Sunday, September 30, 2007

Setting The Table: The ALDS

This really happened once, you knowSo, the American League post season schedule is set at last, and here is what it looks like for the Cleveland Indians after losing to the Kansas City Royals earlier tonight (and thus settling for the second-best record in baseball for the 2007 season and allowing the Boston Red Sox the opportunity to set up the Division Series schedule):

The first three games in the best-of-five series will run as follows:

Thu., Oct. 4 / Jacobs Field / C.C. Sabathia vs. Chien-Ming Wang
Fri., Oct. 5 / Jacobs Field / Fausto Carmona vs. Andy Pettitte
Sun. Oct. 7 / Yankee Stadium / Jake Westbrook vs. TBD

After this, assuming a winner has not been declared, the final two games:

*Mon. Oct. 8 / Yankee Stadium / Paul Byrd vs. TBD
*Wed. Oct. 10 / Jacobs Field / C.C. Sabathia vs. Chien-Ming Wang

So, here we go, kids: a best-of-five between the two hottest games in baseball since the All-Star break (the other being, who else, the rabidly hated New York Yankees). Assuming the Indians can get their sputtery offense going smoothly, this should be an, uh, exciting series as Cleveland attempts to best a team that has won all six times they've been pitted against each other in the regular season. A veritable cake walk.

Assuming this series reaches Game 5 (if the Tribe are destined to fall before these pinstriped bastards, making them sweat it out as much as possible is all we can ask for as a consolation prize), Sarah and I will be in attendance down at the Jake for what will certainly be the most nerve-wracking ballgame I've ever attended (elimination games are hard enough to watch on TV for crissakes), and this is before you even consider what shambling horror we have lurking in the bullpen waiting for the ninth inning.

Thank Goat the Jake is a no-smoking zone as old habits might start to look awfully tempting that evening. If anything, I'd better keep a supply of Tums handy, heh heh.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

1 Championship Down, 3 To Go

Despite the fact that yet more work is scheduled to be done on my root-canaled molar tomorrow afternoon in order to prepare it for an eventual crown (can't they simply do all of this in a week instead of taking the better part of three months?), I've been wearing a big, silly grin for about eight hours now. In fact, I haven't felt this giddy in almost exactly ten years.

This past Wednesday, the Plain Dealer ran a 2-for-1 special on tickets to today's game. At the time, this just seemed like a nice excuse to take in the last home game of the regular season since at the time this promotion was announced (nearly a week ago), the idea of the Indians clinching the American League Central Division title at home seemed like a pretty long shot. Suddenly, the Tribe swept the Detroit series, surprising everyone, and a shot at grabbing the title at home looked like a sure thing ... for Saturday. But then that game was lost, and today became the day, and those tickets Sarah picked up for half price suddenly became the biggest steal of the year.

When the Tribe had clinched the title right after 4:00, we were watching and whooping it up in section 567 as part of a sold-out audience, and I don't think anyone could have asked for a better time at the park. Amidst some very tall competition, this was hands down the best game we've seen yet, with some exciting offense supplied by Grady Sizemore and "Mr. September" Casey Blake, a dominating pitching performance from Jake Westbrook and an absolutely electrifying perfect ninth inning from the unstoppable Rafael Betancourt. When that final pitch thumped home into the glove of Victor Martinez, it felt like the stadium was going to come down around our ears from all the noise and excitement.

Joy unleashed
Following such a joyous occasion, I didn't want to go home, and we stuck around The Jake (along with a few thousand others who must have felt the same way), watching the post game clubhouse festivities on the scoreboard and soaking up the atmosphere and the victory as long as we could. While I might have claimed an earlier date as such before, this was an absolutely perfect day: a great game, a fun crowd, not a cloud in the sky, not a trace of humidity, and the breeze coursing through the upper decks carried no hint of the arctic gales everyone knows are only a couple of months away.

Sure, we are still in the heat of the moment, but right now this team feels absolutely invincible. Off-days are becoming brutal to sit through. We want the postseason and we want it now. Bring on the god damned Yanks: right now, the Indians are just dying to give them their very best shot ...

