Friends will tell you that I’m an optimistic person by nature. It’s true. I keep buying REM albums even though I haven’t liked any of them since Automatic for the People. I am not afraid to drive with the low-gas warning light on because I believe that a gas station will emerge when I really need one. I lost an iPod and a 2000 Olympic watch in a New York hotel room like three years ago, and I still feel sure I will find them someday. I believe in my heart that someday everyone in America will have health insurance, someone will invent a car that can drive itself and a weight-loss diet made up of fries, pasta and chocolate cake, and the the Royals will win. Someday.
And yet, all day Sunday, I knew that Cleveland was going to lose to Boston in Game 7. I knew it. This wasn’t about optimism or pessimism or any other ism. This wasn’t paranoia. I knew it like I know the sound of my youngest daughter’s crying. There was never even the slightest doubt in my mind. We’ve been here before, us Clevelanders. We’ve lived with Cleveland sports pain for 40-plus years now, and we know the telltale signs. We all have HM — Heartbreak Meters — mine was growling on Sunday.
“How do you feel about tonight?” I emailed my hero Scott Raab during the day. This is one thing we do when the HM starts raging. We reach out to other Clevelanders for a little hope. Scott may be significantly more cynical than me about any number of things, but he believes in the Indians. Hell, the guy’s got Wahoo tattooed on his arm.
“I feel confident in the Tribe’s chances tonight,” he wrote back. “I truly do.”
I appreciated him saying that. It didn’t help though. I still knew the Indians were going to lose. I knew it. I felt it throughout my body.
So the defeat was certain. The only thing that I wondered — and I wondered this all night Saturday and all day Sunday — was this: How would the fates get me this time? How would they trick me into believing?
There’s a story I once heard (don’t ask me where or when) about a Rabbi who was trying to cheat death. I’ll probably get the details wrong, but I guess there’s some sort of old Jewish legend that death cannot take you when you are in the midst of praying. So this Rabbi somehow found out what day he was supposed to die, and he spent the whole day praying so that the Angel of Death could not get him.
Well, it worked for a while. The Angel of Death kept trying to grab the Rabbi, but he kept on praying. Thing is, you don’t get promoted to Angel of Death without knowing a few tricks. So AOD called for the Rabbi to come outside. The Rabbi, hearing his name called, walked outside — praying all the way — then he walked down some stairs, only the Angel of Death had removed one of the stairs. The Rabbi slipped, he stopped praying for that instant, and the Angel of Death got him.
All of which is a long way of saying, I kept wondering how the Dark Angel of Cleveland Sports was going to get me this time. Because I came into the game determined not to fall for things this time around. I wasn’t going to let another Cleveland team break my heart. Not a chance. When I was 20, sure, I was vulnerable then, and I clearly remember sitting on the floor in our living room, nose inches away from our 19-inch color TV (colors included blue and yellow, maybe something resembling red) and watching Brian Brennan (or as Don Criqui called him, “The-undersized-overachieving-wide-receiver-from-Boston-College-Brian-Brennan”) pull down a pass from Bernie Kosar and then pull away from his defender, run into the end zone, touchdown, Browns led 20-13 in the wind and cold at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Broncos muffed and fumbled around with the ensuing kickoff and ended up with the ball at their own 2-yard-line.
And I was never so sure of anything in my whole life: The Browns were going to the Super Bowl. It was one of the five happiest moments of my life — if, you know, you could freeze that moment right there. Which you can’t.
Then, of course, John Elway drove the field, the game went into overtime, Denver’s Rich Karlis kicked the game-winning field goal (that even now, 20 years later, I KNOW was wide left) and I silently and unwillingly promised myself that I would never, ever get my hopes up again for a Cleveland sports team.
The very next year, the Browns and Broncos played in the AFC Championship again, and I knew the Browns were going to lose, I knew it, and this time the Broncos more or less dominated the game from the start. So it was easy to just sit back and mope about the fate of being a sports fan born in Cleveland. At least they hadn’t broken my heart.
Only then, stunningly, unexpectedly, the Browns started to come back. It’s quite a thing when your team surprises you. They came all the way back, and they were about to score the game tying touchdown, and (I couldn’t help it) hope returned, that feeling came back, the Browns really were going to the Super Bowl this time …
Then Ernest Byner fumbled going into the end zone, and I went into a depression coma. I kicked myself for a whole year after that for allowing myself to get fooled again.
