Cleveland's management team has been working at shaping a new image for the Indians this season. The unveiling of their new marketing campaign last week, viewed quite positively by fans here, presumably was intended to be coincidental not just with the new season, but also with a new era of hope, led by young stars like Carlos Santana. The team promptly spotted the White Sox two touchdowns before the 5th inning in the season opener, and the fans responded by showing up to the follow-up Saturday matinee game in record-low numbers ... and then "topping" the record-low for Sunday's game. A new era indeed.
The Indians' new commercial reminds us, as if it were necessary, that the team has not won the World Series since 1948. A kid who was five at the time, the youngest age at which one might reasonably be expected to remember that event (and also, coincidentally, my age when I first attended a game at Memorial Stadium in 1984), would now be nearing 70. The reality of a Cleveland Indians championship team is a myth to the vast majority of diehard, could-be, or should-be Cleveland fans. One way of completing the question "what if" is, "What if the Indians championships are only preserved as black-and-white footage ghosts and awkward memories of old men signing autographs?"
For a fan my age, the Indians' tremendous success from 1994-2001 featured so many great memories, but all of them are ultimately stopping points on the way to defeat. The remarkable season that was 1995 ended with a decisive "guess again" at the hands of the Braves. The resilient 1997 squad took the team as close to a World Series title as an organization can get, making the fall at the end all the more painful. Even the more recent murmurs of success, 2005 and 2007, are, at the end, stories of defeat. I walked out of the stadium following Paul Byrd's game 4 victory in the 2007 ALCS thinking, "What if this is finally the year?"
At the same time, the new ad campaign is itself an acknowledgement that the Indians are failing in the way that might matter the most: They are not attracting fans. The Indians, as you probably have heard from multiple sources, will begin the 2011 season with a payroll among the smallest in the league at $48 million. And while the AL Central is often dismissed as a mid-market backwater, the truth is more complicated, as it is also the only division with three $100 million payrolls at the start of the 2011 season. Even within the AL Central, the challenge of competing on an uneven playing field is all too real.
So what is an Indians fan to do? Why bother? Where does hope come from? What if ... it doesn't?
I have for a year now been growing into the role of a 24/7 father and parent. In a couple of months that role will be formalized when I get married and become step-dad to a wonderful nine-year old girl and six-year old boy. I don't know what it is like for parents who were there at the birth of their children, but stepping into the role of step-parent has been both interesting and challenging. Interesting, because you are constantly forced to confront your own choice. You are choosing this role, you are choosing to be a parent, and you have chosen these kids (and, more proximately for me, their mom).
Without the natural bond of birth, or perhaps the more tangible bond that comes from diapers and middle-of-the-night cries, I instead had the task of, as a (then) 30-year-old, developing a relationship with a (then) four-year-old and seven-year-old. In some ways, this has been a process of reconnecting with a past I forgot I had. There are profound distinctions, I have learned, between the interests, motivations and language of a pre-K child and a young adult. Developing relationships with these children has been an act of simultaneously remembering the person that I was at those ages, and also imagining the person my father was when he was my age with two young children. Learning to be a dad, for me, has been an exercise in learning to speak through a past that is part real and part imagined, in an effort to find a common language of understanding and desire.
Raising children is, of course, hard for everyone. In many ways, my situation is incredibly privileged relative to the challenges presented some parents (read Anthony Castrovince's piece on the Kearns family for a nice example), so any invocation of even a whisper of complaint seems indulgent. Nevertheless, there is a certain reality about being a step-dad that is worth mentioning. In addition to me, the kids have a dad. For my kids, although he is on another continent, their dad is very present in their lives. No matter what happens, I will never be their dad. There is no amount of bedtime stories, morning pancakes, or afternoon games of catch that will grant me that title. What if ... that title matters?
* * *
A baseball season is almost comically long. 162 games. A full decimal point more contests than football and nearly double the NBA regular season. For a fan in Cleveland, the season featuring the "boys of summer" can begin and end, literally, with snow on the ground.
