I’m sitting at a bar in the triangle where Huron and Prospect converge in downtown Cleveland. The Browns are on TV and about to give up another lead in their last best chance at a win this season. And yes, there are plenty of people watching the game, but that’s not why we’re here. It’s certainly not why I’m here. Not why I just drove nearly 600 miles on a whim in a rented Camaro with the top down on an impossibly beautiful late-October day. The reason I’m here is a block away, Progressive Field, or the Jake as it is still affectionately known around these parts. After an improbable season—marred by injuries to our number two and three starting pitchers, as well as our star center fielder—and after taking two out of three games at Wrigley, our Indians sit a game away from their first World Series victory in 68 years. And I’m here with my uncle who took my sister and me to Game 1 of the ALDS in 1995, the first playoff game for the Tribe since 1954, where we stayed through rain delays and extra innings to watch Tony Pena’s impossible walk-off home run. We got home so late that my parents let us stay home from school the next day.
In a few hours, the crowd will gather in the plaza between the ballpark and the home of Cleveland’s reigning champs—the curse breakers—the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thirty-thousand of us will pack a sold out ballpark to watch a game that will be played 350 miles away in another team’s ballpark. It’s Game 5, and we’re ready. But that’s still a few hours away. For now, we sit and wait.
And something curious happens then. I hear things like “this is our year” and “man, the curse broke when the Cavs won, the Warriors were up 3-1!” and “Nah, when the Monsters won, that’s when it broke,” and I realize that this is not the same Cleveland I left almost 20 years ago, just after the heartbreaking 1997 World Series (none of us knew yet that this 2016 World Series would take an eerily similar route to defeat). This new Cleveland was optimistic and eager, bold and willing to talk openly about winning it all, jinxes be damned. And it felt great. It was catching. I thought, yes, they’re right this is our year. No longer would we have to cite our mantra of “next year.” This was next year, and it was the year of Cleveland.
We lost that Game 5 later that night, and, it turned out, we’d go on to lose the rest, too. And at that moment, it became Chicago’s year. They’d waited longer. During any other season, every one of us would be rooting for the Cubs, our older siblings in misery. But once again, this was not the Cleveland I remembered. That optimism, though dulled by the blunt edge of another defeat, didn’t fade.
Maybe next year will be our year, maybe it won’t. Maybe next year I’ll find myself making another pilgrimage to Cleveland to watch the team I’ve loved all my life celebrate their first World Series victory in my lifetime. I hope I’ll have the top down. Maybe, at the end of the day, this game of ours is just that to some: a game. Something to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously. But for us Cleveland fans, there’s more to it than that. This is a city that’s been laughed at or ignored for far too long to stop caring. Even those of us who have been away for a long time feel it. It’s passed down to us at birth. It’s in our blood and it courses through us as icy cold as Lake Erie in a long Cleveland winter. We’re Cleveland fans, and while we may suffer, while we may now have the longest World Series drought in baseball, we will not give up. We will be relentless. We will take our lumps over and over again but ultimately, we will prevail. And we don’t need the spotlight, we were underdogs all the way through. It’s always us against the world. And while our World Series appearances may not end in victory, at least not yet, they have one thing in common. They’re always great. They always seem to come down to the wire. Two outs away in Game 7 in 1997 against a team of All-Stars; a two-run home run in the seventh to force extra innings in Game 7 in 2016; these are the kinds of games that most fans would kill to have their teams be a part of.
After the Cubs ran out onto the field, champions after more than a century, and celebrated their well-deserved victory; after a sad, sleepless night, we woke up the next day and said, “next year.” And this time, I think we mean it. After all, this ain’t just Cleveland any more. This is Believeland. And in Believeland, next year really can be the year.