The 2007 Cleveland Indians: Greatest. Game. Evar.

Sci-Fi From My Wonder Years

In an effort to get caught up with the massive backlog of DVDs and DVD-Rs stacking up in a silently mocking fashion in the office and on the shelves downstairs, I am attempting to start watching these things at a more accelerated pace (say, more than one every few weeks) for as long as is feasible and writing about the ones I feel are worth passing along. Perhaps this way I'll keep myself writing and hopefully lose this nagging feeling that I am unwittingly turning this condominium into a museum full of pretty silver discs. I'll also try to keep the spoilers to a minimum. Promise.

As is likely the case with many people who saw Star Wars during hyper-impressionable childhood, I was immediately cursed with an insatiable appetite for cinematic sci-fi. Of course, those years before the arrival of the videocassette recorder and cable TV were a cruel, thin time to jones for space borne flights of fancy, as I was only taken by my dad to see the odd feature like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Flash Gordon, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and The Black Hole while I could only pine to see such utter dogshit as Outland, and Battle Beyond The Stars (hey, come on, at least the latter had some space battles going for it).

The arrival of cable television in Southfield in 1982 was a godsend for catching up on these movies, as I was still too young to be able to afford seeing most of them on my own (not to mention that the nearest movie theater at the time, the Americana, was out of easy bicycling range). Many of these features discussed below were seen on TV few times and then either forgotten about (or my taped copies were dubbed over with my sister's favorite soap operas). Thus, as part of my ongoing series of writing about movies (no, I really hadn't forgotten about this idea, I've just been very preoccupied with things like work, dentist appointments, and the Cleveland Indians), this post will examine a few old HBO/Cinemax genre standbys I've had the opportunity to take in again recently either via DVD or the magic of bit torrent.

The Final Countdown: long before Europe ruined this title forever.I've always been a sucker for a decent time-travel flick and The Final Countdown has long been a genre favorite of mine since it takes on that burning, long-debated philosophical question of "what might happen if a modern nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sailed through a time warp that looks suspiciously like a laser beam from a Frankie Goes To Hollywood video and wound up in the waters off Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941"? Being that World War II was one of my childhood interest streaks around the time I first saw this film (an ABC Sunday Night Movie, if my recall is correct), this premise had me hooked immediately ... well, that and visions of the U.S.S. Chester W. Nimitz singlehandedly kicking the Japanese fleet clear across the Pacific Ocean.

In the end, however, The Final Countdown is more of a mental exercise than the war-time action film I'd hoped to see as a kid, and even though I still feel a tad shortchanged by the ending all these years later, I still find it at the very least a thought-provoking diversion. The same can also be said for The Philadelphia Experiment, which takes time travel the other way around, as two sailors from 1942 find themselves trapped in modern day America ("modern day" being 1984) after an early experiment in radar-cloaking technology goes horribly awry.

The Philadelphia Experiment. No, not the hip hop act, silly.Unlike The Final Countdown, which plays a lot like a Navy recruitment film for most of its running time (featuring lots of extended sequences of carrier flight operations and admittedly cool footage of recently-shit canned F-14s swooping majestically about the sky), The Philadelphia Experiment is based largely in human terms as the two displaced sailors quickly run afoul of the law while trying to determine exactly what happened to them from the doctor who sent them on their impromptu adventure 42 years before. A couple of interesting plot twists come along to keep things moving, and there is some of the usual (though no less amusing) culture shock/situational humor as the two men deal with such foreign concepts as television, manual transmissions and Ronald Reagan residing in the White House.

The Final Countdown, by contrast, entirely avoids laughs (and why shouldn't it? Aircraft carriers traveling through time is Very Serious Business) and manages to be fun despite all of the intellectual sparring going on between Martin Sheen, James Farentino and Kirk Douglas. Most of this talk, of course, centers on paradoxes and what a military ship from from the future is supposed to do when a grave threat to the United States is closing in fast. What can be done about the attack on the United States everyone knows is coming and how will the answer affect forty years of recorded history? Heady stuff.

