Are the Cleveland Indians Victim Souls?

Indians fans outside Progressive Field during game seven, November 2, 2016. (Reuters photo: Shannon Stapleton)
On the shores of Lake Erie, a fear of and fascination with coming up short

Cleveland — Victim souls, chosen by God to suffer extraordinary anguish, work in mystical fashion to join their agony with that of Christ on the cross, to help effect the salvation of others. It’s a Catholic tradition exemplified most famously by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She wrote about it in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, a spiritual classic. Through her intercession, she helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series in 2003, according to their manager at the time, Jack McKeon. He has long cultivated a special devotion to the Little Flower.

Most Protestants object of course to the practice of petitioning the dead to pray for the living, and many would probably dispute the Catholic teaching about redemptive suffering, because Christ died once for all time to take away the sins of many (Hebrew 9:28), although Saint Paul took joy in his own suffering because it supplemented, he says, the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24). The tension between those two verses is potential grist for a fine scholastic disputation, but that’s not why I called you here. You read the headline.

We need to talk about the Cleveland Indians. On Thursday morning, they lost Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings. They had done that before, in their most recent Fall Classic appearance, back in ’97. Ten years later, over lunch at a sidewalk table here on East Fourth Street, a veteran front-office executive for the Indians painted for me this poignant vignette of that Game 7 misadventure:

He was in the visiting clubhouse in Miami, watching on TV as the Tribe bullpen nursed a narrow lead in the late innings. Bottom of the ninth, the score still 2–1, the room was bustling. Guys were carting in champagne, and the whole thing already, as Steve Somers would say. Seated at a table amid all the hubbub was a man engraving the plaque on the MVP trophy, which was slated for Chad Ogea, who was 2–0 in the Series and had allowed only two runs, both of them inconsequential, in eleven and two-thirds innings:  C  H  A  D    O  G  —

Five strikes from the club’s first world championship since the Truman administration, the Indians’ closer, Jose Mesa, shook off a sign from Sandy Alomar Jr. and found a way to blow the save. Edgar Renteria had not yet driven in the Marlins’ winning run off Charles Nagy two innings later when the engraver, one eye on the screen, stopped midway through Ogea’s last name and unscrewed the plaque from the base of the trophy. “Can I have that?” my lunch companion asked. “No,” the trophy guy snapped, putting it in his pocket. “You can’t have that.”

Alomar later described the team’s walk of woe off the field and into the clubhouse after the game. Workers were still scrambling to whisk away all evidence of any champagne. Indians owner Richard Jacobs stood at the threshold and shook hands with each player, thanking him, telling him how proud he was of the whole team, holding back tears.

Meanwhile, up in the booth, Herb Score, the beloved, understated voice of Cleveland Indians baseball for the past three decades, drily ran through the postgame wrap-up. He had given notice earlier that season: He’d retire at the end of it, and this was the end of it. “Well, that’s that” was his Farewell Address from Pro Player Stadium, as his broadcast partner Tom Hamilton would paraphrase it in his eulogy at Score’s funeral in Rocky River twelve years later.

I wish I’d had the presence of mind at lunch those many years ago now to ask the Indians exec why a player had been selected for the MVP award before the game was over. It leads me to think that the vote (by a “committee of reporters and officials in attendance” is how it’s done, says the Baseball Almanac) was more a sense of the room than a punctilious procedure requiring the intervention of election monitors. Its main function seems to be to give the larger event that is the World Series a face and a name, good for media promotion.

NBC televised that Series, and on the eve of it a network executive was widely quoted saying that the matchup was a disaster for ratings and he hoped it would go “four and out.” The suits at 30 Rock no doubt wanted Yankees–Dodgers, or at any rate Yankees–Someone.

This year, the formal plot description of the World Series was that it was between two historically frustrated lovable losers, but most people who cared about it cared only for the Cubs. In headlines, Chicago usually got top billing, for home and road games alike. The Cubs crushed the Indians in social-media mentions and online searches. Early in the Series, a reporter at a postgame press conference with Indians manager Terry Francona asked him how he felt about it, the whole country’s rooting for the other team. Francona gamely made light of it.

Early in the Series, a reporter at a postgame press conference with Indians manager Terry Francona asked him how he felt about it, the whole country’s rooting for the other team.

