CLEVELAND -- Here's the best way I can describe Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians: If you are lost and confused as to which seat is yours, someone will immediately tell you. Not because they are overtly helpful, though they're friendly enough. It's just, well … they don't know you. And if they don't know you, then you must be new here.
The Cleveland Indians have a reputation for losing that I'm not sure they necessarily deserve. They have a lifetime winning percentage of .509, eighth in baseball history. They've won five pennants and two World Series, and they have been to the playoffs seven times in the last 20 years. Only four teams -- the Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox and Braves -- have made the playoffs more often in that time. They've retired six players' numbers. They gave us Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome and Albert Belle. (Those mid-'90s teams were fantastic.) The Indians might not have won a title in nearly 70 years, sure, but this is not a historically incompetent franchise devoid of hope, where nothing has ever gone right. They've had their chances, their highlights, their breakthroughs. They're not the Browns.
We treat them that way, though, and I wonder if it's because of "Major League." When "Major League" came out in April 1989, the Indians were at their nadir as an organization. The Indians had just finished sixth in the AL East; since that division had been formed in 1969, they'd never made it above fourth. (And they never would: From 1969-1993, the entire time the Indians were in the AL East, they never finished above fourth. Writing that sentence just made me question the whole paragraph before this one.) They were playing in a massive stadium that wouldn't have been full very often if it only had 45,000 seats; that it had more than 80,000 made even respectable crowds look pathetic. Because of the stadium's location and design, games in the middle of July required a parka. It was not an excellent environment.
This made the Indians a prime target for "Major League", the rare baseball movie that used real team names yet was clearly unafraid to make fun of the institution of baseball. This is sort of amazing to consider, when you think about it. This is a movie that features an owner who hates Cleveland and desperately wants to escape (by sabotaging her own team, no less), players who are crude womanizers and/or alcoholics and a fanbase and broadcast booth that openly mocks its own team. And the Indians were like, Hey, let's put our name on THAT! That'll be terrific branding! It's impossible to imagine, say, the Miami Marlins being self-aware enough to do that today.
The movie, which was not initially expected to be a hit, quickly became part of baseball lore; cinephiles may veer toward "Bull Durham" or "Field of Dreams," but "Major League" will always be the most popular baseball movie for players. (It's the main reason players are so keen to hang out with Charlie Sheen all the time. At least I hope it's the main reason.) And it might have secured the Indians' place in the public consciousness as a sadder franchise than it really is.
Because Cleveland has obviously shown it can support a baseball team. To say the least. It wasn't long after the film came out -- about six years, around the time the vastly inferior "Major League 2" was released -- that the Indians became the biggest draw in baseball. Starting on June 11, 1995, the Indians sold out 455 games in a row, an MLB record that stood until 2008. That was every game from that day in June until April 4, 2001. It's the reason 455 is a retired number at the park, next to Bob Feller and Larry Doby and the gang. It's astounding, and exists outside the universe of "Major League" … and the universe of now.
On Wednesday, I went to Progressive Field -- which is obviously still called The Jake by everyone -- and watched the Indians lose to the Royals 6-2. The officially listed attendance was 12,085, but let's just say even that seems kind. Now, that's a low figure even by today's standards -- I went on Monday night as well, and there were probably twice that many people there -- and this was a noon getaway game on a Wednesday. But that the Indians have lost their attendance momentum, even with a team challenging for a wild-card spot, is undeniable. The Indians are 28th in attendance this season, ahead of only the two Florida teams, and behind Houston, which reportedly has a deal to punch its fans in the face the minute they walk through the turnstiles this year. The Indians are averaging 19,535 fans per game this year. That is only three thousand people more a game than the Cavaliers. That's only 10,000 more fans per game than the Columbus Clippers, the Indians' Triple A team two hours away, are drawing. It's sort of astounding.
You don't feel forlorn at an Indians game: This is not like Miami, where not only are there few people in the stands, they're not paying any attention to what's going on either. Indians fans are as loyal as Cleveland's reputation would make you think; everyone in my section on Wednesday had been to every game of the Royals series and looked at me with suspicion, like I'd murdered the person who regularly sat in my seat rather than merely having bought his/her ticket on StubHub. (The mock sneer the woman gave me when I mistakenly sat in the wrong seat was joking, but only sort of.) There are Indians fans who adore this team. There are just a lot fewer of them than there used to be.
This is difficult to explain. It's easy to see why that stretch in the late '90s was such a wild success. The Indians:
- Had an astounding team.
- Were playing in a fancy new stadium
- The renovation of downtown, a project that devolved since then, along with an up economy.
- The fact that the Browns were gone. (This might be the biggest one.)
So that makes sense. But what has happened now? How can this franchise, once so popular and proud, have no one in the park now?
There are several factors involved, according to the Clevelanders I've talked to this week. First is just general Dolan family fatigue: As a Knicks fan, I totally get this. The fact that the downtown has become so abandoned seems like a major reason to me, but people kept downplaying this, likely more out of civic pride than anything else. (People always want their downtown to be hopping, but then tell you why they don't live there. I understand this too: I used to complain about St. Louis' downtown but lived 11 miles away.) I was surprised how many people brought up the local media as a factor in this; as Scott Raab told me in Monday's podcast, there appears to be genuine animosity, on both sides, between the media and the fanbase that seems to exceed the normal level in most cities. Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal argues it comes down to faith in ownership: Even with the Indians slashing ticket prices, as long as Dolan -- who is blamed by many for letting those great John Hart teams fall apart -- still owns the team, he'll never be trusted.
It would seem to be a Pittsburgh issue to me. The Pirates started their turnaround two years ago, but it didn't show at the gate. It wasn't until two years later, when the resurgence appeared to be more real, that fans returned. Fans need to believe. Indians fans haven't given up on their team: The rising TV and radio ratings for the team this year speak to that. They just need some time.
Because I've seen the devotion. I saw it Monday, and Wednesday, in the heat of pennant race, people screaming and yelling and sweating it all out. There weren't that many of them. But there once were, and, I suspect, there will be again. The Indians may seem like a joke. But they're not.
It is worth noting, just in case, though: I saw a lot more VAUGHN 99 jerseys both nights than I did BOURN 24. What we want things to be will always outpace what they are.
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