>I went to Cleveland to visit my sister and then wrote the first half of this a few weeks ago. I couldn’t finish it then, for whatever reasons. It just didn’t seem relevant at the time, but there probably won’t be a better time to bring up Cleveland than today, at least for a while. Here you go:
Progressive Field is nestled into the northern section of Cleveland, Ohio, squeezed between a parking garage, the looming specter of LeBron James, and a highway that, depending on your perspective, leads into or out of the city. The stands enwrap a playing field that is below street level, the upper deck reaching high above the outfield grass in right. A high wall in left field pushes its way onto the field of play, ranks of steel bleachers lingering behind the wall, the scoreboard behind the bleachers, and the rise of Cleveland’s skyline behind even that. It is not a lazily designed ballpark; every section seems to have been given exactly enough room to serve its purpose. It’s tempting to describe it as cramped, but I believe cosy is more appropriate. It is an entirely comfortable place to watch a baseball game; it feels very much like the home of the Indians that it is.
The ballpark, much like Disney Land, is impeccably clean, as if this was the first time it had been used, or as if an army of men armed with powerful hoses diligently sprays down the entire park every night. Maybe the clean feeling has to do with the Indians being last in the league in attendance. It remains a warm place nonetheless. The ballpark vendors will smile patiently at slightly confused visitors who fumble with their change as they attempt to purchase a box of M&M’s. The presence of security is minimal and seemingly unnecessary; if passing through the suites is the fastest way back to the parking garage, you will be allowed and probably even encouraged to pass through the suite level. There is the usual mixture of age and interest groups in attendance: elderly couples, groups of twenty-somethings in business clothes, families. It is entirely possible that a middle-aged man seated in front of you will be wearing a black t-shirt with the three sandy cowboys from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” imprinted on the back, and then Clint Eastwood will glare at you from the man’s back for most of the game, thoroughly displeased either with you, his own miserable existence on the bottom of that man’s laundry pile, or the inability of the Indians left fielder to even loosely predict the trajectory of a spherical object in flight. Likely some combination of the three.
In the upper deck on the third base line was where I watched the worst Indians team in 20 years attempt to play baseball against the New York Mets. This Indians team featured no regulars hitting above .300 and one hitting below .200. Their star center fielder is missing, having undergone season ending surgery on his knee. Their best player, their right fielder, is playing under the threat of being called away for compulsory military service in his home country. The pitching staff is a mixture of under-performing youth and the just-performing aged. Their infielders field ground balls like butterfly nets field air, and their outfielders chase down fly balls as if they were chasing after those same butterflies. The television announcers narrate with a dreary resignation normally reserved for state funerals, the sort of soulless tone newsmen in horror films use to dutifully inform the public about the continued zombie uprising.
Unintentionally — or perhaps just unavoidably — highlighting the contrast between the storied-if-unlucky franchise and its current unstoried-if-unlucky team, the upper deck is decorated with murals of both past Indians greats and present Indians adequates. Bob Feller’s image is flanked by that of a grown man called Pronk; an image of Kenny Lofton falls somewhere between the two. Bob Lemon can be found near Fausto Carmona; an image of Lou Boudreau graces one section, Kerry Wood another. My seat was above an image of Larry Doby, Hall-of-Fame center fielder and the first black man to play baseball in the American League. In Doby’s second year — the second year blacks played in the Major Leagues — the Indians won the World Series. They have not repeated since.
It was near the image of Mr. Doby that I watched the Indians starting pitcher surrender thirteen hits in five and two-thirds innings, including six hits in a row during the top of the third. He received a standing ovation from the Cleveland crowd for heroically denying a seventh consecutive batter to hit safely.
The Indians fell behind by five runs in that third, narrowed it to 5-3 as the sun lazily disappeared on a long June day, and then saw the Mets lead expand again to five runs as the summer night took over. Cleveland threatened in the last of the eighth, finding themselves with the bases loaded and no men out, due mostly to the Mets bullpen’s liberal use of strikes. A giant drum kept by a fan in the rear of the bleachers, mostly quiet until that point, began to sound, its beat echoing optimism throughout the stadium.
