Just Win One Too
Two days into my 25th year, I cried on a phone while speaking with the senior legal counsel of a very large medical corporation. I was an intern in the administrative offices of a big non-profit hospital. And through a series of events — an inability to say no, a bad boss, the departure of the coworker that trained me — a lawyer called expecting to negotiate the terms of a large and vague “Master Agreement” and found me, an intern in the midst of a panic attack, on the other end.
“Are, are you crying?”
Yes. It was a bad day. One of those days where you cry on the phone and try and bury your head deep into the caverns of your cubicle to hide it from your coworkers and then spend the next five hours walking around the office shaking as they smile at you like — Hey, it’s okay. Day’s almost over, kiddo.
That night the Indians lost to the Minnesota Twins 7–2, the 83rd loss of the season. 59–83, they were last place in the Central Division. The Cavaliers had finished 21–45 in the lockout season and drafted Dion Waiters. LeBron James was a NBA Champion for the first time of his career… in Miami. The Cleveland Browns had lost their home opener the day before, 17–16 to the Philadelphia Eagles.
So yes, when I was 24 years old, I worked as an intern in the research administrative offices of a hospital. I was a year (and-then-some) out of college, living in my parents attic in Lakewood, OH. I worked two part time jobs — 30 hours at the hospital and another 30 or so as a science tutor at a community college. And I felt like a complete loser.
I was trying to get into medical school and had been trying for almost three years. I had a used CR-V that smelled like the cigarette ashes of it’s previous owner, which I drove across town to the hospital and an hour south to Brunswick. My days ran from 8 AM until 8 PM with a couple hours at lunch I spent in the parking lots of various fast food restaurants, listening to NPR. That was my life.
I had a few friends, one that bartended at a German-themed restaurant on Wednesdays and another that hosted at a mediterranean pizza joint on W. 25th, which gave me a reason to get out of the house a couple times a week. But most my time was spent in my head, and alone. I thought about medical school and all the ways that applications and essays ask you if you really are good enough. And I let those worries bleed into every aspect of my life — my diet, my health, my job, my friendships. A 24-page PDF document became a referendum on myself and my outlook. I just wanted one invitation for an interview, one validation that I was doing the right thing. Seventeen schools, all my savings spent on applications fees and the MCAT and MCAT books. Just one school that wanted to take a chance.
This is all just to say, in 2012 (and 2013), I was having a difficult time. Or I guess as difficult as it gets living in your parents’ attic and worrying about things as trivial as medical school applications. But that was my world and my privilege.
While I was having a bad time, the Cleveland sports teams were in a bit of a struggle too. I took an odd comfort in it. We were losers. Coach Pat Shurmur couldn’t manage the clock, and I couldn’t figure out how to tell my boss I was in over my head. The Indians were in a slump, and I was in a parking lot eating tator tots for the third time in a week.
In December, my dream school and the medical school affiliated with the hospital where I worked said no. And the Browns got blown out by the Denver Broncos. In April, on a call with an admissions officer in an attempt to elicit feedback, I was told that I didn’t quite have “it.” And a day later I was sipping beer with my dad and watching the Indians give up 11 runs in the home opener to the Yankees.
There was a kind of peace in it. The “next year”-isms, the empathy of a city in a half century title drought. Personal failures hurt less when the Browns sucked and the Cavs were tanking and the Indians were never quite good enough. “Me. too.”
There was a certain optimism in the title drought. There’s the frustration and familiarity of losing. But underneath that there’s a desire to win, and a belief that winning is possible. And for someone failing at my goals and trying to figure out “What’s Next?” a baseball team with the marketing slogan “What If?” was pretty nice.
Plus, I knew how good it used to be.
