Sunday, March 30, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Cleveland Indians

As pretty much everyone's season starts today, we take a trip over to Cleveland courtesy of our good friend Cleveland Frowns.

If we know more about the teams that our respective beloved squads vanquish or are vanquished by, we can better lend meaning to these ballgames that we follow so closely. So I, a dyed-in-the-wool Tribe fan whose first big league autograph was from Ernie Camacho at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, will do my best to explain what the Indians mean to Indians fans, in view of our team's "relationship" with the Boston Red Sox. Two aspects of this relationship come immediately and primarily to mind. First, we surely don't differ much with fans of most other big league teams in harboring the sentiment that our team, in a very real sense, isn't playing the same game that the Red Sox are playing. Second, quite aside from the fact that the Indians and Red Sox play a different game, and quite differently from nearly every other ball club that the Red Sox will play, the two teams are playing for a vastly different prize.

We'll start with the second difference first – the way in which no Boston-bred Sox fan can relate to a Cleveland-bred Tribe fan. Our relationship with our team must be viewed in the context of the City of Cleveland's 46 year championship drought. This is very different from the Red Sox' championship drought that ended in 2004.

I don't mean to minimize the meaning of the 2004 Series to Sox fans or Boston-at-large. I know there are fans who would have traded all the Celts, Bruins, and Patriots championships for one Red Sox World Series win - and here the Boston and Cleveland fan bases differ in another important respect. It might well be that the Sox occupy the top spot in the hearts of the average Boston sports fan. That's certainly not the case here in Browns Town. But the fact still remains.

A region's civic pride is intimately related to the success of its sports teams, and while it certainly must have been painful for Red Sox fans to experience what they did, at least they never had to wonder if their team played in a "city of losers." So forgive us for saying that the "Now I can die in peace" exhortations that followed the 2004 Series struck us as a bit overindulgent. The Indians success in the 90's and early 2000's, although it did not include a championship victory, meant that a generation (or three) of Clevelanders grew up feeling at least a little bit better about their city, all else held equal. We can't measure how this influences folks' decision to leave, maintain ties with, or settle down in the area, but we know that it must, on the margins, have some effect. A championship for any of Cleveland's three major pro teams would have the same effect, on a far more significant level. This is important. So, understand that when we play, we're not playing for the same thing in a large respect.

You already know that we're not playing the same game. We could only laugh when Bill Simmons referred to J.D. Drew's grand slam in game 5 of the 2007 ALCS as a "karmic miracle." Simmons said that "some day, we'll be able to place (the Drew homer) in proper perspective. Just not today." ?!?!?!?!? The Sox have a payroll nearly three times the size of the Indians' ($143M to $62M) and were still relatively fresh off the 2004 Series win that might be the most publicized major sports championship in recent history, yet they needed a "karmic miracle" to beat one of those most cursed franchises from perhaps the most cursed city in all of American sport? How long will it take for us to put this in perspective? How long will it take for us to understand the importance of a home run hit by one of the most embarrassingly overpriced free agents in baseball history off of a pitcher throwing at a strike zone resembling the eye of a needle (that strike zone being the subject of another piece)? How long??? Are we there yet?

Relatedly, Manny Ramirez's success for the Red Sox against the Tribe serves as a painful reminder of the price of success in Cleveland -- the revolving door through which our best and most beloved players leave -- from Belle, to Manny, to Thome. Even Bartolo and Sexson. CC and Sizemore are surely next. All homegrown talent, and as a whole far superior to anything that's come up through the Red Sox system in the same timeframe. We don't mean to piss in anyone's punch bowl by pointing this out, and we don't fault the Red Sox or their fans for it given the current rules of the game, but when the Red Sox beat us, we can't help but feel like we feel when we lose in pick-up hoops to the guy who insists on stacking his team. Sadly, it's easy to shrug off. Perhaps you Sox fans like it this way. It certainly sets things up for more Red Sox/Yankees drama. But we can't help but wonder if that drama will soon wear as thinly for you as it has for most of the rest of us. We can't help but wonder if a salary cap would make this all more fun for everyone, even you Sox fans (see, generally, the NFL).

Of course, we know that money isn't everything, even in baseball. The Red Sox, Yankees, and especially the Mets have proven this over recent years, as well as the various successes of smaller market teams like the Indians and Rockies, to name a pair of examples. In this way, we can appreciate our team and front office in a way that Patriots fans (but no Sox fan) might appreciate theirs. Tribe GM Mark Shapiro has done a remarkable job signing a core of the Indians' best young talent to long term deals, ensuring that Travis Hafner (signed through 2013), Grady Sizemore (2012), Victor Martinez (2010), Jhonny Peralta (2011) will wear Tribe uniforms for at least the next three seasons, along with younger talent Fausto Carmona (2012), Ryan Garko (2012), and Rafael Perez (2013). For the next few years, this group will give us a good chance to be playing in October, which is an awfully nice time of year in Cleveland even without playoff baseball. And the chance to knock off the big boys makes it that much more exciting for us. Last year we were this close.

Which brings us to our final point, which is why, despite our love for our team and our town, we can't fully put our heart into pulling for the Indians. That is, our team's ridiculous and embarrassing logo, Chief Wahoo. Journalist Roy Peter Clark puts it well: "I don't think that Cleveland has to change its name (neither do we). . . . But the cartoonish caricature of a group of human beings -- signified by Chief Wahoo's red skin and big white teeth -- is the absolute equivalent of the blackface Sambo images that polluted American culture in the first half of the 20th century, and Nazi propaganda portrayals of Jews with big noses and wicked sneers." Many will argue that whatever the original intent behind the logo's creation, Wahoo has become a beloved symbol to which no Indians fan attaches any anti-Native animus. This might be right, but intent and impact are obviously two different things. Native American history is complicated enough. With alcoholism and unemployment ravaging the Native population today, the claim that a grotesque crimson red-faced (drunken?) caricature "grinning idiotically through enormous bucked teeth" honors our Native population in any way is simply incredible, especially in view of circumstances surrounding the alleged decision to adopt "Indians" as a team name and as a mascot. A fan base that doesn't demand Chief Wahoo's burial might not deserve a championship. A part of us, sadly, hopes that the curse of Chief Wahoo is real.

Of course, curse or no curse, salary cap or no salary cap, they will continue to play the games. And Indians fans and Red Sox fans alike, at least a great number of us, will enjoy them - not least because the ballpark is as good a place as any to see how the issues implicated by the match-ups can play out. Best wishes to you Sox fans, and thanks for reading. We appreciate your enthusiasm for your ballclub and hope that you'll continue to visit our town and our ballpark.

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