The Indians responded by scoring a run on a sacrifice fly.
Then they grounded into an inning-ending double play, 5-4-3 across the infield, leaving the score at eight runs to four.
The score held in the ninth. It was another Cleveland loss in a season of Cleveland losses. The remains of the crowd lingered and finally dispersed into the night. The parking garage was emptied quickly. As we headed in our car back towards the highway, outstretched arms in black and white remained spread across the lit building behind us, an image of a man that served as the most recognizable landmark in Cleveland. The billboard read “One for All.” Beneath the lettering, a single swoosh.
The Indians aren’t the worst team in baseball this season, as the Orioles deny them even that lowly title. They are, however, having a miserable season in a town that is now home to three miserable sports teams, playing out the sort of season that makes their announcers go off on thoroughly amusing rants. In a crushing move, the city’s one symbol of hope just left, awkwardly announcing his decision in a prime time television special that represented everything I find embarrassing about professional sports. Things are not good in Cleveland, and it was all brought to me by Vitamin Water.
And that’s really the only word I have for it — it was embarrassing for everyone who likes sports. It’s quite clear now that LeBron James completely missed the point of just about everything. To paraphrase the music critic Greil Marcus on what America means: I’m no better than anyone else, and no one else is any better than me. We have no need for kings, particularly self-proclaimed ones. No one rooted for LeBron James because he was so much better than everyone else at basketball — no one roots for any athlete because they’re better. We root for athletes because we like to root for the good things in us that they sometimes reflect. We like to imagine that we would save our hometowns and never leave. Even if it’s not necessarily true.
I assume that winning is the most important thing to professional athletes. I can’t imagine anyone reaching the highest levels of sports without being absurdly driven to succeed. That’s what seems to have driven James to leave Cleveland — a desire to win. Good
for him. It’s the right move, in that sense.
That being said, I’m not sold on the idea that winning and losing are the things that really matter to fans. It certainly matters. I just don’t believe it matters as much as some think. The Cubs and their fans should serve as living testament to that.
I suspect that is where so many athletes like James depart from reality — winning just doesn’t matter to those of us in the stands as much as it matters to those on the field. He seems to think that people will love him if he wins, no matter what else. But the people at that Indians game in Cleveland weren’t there because they wanted to see winners. The Indians team I saw is the worst in twenty years. They were really, really bad at playing baseball, particularly considering they are paid to do so. Fans weren’t there for the people on the field — it wasn’t an atmosphere of desperation or misery. The fans were there for the people around them. I was there to spend time with my sister, my brother and my friend. Someone else was there to spend time with their father, or their grandfather, or their date. Their coworkers. Their spouse. Their buddies. Sports gives us something to talk about with the people we might not have anything else to bond over. It gives us something silly and meaningless to care about in a way that doesn’t hurt, at least not in the way real things can hurt. And maybe winning makes it more interesting, but it’s not what it’s really all about to us in the stands.
LeBron James kept mentioning his fans, thanking his fans, and that was the saddest thing about all of this. Who does he think he’s talking about? He just blew up everything about himself that was likeable, and he seems totally clueless about it. Yes, there will always be the idolaters and the talking heads who worship winning. But the people in Cleveland who bonded over liking James are now just going to bond over hating him, and keep on rooting for their Cavaliers, their Browns and their Indians, even when they’re awful.
And I’ll keep rooting for my Knicks, my Giants, and my Mets — but not because I worship the players. They’re just people. I’ll keep rooting because it gives me something silly to care about. It gives me something to talk to my father about, my mother, my siblings, my friends, or the stranger who strikes up a conversation because I’m wearing a team’s shirt. But it’s never really been about those on the field or those on the court. It’s not about LeBron James, or Alex Rodriguez, or even the David Wrights, the ones we like, whatever they and Nike and everyone else that has their hands in our pockets seems to think. It’s about meaningless games in Cleveland spending time with the people we actually love. It’s about the ones around us.
Yesterday was sad, strange, and embarrassing for the silly little obsessions we call sports. It was mostly ridiculous. But don’t forget that sports can be, and often are, better than that. We’re all better than that.
Image via Chris and/or Kevin’s Flickr.