Chicago dominated on the field too, of course, finishing the regular season with the best record in MLB and entering the World Series heavily favored by the prediction markets and statistical analysts; FiveThirtyEight put the odds at 63–37. They’d become the new Yankees: media darlings and, for the baseball-inattentive, the most easily accessible door to participation in the national pastime, if only for a few weeks in the fall. A friend who lives in Kentucky and had never in my experience expressed any interest in baseball posted a pro-Cubs message on Facebook during the World Series, and then a pro-Cubs meme.

The Indians would have spoiled the narrative had they won. That realization struck me with full force midway through the Series, which they ostensibly had under control, up 3–1. Imagine you’re Ben Rhodes working a new gig with MLB. Cleveland is a nice foil, but Chicago is clearly the stronger brand. You want Chicago to win at least ultimately; dramatically would be better. For that purpose, Cleveland four games into the Series was almost exactly where you wanted it.

For Chicago to have won the Series was the better media story; I assume that most MLB executives saw that, because I saw it, and I’m only a fan. No need for them to have rigged anything; media had been preparing us for the outcome for months, instilling in us supreme confidence in its inevitability. Before the Series even began, a Starbucks barista in Charleston, S.C., who confessed to baseball ignorance, told me she was excited about her trip to Chicago, timed for the parade after the Cubs win the World Series. Her friends there had told her what to expect. Stunned, I asked her what she planned to do if the Indians won. She had heard about them, yes. She shrugged.

Clevelanders meanwhile sank ever deeper into the quicksand of their foreboding. After an encouraging 1–0 Tribe win in Game 3, a friend who had done an internship in the Indians’ front office about ten years ago and knows the game inside out texted me. We moved the exchange to e-mail. It soon got weird. He lives and breathes Tribe baseball and now worried that they were going to blow their 3–1 lead. Their record in postseason games in which they could eliminate an opponent disturbed him: 8–13. That included games from the ’90s, and if you’re perfectly hard-nosed and clear-eyed, you’ll notice that its predictive value for 2016 is nil, but it isn’t, because it spooks Clevelanders like my friend and seeps into the mind and marrow of everyone who lives and works here. Don’t assume that professional athletes enjoy some magical immunity. Granted, few of us know that specific stat that troubled him, but we intuit and dread the kind of doom that he felt it augured. The year the Indians set the American League record, still standing, for the highest winning percentage in the regular season, they got swept in the World Series: 1954. Remember that? No. But I’ve turned it over in my mind all my life. Is there a Clevelander who hasn’t?

The year the Indians set the American League record for the highest winning percentage in the regular season, they got swept in the World Series: 1954. Remember that? No. But I’ve turned it over in my mind all my life. Is there a Clevelander who hasn’t?

On the eve of Game 7, the Indians having lost Games 5 and 6, another Cleveland friend who has worked in baseball and has never wavered in his allegiance to the Tribe posed this question to his friends on Facebook: If you had to lose, would you rather be blown out or fall just short in a squeaker?

It was around then that I flashed on a slightly traumatic memory from long ago. I think the era was the 1980s; the scene, Yankee Stadium. My parents were in town to visit, and, happy coincidence, so were the Tribe. We went to a game. The Indians had built a comfortable lead by the late innings, at which point my mother turned to my father and me and said, “We can still lose, can’t we?” I was astonished. She probably talked like that all the time when I was growing up, but by now I had gained enough perspective to recognize how wrong it was. I rebuked her, sharply, and she was obviously mortified but not necessarily cognizant of what her offense was. I think that within about ten minutes the Indians’ bullpen coughed up the lead.

The whole Cleveland media market may need a group psychologist.

In my e-mails to my friend of the 8–13 syndrome, I began to wax strident and preachy. I explained to him my theory of psychic contamination. You may think that one man urinating in the Cuyahoga River is nothing, but if 3 million people do that, it becomes a problem. And even if they don’t, you shouldn’t, on principle. Watch your tongue. Words have consequences. Worry is negative prayer. Praying, believe that you will receive what you ask for, and it will be done for you. Debate with yourself over whether it will be and it won’t. Jesus failed to perform miracles in Nazareth because the people there didn’t believe in him. Prayer is worry redirected.

Baseball is a zero-sum game. The joy of victory is commensurate with the agony of defeat. The price of the parade in Chicago yesterday is another ton of sorrow dumped into the drinking water of Northeast Ohio. To hear Clevelanders talk, you would think we were chosen by God to be the baseball version of victim souls, but we wallow in ambivalence about it, neither cold nor hot. “I would thou wert cold, or hot.”

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