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Until Next Year…

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The 2016 Cleveland Indians season came to an end in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

In an almost incomprehensible Game 7 that immediately weaved itself into the fabric of both baseball and American history, the Chicago Cubs prevailed by a score of 8-7 and ended a 108-year World Series drought.

From what I’ve seen, the gross majority of the country is happy for the Cubs. During the series, the media blitz was almost unbearable; to the point that the name “Joe Buck” is now a 4-letter word in Cleveland. Even as I’m writing this, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth just took time out of an NFL broadcast to congratulate the Cubs, talk about how great they are, and how they persevered and overcame all obstacles in their way. I’m not entirely certain of what obstacles an almost universally loved, large market team with an unlimited payroll may have, but that notwithstanding, there is one that thing I didn’t hear in their effusive praise…nor almost any commentary from anyone associated with the national media in aftermath of this truly classic World Series, and that’s mention of the other team on the field, you know, the actual underdog story.  I get it, history doesn’t remember who lost, but in this case, the 2016 Cleveland Indians are a team that deserves to be remembered.

Make no mistake, the 2016 Cubs are an excellent team with a terrific front office, a great manager, and an incredibly bright future. In this seven game series, they proved to be the better team and deserved to win this title. That said, the Cubs have always been, and are now more than ever, an advantaged franchise. They are the big brother in one of the largest markets in the world. They have had some of the deepest pockets in professional sports, and despite that, have almost annually underperformed. Despite what it’s made out to be, rooting for the Cubs isn’t rooting for David to fell Goliath… it’s rooting for Goliath, only to watch him trip on a tree branch and impale himself on his own spear.  In this case, it was different, Goliath still tripped, but this time he just so happened to fall onto David.

I don’t mean to demean the true Cubs fans. Having been fortunate enough to attend four of the games in this epic World Series, I met many Cubs fans.  The overwhelming majority were seemingly very good fans. These were men and women who spent gobs of money and made the five-hour drive to cheer on the Cubs. When the final out was recorded, I saw 80-year-old men in Cubs hats sobbing uncontrollably after the game. I saw four generations of Cub fans hugging and celebrating in a manner that can only be described as foreign. As an Indians fan, I was also sobbing, for obviously different reasons, but I did feel a small sense of goodwill towards the die-hard Cub fans. After all, no one can sympathize with perennial disappointment like a Clevelander. In this series, the Cubs were 2-1 favorites in this series, and they won, just like they were supposed to… but they almost didn’t.

They were pushed to the brink and almost didn’t win, not because they are “cursed,” or there’s a guy wearing glasses and a Walkman reaching over the railing, or that they gee-golly, just don’t know how to win. They almost didn’t win because they faced a team that doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit. A team and a city that will stand toe-to-toe with anyone and give you all that they have.  Cleveland may not come out on top, but this city is going to leave it all on the field and die trying.  Having been born and raised in Cleveland, and as someone who has no interest in leaving this great city, I’ve heard it all.  For most of my life, Cleveland has been associated with losing sports teams, however, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Cleveland has never been viewed as “lovable losers,” but rather the butt of jokes. Any time there is talk of sports failure, the inevitable montage of “The Fumble,” The Drive,” and “The Shot” are shown. Also for most of my life, Cleveland sat back, shrugged, and just took it on the chin… but not anymore.

There was one moment where Cleveland finally stopped putting up with it and decided enough is enough.  That moment was July 8th, 2010 at 9:28 PM EDT. When LeBron James finished up announcing that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” the city exploded. There was anger, sadness, despair, despondence, feelings of betrayal, and sheer incredulity, but there was something else, there was a unification of everyone in Cleveland around a single cause.  Before the final period was typed on Dan Gilbert’s Infamous Letter the city was alive. It was just knocked down just like it had been time and time again, but this time it was different. Cleveland realized that it was not only time to get back up, but it was time to shake it off and thrive. With one single “decision” the city went from “Cleveland: Hey, it’s not so bad,” to “Cleveland Against the World.”

