Our old flame is back.
It’s been six lonely years, but we’re getting that giddy feeling again.
And, we’re tempted. As usual. And yes, we’re nervous, staying up late every night, what-if-ing ourselves to sleep. As usual.
But we’ve seen this act before, gone all in, just to have our hearts yanked out and stomped on. So, excuse the trepidation.
Because let’s face it, we haven’t really scored with our old friend since our grandfathers were going goo-goo over a black-and-white glossy of Betty Grable.
Sure, we got to second base in 2007. Heck, we even made it to third base in ’95 and ’97. But then it was over. Quicker than a Vizquel to Alomar to Thome double play, the flame fizzled. We were out at the plate.
So now, the stars are aligning again. And the media hounds are wondering where we’ve been, why we’re not rushing back to the ballpark like the old days. And yet, here we are, in another late September, slowly being seduced by those flirtatious Cleveland Indians.
About 31,000 fans turned out for the Tribe’s final home game of the regular season Wednesday night, a 7-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox. They came looking for the Indians to take another step toward their first playoff appearance since 2007, a postseason as heartbreaking as the failed World Series matches of 1995 and 1997.
“We love a winner. That’s what it’s all about,” said Jerry Vargo, 57, a longtime Indians fan from Richmond Heights, as he left the Tribe ticket window at Progressive Field.
Going into their last home game, the Indians had won 87 games after collecting just 64 last year while finishing fourth in their division. The Tribe now travels to Minneapolis this weekend for a season-ending, four-game series with the Twins.
For now, the Tribe is clinging to a wild-card playoff spot with just four games remaining.
Still, fans have not exactly gone wild over the Tribe this summer. Just look at their attendance, or lack thereof. Most days — since Opening Day — the Indians’ weak attendance has drawn more conversation than the play of the team. And while the Indians say radio and TV ratings are way up, ticket sales are stagnant.
“We’ve supported a winner in the past, but it’s been a tough sale the last couple of years,” said fan Duncan Schaefer, 59, of Parma. “I think if they would’ve won one of those World Series in the ’90s, they’d have more people here.”
This year’s paltry attendance has been the subject of scorn by sports radio talkers (when they’re not debating over the latest exploits of the Browns’ third-string quarterback) and baseball writers (who haven’t bought a ticket since college).
While the Indians are near the top of the American League standings, they’re pulling up the rear in attendance, ranking 28th out of 30 teams. The Indians have been in first or second place in the Central Division for most of this season. Yet, just about 1.5 million tickets were sold this year. No team has played before a greater percentage of empty seats than the Tribe at Progressive Field.
That’s fewer fans than last season, despite more wins and better players, and roughly half what the Indians attracted during the glory days of the mid-’90s when they sold out 455 straight games.
“I don’t know why. I really don’t,” said Tom Goodrich of Massillon, who “dragged” his wife, Kim, to her first Tribe game on Wednesday. “I just think there’s too much negativity in Cleveland fans.”
In the 1970s, the team held actual celebrations on the rare seasons when attendance would pass the 1 million mark. Now, the magic number — thanks largely to the demands of higher payrolls — has grown to 2 million.
The need for bigger crowds across baseball started with the advent of free agency, which allowed players the freedom to move from team to team and caused salaries to skyrocket in the 1980s.
Free agency helped build the Tribe into winners in the ’90s. It also killed them later as sluggers like Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez left town for bigger money, and Cy Young Award-winning pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were traded before they could leave.
“That’s the business end of it,” Vargo said. “I understand why. At the same time, a lot of fans don’t like it when a player is traded away like that.”
Culmination of frustration
The departures have left many Tribe fans bitter. And some broke. A lower-deck box seat that cost $14 to $16 in 1994 has about tripled in price.
“It might be a culmination of a lot of frustration,” Schaefer said, as he walked away from the ticket booth with his companion, Nadine Weil.
For Robin and Jennifer Dillon of Canton, free tickets from a Lehman Middle School teacher made it possible to bring their son, Terry, 11, and daughter, Bailey, 3, to the ballpark.
With their oldest, Cassie, 19, attending Ohio University, a trip to Progressive Field isn’t cheap. It’s expensive. And besides, being a Cleveland sports fan means waiting for next year.
Robin Dillon rattled off the heartbreaks, “Probably, one, two, three … four. Five, at least,” he said.
What the Indians need to win over fans, he said, is building a consistent winner.
“I think fans are waiting because this is the first year of success in a while,” he said, sitting at a picnic table in the upper-deck plaza. “They’re on the verge right now. People need to believe that it will keep on happening.”
The Indians have not drawn more than 2 million fans since 2008, the year after they lost a gut-punching, seven-game series to the Boston Red Sox, a team that overcame a 3-games-to-1 deficit to win the American League pennant.
This year’s Indians have a different feel. They used free agency to acquire first baseman Nick Swisher and outfielder Michael Bourn, and their pitching staff has responded with a stellar season. On Tuesday, 21,000 fans rocked Progressive Field when veteran slugger Jason Giambi hit a pinch-hit, two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning to secure a comeback win over the White Sox.
For a minute, the Indians owned Twitter and Facebook and our hearts. As usual.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or email@example.com