The Quiet Earth. Spoiler alert.Another fave sci-fi sub genre of mine is the "last man on Earth" film, where we follow a person (or small group of people) around a post-apocalypse world and follow their attempts to survive or re-start civilization from scratch. One of the best examples of these films is The Quiet Earth, a low-budget left-field success from New Zealand that not only follows around a man who awakens one morning to find everyone else on the Earth has just up and vanished in the wink of an eye, but also makes it clear that this man had lent a reluctant hand in the sudden total annihilation of the human race. Exactly what happened to everyone is only hinted at, but never fully explained, though part of the answer may have to do with our discovery of how this man (and a couple of others he meets) managed to stay behind in the first place. Despite the increasingly-weighty nature of the script, The Quiet Earth is always watchable and peppers the increasingly puzzling revelations concerning the Sun and "The Effect" with interesting characters interacting in unexpected ways and sports a couple of pretty cool visual set pieces (like a crashed passenger jet in the middle of a city and the film's 2001-like denouement).

These two people are theoretically the Adam and Eve of a Brave New World. Pray for us.A near-diametrically opposed approach to surviving the apocalypse is Night Of The Comet, which is quite possibly one of the most inane genre films of the decade as it bravely posits an empty Los Angeles populated solely by teen aged versions of Fred Schneider and Moon Unit Zappa. Like, omigod, what is a bratty California girl to do when the world just, like, ends? Like, totally hit the mall, ya knew?!

Seriously, the most charming aspect to Night Of The Comet is that it knows how silly it is, and it plays like one of those countless B-movies screened on the Satellite Of Love scored with one of the most hilariously canned-sounding 80's soundtracks ever: seriously, this music is so bad it makes even the lamer pop hits of that plastic era sound positively timeless in comparison. While this utterly forgettable twaddle bops away on the automated Top 40 station blaring in the background throughout, the film has a positively cheese-tastic time with the idea of a world depopulated overnight by the same comet that wiped out the dinosaurs 65,000,000 years ago (you see, said didn't hit the Earth but instead passed right on by, bathing the planet in its tail and instantly reduced every exposed living being to Kool Aid mix).

Of course, not every living being can be annihilated in Night Of The Comet or we'd be watching a Warhol movie for an hour and a half. Apparently, anyone stuck inside of a metal container or room would have been immune to the effects of the comet's radiation, despite the fact that the atmosphere remains tinted scarlet for days afterward (which makes this movie look even more like an early MTV video that it already did beforehand). Unfortunately, partial exposure to the radiation turns everyone else into a reject from Dawn Of The Dead, so by the time this movie enters its third act (which at times takes on a surprisingly dark tone), we are watching some increasingly out-of-kilter (and badly acted) blend of 80s teen romp, action movie, and zombie flick.

Wavelength VHS artworkIn the years following Close Encounters and E.T., movies about contact with alien races were a dime a dozen, though a few managed to make an impression on me based on their approach to the subject. One film I remember watching a few times on cable during slow afternoons was Wavelength, which had apparently never made the transition to DVD. Just when I was getting ready to plunk down a few bucks for a ratty old used VHS copy from Amazon, however, I came across a way to land a nicely-transferred DVD-R copy from a private seller and was delighted when it arrived in the mail as I hadn't seen any part of this movie in probably 23 years.

Of course, watching Wavelength again after all such a span made me once again question my own memory on what constitutes "good" versus "bad" movies from that time. This was an a pretty low-budget "Area 51" type of story based on the idea that a trio of telepathic, photosynthetic aliens were being held captive by the U.S. Army in an underground military base nestled right smack in the middle of the Hollywood Hills. Luckily for the makeup department, these extraterrestrials resemble nothing more than hairless ten-year old boys of varying ethnicities rather than something from an H.R. Giger painting.

My guess is that the makers of Wavelength must have used most of their allotted dosh on about 1-minute of average-quality matte work during the penultimate scene and hiring Tangerine Dream to compose a typically atmospheric score. It's a shame they had to go so cheap on everything else (like coming up with two less-irritating central characters) since there are some pretty interesting ideas lurking about what is an otherwise a hopelessly cliched script. Hell, even hiring some better camera operators might have made this easier going (the boom mic keeps wandering into exterior shots to the point where it becomes comical).