The economy was still rebounding and the sports teams were still trying to build into something special, but in this new era unlike ones from years past, the city was doing it together. Local developers started refurbishing unused buildings into contemporary living spaces and marketing downtown as a great living place for both millennials and executives alike. James Beard winning chefs such as Michael Symon and Jonathan Sawyer helped transform Cleveland into pound-for-pound one of the best food cities in the country.  Clothing stores such as GV Art and Design began to establish itself as the unofficial mouthpiece for the city of Cleveland… and it worked.

It worked so well that that same “kid from Akron took notice. He penned an emotional letter, admitted to past mistakes, and for the first time, considered himself a Clevelander. LeBron’s return was not only another rallying point for a city that was already back on the rise, but also put the rest of the country on notice that Cleveland was no longer a place to escape, but rather a destination. You may recall that this was the same guy who, in 2007, wore a Yankees hat to the Indians playoff series, and donned Cowboys gear to the Browns game. Flash forward to this year where he, along with many of his Cavs teammates, spent as many games as possible at Progressive Field rooting their hearts out for the Tribe.

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This, and this entire 2016 Cleveland Indians team are perfect microcosms for not only the current state of Cleveland but also for the city’s bright future.  This was a team was written off even before the season started. Some publications picked them to finish fourth in the American League Central Division. They were looked at as having question marks up and down the roster and came into the season with their best position player, Michael Brantley, rehabbing from a serious shoulder injury.  It was a team whose president, Mark Shapiro, left for seemingly greener pastures, and undoubtedly deeper pockets in Toronto. It was a team where the contracts of the entire incoming notable free agent class (Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Marlon Byrd) totaled $16.25M and averaged 36 years of age. Contrasting that to the Cubs, a team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball, a team who spent half-a-billion dollars on free agents over the past two seasons, and a team that currently employs a backup catcher who makes more per year than any single player on the Indians roster. The Cubs were supposed to win; they were preseason World Series favorites and they lived up to the hype by winning 103 games and bludgeoning teams into submission all season long. The Indians on the other hand were a team that everyone expected to at best, be an also ran…that is, everyone except Clevelanders and the team themselves.

Even the pundits who gave the Tribe a chance, did so with a caveat. It was said that they needed everything to break right for them to have a chance. Writers and “experts” opined: “I don’t see how they get past the Royals.” “They won’t score enough runs to compete with the Tigers lineup.” “The White Sox are vastly improved and could be dangerous.” “If even one thing goes off book, I don’t see this Indians team being able to overcome it.’’ These experts couldn’t have been more wrong.

Below is an incomplete list of things that this team wasn’t supposed to be able to overcome:

  • Michael Brantley, their MVP candidate, totaled 39 at-bats on the season. What the experts didn’t take into account is that Michael Brantley is a leader. As much as it killed him to not be on the field, he dedicated his season towards not only physically getting better, but also to helping everyone on the team improve.
  • Carlos Carrasco had not one, but two stints on the DL; one from a comebacker that nearly took his head off and one from a line drive that ended up breaking his hand and knocking him out for the playoffs.
  • Free Agent signing Marlon Byrd along with fellow outfielder Abraham Almonte were both suspended for performance enhancing drugs. For Byrd it meant his career, for Almonte it meant he was ineligible for the postseason.
  • Catcher Yan Gomes just wasn’t right all year long. He was fighting nagging injuries before finally hitting the disabled list with a separated shoulder in July, and then breaking his wrist on the last day of his rehab assignment, relegating him to backup duty in the playoffs.
  • At the trade deadline, the team had finalized a trade for All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy, only to have it vetoed because Lucroy didn’t want to come to Cleveland. He was another in a long line of people who didn’t believe in this team.
  • Danny Salazar’s forearm tightened up and caused him to miss action until being placed on the World Series roster but only being stretched out enough to fill in as a reliever.
  • Two days before he was slated to pitch against the Blue Jays in the ALCS, starting pitcher Trevor Bauer inexplicably sliced his finger open changing the batteries on his drone. This caused manager Terry Francona to make it a bullpen game from the first inning due to blood dripping out of Bauer’s finger like water from a leaky faucet… bullpen game or not, they won anyway.

