By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
OAKLAND, CALIF.: Now that the Indians have become no more than fringe contenders in the Central Division race, talk-show hosts can give their full attention to the Browns and focus on scintillating discussions about who will be the team’s No. 4 running back.
In other words, baseball season is over in Northeast Ohio. It didn’t last very long. April and May don’t count, because that’s when the Tribe raises false hopes among the faithful before going into its annual nosedive. At least that’s what we were told by many in the media, particularly those on local radio.
In June and July, baseball actually became a legitimate topic in the media, as the Indians continued to hold their ground in the standings. It took a four-game sweep by the Detroit Tigers this month to drain the interest from the team, which still is in strong contention for a wild-card berth.
Few fans believe the Tribe will make the playoffs. Even if the team happens to stumble into the postseason as the second wild card, it will lose the play-in game and begin another long offseason of discontent. We know that for sure, but how?
This sort of pessimism doesn’t happen overnight. It comes from decades of disappointment: The Drive, The Decision, The Fumble, The Shot, Jose Mesa’s refusal to throw a fastball (which never acquired a name) and the absence of a championship since 1964.
The defeatist attitude of sports fans around here is deeply ingrained: This is Cleveland, and we are all losers, because we have teams that consistently populate the subterranean levels of three major sports.
Nothing good can happen within at least a 20-mile radius of Lake Erie, and what were we thinking when we thought the Tribe had a chance to supplant the Tigers at the top of the Central Division?
And why Detroit? Does it have to be the city with the worst image in the nation? Doesn’t that make it all the more humiliating for Northeast Ohioans? A city that is officially bankrupt, that owes tens of billions of dollars to its creditors can lord it over Cleveland, and just to rub it in, Michael Symon opened a restaurant right in the middle of downtown Detroit.
The Indians haven’t had a national presence on television or radio since at least 2001, so the folks at ESPN, Fox and the new sports cable channels operated by CBS and NBC don’t recognize the existence of major-league baseball in Cleveland.
Why should they? Attendance at Progressive Field is an embarrassment. If people who live here don’t show up for games, why should a national entity like ESPN devote precious air time to the tenants of a half-empty (on a good day) ballpark? Then again, I did notice a story on ESPN.com recently: “Indians Are Playing Over Their Heads,” so I guess somebody outside Northeast Ohio is paying attention.
The real problem around here is separating overblown expectations from reality. The Browns are the poster child for this phenomenon. No matter how many consecutive seasons of 5-11 (or worse) they endure, their fans think a Super Bowl is right around the corner.
Until the past few years, the Browns’ failures didn’t show up in the size of the crowds. That no longer is true, and finally at least a few football fans have started to see the team with a little perspective. That is, “Maybe we’ll have to get to .500 before we can think about making a run at the Super Bowl.”
The reverse of this mindset has infected Indians partisans. No matter what kind of record the Tribe puts up, only a small minority of fans believes the club is closer to making the playoffs than the Houston Astros. The World Series has become nothing more than a pipe dream.
In a way, it’s hard to blame them. The team hasn’t been to the postseason since 2007, and that was considered by many to be a fortunate accident that turned sour when the Tribe held a 3-1 advantage over the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series and blew it.
So we go it alone, hoping against hope, wondering when the karma or the financial situation of the Dolans will ever change (we know it won’t), bemoan every setback and dismiss every positive sign.
There are fans who maintain that if a team doesn’t win it all, the season has been a total waste of time and an utter failure. That is nonsense.
Everything is relative. If the Kansas City Royals finish above .500 and miss being the second wild card by two games, the season will have been a roaring success. If the New York Yankees miss the playoffs by one game, it will be one of the worst seasons in recent (or ancient) history.
Indians fans don’t seem to recognize the gray areas. Fans were totally turned off when the Tribe lost four in a row to the Tigers. That’s to be expected. It was a chance to demonstrate the team was on a par with what is presumed to be the most complete franchise in the division, maybe the best in the American League.
Didn’t happen, so get over it. The Indians are not a trash team with no talent and no character. The Tigers are merely superior. It’s no shame to finish second to the Team Up North.
Since that series, there has been much moaning and groaning about the Tribe letting the fans down again. This is foolish. Unless the Indians suffer a total collapse, they are on their way to winning between 81 and 85 games, which would be between 13 and 17 more than last year.
It doesn’t get much better than that, yet few fans recognize the progress the club has made. If General Manager Chris Antonetti repeats the success in the upcoming offseason that he had last winter, the Indians should be genuine contenders for the 2014 division title.
Unfortunately, that is likely to turn off most fans, who won’t be able to grumble about the futility of rooting for the local baseball team, which around here is the most popular sport of all.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.