It isn't until we finally meet the aliens themselves (about 45 minutes into the film) that Wavelength finally starts to get interesting (or at least the pace picks up enough so that you can overlook the terrible acting being phoned in by Keenan Wynn and Robert Carradine). The real high point of the film is a night time escape sequence through the streets of Los Angeles (stopping by a church and a men's restroom) and into the Mojave Desert with Tangerine Dream's score burbling busily along in the background as it is generally wont to do. The rest of this amateurish mess falls as flat as a pool table. Pity.

Theres a starman waiting in the sky. Hed like to come and meet us. But he thinks he'd blow our minds.A far better "Dickhead U.S. Military vs. Noble Extraterrestrial Vistors" movie is Starman, which looked absolutely stupid on paper but wound up (unlike the rest of these films we've been discussing) turning a sizable profit at the box office by pulling off the impossible: creating a viable hybrid of sci-fi and chick flicks.

As cringeworthy as the above sounds, Starman works on nearly every possible level. The idea is that the Voyager satellites reach a far off planet where their gold-plated greetings from the Earth arrives on an uncharted alien world, who apparently listen to it and decide to respond by sending an emissary over to say hello in person (oh, and nevermind that this would have to happen thousands of years in our future given the speed the Voyager craft are traveling and the incomprehensible distance to our nearest galactic neighbor star ... let alone a system that actually has planets). Of course, before this goodwill ambassador can so much as pick out a place to park, his spacecraft is shot down by a couple of fighter jets over the woods of Wisconsin. Luckily for him, our visitor seems to have no physical form, appearing to us a brilliant point of light that eventually visits Karen Allen's house while she sleeps and takes the form of her dead husband Jeff Bridges (generating his form from DNA sampled in strands of his hair kept in a photo album).

Allen, naturally a tad freaked out at seeing her departed beloved staggering about her house like a toddler (and speaking to her in halting, toneless sentence fragments) initially tries to get the hell away, but finds herself drawn to the vistor's innocent, gentle nature. With only a limited time on Earth before his host body expires, Bridges needs to return to his point of destination to await a ride home (a scene which, by the way, is strikingly similar to the end of Wavelength, which came out a year and change before), though their cross-country drive will be marked with humorous misunderstandings and unpleasant confrontations. Meanwhile, the Big Bad Military (led by the always menacing Richard Jaeckel) is closing in: they know they have an alien visitor running around in human form and they want to meet it, preferably after tying it down to a gurney and poking at it with needles.

I'll quickly address the "chick flick" angle: I'm certainly no connosseur of this kind of film, but for my money, Allen and Bridges sell the relationship that eventually blossoms between these characters, and you'll have little problem empathizing with Allen's behavior around Bridges as she grows from being horrified and frightened out of her wits to understanding and developing a strong emotional bond with the visitor as the movie progresses. Better yet, while Starman's dialog may occasionally dance around the edge of the treacly tar pit (particularly following a pivotal scene in a train car), the movie, to its credit, never collapses into mawkishness.

Strange InvadersLooking for additional alien-orientated "date movie" ideas? Well, there is also a romance angle in Strange Invaders, which shares Nancy Allen as a female/romantic lead with The Philadelphia Experiment. While Allen's role in both movies is arguably the same (the skeptical outsider dragged into the center of the plot by events beyond her comprehension), the overall tone of Strange Invaders is far more along the lines of a sensationalist, McCarthy-era comic book than anything remotely horrifying or thought-provoking: think of a more straight-laced Mars Attacks! and you'll be in the ballpark. Self-aware and witty in its use of references, Strange Invaders plays it totally deadpan, but has no fear of winking at the audience once in a while, and you can't help but smile as the "shocking truth" about a sleepy midwestern town that never escaped the 1950s becomes apparent to the protagonist Paul Le Mat at last.

