Cleveland Against the World

There’s a dusty Catskills joke that goes roughly like this: A man walks into a shoe store and says he would like to buy a pair of size-6 dress shoes.

“Sir,” the shoe salesman says, “I’m looking at your feet. There is no way you are a size 6.”

“No,” the man admits. “I’m an 8. But I always wear size-6 shoes.”

“Doesn’t that hurt?”

“Oh yes,” the man says. “It hurts terribly. I have blisters. I have bruises. It’s often unbearable.”

“So,” the salesman asks in horror, “why do you do it?”

“Because,” the man says, “after suffering all day long I get home, and I sit in my chair, and I take off those shoes. And I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything in the world.”

That joke made a lot more sense in more troubled times, back when the smallest of pleasures in the midst of the Depression or war was all anyone could hope for. So it doesn’t exactly fit Tuesday night in Cleveland, but I kept thinking about it anyway. For 50-plus years — 48 of them in my lifetime — everything about being a Cleveland sports fans was about pain and blisters and bruises. The vast majority of Cleveland teams were egregious, and the few that were good were guaranteed to break your heart at the end.

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And then it was Tuesday night. Cleveland Night. The Cavaliers were raising a banner to the rafters and getting their championship rings. The Tribe was rolling to victory against Chicago in Game 1 of the World Series. It was an embarrassment of riches. Here was everyone celebrating unabashedly in downtown Cleveland, in a ballpark and a basketball arena that were built a quarter-century ago in the desperate hope of turning around a city’s fortune.

It really did seem like we would NEVER get to take off those shoes two-sizes too small.

* * *

The thing about Cleveland’s greatest sports night is this: It is, in many ways, the first night to really enjoy the Cleveland sports turnaround. Most Cleveland fans really didn’t get to enjoy the ride to the Cavaliers’ championship. Yes, of course, everyone in Cleveland and from Cleveland relished WINNING the championship, but that’s not exactly the same thing.

You might remember: During the Cavaliers’ run, the crushing ending seemed obvious and inescapable. Sure, the Cavs were plenty good enough to make it to the Finals — the unconvincing Eastern Conference remains nothing more than a 25-piece jigsaw puzzle for LeBron James — but they couldn’t beat Golden State. EVERYONE knew that*.

*There were obviously some true believers who DID believe the Cavs would beat the Warriors, and they are writing frantic emails right now about their faith. To them, all I can say is: Congratulations.

The Warriors were all but unbeatable, and they had home-court advantage, and soon they had a decisive 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.The Cavaliers’ comeback was the greatest experience of my Cleveland sports lifetime, but it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. When the Red Sox won their first World Series in 2004, they won it forcefully, a four-game sweep over St. Louis that was a carnival all the way.

This was different. Few of us really BELIEVED the Cavaliers would win until about 48 seconds after the final buzzer of Game 7. There was no moment to take it all in, to feel optimistic and confident, to ride the wave. It was all nerves and doubt and dread … and then Kyrie Irving made the shot … and then it was over … and then there was this sort of unglued euphoria because Cleveland had already won.

Tuesday night was the moment to stop and breathe it all in, to fully realize — after a half-century of doormat stompings and punches to the face — what it feels like to win a championship and to be on doorstep of another.

“So,” I wrote to my friend and fellow Clevelander Scott Raab, “was a tear shed?”

“Oh yeah,” he wrote back. “But it wasn’t copious weeping. It was … dignified, at least by my standards.”

Right, this wasn’t a night for wedding day elation — that part has happened already. This was a night to take off those tight shoes, delight in how good it feels and contemplate the most ridiculous thought: “Wow, after all these years, this is really happening for Cleveland.”

* * *

Corey Kluber, in many ways, perfectly fits the ideal image of a Cleveland pitching ace. To be fair, he probably fits the ideal image of a Milwaukee pitching ace, too, or Washington or Philadelphia or Seattle or Houston or any other city, but the point on this night is Cleveland, and the point is that Kluber’s persona perfectly matched Tuesday night’s mood.

Kluber has probably been baseball’s second-best pitcher the last three years, behind only Clayton Kershaw, but few people know it. He doesn’t care, or he gives no signs whatsoever of caring. They call Kluber, “Klubot,” because of his emotionless exterior when he is pitching, and it’s a good nickname. But it isn’t exactly right. Kluber is not emotionless on the mound. He’s serious. That’s different. He has the look of a man at a factory looking over a gnawing problem and thinking, “How am I going to fix that machine when we don’t have the broken part?” There is something comforting for fans about a pitcher like that.

A serious man is just what Cleveland needed on this emotional night. There was so much going on. Cleveland was crackling with excitement. Writers and television cameras wandered the streets and museums and shores of Lake Erie in search of the city’s beating heart. Every fan in the whole town probably got interviewed. Also, the Chicago Cubs brought their own ghosts and wonder to the game — they’re obviously the BIG story.

And so this had all the trappings of a major Cleveland anti-climax, like in “Brian’s Song” when Gale Sayers gives a teary-eyed speech before the Chicago Bears play Baltimore and dedicates the game to Brian Piccolo, who was dying of cancer.

