CHICAGO – This is a story about waiting. It was Opening Night here Sunday, the world champion Chicago White Sox hosting the Cleveland Indians, and a blinding rain postponed the game for 2 hours, 57 minutes.
Though, really, what were a few hours when you've been waiting 503,670?
That is approximately how long it's been since Cleveland last won the World Series on Oct. 6, 1948. Other important numbers we've seen since then – 252,000,000 (dollars to Alex Rodriguez), 867-5309 (digits for Jenny), 2,632 (straight games by Cal Ripken Jr.), 2001 (A Space Odyssey), 73 (homers by Barry Bonds – or was that the number of steroids he allegedly took?), 21 (other franchises winning World Series), 14 (leap days), 10 (presidents) and one (and only one) Ozzie Guillen – matter little to Clevelanders in the context of half a million hours waiting for a championship.
Waiting is miserable. We fidget when we stand in line for 10 minutes. We stare intently at the handheld buzzers in crowded restaurants, hitting them to make sure they're working, cursing them when they don't go off. We hate the DMV because it's almost a guaranteed wait.
Following the Indians is a guaranteed wait.
"Not just the Indians," Paul Dolan said. "Cleveland professional sports fans wait. Our drought goes back to the '64 Browns. While we can look to '48, which really can't be compared to the Cubs, the frustration is different. It's always there in Cleveland, from all the sports."
Dolan is president of the Indians. He grew up in Cleveland. He was weaned on waiting. He is tired of it.
Which made Sunday's game that much more unnerving. It was the start of the season the wait could end.
The Indians have baseball's best young core. Center fielder Grady Sizemore, shortstop Jhonny Peralta and catcher Victor Martinez might make the best up-the-middle combination in baseball, and they're signed through at least 2010. DH Travis Hafner was fifth in American League MVP voting last season. If a strained oblique doesn't keep C.C. Sabathia sidelined for too long, the starting pitching is good. The bullpen could be excellent. Though they lost the rain-delayed opener, they took two of three games from the White Sox.
Cleveland handed the wild card to the Red Sox last season with a final-week collapse, delaying what Dolan sees as the inevitable: The erasure of 1948, just like the White Sox crossed out 1917 and the Red Sox 1918.
"Clearly, this is the team," Dolan said. "Last year's team could have won the World Series. This year's team can win the World Series. And that's what we expect of ourselves: To put a team on the field that is capable of winning it."
The Indians built this team on a risk. When they decided to trade Bartolo Colon to Montreal in 2002, they might as well have changed their jerseys to black and gold and called themselves the Steelers. They were traitors.
Dolan's father, Larry, had bought the team 2½ years earlier from Dick Jacobs, the owner who helped revitalize baseball in Cleveland. Before 1995, the team hadn't even been to the playoffs in 41 years. From that year until 2001, they won six AL Central titles in seven years and in '97 were a few Jose Mesa pitches away from making this entire discussion moot.
While Cleveland subsisted as a large-revenue team throughout the '90s, the changing economics of baseball, with spiking salaries bringing an emphasis on local revenue, crippled the Indians in the short-term.
"That's what made the transition so difficult," Dolan said. "So many of our fans were accustomed to failure. When we ended that reign, a lot of people were fearful we were returning to the 40 years of wandering the desert."
Mark Shapiro was the Indians' Moses. In his second year as general manager, Shapiro made the Colon deal. The Indians received a Double-A pitcher named Cliff Lee and a low-A outfielder surnamed Sizemore.
Indians fans slowly warmed to the Dolan-Shapiro regime. The Dick Jacobs-John Hart era, while a division title machine, bore no championships. And since the Indians last won one, there have been so many capital-letter moments – Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard 'Round the World and Willie Mays made The Catch and the Red Sox killed the Curse of the Bambino – they need to believe in something. Like this team.
"They have a pretty good idea of what's around the corner for them," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "Short of the playoffs, they've gone through just about everything you can go through."
Which is to say, enough waiting.
The etymology of the word "wait" shows that it came from "watch," and any time spent watching the Indians for a 40-year period was tantamount to torture. Dolan grew up with the Indians of the mid-1960s, Max Alvis and Larry Brown, Chico Salmon and Fred Whitfield.
"I've never been a fan of any other team, so I don't know how it compares," he said. "Maybe it's the experience of being a baseball fan. But it's a paradox: one of perpetual optimism in a macro sense, but in a micro sense you keep waiting for something bad to happen."
No, that's not being a baseball fan. That's being an Indians fan. The waiting isn't the hardest part. It's the only part.
- Paul Dolan