CrittersWhile Strange Invaders is an entertaining attempt to recreate the feel of an old B-movie or comic book, Critters is the real low-budget deal and perhaps the only example out of the handful of low-budget Gremlins knockoffs that didn't suck (unlike, say, Troll or Ghoulies). With Critters, however, the little monsters creatures aren't even remotely cute: instead, these voracious space furballs called Krites (imagine Tribbles with rows of teeth) are being pursued on Earth following their escape from a containment ship by a couple of bumbling, polymorphing bounty hunters. Of course, in the midst of this hunt, the Brown family (led by E.T.'s Dee Wallace) becomes involved as the Krites surround their house and attempt to add the terrified humans inside to their menu. The trigger-happy bounty hunters, on the other hand, seem to spend most of their time destroying a small town nearby in their search for their ravenous, bad-tempered prey which leaves the embattled Browns to take matters into their own hands.

As with Strange Invaders, Critters sports a sense of humor about itself, and is a lot more willing to break into outright comedy. While it looks and sounds like a lame waste of a video rental, Critters is a deceptively smart film that deserved the cult following it attained, with a couple of laugh-out-loud bits involving the creatures themselves (especially a subtitled exchange between two of them on the Brown family's front porch) and some amusing sci-fi references cropping up in the dialog throughout.

One of the unsung greats: Buckaroo BanzaiLastly, we come to one of my very favorite movies of any type from the mid-1980s: The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension. If this ridiculous title alone sounds promising, wait until you get a load of the plot: racing against time, Buckaroo Banzai (the world's pre-eminent rock star/scientist/brain surgeon/martial arts expert/Presidential advsior) and The Hong Kong Cavaliers (his team of fellow specialists/backing musicians) battle the creepy, potato-bug like minons of Lord John Whorfin, a crazed alien despot whose ultimate goal is to return to his homeworld of Planet 10 via the use of trans-dimensional travel, made possible by the recently completed Oscillation Overthruster, which Banzai had a hand in completing. Problem is, the citizens of Planet 10 don't want their ex-dictator back, ever, and they're so angry that Banzai has inadvertantly paved the way for his return that they threaten the total destruction of the Earth in the event Whorfin and his minions succeed in their plans.

If you're the kind of person who not only followed all of that but were also intrigued, then this is the movie for you. That said, a lot of people can be pretty put off by a movie that throws you into the plot with hardly any exposition at all: watching Buckaroo Banzai is a lot like picking up issue #5 of a superhero comic book and trying to play catch-up as you read along. Simply figuring out what the hell is going on from time to time can be a real challenge as the entire script plays out as if it was written by a clutch of genre geeks who stuffed every scene with in-jokes, red herrings and obscure references (the dialogue, sometimes incidental in nature and dealing with completely unrelated or "previous" storylines we are not privy to, is often a total riot). It may take a viewing or so to really grok the whole thing (this was the case with me as a teenager), but Buckaroo Banzai rewards attention and seems to unveil something previously-unseen every time you watch. A true "cult classic" in every sense and highly recommended.

Team Banzai: ready for action

The Final Countdown rating: 4/5

The Philadelphia Experiment rating: 4/5

The Quiet Earth rating: 4/5

Night Of The Comet rating: 2/5

Wavelength rating: 2/5

Starman rating: 4/5

Strange Invaders rating: 3/5

Critters rating: 3/5

The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension rating: 5/5

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Boys Of Summer: A History Of Me And The Cleveland Indians

They say the lights are always bright on Carnegie.
Sigh. Autumn is here once again. The days are noticeably shorter and beginning to cool, the acorn thingys are starting to rain down on the front walk from the giant tree in front of the condo ... and for the first time since 2001 there will be October baseball in Cleveland. Wooo!

A skimming of recent posts here (when there have been some) will reveal pretty quickly that this has been a baseball summer around these parts, whether it was Sarah and I attending games at The Jake (which is fast becoming our home away from home), catching the odd minor league game (whether the Lake County Captains or the Akron Aeros), watching games on Sports Time Ohio, listening in on late-innings on the way home from work or on a lazy Sunday afternoon on WTAM, or monitoring the game on the job via Yahoo!'s maddeningly freeze-prone web interface.

