I am a Member of several tribes, lost tribes. Or as one friend said, I can play another victim card –- to go with the gay, the Jew, the middle aged –- and this, my stiff-necked allegiance to the Cleveland Browns (football) and the Cleveland Indians (baseball) teams -- may trump them all.
Am I loyal, stubborn, or both? I’ve lived in Massachusetts for 25 years, longer than I lived in Cleveland, and yet I remain steadfast, able only to pull for the teams I grew up with, the ones my parents and their parents rooted for, the ones who have let me down in various ways over the past 50 years –- hard, easy, a bit of both. My Boston-area friends ask me why I don’t adopt the Red Sox and Patriots as my “second teams.” But I find the concept of a second team a bit like a second husband –- when it comes to my tribal loyalties, I’ve got my hands full with the first string and couldn’t possibly take on another. Did those Red Sox fans, who wandered in the desert for 86 years, jump on some other team’s bandwagon or did they remain faithful, year in and year out, until deliverance finally arrived? Did the folks who followed the woeful Patriots of old give up and start rooting for the New York Jets?
Here, in the midst of World Series-crazed Boston, I’m an outsider. Some of my gay friends, who laugh at my interest in pro sports, shaking their heads while they discuss the latest Harry Potter flick or Project Runway extravaganza, are suddenly jazzed up about the Red Sox’ World Series run. They flock to the dessert table after ignoring the main dish of the past two seasons, arriving just in time for their World Series flambé.
I feel a certain pride in my ‘otherness’ and my ongoing affection for Cleveland’s scrappy but scrawny sports teams. Still, I am a bad fan. I’m a bad fan because I cannot watch the games in which I have a rooting interest -- I’m too invested, too tied into the Tribe’s (the Cleveland Indians’) fortunes to actually sit and watch a whole game without freaking out.
One Wednesday night in early October, I was beside myself. The Indians, with a spotty offense and a bunch of no-name players, had managed to win ten games in a row and clinch a wild-card spot in a one-game playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays. The game sold out in two hours, fans celebrating the first playoff appearance since 2007, when the Indians lost to the Red Sox. T-shirts were printed, tickets were sold, and then it was over –- the Indians lost 4-0.
The next night, the Browns were featured on national TV, a rare occurrence. In 1995, the original Browns packed up and moved to Baltimore, in exchange for a new stadium and the sort of ridiculous incentives that cities offer to major league sports franchises. Four years later, the new Browns were born. Unfortunately, it turned out that they were more frustrating than their forbearers; they have had only two winning seasons in the past 14 years.
But on this night, a victory seemed possible, as the Browns had found a new quarterback, who guided them to two wins in a row. I couldn’t watch the game without cable, but I was invested enough to log onto Cleveland.com, and follow the progression on my laptop. The Browns were playing the Buffalo Bills –- another hard-luck team from a hard-luck town and I was hopeful, cautious, though the Browns were losing 7-0. I watched the postings on the site’s message board, and then our new quarterback, a Cleveland boy, ran out of bounds after a big gain. There was a late hit, his leg buckled and knee twisted, and just like that he was out for the season, along with our hopes of a winning season.
I watched the comments stream across the white space of my laptop, the “OIC/Only in Cleveland” anguished posts of the loyal fans, and of course injuries happen to other teams but not like this, not to the local boy who was turning things around and then after two games it all imploded.
I cannot watch a full game –- baseball or football –- because if the Browns or Indians are not playing I do not care -- and if they are, I care too much. In 1997 I was glued to my old TV, as the Indians played the Florida Marlins in the 7th and deciding game of the World Series. We were up 2-0 in the 8th, 2-1 in the 9th and then Jose Mesa, our relief pitcher who, I knew in my gut, was destined to screw up, gave up the tying run with two outs and I hit the damned TV, screamed so loud that my landlord, who happened to be from Canton, Ohio, could hear me upstairs. The Indians went on to lose in 11 innings, a train wreck I could not watch.
I was 40 then, with considerable mileage left on my tires, but I knew then that was our shot, my time, the best if not only chance for a Cleveland team to win a championship in my lifetime. Sixteen years and counting since 1997, and I am waiting, still.
Cleveland is the ultimate lost cause and it is on my parents and their parents who bequeathed it to me –- the town and its hapless teams that tease, leave, abuse and confuse me and though I got 700 miles away I am still tethered to that city on a great lake and the modest dreams of its people.
Cleveland – gritty streets and vacant buildings, promises broken and dreams deferred – is in my blood. I am infected, a carrier of 1948 (Indians) and ’64 (Browns), of ancient victories and modern losses, and the city’s fate, which is interwoven, tied up in knots with my own.
Judah Leblang is a writer and storyteller in Boston. He will be performing with local writer Randy Ross at Bestseller’s Café in Medford Square on Thursday Nov 7 at 6:30 PM. The event is free; for more information, go to www.judahleblang.com