Dan Ennis witnessed Cleveland blank Boston in Game 2 of the ALDS, but the insecurity he witnessed leaving Progressive Field left him wondering “what’s eating Cleveland Indians fans?”
Here in Cleveland, there is guarded jubilation. Up two wins in a best-of-five series, having pushed the Red Sox to the edge of elimination, the Indians and their fans have reason to be confident. But as I filed out of Progressive Field last night, one of the scattering of Red Sox fans among the Tribe faithful, I picked up signs of anxiety. Like pre-2004 Red Sox fans, the Indians fans are pleased, but unconvinced.
One longtime fan in a Chief Wahoo t-shirt, having just watched his team break the Red Sox with a convincing 6-0 win, brings up the 2007 ALCS. In that series the Indians blew a three games to one advantage and the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Bringing up 2007 naturally leads to talk of 1999, another great Indians-Red Sox playoff tilt, when Red Sox outfielder Troy O’Leary (Troy O’Leary!) hit two homers and collected seven RBI in the deciding game of the ALDS. In that game the Indians attempted to avoid being beaten by Nomar Garciaparra, walking the All-Star twice, only to have the unheralded O’Leary choke their hopes.
These Indians fans come by their caution naturally. Until LeBron James willed the Cavaliers to an NBA championship a few month ago, Cleveland as a major league city — the Indians, the Browns, the Cavs — held the sad distinction of most years without a championship. James came out to Progressive Field on Friday night, along with some teammates, to fire up the crowd prior to the National Anthem, but it was Len Barker who threw out the first pitch. When Barker came out to the mound the Indians fan beside me said, “Damn, Barker pitched for some shitty Indians teams.
The images of good players on hard-luck teams is a motif at Progressive Field. There’s a mural of Rocky Colavito, the promising power hitter lost by the Indians in a disastrous, franchise-altering transaction back in 1960. The Indians traded the 25-year-old MVP candidate for an aging singles hitter, and spent the 1960s mired in sub-.500 mediocrity. Near Colavito is the image of Al Rosen, star of those great 1950s Tribe squads that for five seasons finished in second place to a Yankees dynasty. When those Indians finally broke through in 1954, they were swept by the New York Giants in the World Series.
In front of Progressive Field there are bronze statues of Bob Feller, Larry Doby, and Jim Thome. Feller and Doby got their rings in 1948, the last Indians championship. Thome labored on those close-but-not-quite Cleveland teams of the 1990s, paired with a young Manny Ramirez and the incandescent Kenny Lofton. Those teams won their division year after year, but twice fell short in the World Series (against the Braves in 1995 and the Marlins in 1997). The jerseys of those ‘90s teams were much in evidence at the ballpark — lots of Thomes, but also the occasional Sandy Alomar Jr., Omar Vizquel, and Carlos Baerga.
In Cleveland, unlike many major league cities, the baseball present competes not only with the baseball past, but also with the fictional baseball past. Whereas a Fenway crowd will wear the uniforms of recent heroes (Jason Varitek, Pedro Martinez, and, of course, David Ortiz), at an Indians game many fans dress as imaginary players. Among the Tribe faithful on Friday, for every #28 Corey Kluber jersey I saw there were at least two #99 Ricky Vaughn shirts. Ricky Vaughn will never break your heart, Corey Kluber might.
In victory, the Clevelander is dubious. After the Indians were swept out of the 1954 World Series, the franchise entered a dark tunnel of mediocrity bracketed by 1957 (6th place finish) and 1993 (6th place finish). For thirty-six years there were no playoff appearances and few pennant races. Entire generations of Cleveland fans supported weak teams in a crumbing ballpark (the notorious “Mistake by the Lake”). The rare good player was trapped (“Sudden” Sam McDowell in the 1960s, Dennis Eckersley in the 1970s, Bert Blyleven in the 1980s). Awful players abounded, as the perpetually mismanaged team rolled out roster after roster of overmatched youngsters alongside over-the-hill veterans.
Enter Major League, the 1989 film that shared the misery of the Cleveland Indians with the world. The cinematic Indians overcame the odds to win a championship, and thus the filled a void for Cleveland’s fans. Thanks to endless showings on cable TV, Ricky Vaughn, Charlie Sheen’s erratic fireballer, became the most famous Cleveland ballplayer since…Colavito? Feller? Lou Boudreau? Flesh-and-blood consistently disappoints (the 1989 Indians went 73-89); the imaginary team proved a placebo for the fans of a hopeless franchise.
Thus at Progressive Field I saw not just Lofton and Kipnis shirts, but Willie Mays Hayes jerseys, and even, majestically, one large Ohioan wearing a full Roger Dorn uniform, pure white with deep red piping, complete with tackle-twill lettering. The Vaughn-Hayes-Dorn Indians, the World Champions of baseball movies, tease Clevelanders with what could be. They’ve seen other cities get their miracles — Detroit in 1968, Kansas City in 1985, Boston in 2004 — and across the street from the ballpark they see LeBron’s palace, where the Cavs overcame a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA championship.
Wary Cleveland fans know hope can be a burden. After all, they sat through the devastating 11th inning of the 1997 World Series. Before that brush with greatness they endured the long stretch of sixth place finishes. They’ve heard all the wisecracks about their city’s post-industrial decline, about their football team (to be butchered by the Patriots), about their river that caught on fire. They are merely pleased, being up 2-0 in this Division Series. They don’t expect much, but they still hope — against hope, against history — for their Hollywood ending.