While I've been harboring a fascination with baseball for over a decade now if for nothing else than the sheer beauty of watching it being played, this past summer (particularly the last few weeks) has been something special as the Cleveland Indians have emerged from their post-Break torpor and edged ever so slowly into the national spotlight as the hottest team in baseball. Just this past week, the knife was finally plunged into the Detroit Tigers' season once and for all in decisive, sweeping fashion (Sarah and I were at the Monday game, which was easily the biggest game we've seen this year), and the Tribe is now looking to clinch the American League Central Division title for the first time in six years. Beyond that lurks the month of October: Baseball's Promised Land, which is fraught with high-stakes games on a whole different level from even this past nervewracking summer. Despite the ups and downs that come with any baseball season and what felt like a forty year wandering through the midsummer desert when the team couldn't string hits together to save its life, this has been the most fun I've had with the Tribe this decade, and watching this team at work brings back memories of the dream-like 1995 and 1997 postseasons, the former of which was what finally ingrained the game into my soul ... and the latter of which hurt so bad that it took years for me to surrender myself to the grind once again.

A look down one side of the old Municipal StadiumMost of my memories of the Cleveland Indians as a teenager were of a ball club that seemed to exist only to fill Cleveland Municipal Stadium between football seasons and rock concerts. Anyone who has seen Major League pretty much knows the way it went here for four decades and change: the Indians were generally hapless, occasionally promising, and always coming up short (usually by miles) in the end. I remember my younger brother watching games on a portable black & white TV on warm summer nights back then and being able to hear nearly every heckle and drunken insult hurled by those who bothered to attend the games played in that old bat cave. By the time I finally took in a major-league game during the summer of 1990, I'd been to the stadium three times to see rock concerts and seeing a ball game played in that huge expanse was more of a novelty than something to wrap my heart around. In those days, I was more of a recovering Cleveland Browns fan who had started to drift away from football following the Cardiac Kids' flirtations with playoff glory in the mid-late 1980s, and I didn't let baseball get a hold of me for a few years afterward (I probably found it counterproductive to take an interest in a baseball team that had lost 105 games in 1991). But even when the Tribe had reached its absolute nadir, plans were already well underway to move the rebuilding team into a brand new location while bringing the club to a level of competitiveness not witnessed since the early 1950s.

In the spring of 1994, the Indians were ready to play their first games at the newly-completed Jacobs Field. As winter ever so slowly gave way to spring that year, I was doing some wiring jobs on a site nearby (this was while I was briefly trying my hand at working in the field of computers), and I still remember the first time I saw The Jake up close as my co-worker and I drove down Ontario Street on the way to a Middle Eastern bakery that was in need of some networking solutions. While the old Muni Stadium looked and felt like a hulking pre-war relic, The Jake was a striking, sparkling structure that fit seamlessly into the landscape of downtown Cleveland, especially with all of that exposed superstructure and those unique lighting fixtures turned inwards over the field like matching sets of 200 foot tall steel toothbrushes.

Looking in from the Home Run PorchDespite the undeniable allure of that new park, I still hadn't caught the baseball bug just yet, but the rest of Cleveland sure had. As if in response to all the refocused attention, the 1994 Indians played the game like no team of ours had in a couple of generations, and they were looking more than ready to rip open the postseason again at long last when a players strike completely shut major league baseball down on August 12. Once again, Northeast Ohio was left in the lurch ... and fans could only imagine what might have been.

That strike wiped out the first 18 games of the 1995 season as well, and at the time had crippled attendance and audience faith in the game to a degree possibly unmatched in the long, storied history of our National Pastime. Well, apparently everywhere except Cleveland, that is: the revitalized Indians had unfinished business to take care of from the year before, and they took to it with a vengeance and utterly dominated the American League: finishing the season a whopping 30 games ahead of their nearest competitor, sporting no less than 8 hitters in the starting lineup with a .300 batting average, and were the most feared team in all of baseball. It was towards the end of that glorious season, one perfect September afternoon, that a Den co-worker decided to take me along to watch Albert Belle (the biggest badass in a frightening lineup) knock in his fiftieth home run of that year. Even though we were seated well up in the rear decks (nearly three stories above the field), I'd started to catch The Fever, and within weeks, I was shuttling down to Akron every night after work to watch the playoffs (and, eventually, World Series games) at my best friend's apartment.

