CLEVELAND – People here are trying to comprehend what has happened over these past few months, how to process a delirious and wholly unfamiliar confluence.
A visitor flying in might hear a Southwest stewardess, minutes before takeoff, declare the flight is bound for “Cleveland, the land of champions.” One might see along Prospect Avenue the construction of a television stage for a national NBA pregame show, and another one around the corner for a national MLB pregame show. One might sense, over the 88 paces between one corner of Quicken Loans Arena and the left field gate of Progressive Field, some sort of cosmic vibration.
In June, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship to give the city its first major professional sports title since 1964, when the Browns won the NFL championship, three years before the Super Bowl even existed. In those 52 years, Cleveland became an object of derision. Its sporting heartbreaks earned two-word memorials: The Drive, The Fumble, The Decision. Outside the stadiums, a river caught fire, the population drained and winter seemingly never relented.
On Tuesday night, a new world will be on full display. Around 7 p.m., a half-hour before tip, the Cavaliers will raise an NBA championship banner inside Quicken Loans Arena. A little after 8 p.m., across the street at Progressive Field, Indians right-hander Corey Kluber will throw the first pitch of Game 1 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs, a team with its own backlog of torment.
On the same night, a city will celebrate one title and begin a bid for another. That city, of all cities, is Cleveland.
“It feels strange,” said Lavar Hamilton, a 37-year-old Clevelander and bartender at Flannery’s Pub, from where he can see Quicken Loans Arena out the window. “It’s surreal, like we’re still dreaming about it. It really hasn’t hit us, to be a championship city. We’ve always been known as, like, ‘The Mistake on The Lake’ and, you know, ‘Why you guys going to Cleveland? Ain’t nothing in Cleveland.’ But now, hey, Cleveland is where it’s at.”
No one complains about another barren fall for the Browns, who are 0-7 and regarded as the worst team in the NFL. Instead, fans pack the other two stadiums and give thanks for their current set of heroes.
“There’s a level of disbelief,” Cleveland comedian Mike Polk Jr. said. “I still have this horrible nightmare that it’s 2011 still and I’m sleeping, and LeBron is still in Miami, and Francona is still in Boston, and my friend wakes me up and says we’re late for the Browns game.”
All of this winning actually started before the Cavaliers’ title. It is striking how often Clevelanders include, in their recounting of an unforgettable summer, how the Cleveland Monsters won the Calder Cup, awarded to the American Hockey League champions.
In a sign of their hunger for a winner, 19,665 fans packed The Q for the Monsters’ clincher on June 11, the second-largest crowd in the 80-year history of the minor hockey league. A week earlier, the Indians had moved into first place to stay. Eight days after, the Cavaliers completed their comeback from down three games to one, and defeated the Golden State Warriors on the road in Game 7.
“I do believe winning is contagious,” Monsters executive Mike Ostrowski said. “It really provides the fans and the teams and the community this connect point people can rally behind.”
Before one baseball playoff game this October, LeBron James walked on to the field wearing a throwback Indians jersey and gave a rousing pep talk. The crowd erupted.
“The only way to get a bigger reaction is to maybe walk off a game in the World Series,” relief pitcher Andrew Miller said.
“We definitely saw how it was and envisioned how good it could be if we did it, too,” said designated hitter Mike Napoli, who has become a Cleveland cult hero. “Hopefully, there’s going to be a bundle of it. Maybe it’s just Cleveland’s year this year.”
For Cleveland fans, and maybe players, too, optimism replaced dread. Rather than watching with trepidation and waiting for something to go wrong, Clevelanders have watched the Indians storm into the World Series with undiluted joy.
The city has taken pride in its response to the championships. In the aftermath of the Cavs title, fans downtown went bonkers – Hamilton can point out the beer stains on the ceiling of Flannery’s to prove it. But no major incidents spolied the initial celebration. A month later, Cleveland hosted the Republic National Convention, and despite predictions of mayhem, calamity was averted.
Reputations can be hard to shed. When the Indians beat the Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs, TBS showed a photoshopped image of a river burning. It drew the ire of many Clevelanders, but others discarded it as ignorance not worthy of their anger.
“ ‘The Mistake on The Lake’ is what they always say,” Ken Doyle, a 61-year-old Clevelander, said Sunday as he watched the Browns game at Dive Bar. “It just rolls off our backs. You come here, you fall in love with the city, though.”
Sunday morning, Kelly McGreehan, 27, owner of Kay-Em Apparel, stood under a stand in an outdoor marketplace in The Flats, a trendy, revitalized section of town on the Cuyahoga.
“Two in one year would be insane,” McGreehan said.
“Yeah,” said Nick Wolanczyk, one of McGreehan’s employees, “that’s not a thing.”
Kay-Em specializes in Cleveland sports-themed T-shirts. One of them, in the fashion of a “Goosebumps” book cover, includes a cartoon of a fan wearing a paper bag over his head and the tagline, “The Horrors of Cleveland Football.”
“I think Cleveland is harder on itself than even people nationally,” Wolanczyk said. “You just have to embrace the criticism and the hate.”
“Also, we know how awesome Cleveland is,” McGreehan said.
Cleveland faces an odd adjustment. Its sports teams, despite the presence of the Browns, are not losers anymore. No one can poke fun of it, and it also may change how the city views itself as a sports town.
“It’s been an identity for us,” Polk said. “It’s going to be interesting how this challenges that. Now we got to figure out how to be successful.”
Also need to figure out how to spend Tuesday night: watching (or attending) the Cavs game or the Indians game.
“It’s a day that will go down in history,” James said. “For anyone who lives here, they will never forget it. I’m happy I’m a part of it.”
Months ago, Stuart Ostro bought tickets to the Cavaliers opener. He had watched the Cavaliers complete their comeback at home with his dad on Father’s Day, crying after the final second ticked off. He didn’t want to go to bed that night. He knew he wanted to watch Cleveland’s first championship banner rise to the rafters in person.
But he also couldn’t resist the pomp of a World Series in his hometown. He and his father have tickets to Game 1, and Ostro will sell the Cavs tickets and go to Progressive Field.
“It’s like a high-class problem to deal with,” Ostro said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have to deal with it.”
Bill Russell does not have tickets to the Cavaliers game, but he has a high-class problem of his own. His season tickets afforded him playoff tickets to every game at Progressive Field, but he could not help but notice the abundance of Cubs fans, a short drive away and obsessed with ending their own tormented history, willing to pay top dollar for seats.
Russell, 70, attended the 1964 NFL championship, the same year he graduated from Collinwood High. He rushed the field afterward and unwittingly found himself standing among a group of reporters. A cop whisked the writers into the locker room, and Russell wandered in with them.
He told the story Sunday at Dive Bar, over chicken wings and Bud Light, his back to the Browns game. He attended Cleveland State and lives in a suburb now, still Cleveland through and through. The Indians could win their first World Series since 1948, and he has a choice.
“It’s been a lot of tough years,” Russell said. “I’m in a touchy position now. I’ve got tickets to all the World Series games. Let’s see: Go to the World Series games, or sell your tickets for $5,000.
“So, I’m going to the game.”