A strictly statistical viewpoint would suggest that the 162-game season is in fact a devastating hurdle for a team like Cleveland. If the team doesn't have the talent, or money, to compete with Chicago and Detroit and Minnesota, let alone Boston or New York or L.A., that talent gap is likely to be reinforced by such a long season. Flip a quarter once, and you have even odds on getting a head or a tail. Flip it half a dozen times and you might get a string of six heads or six tails. But flip it 162 times and you are far less likely to get a large deviation between observed and expected performance.
But of course there is another way to view a season — as a tremendous set of possibilities. One of the great things about a long season is that the likelihood of actually witnessing the improbable increases. This seeming statistical paradox, that expected results and improbable events both become more likely, is part of the joy of baseball. No-hitters happen. Triple-plays, as we witnessed in Sunday's game, happen. In seasons as dreadful as 2009 and 2010, wonderful things still happen on occasion. Even unexpected championships.
Additionally, the length of the season means that the initial conditions of the season in April are subject to considerable revision by September. Players get injured, players develop and players have career years. Nowhere is the uncertainty of expectations more manifest than in young players who have yet to develop a track record at the major league level. Nowhere in baseball is the proximate talent gap larger than between AAA and the majors, and even with the best scouting reports or statistical analyses, the success of any individual player making that transition is in doubt. This is, of course, the source of as much heartache as joy. The current iteration of the Indians, it should be pointed out, are loaded with these kinds of players. The 2010 squad was the youngest in the American League, and it was backed up by the youngest farm system in all of baseball. While expectations for the 2011 squad are understandably and correctly low, the uncertainty is high. But uncertainty, by itself, is not hope. What if ... those young players don't become stars?
* * *
As a fan, we make a choice to follow a team. We make a choice to watch and attend games, linger over box scores, buy jerseys, and sit down with our children in front of the TV to watch a game. It is not a relationship established by birth, as the many Indians fans born in locations other than the North Coast (myself included) and the empty seats over the weekend attest to equally. Why do we choose to do this? Maybe because our team has shelled out enough money to run a small country in an attempt to assemble the best group of players possible; that isn't the Indians' approach at present. Maybe because our team was good last year, and the inertia of expectation keeps our interest; not something to worry about for Cleveland at present. Maybe because in spite of the obstacles, we think better moments — maybe the best moments — might lie just around the corner. What if ... we have hope?
Hope in what? Of course we are all rooting for a championship, but what does that even mean? Is the public acknowledgement of your title by non-Cleveland fans that meaningful? Or perhaps it is the official title designated in historical ledgers that carries such significance. I don't think so. I think what we hope for is the chance to not just experience greatness, but to share in it.
I do not mean to suggest some sort of equivalence between being a baseball fan and being a parent (or any familial relationship), but only to point out a common set of realities associated with each. Being the fan of a team is a commitment that binds your own activities up with a host of others making the same choice. I haven't chosen to be a parent to be given the title "dad." I have chosen it because I want to share in the experience of being a parent. I want to be there, as I was yesterday, when my daughter makes her first-ever save as a lacrosse goalie. I want to be there, as I was last summer, to play catch with my son at his first T-Ball practice. And yes, whether I want to be woken up at 2:00 a.m. when my son has a nightmare or not, I want to be able to share that experience, that role, and that challenge with my soon-to-be wife.
A baseball season is long, but of course it is just a small part of the larger life of a franchise. In the last year of my life, I have been given a preview of some of what is to come, good and bad, in my life, present and future, as a parent. I have great hope for my children not because I know what and who and how they are going to turn out, but because I plan on being there with them regardless of those answers.
The Indians have 159 games left on the schedule this season. I'm guessing they'll have 162 scheduled for next year, regardless of how they do this year. Probably 162 games the year after, too. I plan on choosing to follow the team throughout those games. I plan on remaining a Cleveland fan and maintaining hope, because of the kinship that has grown out of 27 years of following the team. "What if" is not, I think, a question to be answered so much as it is a reality to choose, experience and share. Some kid in Cleveland woke up Sunday morning and said, "Dad, what if we go to the game today?" That dad could not possibly have responded by saying, "Sure, we'll see a young phenom lay out for a pop-bunt to start a triple-play en route to the team's first victory." But it happened anyway.