October 17, 1995 — The Cleveland Indians, in the American League Championship Series (ALCS) for the first time in over 40 years, have a 3–2 series lead against the Seattle Mariners in Game 6, and a 1–0 lead in the top of the 8th inning. After a lead off pinch runner, Tony Pena, doubles to deep center field, Kenny Lofton steps up to the plate. I, seven years old at the time, watched with my family on the screened-in porch of my childhood home. Against Randy Johnson, “the Big Unit”, Lofton bunts the second pitch down the 3rd baseline to put runners on the corners. On Johnson’s next pitch against Omar Vizquel, Kenny steals second. We’re on our feet, jumping with excitement at the television. The next pitch, a ball, 2–0. On the third, Johnson throws a wild pitch that deflects off catcher Dan Wilson’s glove and sends Pena home, and before Wilson can recover, Lofton’s rounding third. The Indians have a 2–0 lead and here’s my childhood hero running down the third baseline without hesitation.
As he slides home safe to beat Johnson’s tag, my dad leads the charge,“Get in the car. We’re going downtown.” We listen on the radio of my family’s Volvo as Cleveland wins the pennant, crossing over the Detroit-Superior Bridge. Downtown, it’s a scrum of cars and a chorus of horns and cheers in the streets. Cleveland is going to the World Series, the first of two in a three year span. They lost both series, but won my heart. For half my childhood, I’d live in a 1997 ALCS sweatshirt. My dresser was decorated with bobble heads and autographed Indians baseballs. The bathtub in our attic was painted red and blue, dotted with team magnets. The cupboards in our kitchen were stacked with souvenir cups. I’d replay Lofton’s bunt again and again in the fire lane at the end of my street. In fact, there’s almost a 70% chance I forced myself to be left-handed just to be like Lofton.
By 1996, my younger brother’s favorite words were “Ab-ba-bell.” We met my dad downtown after work one weekday in July, eating pizza at the Bob Feller statue outside Jacob’s Field — my older brother filling in his scorecard book along with the radio. We borrowed the ticket stubs from a few fans leaving in the top of the 8th and watched Albert Belle go yard on a walkoff, my younger brother on my dad’s shoulders shouting at the fireworks, “Ab-ba-bell! Ab-ba-bell!”
Other nights we’d ride the RTA downtown and run laps around the food court at Tower City for free samples of teriyaki and orange chicken before the game. Some nights we’d dance in the alley behind the bleachers, balancing stacks of souvenir cups and kicking the cardboard debris of fireworks, coughing at the smell of sulfur. Winning was fun.
Years later when I’d drive home from work in that same Volvo, I liked to imagine what that rear-view mirror was like for my parents as they drove home on those nights. Four kids asleep in the the back seat, maybe a friend with us buckled in the rear-facing seats of the “way-back”. Indians caps leaned against the car windows, mitts on laps. I don’t know if I’d want that car ride to end.
So, a bit of a confession:
I’ve had this piece (this medium post) saved in my draft folder for over a year. And now, four months after the Cavaliers came back from a 3–1 deficit, as the Cleveland Indians play in the World Series for the first time in 19 years, something about October baseball and the nausea of the bottom of the ninth has me trying to hit publish. And to be honest, it’s a take that is about four months too late.
Somewhere along the Cleveland Cavaliers title run, I convinced myself that I didn’t quite want them to win it all. What if — what if Cleveland never actually wins a big one? Would it be that bad?
The thought passed my worrying mind as I rode the train home before the first game of the 2015 NBA Finals (the one where the Cavaliers lost to the Warriors, the one before 73 wins, before 3–1). It was one in a series of bad thoughts I kept to myself over that season.
On the train before the home opener in October, Lebron’s “Return”, I played Diddy / Skylar Grey’s Coming Home and dreamed about the moment the Cavs might finally win. And when they lost to the Knicks a few hours later, I was ready to spell out doom for the entire season.
At a concert on Halloween night, just a day later, I was hovering near the televisions at the bar, peaking in the corner of my eye at an overtime against the Bulls in Chicago. I half didn’t want to watch but the other half just couldn’t look away.
Like a car window switch on a long road trip, I flipped my hopes up and down, just enough to feel the breeze in my hair before getting too cold and rolling back up. I was shielding my hopes from the gut punches they’d been accustomed too.
In May, I was almost ready to hit publish on it. The Cavaliers were 10–0 in the Playoffs, halfway through a sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. My fandom was on a roadtrip to Toronto to finish the sweep, window completely down, title hopes at a highs somewhere between 2007 and 2009 levels. And as soon as I let my guard down, the gut punch was waiting. A 0–2 stay in Canada against the Raptors, the series tied a 2–2 with Drake’s claps echoing in my mind all the way to Game 5.