The Official Logo Of The 1995 World Series. Nice, innit.Getting past the Boston Red Sox and then the Seattle Mariners to wind up in the World Series was an absolute joy to behold, but The Tribe came up short in six games, overwhelmed by the dominating pitching rotation of the Atlanta Braves. Still, the good will engendered by the previous year's run ensured that Cleveland started the 1996 season totally locked in on their team, and we watched our Indians take on all comers, advancing inexorably towards a second postseason appearance in a row. This time, however, there would be no Series victory: the Tribe swaggered into October of 1996 having won a league-best 99 games, but were shown the door by the Baltimore Orioles in a four-game ALDS. While Cleveland was too happy to be in the postseason at all (not to mention the World Series) for the first time in four decades to care if we won or lost in '95, there was a palpable frustration in the air around the North Coast after the '96 season ended on such an anticlimactic note.

I had drifted away from the team a bit over the summer of 1997, my life becoming too pre-occupied with emerging writing opportunities and hanging out with friends to worry much about baseball. By the time I'd started to pay attention, the Indians were sneaking into the postseason for a third year straight, but the lineup I watched that fall was very different from the one I'd seen playing over the previous couple of years. Sure, many of the bigger names were still the same (Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jim Thome, Jose Mesa, Omar Vizquel, Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser), but a lot of the players were unfamiliar to me (Bip Roberts, Jaret Wright, Chad Ogea, Tony Fernandez) and it took a while to get adjusted to this new, scrappier lineup that didn't rely on overpowering might so much as just getting in opponents' hair as much as possible by clogging up basepaths with runners.

Led by Alomar, who was having an absolutely monstrous season and seemed to be the man at the plate every single time the game needed a rally, the 1997 Indians may not have had a modern day Murderer's Row like the '95 team, but their approach to the game and their obvious chemistry stole your heart (much the same way the 2007 squad does, come to think of it). That easy affection blossomed into a full-on love affair once the Tribe pulled off the impossible and upset the hated New York Yankees in the ALDS. From the Yanks it was on to Baltimore, looking to settle the scores from October 1996 ... and oh, did they ever: the 1997 ALCS was another series upset, and also some of the greatest ball games I've ever seen, including an unforgettable Game 3 on October 11 where Hershiser and Orioles ace Mike Mussina locked horns and matched wits for three hours, racking up a staggering 22 strikeouts between them whilst doing so. As they had against the Yankees, the Indians managed to eke out wins from the most unlikely sources, with everyone getting the chance to be the hero night-to-night, and when they flew into Miami to start the 1997 World Series, there was a heady spirit of destiny-about-to-be-achieved in Cleveland that was absolutely magical. It really felt like this was going to be the Big Winner at last.

Of course, the other team in the Series that year (the Florida Marlins) also felt that destiny was on their side, and that always leads to complications ...

The end of Joy: October 1997I'll avoid most of the excruciating details and cut right to the point: losing Game 7 of the 1997 World Series in bottom of the eleventh inning was probably the most crushing defeat in the history of Cleveland professional sports. To go from such giddy, raw emotional heights at the top of the ninth inning and slowly, inexorably gaze into the abyss over the following hour and change was kinda like having a stake slowly pounded through your heart. A dozen or so friends, co-workers and I took in the game at a completely mobbed BW-3's that cold Sunday night, and it was absolute pandemonium in there as Mesa walked to the mound to (theoretically) shut down the Marlins offense one last time. Champagne cups were passed around, people high-fived and hugged as every out was recorded ... and then with one strike to go before winning it all, the game was tied. An hour or so after that, the game was lost. BW-3's slowly emptied, hardly anyone speaking. The next day, life went on.

