Jose Mesa on the mound during game 7 of the 1997 World Series at Pro Player Stadium in Miami
The Drive. The Shot. The Fumble. In many ways these terms have come to define the professional sports experience in Cleveland. At one point during the ESPN film Believeland, there’s even a comment from Arsenio Hall about how Cleveland may have the only sports teams where you could Google a vague term like “the drive” and essentially learn all you need to know about Cleveland sports. Believeland, which premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival earlier this year, will air on ESPN on Saturday, May 14 at 9:30 p.m. It delves into the the past 50+ years, as fans were forced to endure disappointment and loss over and over again. It was a bit heavy on the Browns, as opposed to the Indians and Cavs, but to be fair that’s the one team that packed up and left the city (and yes, that gets covered extensively).
An interesting aspect of the film is that it doesn’t imply that these sports failures take place in a vacuum; it also shows how these struggles often dovetail with the non-sports struggles of a rust belt city like Cleveland. In many ways it becomes both a strength and a weakness of its narrative (but mostly a strength) – sports, after all, is an escape from your day-to-day life. When the city struggles financially, when people move away from Cleveland in droves starting after World War II, you see that reflected in sports and sports fandom. A professor and I always used to joke that Clevelanders had “abandonment issues,” and it is why people take it so poorly when athletes leave for greener pastures. This concept is even touched upon in the film; people leave Cleveland, you may struggle in your daily life, but you expect sports to be your escape from that. When your teams pile on to your personal disappointments and failures, when players and even teams abandon you (much like friends and family that move from the city) it fails to provide you with the escape and release you’re supposed to receive from watching sports.
The time that I think this connection falls a bit short is when they compare Cleveland to its neighbor and rival city, Pittsburgh. The success of the Steelers and Pirates in the 1970s is discussed, and it’s loosely implied that it solved a lot of the city’s other problems. While something like that can certainly lift the spirits of a city beleaguered by job losses and a declining population, it doesn’t solve those problems. Heavy industry left Pittsburgh in the same way that it left Cleveland and Detroit; sports can’t make up for that in terms of employment or even economic development, it can only serve as a distraction. Granted, a winning team is a much better distraction from your daily life than a team that seems to add to your problems and misery, but it really can’t change a city’s trajectory.
Even though I’m not a huge football fan, I thought the Browns segments of Believeland happened to contain the film’s best moments. (And most surprising – I never knew that Hank Aaron was a Browns fan). It went through the team’s full history, including its (way) past successes and the crushing blows that fans of the team experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. By far, the most moving portion of the film was when Earnest Byner discussed “the fumble” in the 1987 AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos. His pain was tangible as he described his enduring disappointment over the play; tears welled in his eyes as he discussed the letters he received from heartbroken fans. Byner essentially apologized to fans during his interview, obviously still feeling guilt for a brief moment (in what was otherwise a good game for him) nearly 30 years ago. While these moments hang over the heads of fans for years, or even generations, it’s clear that the players involved often took it every bit as hard.
This was a sentiment you also heard from Mike Hargrove when he discussed the Indians’ disappointing collapse in game 7 of the 1997 World Series. He mentioned that a fan asked him how long it took to get over the heartbreaking loss, and Hargrove essentially replied, “when it happens, I’ll let you know.” Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, and Tom Hamilton were some of the other folks interviewed in connection with the Indians. While they started with the Indians’ 1948 World Series win, most of the segment was spent discussing the teams of the 1990s. While they showed a picture of “the catch” from Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series, they never discussed the play or how some people mark it as the “beginning of the end” of the Indians’ successful run in the late 1940s and 1950s. They also never mentioned the Tribe’s disappointing loss in the 2007 ALCS when they were defeated by Boston after taking a 3-1 game lead in the series. Believeland did show a brief shot of Boston runners scoring while Victor Martinez stood in catcher’s gear at the plate, but there was no mention of the collapse or Joel Skinner’s controversial call at third when he gave Kenny Lofton the stop sign that prevented him from scoring.
With the Cavs, the film covers the Miracle of Richfield in the 1970s, and “the shot” in the 1980s. Much of the material connected to the Cavs centers on LeBron James though – his high school career, and how the Cavs were able to draft the “hometown” guy. His presence on the team made people believe that they may one day break this cycle of disappointment and failure. After Believeland discussed the 2007 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, it showed how the disappointing losses to the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics highlighted that LeBron was essentially attempting to win almost by himself. The pain of Cleveland fans was multiplied when LeBron left…the hometown guy, who was “one of us,” left us too.
On a side note, if you want to talk about a weird bit of mourning from Cleveland fans, I have a story about the Cavs’ early exit from the playoffs in 2009. I was in China with a group of people from Cleveland for much of May. We flew across the country, traveling from Xi’an to Shanghai and when we arrived at the airport in Shanghai, televisions around the airport were showing the Cavs vs. the Magic. Since China was 12 hours ahead of Cleveland, we were landing at the airport at 10 a.m. and the game was taking place the night before back in the United States. At one point on the trip we all retired to our hotel rooms to watch (what ended up being) the final game in the series. We thought we’d be heading home to watch the Cavs in the finals, instead we sat around commiserating about Cleveland sports in a foreign country. Another odd Cleveland connection to that trip – we visited a Buddhist temple, the 1,000-year-old Big Wild Goose Pagoda while in Xi’an. It was pouring rain, and off in the distance we spotted a guy in a Travis Hafner jersey (who was not with our group)…what are the odds of running into an Indians fan halfway around the world? So we made the logical, obvious choice to chase after him in the rain, yelling to get his attention, in this holy, quiet, serene spot. I can’t even remember the conversation, but I think we lamented about how we wished Hafner would be healthy and able to help the Indians that season. Even when they’re thousands of miles from home in western China, random Cleveland fans commiserate over the misfortune of their teams.
Even though players may leave, even whole teams may leave, Cleveland fans never quit. With the Indians, I still hope that every year may finally be *the* year, even though my bitter nature makes me wonder not “if they’ll fail,” but “how they will fail, and how painful will it be this time?” When a fan from another city teases me about being an Indians fan, my go-to response is to joke that “it’s fine, because I’ve already been dead inside for years.” Despite our heartbreak, despite the numerous times we continue to touch the stove and get burnt, we always come back for more. Our misfortune, and our resilience, are both expertly displayed in Believeland.