A few weeks later, the Cavs were down 3–1 in the Finals and I was dragging my feet home with my roommate wondering why I had let myself think the Cavs could beat a 73 win team with a unanimous MVP. I grabbed a spot on my back porch and stayed up all night re-reading text exchanges with my dad about Kyrie’s broken knee cap and doom — trying to find a humbled ground to regain my footing on.
The “I almost don’t want Cleveland to win take” was a lie, complete bullshit. But the core of this negative belief was this: I was a loser. We were losers. It just seemed that losing was an essential part of the city’s sports identity, which at times seems like its only identity. Cleveland was a rustbelt city that people only paid attention to on election years and the rare occasion that the team made a playoff game. And after LeBron James made the Finals in 2007, most stories written about Cleveland included James as a tragic figurehead in one manner or another.
There was the OTL “Believeland” piece and the Grantland one that followed in 2013, and then the media blitz when LeBron returned. Not to mention the 30-for-30 documentary that always seemed to be rumored on the radio.
All the while, I was feeling lost, but found comfort in a sports franchise that couldn’t quite find a way to win. Losing in sports had a trivial nature to it that was alright to dwell in. Instead of comparing my failed accomplishments to that of my friends and peers, I could open up a box score or a standings table and see I wasn’t the only one in the lower half. This was the silver lining of losing. In life, we are all latte photos and personal news and LinkedIn anniversaries, sports somehow has traded in our normal hesitancies to overshare, to own our failures, opting instead for the collective comfort of “us” and “next year.”
Plus, I didn’t want to win quite yet, I couldn’t even afford the plane ticket home for a championship parade.
Three New Voicemails
October 4, 2007 — The last time the Cleveland Indians were in a playoffs series (we’ll get to that 2013 wildcard game), I was in my first week of college in Chicago. The Chicago Cubs had also made it to the postseason and my first glimpses of the Second City were decked-out in bright blue cubby bear t-shirts — the skyline lit up with “Go Cubs Go” in the windows.
In Game 1 of a divisional series with the New York Yankees, I followed a new group of friends to the north side of Chicago for a Voxtrot show at the Metro, while the Indians ran off three runs in the bottom of the 1st inning and five more in the 5th in a 12–3 route of the Yankees. I couldn’t tell you much about that team other than the few players I paid attention to — C.C. Sabathia won the Cy Young that year, Travis Hafner lived down the street from the ice cream shop I worked at all summer, and Grady Sizemore was that player that never quite lived up to my expectations. And yes, Kenny Lofton, my childhood hero, was back for his final season on the team and one more run at a pennant— “the Mayor of Cleveland,” we called him.
The game only sticks in my head because it was my first night in Chicago, and left an imprint that I can sometimes drift back to when I stare through a redline train window hard enough. We were turned away at the concert because our friend was under 18, and wound up wandering through Chicago. We walked around outside Wrigley Field and watched sad Cubs fans shuffle out of bars as their team went down 2–0 to the Diamondbacks. We ventured to a Mexican restaurant in Lincoln Square, the only restaurant I knew about in all of Chicago. And all the while, my dad was calling me, inning after inning, and I ignored him.
I remember listening to the voicemails before bed:
Dan, are you watching? Tribe’s up two! Kenny scored two… call me if you can…
Dan! did you see that? Thought I’d try you one more time… Kenny stole second and scored off a double by Casey! We’re up 9–3, looking good… hope you are doing well…
Tribe won… Everybody says hi…I’ll give you a call tomorrow…
They were the kinds of voicemails I’d carry on my phone for months in guilt, and missing home, and wanting to hear my dad’s play-by-play of a five-run inning.
That first month of college was a blur, but I remember watching the ALCS against the Red Sox in the lobby of my dorm and speaking proudly of my city’s sports curse:
“Cleveland is one of the ten biggest cities in the US and yet we haven’t won a championship in 40 years.”
