11.03.16 That World Series: A Cleveland-Chicago boy celebrates the joy of baseball
I grew up in Cleveland. And I spent many glorious afternoons in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. My loyalties during this most astounding World Series seemed to float back and forth, sometimes batter to batter.
In my childhood, I went to more games than I could count at the old 86,000-seat Municipal Stadium on the Cleveland lakefront. During those 103- or 105-loss seasons in the ’60s and ’70s, I’d be one of about 3,000 lonely souls in that huge, depressing canyon. The “Tribe” only won more games than they lost three times in the first 34 years of my life. And, as most people now know, the city didn’t experience a single major league sports championship from the time I was four (the Browns in 1964) until earlier this year, when LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the pinnacle of the NBA.
But it wasn’t only sports. When I was born in 1959, Cleveland was still the fourth largest city in the country at nearly 1 million inhabitants. Then there were riots in 1967 and the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. The city hemorrhaged population to less than 400,00 today. Cleveland was a national laughing stock (“the Mistake on the Lake,” “Cleveland’s like Newark without its charm”). In the early ’80s, the city defaulted on its debts. It took inner fortitude to admit in polite company where one was from. Then, there was a stubborn pride in doing so. Cleveland today is desperately poor, with one of the worst public school systems in the country and a brutally racist police force.
Sure other baseball teams had longer droughts than the Indians’ that started in 1949. The White Sox, the Red Sox, and then the Cubs had it worse. But all of those cities had other sports and civic victories to celebrate. Not Cleveland. (To be fair, there was a some glory in a world-class symphony orchestra and art museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) Who most desperately needed and deserved some limelight going into the World Series, the Cubs or the Indians? I think the more pitiful city was clear. Hell, even in losing, the Cubs have had a devoted national following. The Indians, meanwhile, have consistently played to the smallest road crowds in baseball, year after year.
Oh, but that Wrigley and Cubbie magic! In the mid-80s (before lights!), bleacher seats went on sale on the day of the game. You lined up in the morning and for three bucks, you got one of the best seats in baseball. There was a feeling of community in that ballpark that no other place could match. After attending dozens of games in ’84 (that heartbreak year) and ’85, I went abroad for a year. When I returned to my customary spot in the bleachers in mid-’86, everyone remembered me! They welcomed me back, asked where I’d been, and bought me beer after beer until I cried mercy. That magic has stayed with me for 30 years.
As I have previously written, the baseball “industry” has gradually, but steadily alienated me, over the years.* The year 2016, when — ironically — four of my “natural” clubs (Cubs, Indians, Nationals, Orioles) made the playoffs, was the first in my life when I didn’t follow baseball at all.
Then, the Cubs and Indians were to meet on the World Series! When I lived in Chicago, a childhood friend of mine who was living in Wisconsin came down to visit me from time to time. There was no point at all in rooting for the hapless Tribe, on their way to another last-place finish. So we were all about the Cubs. We joked that if the Cubs and Indians were ever to meet in the World Series, surely the apocalypse would follow.
There was no way I was going to stay checked out this October and November. I quickly studied all I could about both teams. I decided intellectually that I had to favor the Cubs because I am so offended by the Indians’ horribly racist and just-plain UGLY logo, Chief Wahoo. (I have long mourned that I would be too ashamed to wear any Cleveland baseball paraphernalia. The “logo” I inserted above is a placholder for Wahoo). I also learned that the home-town fans had deserted the Tribe, leaving them with the third-worst per-game home attendance in 2016. Even during the Series, Progressive Field was substantially populated by Cubs and other out-of-town fans. This could not be a city whose fans deserved a championship.
Then I started to watch. Like I said, I could never really decide which side I was on. I just had to listen to my gut, as I found myself hoping the pitcher would get a called third strike this time or that the batter would smash a home run the next. I sometimes cheered when a player stole second or when the next one got picked off first.
It is an amazing luxury to be rooting for two opposing teams at once! This saved me from frenzied heartache as the momentum swung this way and that. I was joyful no matter what happened. (The only time I had experienced anything like this was when the Indians and Orioles met in the post-season in the 90s.)
Something happened to me by Game 7, though. Chief Wahoo stopped mattering. I stopped trying to measure which city and whose fans were more deserving. Instead, I let myself fall in love with the scotch-tape-and-rubberbands, tiny-payroll Indians ballclub. I fell in love equally with Terry Francona, the Indians manger, who delivered managerial performance — strategy! — that was stunning, while he exuded nice-guy vibes.
At the same time, I felt growing contempt for the Cubs’ manager, Joe Maddon. His abysmal handling of pitchers was contemptuous. His call for a two-strike bunt with a runner on third and one out in the ninth inning of a tied Game 7 has to be the stupidest managerial decision I’ve ever seen. (Ironically, the other terrible manager I remember whose team won in spite of him was Charlie Manuel who oversaw the uber-talented Tribe in the mid-90s).
So, I just couldn’t help rooting for Francona and against Maddon. I was actually surprised to find myself disappointed when the Cubs pulled out a miraculous three-game streak to win on the road in 10 innings. But, not nearly as disappointed as my other Cleveland friends, because of the Wrigley/Cubs magic that also lives deep within me.
That was a seven-game series for the ages. The intensity and constant surprises may well have reawakened my love of the sport, even in the face of the “industry” that has been so alienating for so many reasons.
I thank Cleveland and Chicago for the heritage they have given me. I thank both rosters. I thank Terry Francona. I thank all the Cubs fans for their joyous explosion on Facebook and in the media today. And I thank my dear old childhood friends with whom I watched two games in the last week.
In a terribly depressing world, I thank baseball for delivering this week some innocent and full-hearted happiness.
*In addition to all the enforced religious/military patriotism, also: the spectacle of spoiled millionaires and billionaires fighting over spoils, the utter lack of loyalty of players to cities and fans, the outrageous prices for tickets and concessions, the way steroids destroyed the baseball record books, arbitrary interleague play, and the ridiculous imbalance of having a team play so many more games against against its three or four division opponents than against the rest of the league.
©2016 Keith Berner