By Bruce Stambaugh
I have always been a fan of the Cleveland Indians. It must be the masochist in me.
Cleveland was and remains geographically the closest city with a major league baseball team. It was only logical that I follow them. Loyalist that I am, I have remained a true fan through thick and thin. Believe me, there have been a lot of lean years in my lifetime.
In part, that’s why I was a bit taken aback by the recent remarks of Indians’ closer Chris Perez. The young relief pitcher, not one to be shy with his words, vehemently chastised the Cleveland fan base for not supporting the team. At the time, the Tribe, as they are affectionately known, was in first place in the standings and last in attendance in the major leagues. That displeased Perez.
In a sport where clichés are the standard, it’s not how well you start the season, but where you end it. After winning 30 of their first 45 games last year, the Indians finished the season with a losing record. Like so many seasons before, their fast start melted with the summer heat.
Although I understood Perez’ point, I don’t think he comprehended the perspective of lifetime Indians fans. We have seen it all before. I doubt Perez knows about Max Alvis tripping over third base, turning a routine popup into a double. Or watching Tony Horton crawl back to the dugout on his knees after striking out on a blooper pitch. Or the embarrassing fiasco of “Ten Cent Beer Night.” More to his point, the Indians have been in this position time and time again.
Take 1961. On Father’s Day weekend, the perennial powerhouse New York Yankees were in town for a four game series. I watched the first two games on black and white television, and had tickets for the doubleheader on Father’s Day.
Cleveland won Friday’s game and then came back in dramatic fashion to beat the hated Yankees on Saturday 10-9. This was in the old Municipal Stadium, a cavern of a place that held 80,000 people. The Sunday games were standing room only. In those days, you could see two games for the price of one, which made doubleheaders so popular.
Fans stood five and six people deep behind the chain-linked fence, which arched the parameters of the outfield from foul pole to foul pole. The meshed fence then was not padded, which allowed the fans to see the action. Cleveland handily won both games, sweeping the series from the mighty Yankees.
In the traffic jam outside the stadium, people were nearly delirious with joy. They were already celebrating as if the Indians had won the American League pennant. That proved slightly premature. By season’s end, the Yankees had won the league with the Indians far down in the standings.
In the off-season, the manager was fired. Players were traded, and that pattern was repeated for the next 30 years with no better results. Try as they might, the Indians always fell flat. The reality for the Indians fans was first place at the 4th of July, last place by September 30.
Of course that all changed in the 1990s when the Indians built a new stadium, spent big bucks acquiring free agent stars and grooming outstanding players in the farm system. Tribe fans were hysterical when the Indians went to the World Series in 1995 and 1997, only to lose both times.
The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. Only the beloved Chicago Cubs have had a longer dry spell. And yet, there is no stigma to being a Cubs fan like there is cheering for the Indians.
I won’t let that deter me, however. It’s not yet July 4th. There’s always hope, and of course, if this season goes as previous ones, always next year.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2012