Culture

Cleveland Finally Gets It: Winning the World Series Is the Aim of the Game

Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor celebrates with teammates after a game against the Detroit Tigers. (Photo: Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)
By now, having learned the hard way, Indians fans know how to tell the score.

When the Indians win the World Series for the first time since 1948, whether it’s later this month or the last fall before Judgment Day, Clevelanders will finally exhale. They will open the sluices on their great lake of generational sorrow and cry for joy. They will marvel, throng the parade downtown, and fete their team with shouts of acclamation.

Until then, they curb their emotions.

Everyone knows that the Indians are the best team in baseball. Their performance in the last quarter of the regular season awed the attentive and astounded those who woke up to the spectacle late in the game. A team that had been idling since the season began suddenly decided to motor down the runway. It accelerated. It took flight. Is that a bird? Is it a plane?

From August 24 through September 21, the Cleveland Windians outscored their opponents by 106 runs and won every game they played. Their streak of 22 wins is the new American League record. They go into the postseason having won 33 of their last 37 games. Commentators and analysts have called the Tribe’s late-summer, early-autumn surge the most dominant sustained run by any team at any point in any season in the history of Major League Baseball.

Even so, the Indians have struggled to fill the ballpark.

It seats 35,051. Average attendance per game was 25,280. Even in September, by which time they were the talk of the town and national news, the Indians had 16 home dates at Progressive Field but cracked the 30,000 mark only seven times. So the best team in MLB ranks 22nd out of 30 in home attendance. It’s a curious statistic, open to interpretation. According to conventional wisdom, the Cardinals have the game’s most-informed fans while the Indians, to put it tactfully, do not, but I wonder. By now, having learned the hard way, Clevelanders do know better than most fans how to tell the score:

The aim of the game is not to be the best team in baseball. It’s to win the World Series.

Clevelanders have grown a little cool toward the exhibition season that everything from April to September has to a large extent become, but let’s not exaggerate. They’re still more exuberant about it than most fans. Compared with their grandparents in that annus mirabilis of 1948, they’re a little less likely to attend games but obviously spend more time watching the Tribe on TV. Per capita, they are more likely to go to an Indians game than their counterparts in present-day Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York are to do the equivalent.

Only in comparison with their younger selves and their parents in the go-go ’90s do present-day Tribe fans look older and wiser, levelheaded and circumspect. In 1995–2001 the Indians set a major-league record (later broken by Boston) for most consecutive sellouts: 455. The ballpark’s seating capacity then was 20 percent greater than it is now, after renovations, and annual attendance topped 3 million for half a decade. At every game about 1 percent of the inhabitants of Northeast Ohio packed themselves into Jacobs Field, the name of the ballpark at the time. Locals called it “the Jake,” a term of endearment.

The sellout streak began when, overnight, after nearly four decades of haplessness alternating with mediocrity, the Indians sprinted to the top of the American League and planted themselves there with conviction. What a rush, to see the Tribe crush it in the power rankings week after week. Clevelanders got giddy. Are you going to the after-game party in the Flats?

The Flats boarded up and went dark in 2000, a picture of Cleveland’s baseball hangover. A lot has happened to sober up Tribe Town since that scorching Indian summer of ’95. Three trips to the World Series, three times losing it, the last two in extra innings in Game 7: If you suffer that, and more, but stay true to your team, you will be a Fan, my son. Weathered by serial disappointment, Clevelanders have turned down the volume on the rah-rah. The flame of their passion burns on, like the Cuyahoga River, but they contain it now, inside the red glass around their votive candle.

It’s not that they care less. They care more. “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence, but restraint”: Marianne Moore was married to the Brooklyn Dodgers and so knew about the tragedy of great promise consistently unfulfilled. Being a poet, she also said more than she knew. She spoke for Cleveland’s baseball mind and mood in these latter days.

On Sunday, October 1, three hours and 21 minutes after the Indians completed their last game of the regular season, beating Chicago 3–1 at Progressive Field, behind a strong start by Josh Tomlin, one of several Tribe arms that improved simultaneously (pitching coach Mickey Callaway is a genius) in the second half of the season, Cleveland.com posted the latest from Plain Dealer sportswriter Paul Hoynes, who began:

One hundred and two wins. It’s almost frightening to think about.

