As anyone can tell by looking at my 11W account profile, my sports fandom doesn't follow the typical pattern. I grew up in the Pittsburgh area in a house dominated by football and hockey. Naturally I became a die-hard Steelers and Penguins fan. The lack of a professional basketball team in that city allowed me to choose my own allegiance in time. Additionally, my father's distaste for the sport of baseball caused me to not be a follower of the Pirates and allowed for a personal choice as well. But I was never getting away from the Steelers and Penguins. They were in my blood.
I left my home in 2005 to spend the next four, glorious years of my life on the campus of The Ohio State University. It was there that my roommates from Cleveland slowly pulled me into the realm of Cleveland sports. My dorm-mate and future best man David was a Cleveland Cavalier fan to the core. He (and LeBron James) got me hooked on C-Town basketball. Not long afterwards, another college friend handed me an open invitation to his family's season tickets for Cleveland Indians games. I made it to quite a few - partially because my girlfriend also lived in the Cleveland area and a trip killed two birds with one stone - and an Indians fan was born.
Fast forward a few years - the girlfriend is now my wife and I've been living in a western suburb of Cleveland since June of 2009. I work downtown. I hear the conversations of guys at work and on Cleveland sports radio every day. My wife even talked me in to attending a handful of Browns games, something my father would consider sacrilege (I hope he's not reading this...). Over the years I've learned a lot about Cleveland sports and its fans: the most irrepressible and loyal fan-base I have ever seen. I've become an avid fan of the Cavs and Tribe. I've even developed a soft spot in my heart for the Cleveland Browns, 14 out of the 16 weeks of the season, that is.
I've come to realize that the division of my professional sports following has put me in a unique position. I am an outsider, a fan of a bitter rival, that has the perspective of looking at Cleveland fans similar to a student observing an animal in a terrarium for a science experiment. Yet at the same time, that student is developing a feeling of attachment to the animal to the point that he wants to take it home and make it a part of his family. OK - I may have pushed that analogy a little too far. What I'm trying to say is, under the circumstances, I have been able to create a relatively unbiased observation of Cleveland sports and it's fans and have come to some conclusions that I believe most of the people reading this will agree with.
**I will precede all of the following statements with this disclaimer. As I mentioned, I have only lived in Cleveland and followed their teams for a handful of years. I did not study the history of the Cleveland Browns nor do I have a Masters in Sports Psychology - if that even exists. I simply overhear conversations at work, listen to WKNR everyday on my way home, attend Browns/Indians/Cavs games when I can afford to, and observe the average sports fan at my home (wife and in-laws) and at bars. I mean no disrespect to any fan or affiliate of Cleveland Sports - this is just my opinion.**
Every year, near the end of summer, an unexplainable phenomenon occurs in Cleveland. ESPN Cleveland's radio station, WKNR, lights up with fans calling in claiming that THIS is the year. I recall a good friend of mine, during my freshman year in college, telling me in his Southern-Ohio drawl that "the Browns are gonna rise up this year, man! Charlie Frye I tell you what! You better watch out you Steeler punk!".
This phenomenon is optimism. You could possibly even call it blind optimism. An overwhelming majority of Browns fans grasp on to this optimism like a barnacle on a pirate ship. At first it boggled my mind. How can this be real? You are a fan of a team that's never made it to a Super Bowl and has been downright dismal since coming back into the league. Every "football expert" in the media is predicting the Browns to win AT MOST four games yet you call into the radio station like an old, Cajun soothsayer predicting a deep run into the playoffs under the tutelage of Romeo Crennel and Pat Shurmur. When you Google "Brown QB" one of the first images to pop up is this one:
Yet every fan that calls into the radio station is optimistic. Blindly optimistic. By comparison, something that I was more accustomed to, Steelers fans are true pessimists. For example: when Bill Cowher retired and the two leading candidates for the head coaching position (Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhut) left for Arizona, people were calling in ready to burn the city to the ground. "Yinz guys know we gotta do it - just sell the team and move to Los Angeles!" they proclaimed in their ridiculous accents. How could Pittsburgh fans be this miserable two years after winning the Super Bowl but Cleveland fans so optimistic a year after going 4-12?
Blind optimism. Even though they have little reason to get excited for their sports teams (besides high draft picks) they do. Every year. It was completely unexplainable to me until just recently when I figured it out. The animal in the terrarium told me it's secrets and I think I'm going to get an A on this project. The secret behind the Cleveland fan optimism is simple. It starts with hype, it continues with just enough potential, and it always ends in let down.
The hype comes in many mediums. Sometimes it is a big name coaching hire (former Patriots "genius" Mangini) and other times it's a first round draft pick (Kyrie Iriving, Dion Waiters, Anthony Ben.... basically half the Cavs roster.) This is what really sets the hook, so to speak, into the Cleveland fan-base. Then comes the potential. This usually comes as a fast start to the season or an unlikely win over a traditional powerhouse. The Indians have recently proven to be one of the best first-half teams in the league. Back in 2010 the Browns defeated the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots in back-to-back weeks and you would think they had qualified for the Super Bowl. Fans were saying things like this:
"Anyone that actually watches them play know they are almost there. The defense still needs to work, but they were leading in the 4th quarter in at least 4 of their losses. They could easily be a .500 team or better right. If they start closing games out, they will be a playoff contender next year. McCoy looks good, Hillis looks great, and the have some young receivers with potential. Cribbs is one of the most exciting players in the NFL, but he has been hurt."
Even some of the players were buying in.
At that point in the 2010 season, the Cleveland Browns were 3 and 5. Three wins, five losses. I don't get it, but this is the potential - the build-up that is created every season.
Then, as reliable as your grandfather's pocket watch, there is the let down. Every single season ends in a let down. The frenzied optimism is replaced by equally passionate negativity. The coaches that were called upon as saviors are being mocked and lead to the gallows. The predicted rookie-of-the-year draft picks are labeled as busts. The "big free agent pick ups" are deemed wastes of money. It even happens on a game-to-game basis. I call it the "just enough" system of Cleveland sports. They will always do "just enough" to get you to believe that they will win, and then drop your hopes like a bad habit just before the finish line. The Indians will take a game into extra innings with 4 runs in the bottom of the ninth, play incredible baseball into the 13th inning, and then give up a grand slam. The Browns will allow a huge lead to slip away in the fourth quarter, grasping defeat from the hands of victory. This more than anything else I am sure of: Cleveland teams specialize in the art of getting their fans to completely buy in just to take a dump on their front porch.
I love the Indians and follow them closely. (This year's Indians squad is what inspired me to write this blog in the first place.) My wife is a die-hard Browns fan and I've been known to do a "woof-woof" chant on occasion (again, please don't tell my father). The Cavs put on a great show and have such a promising roster. I'm slowly becoming a real Cleveland sports fan. But because I am an outsider, I realize what this truly means for me. It means that I am getting pulled into the vicious cycle. It means that I will buy into the hype, get excited when I see the potential, and become irate when the inevitable let down finally comes. Unlike a majority of the Cleveland fans that were born and raised here, I'm fully aware of what is inevitably going to happen and I should be able to avoid the blind optimism. Just like everyone else, however, I simply cannot help but get excited for these teams!
Maybe it's something in the water. But even though I'm fully aware that it's like the Christmas turkey from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, I just cannot wait to dig in to Cleveland sports.