“Now listen to me,” Piccolo tells Sayers and the rest of the Bears from his hospital bed. “Listen now. When you dedicate a game to someone you are then supposed to go out and win it, idiot.” The Bears had lost 24-21.

This easily could have happened Tuesday night — the Cavs would get their rings, raise the banner, the Tribe would get introduced to the roaring crowd almost giddy with disbelief — and then both would lose. Anti-climax was lurking. But, no, not this night. The Cavs beat the Knicks by 29. And Kluber’s uber-seriousness was on display from the first pitch. He struck out five of the first seven Cubs he faced. He didn’t come to lose.

* * *

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The seventh inning was the crescendo of the night. Kluber had been all-but-untouchable for six innings. Cleveland’s hitters had rattled Chicago ace Jon Lester just enough to scrape three runs against him. It had been somewhat easy. But all year the Cubs have proven to be a great baseball team, one of the best of my lifetime. Even on Cleveland’s night, they undoubtedly would have their moment.

And the moment happened in the seventh when Ben Zobrist cracked a leadoff single to knock Kluber out of the game. In came Andrew Miller. It’s hard to imagine four more terrifying words.

At some point, Fox announcer John Smoltz talked about how difficult it is to face Miller because he’s a 6-foot-10 behemoth who throws from from the side and has this wasp of a slider that dives away from left-handed hitters and attacks righties. Miller, though, is not 6-foot-10. He is 6-foot-7. The extra three inches represent the mythology Miller has created.

The first batter he faced is a myth-in-the-making too: Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber had missed the entire season with a knee injury. He was facing big-league pitching for the first time since April. And, as he stepped in against Miller, he had already left everyone slack-jawed when he rocketed a double off the top of the wall against Kluber earlier. That was otherworldly, like that scene in The Natural when Roy Hobbs first takes batting practice. Schwarber should have had no chance against Miller, but he worked a walk to move the runners to first and second.

Then came Javy Baez, who singled. That loaded the bases with nobody out.

This was the Cubs’ time; you could feel it. This was their chance to grab this series and never let go. Momentum is wildly overstated, of course, but it would be hard to imagine Cleveland coming back from a Game 1 loss on the most magical sports night in the city’s history, especially if their unhittable weapon, Andrew Miller, was rendered merely human.

Turns out: Miller is no still a superhuman. He overpowered Wilson Contreras and forced him to hit a bloopy little fly ball to center. It should have been a double play — Schwarber’s hitting talents might be turnkey, but his baserunning instincts are still drifting into spring training mode. Schwarber took off running even though the ball was fairly easily caught by center fielder Rajai Davis. It turns out that Davis did not see Schwarber running so he threw home instead, but it did not matter. Miller struck out the next two betters and ended the Cleveland tension.

In the eighth inning, there was a miniature version of this — the Cubs put two runners on base. But Miller struck out Schwarber to end the threat, Roberto Perez hit his second homer to end any Cubs illusions, and that was that. It really was Cleveland’s night.

* * *

A few final words … about Cleveland manager Terry Francona. He’s now 9-0 in the World Series. I don’t know exactly what that means. It’s probably one of those things better appreciated than analyzed.

But there was a decision he made Wednesday that I appreciated — it was, strangely, the most emotional moment of the night for me. Yes, as a born-and-raised Clevelander who has endured all those sports heartbreaks that don’t need to be mentioned again, it was touching to see the first sports banner of my lifetime raised. Yes, it was beautiful to see a World Series game again played in downtown Cleveland. Yes, it meant the world to get texts and emails from all those Cleveland friends, all with the same general theme: “Can you believe this?”

But there was something about the way Francona managed this game — and this series — that somehow cut to the essence of what it feels like now that Cleveland, my hometown, is finally on top of the world.

See, Cubs manager Joe Maddon is an extraordinary manager, a force of nature, and he might very well lead his team to a World Series title. I love the way the guy manages. But on this night, he showed a few signs of hesitancy. He started .188-hitting Chris Coghlan in right field rather than go for broke and find a way to get the brilliant young Willson Contreras into the lineup. He did not pinch-hit for defensive-specialist David Ross with the bases loaded and the game on the line. He was conventional in the way he used his bullpen. All this stuff can work and does work …

… but Francona manages the postseason with a hunger and near-desperation that, well, matches what it has been like being a Cleveland sports fan. All we Cleveland fans ever wanted was the same thing that sports fans in every city want, for it all to work out … just one time.

And In the ninth inning, with Cleveland up 6-0, Francona sent in closer Cody Allen to finish things off.

On the surface — and really, even below the surface — this made no sense at all. Allen had quietly been as good as Miller this postseason. He has not allowed a run. Coming in, he had pitched late innings in six of Cleveland’s seven victories. He will undoubtedly be one of Francona’s most important weapons as this series goes on, and burning him even for a few pitches with a 6-0 lead seemed pointless. Anyone can close out a 6-0 game. That was certainly my first thought.

Then, there was a second thought: Yes! Send in Cody Allen! Get this victory! These games are so precious. These chances come along so rarely. This is the whole point of the Cleveland experience. This is the whole point of Tuesday night. For 50 years, it did not happen. And then it did. Next door at the arena, they celebrated that championship, celebrated what it felt like to finally take off those tight shoes.

But at the ballpark, Terry Francona was trying to win a ballgame.

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