Just once before in their history have the Indians won more games in one season. The year was 1954 and the Indians won 111 games only to be swept by the New York Giants in the World Series.

Cleveland, Cleveland.

Better than the baseball public at large, Clevelanders appreciate that only at the margins does the Indians’ recent blaze of glory help them win the World Series. They gained ground with respect to home-field advantage in the postseason. That’s about it. They were already on track to enjoy home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Now, thanks to the Surge, they’ll enjoy it in the second round, too, should they advance. If they make it to the World Series, their winning percentage, second-best in Major League Baseball, despite their so-so record through July, gives them home-field advantage against every prospective National League opponent except the Dodgers.

In any event, the concept of home-field “advantage,” which is true on the whole — the home team wins about 55 percent of the time — is dubious in the case of the Indians. They won more games on the road this season than at home.

The problem runs deeper than that, however. Beneath the quibble that home-field advantage may not always be an advantage is the illogic of attempting to reward a team, in any fashion, for a superior winning percentage, as if winning 104 games ipso facto made you better than the team that won 102. The validity of the reasoning behind that assumption began to crumble in 1969, when MLB introduced uneven schedules, a byproduct of dividing leagues into divisions. Interleague play, introduced in 1997, has compounded the . . . complexity, let’s call it, of deriving from a team’s win–loss record a clear, definitive measure of its performance.

Every team’s win–loss record now says something about the relative strength or weakness of its schedule as well as about the performance of the team itself.

To cling to the idea that a team’s win–loss record is the measure of its overall, bottom-line success or failure is quaint. It’s like dwelling on a pitcher’s win–loss record when you’re making the case that he should get the Cy Young Award. That record is a rough indicator and a traditional criterion, but obviously it’s noisy: What it says about the pitcher is hard to separate from what it says about the strength or weakness of the team he played for. Likewise, every team’s win–loss record now says something about the relative strength or weakness of its schedule as well as about the performance of the team itself.

The fiction persists, sort of, that winning percentages today reflect performance as neatly as they did in the first four score and seven years of major-league ball, when each team played each of its league rivals the same, even number of games, half at home, half on the road. The World Series and some of its precursors in the 19th century were established to sell tickets, of course, but also to answer a question born of logic:

People wanted to know whether the team that won 80 games to finish first in a longer-standing league might be as good as the team that won 100 games in an upstart league. Maybe the overall strength of the first league was greater but more evenly distributed among the different teams. Fans were full of prejudice, some of it reasonable, in favor of one league or the other. The assumption that the senior league was stronger, a grown man to the boy that was its junior, was plausible but could never be put to an empirical test. We would never settle the dispute over which league was better, but at least we could pit the two league champions against each other and watch them battle for bragging rights.

That order finally succumbed to chaos in the helter-skelter of the 1960s: In no version of MLB playoff brackets since their debut 48 years ago has team winning percentage strictly determined which teams face off against each other or even which teams make it to the playoffs at all. Consider:

In 1997, the Indians compiled the fourth-best record in the American League but upped their game in the postseason and, against the odds, advanced to the Big Show, rendering void the superior records that the teams they finished off in a few days in October had devoted six months to building. In 2000, the Indians compiled the fourth-best record in the American League but were locked out of the playoffs while the team with the fifth-best record did qualify, because it was in a weak division.

The playoff brackets never made perfect sense. They make less of it with each round of expansion. Four, then six, then eight, and now ten teams that completed the marathon go to the invitational where they compete in sprints (the wild-card games), the 1,500 meters (the division series), and the mile (the league-championship series, whose winners advance to the next mile, the World Series, or MLB Finals). You might finish eighth in the marathon but not qualify for the ten-team invitational. Or you might qualify for it although you finished twelfth.

It’s like the Electoral College, one could argue: You may think that it makes no sense, but all candidates compete under the same rules. If you invest disproportionately in Texas, or in California, that’s your business. Likewise, if you ran a more brilliant marathon than you needed to, congratulations. Now line up with the runners who couldn’t hold a candle to you out there on the hills and trails. The middle-distance races on the track are about to begin.

May the best team win.

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