sure it would never happen.
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You’re supposed to ignore other sports in the city when evaluating the pain of a specific franchise. Most fans didn’t look at the Pirates’ decades of disappointment and see the Steelers’ championships in disguise. New York fans can’t claim the Knicks or Jets as proof that a higher power hates New York sports. And in this World Series, no one really cares that the Blackhawks just won a Stanley Cup. It’s all separate, all unrelated.
Except when it comes to Cleveland. When the Cavaliers won a championship, the city officially stopped being the saddest sports town in North America. We looked for the best possible replacement. Opened it up to a vote and everything. The winner of the poll was Buffalo, a two-sport town that made up for comprehensive sadness with concentrated sadness, but I’m not convinced. It’s not a great replacement.
Which serves to highlight just how perfectly Cleveland played the role of Saddest Sports Town for so long. It wasn’t just one team. It wasn’t just two teams. It was the three major sports. Four, if you include the NHL team that simply disappeared one year. The Indians were the success story of the bunch, with a rich history in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and a couple pennants in the ‘90s, but there was always a Tony Fernandez or a Tom Glavine under the bed. For 68 seasons, there’s been some sort of sinkhole to drag the whole city under.
And that’s when they were good. When they were bad, well, it looked a little like ...
You might be familiar with Cleveland’s general decline as an American metropolis, and it’s a little hackneyed to shove it into every story about the city’s sports. But the stats are amazing. They’re like Andrew Miller fun stats, just in a completely different direction.
Here’s where Cleveland’s population ranked in the United States at the start of each decade:
As of 2015, Cleveland is 51st, just ahead of Bakersfield, Calif. and Aurora, Colo., two cities that probably still need their respective states listed after them for clarification. This is completely counter to the trend across the country, where more and more people are moving into the cities, not out of them. Of the comparable cities to Cleveland, 98 percent of them are growing, not shrinking.
While that great contraction was taking place, while the manufacturing jobs were vanishing, Cleveland sports were a desolate hellscape. You can’t look at real life wholly through the prism of sports, but my word, sports are supposed to be an escape. They’re supposed to help out every so often, at least.
My boss told me to clean out my desk, and even though I should be thinking about how this is the worst possible time for me to lose health care, I was really thinking about sports. Because sports are fun.
That’s the point of sports. Cleveland sports couldn’t even do that much, and they reinforced the idea that everything was going wrong and that everything would continue going wrong until morale improved. What a miserable pairing Cleveland’s sports were with what the city needed.
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Then the Cavaliers won. They did it in a way that no NBA team did it before, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. They were a middle finger to the idea of predestination, the sense of inherent doom that existed because all available evidence suggested it should.
When it was time to celebrate that middle finger, the other team of predestination and inherent doom was across the plaza, buoyed at least a little bit by the idea of what was going on across the way. It’s not like Roberto Perez was thinking, "I HAVE THE SPIRIT OF LEBRON IN MY VEINS" as he swung for the fences in Game 1. This kind of stuff is more for the fans.
But some of it will bleed down onto the field. It has to. No player is that blissfully ignorant of his team’s history, especially when it’s a particularly sad history. Especially when the particularly sad history mirrors the general population decline of a city.
A couple blocks away from Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena, there’s a Nike ad featuring LeBron James that’s hanging from a building. Except, this ad is a world wonder:
The picture doesn’t do it justice. The billboard is 11 stories high and visible from over a mile away. You’ll notice that the jersey doesn’t read "JAMES" across his back. This is because Nike ads are very good at cracking into brains and extracting the source code. It’s perfect.
In those decades when the sports were bad and the jobs were worse, there was a growing sense of, "Yes, I live in Cleveland. And I might even like it. Go to hell," and the feedback loop kept reinforcing that feeling. It was a worldview entirely separated from specific notions of success because it had to be.
Then the success found them. And there’s a Godzilla-sized picture of the personification of that success with the city’s name on his back, as if to suggest the city’s success and sports success are inextricably linked.