This Indians team, like the city of Cleveland, banded together and wouldn’t let themselves feel sorry for themselves. They knew that they could win, and win they did. This included a 14 game winning streak at one point, a streak that may have been even longer if not for a controversial call at the plate. When all was said and done, this team won 94 games against only 67 defeats and won the AL Central Division by 8 games.

Winning in the regular season is one thing, but they certainly couldn’t win in the playoffs, right? Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes didn’t think so.  He declared the season dead and buried on September 17th when Carrasco went out with the aforementioned broken hand. The team took notice and used it as yet another rallying moment. Entering the playoffs, the Indians may not have had their full complement of weapons, but they didn’t care. They had a job to do and they were going to try like hell to get it done.  There was only one constant, they were underrated and overlooked, and that’s just how they liked it. They may not have drawn it up this way, but when you have a team that believes in each other all perfectly aligned in the quest of a common goal, there little else that is needed.

In the ALDS the Indians were given next to no chance of advancing, but instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they barreled through the ALDS by sweeping the mighty Red Sox 3-0, and in doing so, ending the career of David Ortiz.

Next came the ALCS against a Toronto Blue Jays team that had just finished a sweep of their own where they treated the Texas Rangers’ pitching staff like human piñatas. Again, the little team that could was supposed to go down without a fight. What people don’t know, and what you cannot know unless you’re from here, or you choose live here, is that this city doesn’t give a damn about what anyone else thinks of it.  Again the Indians staff shut down the opposing bats and they found a way to advance… with relative ease.  The Tribe only needed five games to shift the focus of our neighbors up north fully to hockey season. The clinching game was remarkable. Bauer was still unable to go, so the Tribe turned to Ryan Merritt, a soft-tossing 24 year-old lefty with only 11 Major League innings to his name. He responded the way that champions do, by giving the Indians 4 1/3 masterful innings, striking out 3 and only allowing 2 hits. Indians fans showed their appreciation in the ways that Clevelanders do, buy finding and purchasing every item on his wedding registry.

Then next and final stop on this wild postseason ride was a date with the National League Champion Chicago Cubs.  Cody Allen’s entrance music, The Outsiders by Eric Church is the melodic embodiment of what this series was all about:

They’re the in crowd, we’re the other ones…It’s a different kind of cloth that we’re cut from…

The Indians again found themselves on the wrong side of the betting lines. They were also on the wrong side of Narrative Street. Pretty much the entire country aside from Tribe fans, Tom Hanks, and Charlie Sheen was rooting for the Cubs.  People lined up from coast to coast and broadcasted that the Indians somehow lucked their way here and they would be no match for their National League counterparts.  “This will be a quick one” one ESPN personality opined.

We let our colors show, where the numbers ain’t…We’re the paint where there ain’t supposed to be paint

In Game 1 Corey Kluber carved up the Cubs lineup and the tribe bats put the game to bed early. With a resounding 6-0 victory that included two home runs by catcher Roberto Perez. Still, the Tribe was still not given much credit. That’s alright with them, after all: That’s who we are…That’s how we roll. The Outsiders…The Outsiders.

Game 2 didn’t go as smoothly. The Cubs got out to an early lead and took the crowd out of it. After this game, the media coronation really kicked in to high gear.  This game may not have gone as planned, but nothing ever seems to in Cleveland.  That’s ok, we’re used to it, and we now know how to get back up off the mat.

…We’re the junkyard dogs, we’re the alley cats…Keep the wind at our front, and the hell at our back

Game 3 was the first World Series game in Wrigley Field since 1945.  The Cubs trotted out a potential Cy Young winner in Kyle Hendricks, while the Indians countered with “The Little Cowboy” Josh Tomlin; a pitcher who may not have been graced with a 98mph fastball, but what he doesn’t have in velocity, he makes up for with location and guts. In what was the epitome of a World Series game, and despite some missed opportunities, the Indians prevailed 1-0 with Michael Martinez scoring what would amount to the game winning run on a pinch hit single by Coco Crisp.

