For many baseball fans, this is the week they thought might never come. I know, because I’m one of them.
I am a fan of the Cleveland Indians. In 1995, my team won 100 games and lost just 44 in a regular season that started two weeks late because of the two-year strike. That Indians team was being compared to some of the greatest teams in baseball history as the World Series against the Atlanta Braves got underway. But how can a team rank with the greatest ever if it doesn’t even win the championship? The Hall of Fame Atlanta pitching trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz lost every other World Series they played – all four of them – but they were at their best against the Tribe. The Braves won the Series in six games.
As disappointing as 1995 was, it paled in comparison to what happened two years later. In my 40-plus years as a sports fan, no defeat was ever as painful as Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. It was played on a Sunday night, and I waited impatiently in the afternoon and evening for the football games to end so that baseball could take center stage. When it did, the Tribe turned my frayed nerve endings into high hopes by taking a two-run lead over the Florida Marlins in the third inning. Cleveland entered the bottom of the ninth still leading 2-1. After winning just 86 games in a mediocre regular season, the 1997 Indians were on the verge of capping a magical October by taking Games 6 and 7 on the road, in Miami, for what would have been the city’s first championship in a major professional sport since the Browns took the NFL crown in 1964. Bob Costas, calling play-by-play for NBC, reminded viewers that the Indians had not won the World Series since 1948. Now they were just three outs away.
Closer Jose Mesa got only two of them before Florida tied the score, so the game went into extra innings. In the 11th, Indians second baseman Tony Fernandez, whose resume was dotted with multiple Gold Glove Awards for fielding excellence, made an error on a ground ball, turning what could have been an inning-ending double play into deep trouble. As the long struggle passed the four-hour mark, the Marlins had runners on first and third. With two out, Edgar Renteria brought home the deciding run with a single up the middle – a result that left me crying in my wife’s arms, the only time in my adult life that I shed a tear because of the outcome of a sporting event. And I remember pondering this painful question: Will I live long enough to see the Indians get this close to winning it all ever again?
Losses like that leave scars on a sports fan’s soul. “Wait till next year” is the fan’s lament.
But it turns out that 2016 is “next year,” for tonight, Cleveland is the host city for Game 1 of the World Series for the first time in the 115-year history of the city’s American League franchise. And less than an hour before first pitch, in a basketball arena right next door, the Cavaliers raised a banner in recognition of their NBA title in June. Yes, after 52 years and 147 consecutive sports seasons without a championship, Cleveland now stands just four victories away from championships in consecutive sports seasons. Because LeBron James’ Cavs have rewarded “Believeland” for keeping the faith, the Indians’ home crowds for this World Series will bring with them an optimism and expectation of success that they did not have in 1995 and ’97.
Against any other opponent, the Indians would be America’s sentimental favorite. But against the Chicago Cubs, they are the less darling underdog in a historic matchup of franchises that have been synonymous with that word for generations.
Only two organizations in the four major team sports of North America have championship droughts longer than the Indians’ 68 years. However, the fan base of one, the NFL’s Cardinals, doesn’t really belong in this conversation because the Cards have been a football vagabond since winning their most recent title in 1947, moving from Chicago to St. Louis in 1960 and to their current home in Arizona in 1988. No, the only fan base that has been waiting longer for a title than Indians fans is the Cubs fans — who have not seen their team win it all since 1908.
The last time the Indians won the World Series, many American families had not yet purchased their first television sets. The last time the Cubs won the World Series, the first Model T Fords were rolling off the assembly line. To root for these teams, patience is more than a virtue – it’s a necessity.
Patience isn’t the only thing the current generation of Indians fans has in common with the current generation of Cubs fans. Both have had their hearts broken by the same franchise, the same common enemy – the Florida Marlins.
When Cleveland lost to Florida in 1997, it all seemed so unfair. The Marlins were an expansion franchise in only their fifth season, and I was convinced that many of the spectators in attendance for those World Series games in Miami were there on a lark. Unlike Indians fans, Marlins fans had not yet paid their dues, not yet experienced disappointment. In fact, 1997 was the first time Florida had qualified for the playoffs. Worse, Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga (citing financial reasons, of course) began dissembling his team of stars even before the champagne stains had been removed from the clubhouse carpet. Predictably, the Marlins soon fell to the bottom of the standings.
The only other time the Marlins reached the postseason was 2003 – the year they broke the Cubs’ hearts. Chicago’s epic collapse in Games 6 and 7 of the National League Championship Series came after a fan seated in the front row infamously caught a foul ball, preventing Cubs left fielder Moises Alou from reaching into the stands to record an important out in the eighth inning of Game 6. Alou was livid, and the rest of the Cubs – as if following his lead – collectively lost their poise soon thereafter. Florida went on to win another championship.
ABC News reported tonight that World Series ticket prices are at record levels — $3,900 for the games at Wrigley Field. The Cubs, considered the best team in baseball all season long, posted 103 victories over the regular schedule and are heavily favored. If they prevail in four or five games to end the Series in front of their home crowd, it’s a safe bet that every single person in the Wrigley Field stands will be seeing the Cubs win a championship for the first time in his or her lifetime. But if the Indians can pull off the upset, many of their fans likewise will get to celebrate a championship they have waited a lifetime to enjoy.
Between now and then, all will watch with sweaty palms as their ballclubs meet to decide whose curse is worse – the Curse of the Billy Goat, or the Curse of Rocky Colavito. Part of the lore of baseball is the idea that an animal’s visit to Wrigley Field doomed the Cubs to years of losing, or that an unpopular general manager’s foolish trade of the promising and popular Colavito helped turn the Tribe into a “Major League” laughingstock. Fans – the word is short for “fanatics” – believe in such things. And in this World Series, the fans will share center stage with the players. During the television broadcasts, the Fox cameras will frequently pan the crowds to capture the anxiety or joy etched on the spectators’ faces. Their enduring hope, their eternal optimism, their ability to persevere through last-place seasons and mediocre seasons and fired managers and front-office ineptitude and postseason heartbreak – all will be ingredients in this compelling drama.
Regardless of which team wins the trophy, one fan base will experience unprecedented euphoria, while the other will be forced to endure a cruel disappointment – again.
Posted October 25, 2016
Print sources: Cleveland Indians Media Guide (2002); Our Tribe: A Baseball Memoir, by Terry Pluto, Simon & Schuster (1999).
Other sources: ESPN, Fox Sports, mlb.com, MLB Network, TBS Sports.