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

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