Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The World Series in a Year of Cleveland Redemption

2016, man.

This year has changed the sports landscape. Not just the Cleveland sports landscape--the entire sports landscape. Not a single “most tortured sports city” or “most tortured sports fanbase” was complete without Cleveland at the very top. Shoot, this very blog was named Cleveland Sports Torture over a decade ago, and it was a cliche long before that.

Those of us older than say, 7, know what it has been like to be a fan of Cleveland teams. My friends and I used to cheer that the “Tribe’s Alive in ‘95.” They were indeed alive in 1995, in fact one of the best regular season teams of all time, winning 100 games and losing only 44 in a strike shortened season. That said, when we made that comment, we were like 9 years old and it was 1985. And somehow we were cynical already. It was bred into us, by nature and by nurture. Being from Cleveland meant being the underdog.

The underdog with a lifetime of sports heartbreak, our wounds rubbed raw by ESPN every time one of our teams got close. That was ended in glorious fashion this June when the Cavaliers vanquished a billion demons and sent a city into a summer of orgasmic celebration when they wrote the greatest comeback in sports history and beat the 73-win Golden State Warriors--yes, the one with the unanimous MVP--in 7 games after they blew a 3-1 lead.

Damn, that was fun. And the Indians never took their eyes off their own prize. Fourteen wins in a row immediately following the Cavs’ mammoth parade virtually put the AL Central away. What had been a relatively sad offense for a couple years somehow came to life, finishing only behind Boston for most runs in the American League, and that was without anything from their best hitter, Michael Brantley. Corey Kluber shook off a slow start to exert his dominance, and even added an All-Star Game victory that will come in very handy in October (and November.) The Indians pitching staff was the best in the league in advanced metrics, better even than the vaunted Cubs’ starters, despite everything you are reading this week.

I live in Chicago now, have been here for nearly 9 years. I live half a mile from Wrigley Field, where the crowd’s cheers in June flow into my window and make me switch to WGN to see the (delayed broadcast) home run. This team is fun, special, amazingly talented, and has completely captured the imagination and hearts of so many Chicagoans. You can’t walk thirty feet without seeing a W flag hanging off a porch or in a storefront. Yes, the “Go Cubs Go” song is annoying and illogical (“Cubs are gonna win today”?? They just did!). But it’s also tradition and endearing.

And of course, Wrigley Field is an absolute gem. The first time I was lucky enough to visit, nearly twenty years ago, I was amazed. My very first weekend after moving to Chicago I hopped on the Red Line to explore Chicago; Wrigley Field was my first stop despite the ten degree January temperatures. The ballpark still hints at yesteryear despite the incredible overhauls it has gotten recently, new scoreboards and new seats and a new clubhouse and new ads in the ivy (and lights!). Sure, the concourse is a still dump. But a nice dump. (And troughs instead of urinals are actually quite a bit faster, for what it’s worth. Because Cubs fans can drink like Clevelanders.)

And if you have paid any attention to sports media for the last two or fifty years, you have been reminded of Cubs fans’ own suffering. Shoot, it’s a big reason why they are so lovable, it’s been since 1908 since they’ve won a World Series* (in case that hasn’t been told to you in the past twelve minutes.) But trust me, no Chicagoan can say with a straight face that they are tortured. Six NBA titles, three Stanley Cups in the last six seasons, MLS Cup in their first year, a World Series title for their neighbors 70 blocks south. If I had a nickel for every time I rolled my eyes listening to a Cubs fan pretend to have a hard sports life in their Patrick Kane jersey. But yet so many of my close friends are Cubs fans, and they want this championship more than anything. Grown men cried at Wrigley Field Saturday night.

What they forget is that Cleveland fans have had tears of joy all year. (Browns notwithstanding). And that the Indians have also been winless since 1948.  So close, yet so far. And play in front of a fan base who has reached the pinnacle just months ago but hasn’t forgotten the pain of the previous 40 years.

The Indians are on the precipice of greatness. This isn’t just any team. This isn’t just any year. Crushing injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were somehow overcome by the playoff brilliance of the Tribe bullpen and managerial genius of Terry Francona. The Indians’ young superstar Francisco Lindor is about to be known to the National League. Wrigley Field may have its goat problems, but the Indians have the GOAT cheering them on with teammates and Larry O’Brien in tow.

216. The area code.
2016. The year.
Stipe Miocic proved it was the year.
The Block, the Shot and the Stop proved it was the year.
The Lake Erie Monsters proved it was the year.
The fact that even the GOP Convention couldn’t stop the city proved it was the year.

The Cubs are a great team, and look due. But the fact is that this year, the edges in the bullpen, baserunning, and managerial excellence, the utter disrespect they have gotten since Carrasco’s and Salazar’s injuries, and the spirit of the city means Indians in 7.