Game 7, in Extra Innings

This reflection was originally posted on November 3, 2016, shortly after the Cleveland Indians’ Game 7 loss to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

It’s a fact I obnoxiously bring up in every one of these massive posts after a playoff/championship loss, but the first sporting event I ever watched start to finish on television was Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, one of the few other extra-inning World Series Game 7s in history.

Did this feel different than the other championship/playoff/high-leverage losses I’ve witnessed? Perhaps for that reason, yes.

The collapse against Boston in 1999. The playoff loss to the Steelers in 2002. The late-season collapse against Chicago in 2005. The squandering of homecourt against Detroit in 2006. The blowout by Florida in 2006. The second blowout by Florida in 2007. The sweep against San Antonio in 2007. The collapse against Boston (again) in 2007. The five-interception game in 2007. The blowout by LSU in 2007. The Orlando upset in 2009. The Boston upset in 2010. The wild-card chase in 2013. The injury bug against Golden State in 2015.

All heartbreaking in their own ways. But none, perhaps, quite as formative as that Game 7 all those years ago. That was the night I realized that my teams, the teams that I not only rooted for but HAD to root for as a matter of pride, were not always going to win. And perhaps on some level, that tied my own awareness of the Cleveland championship drought to baseball in particular.

I didn’t really start following the Cavs until early 2003, when they were the worst team in the NBA and a friend of mine asked whether I thought we should take the local high school kid, LeBron James, or his choice, the international sensation Darko Milicic. The Browns, of course, didn’t exist in 1997 (or 1998). I was all in on baseball for just enough time that it stuck. (And given the 455 consecutive sellouts at the Jake (yes, the Jake), most of Cleveland was with me.)

And even as the Indians got bought by the Dolans, sold off every piece imaginable, suffered through some very lean years as they restocked and re-restocked, and the Cavs learned how to play with LeBron and rose to become perennial playoff contenders, 2007 was a year to remember not primarily because of the Cavs’ first Finals run in a 37-year franchise history, but instead the ALCS against the Red Sox, which I still irrationally believe an April snowstorm in Cleveland prevented us from winning (and then likely being able to beat the Rockies).

I watched most of the Cavs playoff games that year, including LeBron’s 48 at the Palace. I watched every single Indians playoff game. This included ALDS Game 2, which was the Bug Game against the Yankees, still one of my five favorite sports memories of all time. We ended up winning in extra innings well past midnight. This included ALCS Game 2, when I was in Denver with my parents, sharing a hotel room with them. Even with the two-hour time difference, the 13-inning game lasted 5 hours and 14 minutes, which meant that the rally that broke the game open for Cleveland occurred well past 11pm local time, and I had to watch with the game on mute and be very careful not to hit the bed so as not to wake my parents across the room.

This also included ALCS Games 5, 6, and 7, where we were outscored 30-5 even while throwing our best starters out there. In some ways, the home stretch was brutal and demoralizing, but it was a very different feel than tonight.

The announcers have always been a little incredulous with Cleveland’s success this postseason. If I had a dime for every time I heard the phrase “house money” in our games, I’d probably have several dollars. But at the same time, on paper, we didn’t look all that formidable coming in, down perhaps three of our five best players. And in this game, of our six runs, four scored on two plays: a wild pitch and a straight-pull home run by our light-hitting center fielder. Especially given the 5-1 lead, it did not feel like a game we should have been in. (Perhaps the runs given up by Miller factored into this gut reaction.)

And so it all felt a little silly in the bottom of the tenth, with the last guy off our bench taking a two-out at-bat needing one more run to score. We’d already had two unlikely plays work out to four runs in our favor. Could we really expect Michael Martinez, who had three strikeouts in three plate appearances in the postseason, to keep things going?

He made contact this time, hitting a tricky grounder onto the infield grass. And just for a split second, we dared to dream.

“Bryant is a plus defender at third, but the Cubs have already made three errors.”
“The grass is wet and he just needs to slip a little for this throw to sail.”

Bryant did indeed slip a little, and the throw did sail a little, but not quite enough. Rizzo stretched for it and picked it cleanly.

If that play had been executed poorly, we would still need to get a further positive development to win. But outside of college sports (and the 2016 Cavs comeback), the only time Cleveland has ever been so close to closing out a championship was 1997. Somehow, we’ve managed to get sucked into having reasons to dream without actually being all that close to making that dream a reality.

And indeed, being this close with the knowledge that this was our history made it very different. Instead of feeling everything at once when Rizzo picked that throw, it was nothing. I don’t know how long I was sprawled on the floor, but it felt like hours.

Eventually, I stood up. Friends filed out the door as the celebration got under way on TV. I kept the feed on, as per my standard “don’t-look-away-but-lean-into-the-sadness” and got to catch a somber interview with Terry Francona.

“We ask so much of our guys . . . and we ask our players to play the game with respect and leave it on the field. That was it. They gave everything they had. . . . To go through that with this group and these people, it was an honor.”

I may only have been cognizant of sports for the last fifty futile attempts of Cleveland’s 0-for-148 streak from 1964 to 2016. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still carry that upbringing with me. Even if Cleveland teams win ten championships in the next 20 years, which given the Cavs and Indians is not completely implausible, I will still carry the same feeling into each season, each playoff series, each playoff game, for the rest of my life.

This is what the Cavs championship has taught me: as much as the 148-season losing streak has been lifted from our shoulders, as much as the number 1964 no longer haunts the entire city, we’re still the ones that enter with the chip on our shoulder. We’ll continue to get outspent and outbid for free agents. We’ll continue to be overlooked as more marketable narratives try to write themselves.

And while the Cubs, Red Sox, and White Sox all had much longer active droughts when we booted that easy grounder in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, we now own the longest active single-franchise championship drought in Big 4 sports.

Fine. It’s always Cleveland against the world. And if we can climb that mountain once, we can do anything.

I dare you to underestimate us.

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