…We’re the bad news. We’re the young guns. We’re the ones that they told you to run from…

Game 4 saw the return of Corey Kluber to the mound, this time on short rest.  It didn’t matter, as Kluber proved he was human by giving up a run in the first, but that was all the Cubs could muster. The game was effectively finished off by Jason Kipnis, the hometown boy from Northbrook, living out his childhood dreams and hitting a home run in Wrigley Field; only he thought he would be in the other dugout. No matter, the Indians were 1 win away from their first World Series title since 1948.

Game 5, again in Wrigley, started off with a bang for the Indians with Jose Ramirez getting the Tribe on the board with a solo home run in the 2nd inning.  Unfortunately this proved to be the last lead that the Indians would have in the 2016 World Series. Trevor Bauer, now healed from his finger injury, was back on the hill and cruising through 3 innings, but in the 4th, he left a couple pitches over the zone and the Cubs didn’t miss. They put a 3-spot on him and held on for a 3-2 win thanks to an 8-out save by Aroldis Chapman.

Game 6 was back at the corner of Carnegie & Ontario and was thoroughly dominated by the Cubs, but it also featured a moment that shows a delineation between the old and new Cleveland. In the first inning, with 2 out, and an 0-2 count, the Cubs’ Kris Bryant hit a ball about 8 million feet into the bleachers.   Two singles followed, putting runners at the corners. Tomlin induced Addison Russell into a routine fly ball to right-center. Inexplicably the ball dropped between Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin. A generous scorekeeper called it a two-run double, but make no mistake this was an error.  This was the type of error that used to unravel Cleveland. They went on to lose the game, but they did scratch across a few runs, not to make it respectable, but to show that they weren’t quitting.

Game 7 of the World Series featured the Cubs with all of the momentum and Kyle Hendricks on the hill against Corey Kluber pitching for his 3rd time in 9 days.  Kluber was mostly untouchable for the first two, but beating a team for the 3rd time in essentially a week, is a monumental task for any pitcher.  Unfortunately for Tribe fans, he was not sharp in this one.  His velocity was there, but his off-speed pitches weren’t spinning like they usually do. He gave up a leadoff home run to dead-center to light-hitting Dexter Fowler. He also gave up a homer to 9 hitter Javier Baez in the 4th, and it was apparent that he just didn’t have anything left in the tank. Unfortunately for the Tribe, Andrew Miller suffered from the same fate.  The rotation and the pen had been stretched to their max and were staring to show some wear. It was 5-1 Cubs in the bottom of the 5th. The Cubs had turned to Jon Lester and were in the process of celebrating a title, when the Tribe showed that they what they were made of.

Our backs to the wall. A band of brothers…Together, alone, the Outsiders 

With two outs and none on, Carlos Santana drew a walk, Jason Kipnis singled on a swinging bunt that catcher David Ross threw up the line and into the seats. Then, with Francisco Lindor at the plate, Lester uncorked a wild pitch and Santana broke for home. The ball staggered Ross a bit and Kipnis didn’t let up as he hit 3rd base and scored from 2nd on a wild pitch to make it 5-3.  The stadium erupted. The Tribe was back in business. Down, but not out.

The 6th inning saw 38-year old catcher David Ross, just barely sneak 1-2 pitch from Miller over the wall in center and was effective in quieting the Indians fans in the stands.

The 7th inning came and went as did the first 5 outs of the 8th. Then, again, with two outs, Jose Ramirez hit a hot shot up the middle that was deflected by Addison Russell and unable to be recovered in time to nail him at first.  Next up, mid-season acquisition Brandon Guyer, a man who was born to hit lefties, squared up a 2-2 pitch into the right-centerfield gap and Ramirez scored to make it 6-4. Still with two down, in strode Rajai Davis to face Aroldis Chapman. Davis, despite being 36 years old, led-the league in stolen bases this season. Known for his speed and not his power, a man who only tallied 55 career home runs in 3,999 at-bats, fouled of 100mph fastball after 100mph fastball before lauching one just over the 19-foot wall in left to not only tie the game at 6, but to also set off the loudest eruption of screaming and cheering that I’ve ever physically been a part of.  That moment, from when the ball left the bat, to when it cleared the wall was a wave of pure euphoria that rushed over my body and was the single greatest moment of my entire life.  I can’t explain the feeling, I can’t explain the noises that were coming out of me, and I can’t explain how lucky that I was to be enjoying that same moment with my wife, our parents, and 30,000+ of our closest friends. It is a moment that I will never forget for my entire life, and it’s a reason why, even though I understand that the Indians did not win the World Series in 2016, a small part of me, maybe 1%, still feels like a winner.

