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A history of a city and its sports. (Or the creation of the prodigal son.)

Richey Piiparinen  |  11/11/10 @ 10:25pm

What follows is a description of the relationship between a city and its sports, with the intent to show how this relationship is affected by a region's identity, as well as the ways we go about the process of city-building.

The city lies like the outward reflection of a mental graveyard. So many vacant houses resting in the arrival of all that nature growing up their siding. That's the irony of it: the beauty. What's not ironic is the pierce that comes with the abandonment. It's like a whistle that breaks the silence of the illusion that there is nothing to see here.

***

Cleveland is half its population since the epitome of itself as a winner. The year was 1948. The Indians had won the crown with a player-manager, and with Satchel Paige: the first black pitcher to appear in a World Series. A model team then, for a model city. In fact it's said a town's teams can mirror in play the state of its locale's mindset-like a kid rounding third through the awareness that his dad won't scream if he's out. And so the bounty of life symbolized back then was tremendous-the city like the belly of a suckling, honest-to-god infant; and like the puffed chest of an honest-to-god hard-ass. A city, then, with lights and people and bridges impressive in their capacity to let order pass across the fullness of their steel frames.

Things change, though. Yet it's hard to believe that when things are going your way, as the pull of permanence is about as doubtless as the feeling of hardness you get when knocking on wood. But just as doubtless is a knowledge of an unknown that'd led you to knock on wood in the first place. 

What appeared certain, however, was that the Browns would be good forever. They had been, and then came the title against the Colts and Unitas in 1964. That title in the cold of the huge concrete-and-column shell that was Municipal Stadium. That win despite the noisy reality going on outside the game in the city: people dripping into the suburbs, with each white person gone the entry of another inch into the wave of a city growing afraid of itself.

The Browns would never win another championship again.

And the devaluation thereafter would only spread out, and the uptick in fear rose due to the reality of what we'd been doing to our reality. Like what we did to our river. Catching it on fire like that. Yet there's a perverse satisfaction each time we get nature to act opposite of itself. It is empowering for the split second before the rest of the time it isn't.

And so in 1974 it all came to a head. The Indians had been bad for a twenty-year-old's near existence. The owner needed a crowd. The concept was ten-cent beer night. Then, the city finally flooded into its own projection of itself, and hating its own image. Like a person with a horrible imagination only, and no pastime left. An account, according to Wikipedia:

"A woman ran out to the Indians' on-deck circle and flashed her breasts...A father and son pair ran onto the outfield and mooned the fans in the bleachers...Mike Hargrove was pelted with hot dogs and spit...and was nearly struck with an empty gallon jug of Thunderbird...In the ninth inning, a fan attempted to steal Texas outfielder Jeff Burroughs' cap...Burroughs tripped, and Texas manager Billy Martin...charged onto the field, his players right behind... A large number of intoxicated fans...surged onto the field...Realizing that the Rangers' lives might be in danger...the Indians' manager ordered his players to grab bats and help the Rangers...As Joe Tait and Herb Score called the riot live on radio, Score mentioned the lack of police protection; a riot squad...finally arrived to restore order." 

Of course order here meant to put back in the box what had been festering for some time now-or that clarity that Cleveland was dying. Andso as the fans left the field to emerge from the tunnels into a city uncovered with night, the only thing left to do was to keep going-or to leave this sinking, shrinking vessel of homes and factories for the vultures that live on the after, after-party.

177,000 plus left Cleveland in the 70's alone.

***

But often when what you've feared has finally arrived you got a chance to be fearless. Said C.S. Lewis: "(Pain) removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul". In the 1980's, then, one could say Cleveland's rebel soul came out a bit.

There was Harvey Pekar's return to the frontier in the form of biting plain-speak, and the nation wanting it on TV (until it was too much). There was WMMS, the Buzzard. And there was the fight to express what we already knew: that Cleveland-despite its morose-still rocked. In all, it served proof that even what's emptied can keep its integrity to an extent, the city becoming accustomed to finding pride in having so few illusions left. In fact maybe the emptiness exposed a beauty to those still there, or those walking along Superior beside the dressing of the buildings in their iron and arches-and those on the bridges uncluttered of cars but no less impactful in how they centered your eyes into fists.

Such was the essence of the era's Browns teams too. There was the Kardiac Kids: a team that took their name from their comebacks, and from an implicit understanding that Cleveland wasn't dead yet. And later on, the Bernie Kosar team with Mack and Newsome and Dixon et al. They called themselves the Dawgs, an identity derived less from rabidness than from the fact that what increasingly existed in the Rust Belt was an impossibility of cushioning-not unlike the sight of teeth on a bone. And yes, both teams did break our hearts. But it wasn't regret. And to this day we long for that time when there was nothing to fear because reality killed any apprehension we had, leaving us to move in the freedom of the exposure with that pride covered in brown and orange, barking beneath the Shoreway.

But it didn't last. Because then Nov. 6th 1995 happened. And it happened partly because Cleveland was once again hell-bent on pretending who it wasn't, instead fostering a reflection of a new downtown which arose from the escape into the suburbs of itself. Art Modell wanted new too but didn't get it. He just got the old. And as is often the case the old and decrepit and the full of memories becomes the love that you loved too much until it was fear before it was hate. So he took the team and we got the colors. And though he got the Super Bowl one could guess there's a bigger glory he's after-a glory that can come with the softness of age. Speaking recently to Jeff Schudel of the News-Herald, Modell said this: "I still love Cleveland. Nobody could ever take that love away from me. Nobody."

***

Yet unlike the person a city's got the benefit of being legitimately reborn, and so the 90's in Cleveland began the city's new life after the denial of death. And it used the method of the new mostly: the new buildings and city malls, the new sports stadiums. And then a new Indians team with a payroll fit for a big market city. A team exciting, yes. But Albert Belle was no Satchel Paige, rather he reflected through the quality of his character a city determined to feel good about itself. And we did for a period of time, even if we changed the outfit without doing nothing to address the breaks in the body.

But it was costly, especially to the young-or to those growing formidably in an era where what was increasingly around them was no real attachment to place. Because as Cleveland strived to be Everyman's big market so became a generation rooting for Everyman's big market teams: being a Yankees fan, a Cowboys fan...

And as for us, the older? Well, we eventually shifted our hopes from the team to the one, creating a projection which ultimately succumbed to what Cleveland wasn't: a city that witnessed things rather than being a part of their happening-or a city that lived through the efforts of the child so much that the child finally became connected to his land in the feeling of all that has left.

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