CLEVELAND – Poor, poor Cleveland. Every story about Cleveland sports has to start this way, right? My friend Jack is telling me not to do this, not to perpetuate this narrative of depression that has become self-fulfilling prophecy for Clevelanders everywhere. The Drive. The Fumble. The Decision. The Relentless Misery of America's Saddest Sports City. He wants me to break the cycle of self-loathing.
Look around. The Cleveland Indians, a team that entered the season with a .500-sounds-good vibe, were in the postseason. Never mind that they're the Cubs of the American League. They were hosting a playoff game at Progressive Field, their first since 2007. They were riding a 10-game winning streak. This should have felt good, great even, except for one small issue my friend Sonny noted.
"We have zero runs."
For much of the three hours, 40 minutes the Tampa Bay Rays and Indians tangled in the American League wild-card game Wednesday night, I texted with Jack, Sonny and another friend, Josh. We grew up in Cleveland during the heyday of the great Indians teams of the '90s. At least one of those teams from 1995-99 should have won a World Series. The Indians, like the Browns a decade earlier and the Cavs a decade later, were ruthless teases.
My friends were excited for this game. Down the turnpike in Pittsburgh a night earlier, the Pirates made ugly history disappear for a night at least, and considering they've got a fistful of Super Bowl rings and a few Stanley Cups, their sporting cup runneth over no matter how bad the Pirates are. Cleveland has nothing since 1964. That's a decade and a half before we were born. Maybe this Indians team, flawed though it may be, was the one.
Everyone, after all, wanted to see manager Terry Francona get a series against the Boston Red Sox and throw the bird at the owner's box. They wanted to wear all red and turn Progressive Field into something biblical. After they could barely crack crowds of 20,000 in the final weeks of the season, they sold the place out, and it genuinely, legitimately looked and felt like the '90s, when a Tribe ticket was the toughest get in town.
"If you ask anybody from Cleveland, all you hear is, 'God hates Cleveland,'" Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "They want a winner so bad. And this team, from top to bottom: Everyone wanted to give them that winner. We wanted to play well for this city. Screw whether the fans came out during the season or not. It sucks because playing in front of 45,000 and how great they were tonight – it almost upsets me because I want to play in front of that the whole year. It would be fantastic. But they really showed their pride in the city and pride in the team when they came out 45,000 strong."
They were strong, and they were loud, and when rookie Danny Salazar, making the 11th start of his major league career, darted 100-mph fastballs past the Rays over two perfect innings, the excitement crested even though Salazar never had thrown more than 89 pitches in a big league game. Clevelanders are wounded animals who will grab onto any glimmer of hope and extrapolate it into what they wish were the truth. It is one of the greatest things about us and one of the saddest. Two scoreless innings became much, much more. And though Josh offered this in question format, it was more a hope and a dream.
"You think they would pull him with a no-no?"
The next inning, Delmon Young hit a home run to give the Rays a 1-0 lead.
Josh: "Bring in the bulldozer and turn this place into a parking lot."
There is something beyond cynicism. I'm not quite sure the word for it. Snark doesn't cover it well enough. Sadness lends it too much emotion because pure, crystallized cynicism is emotionless, too. Maybe it's something along the lines of post-cynicism, where only a new level of the original could convey the proper sentiment.
Sporting post-cynicism is to Cleveland as gangsta rap is to L.A. It was birthed here, perfected here and remains a staple export. Let other cities riot and flip cars. Cleveland will wallow with the knowledge that one of these times it's going to be wrong, and when it is, whether it's the Browns or Cavs or Indians, the city is going to be like nothing the sporting world ever has seen.
On this night, hope was slipping away. Two outs. Men on first and second. Desmond Jennings at the plate.
Jack: "Big out here. This might be the game."
Double down the line. Two score. Rays up 3-0.
Josh: "Game over."
It was the fourth inning.
It worsened. Bases loaded in the fourth. One out. Asdrubal Cabrera up.
Sonny: "No DP. No DP. No DP."
A 3-6-1 double play.
Second and third an inning later. Two outs. Kipnis, the Indians' best hitter, facing Rays starter Alex Cobb. Tapper back to the mound.
Jack: "Horrible. Just horrid."
Eighth inning. Only a few outs to go. Ryan Raburn stands in against left-hander Jake McGee. He stares at a 99-mph fastball for strike three.
Jack: "So, Browns gonna go to 3-2 tomorrow?"
Josh: "Is it safe to turn this [expletive] off yet?"
They kept watching, of course, because this team deserved as much. That was the odd part about Wednesday: Because the Indians had superseded expectations, nobody here wanted to pin too much on a one-and-done game. But they couldn't help themselves. Anything that represents a chance at getting rid of 1964 – at taking a nuke to almost 50 years of ceaseless roundhouse kicks to the nether regions – preys on this place's vulnerability.
"When you look back at a whole, there's no way to not say we had a good year," Kipnis said. "There's no way to not say this organization's heading in the right direction. ... I don't think it was a fluke year by any means. We're going to be knocking on the door for postseason next year, too."
They might. Ubaldo Jimenez, the ace who turned them from fringe contender into legitimate threat, likely will leave for the riches of free agency, even though teammates like Mike Aviles made a point to tell him after the game he needs to re-sign with Cleveland. Salazar, who made it through four innings, could grow into a frontline starter to pair with Justin Masterson, and there is enough pitching alongside them to win. The everyday players need to improve, and they could use a third baseman and a right fielder. With Francona in charge and the front office riding an offseason in which they made every right move, though, optimism is warranted.
Still, I had to ask, as the Rays moved closer to a 4-0 victory and a shot at the Red Sox in the AL Division Series, if there was anything they liked about Cleveland sports right now, since the Indians hadn't been in their good graces since the second inning.
Josh: "Yes, LeBron coming back."
Jack jumped in. He is the least jaded. I'm not sure why. Because he's a lawyer, he tries to practice pragmatism, and maybe the ups and downs of sports, the elation and depression, simply don't suit his fandom. Such balance is a rarity among Clevelanders, as is his optimism.
Jack: "Sure. Tribe in playoffs. Browns about to go 3-2. Cavs got [Andrew] Bynum and Anthony Bennett to play with a healthy Kyrie [Irving]."
Sonny wanted to answer, too.
Sonny: "We have good hospitals and our tap water is some of the nation's best tasting."
For the sake of my friends, millions in the metropolitan area here and millions more displaced Clevelanders around the country, I hope Jack is right. He didn't want me to talk about doom and gloom because all Cleveland knows is half a century of it, and even the post-cynic, who bathes in the stuff, can reach a point of oversaturation.
As Fernando Rodney mowed through the bottom of the Indians' order for the final three outs, cinched the 4-0 score and sent the Rays into a bubbly- and Silly String-spraying frenzy, Jack tried to get serious.
Jack: "So our baseball team is in the playoffs and our football team is at .500 with a game tomorrow night at home against the Bills."
Sonny: "We got shut out at home by a closer who throws it like speed pitch at a carnival."
Josh: "Is it legal to wear your hat like that?"
The baseball season was over. Cleveland would turn its attention to those Browns, who three weeks ago traded a former No. 3 overall pick in the draft for a late first-round pick, and the Cavs, whose great hope at center didn't play a single minute last season. And it would bury another Indians playoff loss in a graveyard full of them, loving the year and lamenting it all the same, a duality captured in one final text.
Jack: "Coulda won that game."