I’m not a huge sports guy.
Baseball is great at the park, sitting next to someone willing to share all the strategic nuances of the game, but I find it interminable to watch on television, and I just can’t work up any excitement in May about a sport that decides its champion 162-plus games later.
Basketball is exciting around playoff time and I love the Cavs, but without You-Know-Who, it’s probably going to be a while before Byron Scott and the boys get back to the NBA Finals.
Most other major sports — hockey, soccer, tennis — I check out casually, though I will admit to a prurient interest in watching women’s tennis.
No, I’m a traditional, high-fiving, chest-bumping, manly man, sports nut only for one sport.
Are you ready for some football?
Browns training camp (that’s right, I’m excited about training camp) has started and this is the time when fans’ hopes and cautious optimism for the 2012-13 season should still outweigh the dread and disappointment we’ve been left with at the end of the last several seasons.
I’m a lifelong member of Raider Nation, and a fan of the 49ers since the last sad games of O.J. Simpson (it’s OK, I can publicly root for both teams when I’m outside the Bay Area), but I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the Browns since The Drive, when the hated John Elway and the Denver Broncos took a 98-yard poop on the Dawg Pound’s dreams of going to Super Bowl XXI.
That empathy turned into full-on fandom after The Fumble 371 days later. Watching Browns fans endure the pain of having their home team become another city’s home team and go on to win the Big Game was another fan experience with which I was all too familiar. (L.A. Raiders?! Blecch!)
I’ve watched football in bars in three different states and aside from being nestled in the hefty and slightly demented bosom of Raider Nation, Northeast Ohio is my favorite place to watch games, in part because it reminds me of home while at the same time being quite different.
The Dawg Pound alternately basks in the glory days of yore and curses the team’s — and perhaps, by extension, the city’s — current status as the “Factory of Sadness,” all while staunchly supporting it. (“Yeah, but it’s our Factory of Sadness”). There’s just such an interesting mixture of familiar, almost comforting defeatism and not-quite-blind loyalty, spiced with a dash of hope that new seasons and new players bring.
Back in the Bay, where the Raiders have stunk in recent years (every year with the name JaMarcus on the roster), much of Raider Nation got a bit delusional, as if next season would be the one that the late Raiders owner Al Davis would realize it’s no longer 1977. By contrast, Northeast Ohio fans seem to wallow in their pain, cope with the help of gallows humor (hence the YouTube “Factory of Sadness” rant: http:// bit.ly/vO6jvM), then pick themselves up and get ready to cheer, curse and maybe cry a little during next week’s game.
I lived in Atlanta for most of a decade, and because it’s a city mostly populated by folks from other places, it’s filled with front-runners and NFL paraphernalia fashionistas who just like the team colors. If the Braves/Hawks/Falcons are winning, suddenly everyone is tomahawk-choppin’ and dirty-birdin’. If they’re not winning … crickets.
But here, folks will denigrate and bemoan the team’s recent history while plunking down their credit cards to buy season tickets, and even though they’re constantly anticipating something horrible/inept/embarrassing will happen on the field, they can still be crushed by a close loss.
(Slight tangent here: Do any other Browns fans get offended when a Steelers fan expresses pity rather than healthy rivalry-hate when talking to you? Me, too. Hey, Steelers fans, we don’t need your pity … just your coach, owner, several of your players, and maybe a chunk of your front-office personnel. Beyond that, please collectively go kick rocks.)
But I digress. In the Bay Area, most citizens either care about the home teams with all their hearts — casual fans don’t don Darth Vader masks — or not at all. Here, sports is embedded so deep into the local culture, fandom seems to be less of a choice and more something encoded in the regional DNA. I’ve overheard middle-age soccer moms at a restaurant discussing Quinn vs. Anderson. (No real winners in that competition, eh, ladies?) I’ve heard fathers talk about giving their young children the “I know it hurts, but get used to it, kid” speech, indoctrinating them into the pain and suffering of being a Cleveland sports fan. I’ve heard stories of fans chucking their expensive team gear into the garbage after yet another loss, only to have their spouses quietly retrieve it and put it back in the closet, ready for next Sunday’s act of frustration.
I enjoy and appreciate the Bronx cheers and sarcastic applause when the Browns’ offense does something positive (“Hey, a first down, whoo-hoo!”) and the pure unbridled communal joy and high-fives all around when they actually manage to score a touchdown or the defense makes a good play.
And right now, it’s all good. It’s late July, all 32 teams are undefeated, the Browns have their 68th new quarterback since 1999, and though presumptive starter Brandon Weeden doesn’t seem to inspire much confidence in fans, from an outsider’s point of view, the dude seems to have Cleveland written all over him.
He’s a determined 28-year-old rookie whose five-year, minor-league baseball career became his own personal factory of sadness. That should give him a healthy perspective as to what he may endure as the Browns’ quarterback. The age thing adds a nice-size chip on his shoulder and a desire to prove that he can do what essentially no Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar has been able to do: Win. He seems like a straight-shooting, blue-collar guy.
If new running back Trent Richardson is half the player his college history and pundits suggest (and twice the player Jim Brown thinks he is), the Browns may actually score 20-plus points a few times this year. Add a pretty good young defense against a very tough schedule, and the Browns could climb to six or even seven wins, and wouldn’t that be cause for un-ironic celebration?
Wait, let me try that previous statement in the Browns fans’ native parlance as I have come to understand it over the years: Sure, they’ll probably suck, but with new blood, maybe they’ll suck less, and come January, Cleveland Browns Stadium won’t be a Factory of Sadness but rather an Industrial Unit of Mediocrity, and the head shake of resignation that Browns fans now share will become a nod of confidence about the future.
In short, I am so ready for some football. Go, Raiders. Go, Niners. And go, Browns.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.