My resident head laughed at the comment, “No way. Cleveland isn’t in top 20, top 50 maybe”
“C’mon, we’re at least top 25.” The second city had knocked down my conflated ideas of top-ten status back to reality. Cleveland was 4oth biggest city in the US and was falling.
Cleveland hadn’t won a Championship in 31 years… 33 years… 43 years… all 20 years of my existence. Losing was kinda our thing, loveable losers that rivaled the worst: Philadelphia, Buffalo, Washington, the Chicago Cubs. It matched our look. I loved to share the Cleveland tourism videos with friends, and preach about the halting of industry in the capital of the rustbelt.
I was 19, I was trying to figure out college. And I had some baggage I couldn’t quite own like my Cleveland sports miseries. The month before I went to Chicago, I was diagnosed with a genetic disorder. Kallmann’s Syndrome or Hypogonadism — a inability to produce testosterone that had kept me from going through puberty well past when I had hoped I’d be.
I felt embarrassed and alone. On Mondays, I’d wake up before class, warm a vial of free testosterone serum between my hands, and inject a syringe into my thigh. I hid the biohazard waste bin in my desk and tried to navigate the first months of college making friends, going to parties, and trying to find a moment where I could tell them oh hey yeah I am going through a hormone therapy and having a really hard time keeping my emotions in tact.
So now it is 2016. I’m 28. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the NBA’s reigning World Champions. The Cleveland Indians have a 3–1 lead in the World Series, a win away from their first title in 68 years. And I don’t quite feel like a champion.
It’s a selfish and stupid thought to believe the World Series has anything to do with my life. And I own that. I just find myself, on the evening of the Indians’ first shot at the title, feeling different from the team that I lost with all these years.
Sports is a trivial thing to invest your time and emotions into. They aren’t always going to be there for you — whether it is winning or losing that you are hoping for. And at 28, I likely need to take that lesson to heart. Plus, there are always the 0–7 Browns waiting for me if I need to take an L.
But maybe there is something here, aside from the trivial failures with medical school, and the traumas of growing up, and the 52-year title drought of the 51st largest city in the United States.
When I was seven and nine, before I quite understood my place in the world, Kenny Lofton played baseball for the Cleveland Indians and they played in the World Series. That was just what they did. And they almost won it, twice. The second time, we lost it in the bottom of the 9th in the back of my family’s Volvo driving into downtown. And my parents had to turn that car around. And my heart got stomped into the floormats of that backseat.
I was nine. I liked to draw penguins in the margins of my homework and write short stories about forest animals and play wiffle ball across the street until the street lights came on. We lost the World Series in the bottom of the ninth (or I guess in the 11th) but I didn’t expect it. I didn’t want it. I wanted to win.
The Indians lost with me for 28 years and are about to try and win the big one. Maybe I should stop trying to feel sad about Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome and myself and just try and win one too.
October 2, 2013 — Six years later, the Indians were back in in the postseason and I was in my first year as a full time resident of the northside of Chicago. I moved in with 4 roommates to a 2 story rental in Lakeview that summer and had just started to figure out health care benefits, car loan payments, and the joys of disposable income. A wildcard game with the Tampa Bay Rays had sent me searching for The Field House — a bar that served long distance Cleveland Sports fans, or at least appeared to in the Yelp reviews. It was two years before LeBron’s return to Cleveland in the midst of some rather miserable Browns and Cavaliers seasons, but a surprise set of wins in May under new manager Terry Francona left the Indians with just enough room for a late September push and a false sense of hope for October baseball.
I had gone to the game on an empty stomach hoping to burry my worries in a burger, only to find that the Field House was a cash only(ish). $3 domestics and a $20 minimum on credit cards with a bring your own food policy. I sat and drank through seven scoreless innings, my seat directly under the TV, before convincing the bartender to let me take back my card to run and get some wings next door. Fortunately, I was a light weight and the seven-some drinks I had to consumed to get my card back numbed the pain of a 4–0 loss with nine stranded base runners.
“How did you Believeland Windians do?” my roommates asked as I arrived home.
“I miss Kenny Lofton.” I said as I reached for a phone to call my family.
Note: A previous version of this essay misidentified Pat Shurmur as Pat Sherman. Sorry.