For a few years after that, I had to let baseball go: this hurt far too much to shake off that easily. Game 7 was exponentially worse than The Drive (the previous benchmark for sports heartbreak in my existence), Red Right 88, or The Fumble, or anything else the city had previously encountered. In stepping away from the game, I skipped some fairly good years (the Indians won the division again in 1998, 1999 and 2001), watched a few games here and there on a casual level, but never getting involved emotionally with the sport again. Even in 2005, when the Indians oh-so-nearly made it into October but wound up running out of gas just short of the doorway, I felt no sense of loss, but more of a feeling of "ah well ... tough luck, guys, huh?"

Last spring, out of the clear blue sky, Sarah and I attended a game one evening for something new to do. We had a lot of fun down there and decided to repeat the experience earlier this year. That time was enough of a blast that we went to another, and then another, and before long we both found ourselves falling into an obsession with this team. Most of the games we've gone down to see this summer have been at least memorable (win or lose), but a few were just awesome, such as the night of August 27 where a freakin' triple play was pulled off right before our eyes (I have probably watched this clip a couple dozen times now and it still hasn't grown old), or any game where we got to see another sensational pitching performance from C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Rafael Betancourt, and Rafael Perez (not to mention a few nail-biters from Joe Borowski, the closer with a heart-stopping flair for the dramatic).

Victor Martinez, moments after completing The Triple PlayAs I mentioned before, I watch this year's team and I think of the boyish camaraderie of the 1997 squad (only this time complemented by the first two guys to both win eighteen games for this club in the same year since 1956), and I feel that old, soaring sensation of hope once again. I look at our fantastic bullpen, our nearly evenly-spread offense, our excellent starting pitching, and the calm, steady leadership of a few core players and I feel tremendous pride for what they have accomplished after coming through such an endless period of offensive futility two months ago. This team may not be completely 100% right now -- if the Indians can ever get The Pronk going full tilt once again in front of Victor Martinez (the team's backbone), then their offense will become a steamroller that no one will want to face -- but then again, it's this club's heart and their belief in themselves that carries them just as much as their individual abilities now, and how can you not fall for a team like that when it comes along?

While living vicariously through a sports team is an inherently selfish exercise, I wish to add here before I conclude that while I may feel personally involved in chasing down a pennant or a title like any devoted fan would, I am ultimately rooting for the city of Cleveland itself. More than anything else, this city needs a winner, and we've waited more than long enough to experience one. As silly as it may sound, I want Cleveland to feel good about itself and to finally be able to shake off all of the ancient snide jokes (lol burning river lol) and declare "we are the champions" once again. No, we're not going to wake up the day after a theoretical World Series victory and suddenly see our troubled city transformed into Utopia On-The-Lake, but the spiritual lift a world championship can give this area is something I've wanted so badly to see for twenty years now (in any damned sport), and only just these past few days is the rest of Cleveland finally beginning to sense what might be at hand.

Get ready, Cleveland: this time, there will be no last minute "choke," and while there are some very daunting obstacles looming ahead after the next week is complete, I sense more resolve than fear from this team. The Cleveland Indians want to win it all as badly as we do, and they're coming after it with everything they've got. Sure, New York is likely going to wind up in our way once again and (let's face it) the Bronx Bombers have had our number all year long, so simply winning a game against them right now would almost feel like a Game 7 win. I think we can do it, and if the Indians can find a way to get around The Pinstriped Ones at last, then I think the World Series will be theirs for the taking, no matter who shows up to represent the National League.

OK. Gotta go: it's Tribe time now.


For some highlights of this year's team (and even the Rally Pie video shown at the Jake), check out my collection of Indians-related YouTube videos here.

That positively shit-tastic "Let's Go Tribe" song that WTAM uses in its game coverage can be listened to here.

A king's ransom of 2007 Tribe radio highlights, some post-game interviews and even some video footage from spring training can be grabbed or listened to here.

A link to the excellent Diatribe blog.

The Jake on a lazy summer night