CLEVELAND -- A man is wearing a Joe Jurevicius jersey, sitting in the lobby of the Doubletree By Hilton hotel in downtown Cleveland, sipping out of a thermos, leaving everyone the damn well alone. The Cleveland Browns have just lost 23-10, at home, to a Miami Dolphins team that's not particularly good, and the hotel is as bustling as anything in down Cleveland gets, mostly with Dolphins fans checking into their rooms after the victory, doing so politely and quietly, with little fuss. Cleveland is not a place to crow about your victories over the home team, partly out of a sense of personal safety, but mostly out of respect or sympathy.
The man empties whatever's in the thermos and stares off blankly out the front window. A few feet away, another man in a Browns jersey sits down about three feet away from him, holding the same thermos, wearing the same Jurevicius jersey, staring out the same window, for at least 30 seconds. One of them catches me looking at them, and I turn away and walk down the hall. When I came back five minutes later, they were both still sitting there, silent.
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Every city has something to crow about, no matter how miserable their sports history might be. The Bills made four consecutive Super Bowls. The Sonics won an NBA championship. The Redskins once weren't owned by Daniel Snyder. Even if one or more franchises in town makes everyone miserable, another franchise will pick up the slack to make everyone a little less miserable. Even as the Cubs lose every year, Chicagoans can watch Jordan highlights, or the "Super Bowl Shuffle" video, and have something to smile about. There is pain -- as a sports fan, there is always pain -- but there is some release. There are reminders that eventually all this can pay off.
Cleveland doesn't have anything like this. The Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948, and their three World Series appearances since then were more harrowing than enjoyable. The Cavaliers have basically had two quality teams, both of whose brief reigns were ended in gruesome, public fashion. And the Browns, the team they care about the most, have been the cruelest of all: They repeatedly broke their hearts, then they moved away, and when they came back, they were dead on arrival, a limp façade of a franchise that can't even make you work up the energy to get angry at them. The last Cleveland championship was in 1964, by the Browns two years before the Super Bowl began, which means no one has any recollection or proof it ever happened. Cleveland sports exist to make you unhappy. Not furious -- the wailing, the gnashing of teeth, the rending of garments. They can't work you up like that anymore. It's just a general, vague, unceasing unhappiness. They're a dull ache that never goes away; they're a rash that won't fade.
There is nobility in this. To suffer as a collective is one of the most truly communal, engaged experiences you can have. ("The Browns killed my father, and now they're after me," that sort of thing.) Bills fans can share a beer at a game and grouse about the Music City Miracle, and they can be proud in this: That pain ennobles their current fandom, makes it more fortified, makes it feel important. (Other examples: Cubs/Bartman, Rangers/David Freese, Eagles/Vomiting McNabb.) But Cleveland sports fans don't find their suffering noble, or romantic, or some sort of tragic dramatic arc. It's just numb, dead emptiness. All Cleveland losses just remind fans of the phantom limb they used to have. The pain is so connected to the experience of watching Cleveland sports that it's now indistinguishable from them. They are, in many ways, the reason they keep watching in the first place.
And they do keep watching, particularly when it comes to the Browns. The Cavaliers, because of their beloved owner, have a little more rope than the Indians do, and in a pinch, you can always root for the Buckeyes, in case you just want to see a win occasionally. (This has been a common refrain: At least the Buckeyes aren't actively mean to us.) But the Browns are the center of this town, and even though they don't deserve the city's affection, suffice it to say, this city would be lost without them. Cleveland wants the Browns to win, obviously. But I somehow can't help but think the city is more comfortable with them losing. It feels natural, the world in its proper order. Fans don't get together and complain about the Browns; they just talk about them, and all the words end up being complaints. Cleveland can feel a little lost without losing. It's in the water here. It's who they are. They don't like it, of course. But they don't feel it that much anymore either. It just is.
That's my initial thought, anyway, but I've been here only 24 hours. So, today we kick off our second Leitch Across America trip with Cleveland, Ohio. (The last one we did was San Francisco: You can see all the stories right here.) On Sunday I was in the Dawg Pound for the Browns' loss to the Dolphins. Monday and Wednesday I'll be watching the Indians at Progressive Field (though it'll always be the Jake to everyone here). And Tuesday I'll be heading south, down to Columbus, to check out this Ohio State business and watch the U.S. men's national team take on Mexico.
I'll be talking to everybody who won't run away from me about what makes this town tick, about the history, about the bars, the restaurants, about how hard it is to get something to eat after 8 p.m. around here, and about Bernie Kosar a lot, probably. This is my first trip here, so don't trust my judgment. I'm only here to learn. If you have anything I need to see or know here, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm excited to be here. I think I'm more excited than people who live here.
Until tomorrow, though: It's time to Flee to the Cleve!
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