Three years ago, I spent a week in Cleveland for my Leitch Across America series (which will be returning in December with a trip to Los Angeles). In September 2013, the sports mood in Cleveland was dark. It usually is.
The Browns were, of course, terrible. The Cavaliers were still so reeling from the loss of LeBron James -- who obviously would never come back to town, c'mon -- that they thought Dan Gilbert was their only savior. The Indians were a halfway decent team with a new, World Series-winning manager in Terry Francona, but still couldn't seem to draw fans: They were 28th in attendance in 2013, which is bad but, it's worth noting, is exactly where they were this season too. One fan told me that the best sports bang for your buck in town might have been the Arena League Cleveland Gladiators … and they went 4-14 that season.
What was telling was how little hope Cleveland fans seemed to have, and how that lack of hope didn't seem to bother anybody. There was no sense, like there was with, say, the Chicago Cubs at the time, that smart people were in charge of each of these franchises and, thus, that the current status of the major sports team was simply a temporary, expected blip on the way to future success. The Browns were terrible, the Cavs were terrible, the Indians were terrible, and that was just the way that God meant it to be. LeBron had been there, and he had left, and that was that: This was just going to be the state of matters in Cleveland from now on. There was not despair or rage: If anything, the city was more loyal to its teams that it had been before. But there was no delusion. Cleveland fans knew the score. Losing wasn't an affliction to be cured: It was a disease you learned to live with. It was never going away, but you could manage, if you had to.
And this was the way it was. Nobody pretended it would ever be any different. They were almost cheerful about it. It's Cleveland! Whaddya gonna do? Losing is part of who we are. We're not even mad about it. It's just the weather. You can't control the weather.
That was three years ago.
On Monday night, in a game that's destined to live in Cleveland sports lore no matter what happens the rest of this month, the Cleveland Indians beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 4-2, in Game 3 of their American League Championship Series. The victory gave the Indians a 3-0 stranglehold on the Blue Jays, and Corey Kluber on Tuesday can send them to their first World Series since 1997 with a victory. The game on Monday will be remembered for the gruesome drone-related injury to starter Trevor Bauer, whose finger was bleeding so profusely that Francona had to pull him after only 21 pitches, with two outs in the first inning.
This is the sort of predicament that typically spells disaster for a manager, particularly when it's the first of three straight road games in a short series. But Francona and the Cleveland bullpen worked in unison to make magic: Dan Otero, Jeff Manship, Zach McAllister, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller pieced together the next 25 outs, giving up only seven hits and two runs the rest of the way. It was The Bullpen Game, and it put the Indians one win away from history.
The Indians have had a frustrating few seasons despite having a ton of talent -- remember, last year was the hip year for predicting Cleveland would win the World Series -- falling short because of injuries and weird luck. They've had to watch the division rival Kansas City Royals make two World Series and win one, their replacement in the national drama as the plucky Midwesterners on the grandest stage. When starters Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco went down to injury, it looked like this year was going to be the same thing. Another bummer; another missed opportunity.
But a lot has happened in three years. Specifically, LeBron happened. When I was back in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention this summer, the whole vibe of the town was different, and that was entirely thanks to what had happened a month earlier. LeBron had returned to Ohio and pulled off one of the most thrilling upset victories in NBA history, overcoming a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit to the Golden State Warriors, who had just finished off the best regular season of all time. The city was still vibrating. Here's how I described it:
After your team wins a championship, there is a period ranging from two months to a full calendar year in which nothing else that happens in the world matters all that much. You walk around in a daze, stunned, giddily baffled, by the new reality that you inhabit: that your team won a championship. You spend so much time, so much mental energy, caring about your team, obsessing about your team, screaming about your team. Then, after you had just about given up, it all culminates in the ultimate release. All that time, all the energy, all that obsession … it paid off! It was all worth it! It is unalloyed, pure joy, uncomplicated by the confusion and complexities of real life. We won! WE WON! You can't help but be stunned for months on end after it happens. Your state is one of woozy euphoria.
That vibe couldn't help but pass over to the Indians. You can't exactly carry much of a burden of doom when you just won a championship, and it allowed a little bit of cautious hope to seep in. At the very least: You could believe a bit, because if it didn't turn out, hey, the Cavaliers just brought a championship to Cleveland. Why not get a little excited? Maybe it's just -- imagine this thought! -- Cleveland's year?
And now. And now, the Indians are one game away from the World Series. But it's not just that.
Game 1 of the World Series will begin at roughly 8:30 p.m. ET or so on Tuesday, Oct. 25, exactly one week from today. Because of that dull All-Star Game this year, the American League will have home-field advantage in the World Series. If the Indians can win on Tuesday (or Wednesday, or Friday, or Saturday), they will be hosting that game against either Los Angeles or the Chicago Cubs. And it might be the second-most exciting thing happening in Cleveland that night.
That's because Oct. 25 also happens to the first night of the NBA season, and there's one early game, tipping off at 8 p.m. There will be a pregame ceremony because, as is tradition, the defending champions open their season at home so that they may raise their championship banner in front of the home crowd.
Thus: At around 7:30 p.m. next Tuesday, LeBron James will raise the first championship banner in the city of Cleveland since 1964. And an hour later, just across the street, the Indians -- as long as they get just one more win -- will host Game 1 of the 2016 World Series.
It's a night that any sports town would dream of. And it's one that, barring a historic collapse, is going to happen to Cleveland.
The city still has some work to do, starting with that baseball mascot and ending with that nightmare of a football team. But it's one win away from a night celebrating the championship of one of its teams the same night as a World Series game, all happening downtown. Three years, man, it really is a long time.