As mentioned the Indians ran out of outs in this game and fell one-run short after having the tying run on base in the bottom of the 10th inning following a 17 minute rain delay that allowed the Cubs to catch their collective breath and regroup.  That doesn’t take away from the fact that this was a magical ride with a special group of guys.  It’s really difficult to look back on it and think about what could’ve been, and how they were seemingly just one hit away from a championship, but I couldn’t be more proud to be from this city, and root for this team.  Yes, they didn’t finish the job when they had a 3 games to 1 lead in the series, but make no mistake, they did not choke job by any way shape or form.  They lost those 3 games because they were beaten by a better team on that particular night. The runs in the series were tied at 27 apiece and it came down to the bottom of the 10th inning and the very last player on the bench for the Indians to try and turn an impossibility into a reality.

I want to personally thank every member of the organization and the team for the ride that they took me, this city, and Tribe nation on over the past 7 months. It started with a freeze out on opening day and ended on the very last at-bat of the very last day of the season on a balmy 75 degree day in November in Cleveland. It was truly an Indian Summer, and thanks go out to: Andrew Miller, Brandon Guyer, Bryan Shaw, Carlos Carrasco, Carlos Santana, Coco Crisp, Cody Allen, Corey Kluber, Dan Otero, Danny Salazar, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Jeff Manship, Jose Ramirez, Josh Tomlin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, Michael Martinez, Mike Clevinger, Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Roberto Perez, Ryan Merritt, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Naquin, Yan Gomes, Zach McAllister, Juan Uribe, Abraham Almonte, Chris Gimenez, Marlon Byrd, Cody Anderson, Tommy Hunter, Joba Chamberlain, Austin Adams, Shawn Morimando, Kyle Crockett, Erik Gonzalez, Shawn Armstrong, Joe Colon, Perci Garner, Ross Detwiler, Adam Plutko, Tom Gorzelanny, T.J. House, Collin Cowgill, Terry Francona, The Dolan Family, Chris Antonetti/Mike Chernoff, The entire Indians Front Office, The Progressive Field Staff, and everyone who had a hand in making this one of the greatest seasons in Indians history.

Finally, thank you to Indians fans – for finally re-realizing that baseball is still the greatest game in the world.

It didn’t work out this year, and no, there won’t be another parade cruising through downtown Cleveland this week, but that takes nothing away from the job that this team did. They should be as proud of themselves as this city is. Baseball is back in Cleveland and this city is primed for another run at it next year. The World Series futures odds came out for 2017, and the Indians are anywhere from the 5th to the 9th favorite at 12-1 or 14-1; one hit away from a title and still no respect, but that’s ok, Cleveland doesn’t need your respect, in fact, we don’t want it given to us, we’d rather earn it. There are no guarantees in life, and sometimes it takes a miracle to win a championship, but then again, you can’t spell MiraCLE without CLE.

Discussion

3 Responses to “Until Next Year…”

  1. Very Nice!

    Posted by Vince S | November 4, 2016, 7:11 pm
  2. Great story, Jason. As a fellow Tribe fan, I’m excited to think what this run will do revitalize baseball in the CLE. Thanks for taking the time to remind us all how October, 2016 will be one to never forget.

    Posted by Jim McGrath | November 4, 2016, 7:56 pm
  3. Marvelous writing. I throughly enjoyed how you made this about the city, the people, the team, the game itself. Top notch.

    Posted by Alan Block | November 4, 2016, 8:40 pm

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