And so on. It was always the same thing. I knew the Cleveland teams would lose. And yet, something always happened during the games that would cause me to drop my hands and take yet another right-cross to the chin. That wasn’t going to happen Sunday. No. I’m a grown man now, kids of my own, a lawn that needs to be cut, and I KNEW the Indians were going to lose, so, move on. Two friends I greatly admire — Bill James and Allard Baird — work for the Red Sox. I would try to be happy for them.
Then the Red Sox took the 3-0 lead early off of Jake Westbrook, and I almost smiled to myself. “This is too easy,” I thought. “The Cleveland fates aren’t even bringing their A game.” I suspected the Red Sox would pull away to a huge victory, and I just wasn’t going to get worked up about it. I’m proud to be from Cleveland. It’s a real city with real people. Losing sports just happens to be the cross we bear.
And then … well, you know what happened. The Indians started showing some backbone that, frankly, I did not think they had (maybe this was because C.C. Sabathia was nowhere near the mound). Westbrook toughened up. Ryan Garko had a terrific at-bat and he whacked a bomb high off the wall near center field. The score tightened up to 3-2.
And then Boston — unbeatable, untouchable, unshakeable Boston — blinked. With one out in the seventh, Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo dropped a pop-up. Flat dropped it. Kenny Lofton limped/jogged/strutted into second. A Cleveland friend of mine instant messaged me immediately: “That’s how you lose Game 7s.” He was right. The Red Sox suddenly looked a little shaky. The crowd suddenly looked a little nervous. And that was my missing step. I started to believe. It was an impulse. It was an involuntary reaction. Cleveland’s Franklin Gutierrez ripped a ball down the left field line. FAIR BALL! A run scores. It’s tied up. I’m off the chair. I’m wondering if Gutierrez reached second. And then I look up …
Lofton was still at third base.
I kept blinking and looking back at the television, like maybe there was something in my eye, maybe a speck of dust that looked exactly like Kenny Lofton. But no, it was real, Lofton was still at third base. It was not even remotely possible. How did that happen? They showed a replay. And it was just like I saw live. Gutierrez whacked a ball down the third base line. It was fair. Definitely fair. And the ball whacked off a signboard or something, rolled into left field and the run scor … oh no.
Third base coach Joel Skinner held him up.
Then they showed it from another angle. And another angle. But no matter what angle they showed it from — and no matter how much I WANTED to see something else — Joel Skinner kept on holding up Kenny Lofton at third base. Now, from what I can tell, Joel Skinner is a good man. I sort of liked him as a player — as much as you can like a light-hitting backup catcher — and I’ve always heard good things about him as a coach. But when you hold up the tying run at third base in the seventh inning of Game 7 with MannyBeingManny still chasing the ball, well, here’s what I instant messaged my friend instantly …
Sipe. Byner. Ehlo. Fernandez. Skinner.
If you’re from Cleveland (or read my oppressively long email about being a Cleveland fan) you know that list. It’s like the Cleveland most wanted. It hurt to put Skinner in that group. But not as much as it hurt watching the play itself. Another baseball writer emailed me to argue that it wasn’t so clear cut — that Manny might have thrown out Lofton at the plate. I think he was just baiting me. It’s clear from every replay that Manny would not even have thrown home (I liked MBM’s quote after the game, actually: “I would have thrown it to the cutoff man and let him deal with it.”)
Anyway, after the replays, I felt that feeling in the pit of my stomach again. Heartbreak. The fates had gotten me again. Damn them. Of course Casey Blake immediately hit into the double play. Of course Blake followed that with an error (how often do you see it) which was followed by Dustin Freaking Pedroia’s home run over the monster, which was followed by a complete and utter collapse by the Indians. Of course. Of course. And no one can talk to a horse, of course.
I’m not saying Cleveland wins the game if Lofton scores. I have nothing logical to stand on there. They Indians were outscored 30-5 the last three games. They got to the brink of the World Series and then suddenly they were not ready for prime time. I don’t know if it would have made any difference if Lofton scores.
All I know is Lofton didn’t score. He was held up. Incredible.
After the game ended, I sat slumped in my chair and tried to feel happy for Bill and Allard. I wasn’t too successful, but hey, it’s the thought that counts. Then I got another email from my man Scott. It was a condolence email, the kind Cleveland sports fans have become used to sending. It ended like so:
“I think I’ll continue weeping now.”