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Within five minutes of checking into my room in Cleveland, my host said these exact words: "You’ll love it here. Cleveland people are just so hopeful."
I thought, oh. That is certainly one of the possible ways to describe a city, I guess. We weren’t talking about the World Series at the time, either. It came unprompted. Quickly, too. It was almost a complete non-sequitur.
"Cleveland people are just so hopeful," she said. Who talks like that?
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Imagine describing Indians fans as hopeful before this season. They weren’t hopeful. They were ground into a fine powder, just like Cavaliers fans and Browns fans were. The only difference from game to game, year to year, was the exact position of the boulder in relation to the hill.
Maybe it’s not the Cavs that has Indians fans feeling like this has to be the year. Maybe it has something to do with the other team, the one that’s seen their 68-year drought and raised it another 40. Maybe it has to do with a cold appraisal of the law of averages. It has to happen some time, right?
It should be noted here that Progressive Field was loud as all hell for Game 1. The pregame introductions were entertaining enough, with Indians fans going absolutely wild for folk hero Ryan Merritt. But during the game, they were exceptionally frenzied.
The matchup was the perfect metaphor. On one side, you had Jon Lester, the $155-million pitcher, the All-Star the Cubs could afford because they flexed their big-market muscles. And they’re supposed to be the lovable underdogs in this whole thing.
On the other side, you had the found money of Corey Kluber. He’s the kind of pitcher who absolutely needs to fall into the Indians’ lap because they will never be able to afford a Lester. To be an Indians fan over the last 20 years was to watch a procession of brilliant pitchers at the height of their powers. Cliff Lee. CC Sabathia. But they were dealt away because the team couldn’t afford them. They might do it with Kluber one day.
So, if the Indians were ever going to succeed, they were going to need players like Kluber to appear magically and forcefully. They will always need everything to work and work cheaply. The cosmos assigning him to the Indians is proof of something, even if we’re not entirely sure what.
Wait, I have it: Kluber is proof that sometimes things can work out for the Indians, too. That goes for Francisco Lindor, who could have been on the Royals if a different person in their front office controlled the megaphone. It goes for Andrew Miller, who could have been on one of a dozen teams if the Yankees liked some of those prospects more. It goes for Jason Kipnis, who was passed over by every major league team at least once, and Cody Allen, who was the 698th player to be drafted in 2011, and the only 11th-rounder from that draft to make it to the majors so far.
They’re all proof that things can work out for the Indians. That things are working out for the Indians. Where Cleveland sports used to be an epithet, there the Indians were, opening the World Series a couple hundred feet away from a Cleveland team accepting their championship rings. Suddenly the discussion moves away from legacies and history and Murphy’s Law and into some sort of newfangled realism.
This can happen.
This did happen.
This doesn’t have to not happen. Look, right over there, it happened for them.
And with a Game 1 win, a sound 6-0 thumping, the Indians have to win three games out of their next six — a .500 record. Even the 2015 Indians could do that.
They might not win those three games, of course. The Cubs are still a strong team filled with superstars, and Kluber can’t pitch every night. But if they don’t win, it won’t be because the ghost of Moses Cleaveland dragged them down to the underworld as punishment for naming the city after a typo. It won’t be because Cleveland sports are a metaphor for the city’s general malaise, even if that perception is more than a little tired and outdated. It won’t be because the Indians are built on a pyramid of Tony Fernandez moments with a crumbling base.
If they lose, it’ll be because of baseball. If they win, it’ll be because of baseball. Either way, though, Game 1 was when Indians fans could look across the plaza, then look at the game in front of them, and be reminded that good things happen to Cleveland sports, too. They don’t have to lose because they’re the Indians from Cleveland. They might actually win because they play the best baseball over a seven-game stretch.
If that seems simplistic, well, you can’t really empathize what it must have been like to follow a Cleveland sports team five months ago. It used to be a drag. Now it’s not. And, goodness, are the people around here having fun with it.