CLEVELAND -- When the Republican National Convention was in Cleveland this summer, a large number of the citizens of Cleveland made the completely rational decision to get the heck out of town. Businesses downtown closed, residents rented out their condos and the whole place mostly shut down. (You couldn't come within 100 feet of Progressive Field without a special pass.) The only people left, it seems, were Uber drivers, who found themselves circling downtown Cleveland, unable to get close to the proceedings and shut out of much business. "Everybody had their own rides then," one told me yesterday. "That convention might as well have taken place in Detroit."
Every city attempts to put on its best face when the whole country is watching, but the problem with most big events is that they change a town rather than showcase what makes it great. When your city hosts a Super Bowl, the event renders your hometown unrecognizable; I remember walking through downtown Indianapolis during Super Bowl week and marveling at people ziplining from office building to office building. All-Star Games are like this too, along with Final Fours. They are so planned out and prepared for that all the little livable daily banalities that make your town yours are brushed away.
But the World Series is different. You know your city is hosting the Super Bowl or the Final Four or the All-Star Game years in advance. The World Series comes at you quickly, before you have much of a chance to register it. In 2012, the San Francisco Giants won Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals and were hosting World Series Game 1 less than 48 hours later. Cleveland is just now cleaning up the champagne from the American League Championship Series celebration, and now everyone's staring at it. Cubs fans are coming from all across the country for the first Cubs World Series game in 71 years, Cleveland sports fans are wondering if this year is simply magic for them and the rest of us are certain that, no matter what happens, the world's going to be a dramatically different place in 10 days than it is today. And we're all focused on this town, and this stadium, and this moment.
And we're seeing Cleveland, unlike at the RNC, in its natural state. On Monday night downtown, it was like any normal night. Downtown Cleveland is a pleasant place to spend an evening, but it is not, minus any external occurrence, naturally what you would call "hopping." I've been to a few World Series now, and I always try to spend an evening downtown before Game 1 to get the feel of the place. In Kansas City, you can't go five steps without running into someone with a Royals cap -- usually a brand new one, bought with the World Series logo already on it, to add to the 50 hats they already have -- walking around in a giddy daze. Cleveland isn't necessarily like this, at least not Monday night. It was like any other night.
There are two ways to look at this, one charitable, one less so. The less charitable way is to note that Cleveland, for all its history as a sports town, hasn't been a baseball town in a while. Remember, this is a franchise that has the number "455" retired because it once had that many consecutive sellouts. From 1995 to 2001, the Indians sold out every game; MLB.com's own Anthony Castrovince chronicled the Boston Red Sox snapping that streak back in 2008, noting that the reasons for the 455-game streak were largely oddities. A combination of a booming (and since struggling, though now rebounding) Cleveland economy and downtown, the loss of the Browns and a fantastic run of Indians teams led to a streak that won't be repeated, here, or anywhere else. Now, though, the Indians average 19,650 fans a game, 28th in baseball. The total attendance number of 1,591,667 is actually the highest since 2011, but Progressive Field hasn't had more than two million fans in a season since 2008. For a team that drew 3,468,456 in 1999, that's quite a drop. I attempted to solve this mystery a couple of years ago, but the best I could come up with were those economic conditions rather than any sort of lack of fan passion. As one fan told me: "We love this team. But people need to see more winning, and more dedication to winning, to trust them again." A World Series tends to help in that regard.
The other way to look at it, and this was the common consensus Monday night, is that the town was simply gearing up for Tuesday night. Remember, it's not just the World Series happening here tonight: It's also the night that LeBron James will raise Cleveland's first championship banner in 50-plus years, just next door at Quicken Loans Arena, a half hour before gametime. "It's going to be RNC-level down here [Tuesday night]," a guy at the bar of Chinato restaurant told me. (Order the risotto, by the way.) "Except people will be happy."
And this is what you wonder about Tuesday night. The city of Cleveland is known so much for its history of sports misery, but that sports misery has been the backdrop to a town that has gone through dramatic changes in the past 50-plus years. The city has thrived, then fallen, then revived, then fallen again. It was on a rise during the late '90s; it was on a fall during the mid-aughts. It is slowly rising again. The sports teams have rarely been a focus of the nation during that time, but tonight, tonight they are at the center of everything. Tonight, the Cavs raise a banner, the Indians begin a World Series and it's all happening on one block in downtown Cleveland. This is not the Cleveland of the RNC, a hallowed out shell abandoned by all residents. This is the celebration. This is the culmination. This is Cleveland, as it is, ready for its closeup. I hope they get everything cleaned up in time for Game 2 on Wednesday.
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