Regardless of what your first words were, if you were born in or around Cleveland, chances are your first sentence was, “There’s always next year.” It’s a sentence that, as a Cleveland sports fan, you are destined to repeat millions of times over the course of your life. The frequency with which you utter this lament increases significantly in September and October, when it becomes painfully obvious that the Indians’ baseball season is coming to an end and the Browns’ football season probably should never have started.
I finally uttered my hometown’s unofficial motto last weekend as I sat in my Boston apartment, wearing my 1995 Cleveland Indians American League Central Division Champions sweatshirt, watching the guys on NFL Network laugh at Marshall Faulk for picking the winless Browns to beat the 1-3 Buffalo Bills.
“I’m sorry babe,” my husband said from the other side of the couch.
“Eh, it’s okay,” I shrugged. “It’s who we are. I’m still picking the Browns to win in this week’s pool.”
Referring to a sports team in a distant city as “we?” Picking a winless team to win? Wearing a 14 year old sweatshirt because there are so few other years for which championship sweatshirts are available? To the rest of the country, it probably seems quixotic at best and sadly delusional at worst. But to a Cleveland sports fan, these are signs that you have accepted the fundamental truths required to survive as a Cleveland sports fan and make it to “next year.”
1. You must ALWAYS do your best. It will rarely be good enough. But you must try just in case it happens to be your year (which it won’t be). There are a painful number of seasons when a Cleveland team has had the best win-loss record in their sport or their division/league only to lose the championship or, worse yet, not even make it to the championship game. In 1954, the Cleveland Indians won 111 games, a record that stood for 44 years, but were swept by the New York Giants in the World Series. In 1986, the Browns had the best record in the AFC but lost to John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the Conference title game. These are just two examples of when our teams tried their best and were the best (according to records and stats) but couldn’t win in the moments when it would have mattered most.
2. You should always try to win, but if you’re going to lose, do so in a historic way. One of the most iconic images in baseball, Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch, is from Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, a game and series that the Indians lost. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Indians were so bad that they inspired the Major League trilogy of movies. The Browns’ playoff losses to the Broncos in 1986 and 1987 were so soul-rending that the games are simply referred to as “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” When Cleveland teams lose, they lose in ways that make history, that are so profound that words either cannot describe them or are not needed.
3. It’s Us versus Them. WE must stick together. Cleveland has been called the “Mistake by the Lake” and named as one of the most miserable sports cities in the US by ESPN, Sports Illustrated AND Forbes. With the whole country either pitying or laughing at you, it’s easy to get a complex. That’s why WE stick together. When I see someone wearing an Indians hat, I nod in acknowledgment not just of a common fan-hood but out of respect for the strength and courage it takes to proclaim that loyalty outside of the safe confines of Northeastern Ohio. If non-Clevelanders find out you’re a Cleveland sports fans, they think you’re crazy. If Clevelanders find out you support your hometown teams, they know you’re an upstanding person, with a good heart and a good soul, and willing to do whatever you can to help a fellow human being.
Try your best but don’t get your hopes up. If you can’t win, lose big. Be loyal. That’s what you learn when you cheer for Cleveland teams. That’s who you become. That’s who we are.