Written in the hours that followed The Decision, 2010:
I write this with great empathy and profound compassion. It has always distressed me that your great city has been so widely and dutifully celebrated for its shortcomings, mostly by people who have very little, flawed or no intimate knowledge of what you’re all about.
On Thursday, millions watched the contrived, self-serving attention-whoring festival sponsored by your now-former favored native son, enabled by a sports network that long ago abandoned just reporting news in favor of going out of its way to create news.
And equally long ago, those of us who live and die with sports became resigned to the fact that ESPN had to be part of our daily lives out of unavoidable necessity. So we all watched, just as they knew we would.
I’m not writing about the unfortunate outcome of “The Decision.” This letter is not about Lebron James, the NBA, the decision-making of superstar athletes aided predominately by an unfortunate inner circle of parasitic handlers or adult males who possess the emotional intelligence of teenage girls.
This letter is about the false narrative of Cleveland as a uniquely bad, dying city that was clinging to a 25-year old basketball player just to survive. In the hours that preceded “The Decision” the enabling network hosts repeatedly made mention of Cleveland’s dire existence, hanging in the balance of what was set to transpire while re-playing highlights of the city’s worst sports nightmares on a continuous loop.
Like any Ohioan who enjoys steady contact with the outside world, this spectacle was atop the list of topics people wanted to discuss with me last weekend. Being from Columbus, there was an unspoken comfort in speaking bluntly: “Well, why would anyone choose Cleveland over Miami? Cleveland sucks!” I would then ask: “Have you ever been to Cleveland?” “Well, no – but, come on – it’s Cleveland. It’s cold and gross.”
As everyone knows, New York City is cold and gross. So are Minneapolis, Chicago, Providence, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Boston. And they’re all great places.
Cleveland has been victimized by word-of-mouth character assassination. It has certainly shed some population over the last decade and is in the process of what will be a successful transformation into new business centers and industry – you know, just like every single other former bustling manufacturing town in the country. It’s not so much Cleveland’s plight as it is all of America’s.
I’ve never lived in Cleveland. I moved to Columbus from Iowa City when I was a wee lad. In Iowa City, everyone loves the Hawkeyes, while the professional loyalty leans mostly toward Chicago. In Columbus, a (then) up-and-coming town that like Iowa City (then) was void of any professional teams, you had your choice of Browns and Indians to the north and Bengals and Reds to the south.
I quickly found that Cincinnati generally looked down on Cleveland, Columbus and the rest of the state. The Reds had a strong legacy and would eventually dominate the 1990 World Series and the Bengals had at least been to the Super Bowl and would go again, while the Indians were a regular threat to lose 100 games and the Browns consistently found unique ways to cause you pain.
I decided to lean to the north. I wanted to root for Cleveland.
As a teenager, my friends and I would head up I-71 regularly during the summer. We’d stop at a Shell station, fill up eight gallons – which would entitle us to the free Indians tickets we had deliberately stopped to procure – and then head to Municipal Stadium to see the Tribe.
The old “Mistake by the Lake” which, ironically, is a nickname based on the patently false notion that it was originally built to attract the 1932 Olympics that were awarded Los Angeles. Yes, the Muni was a crumbling old ballpark back then in the eighties – you know, just like every single other park at a time that directly preceded the move en masse to new luxury ballparks.
We’d ignore our seat assignments from the Shell tickets and head right down to the field, which was easy since few people were interested in seeing a perennial loser, never mind the fact that the Indians had signed and acquired numerous great prospects that would be the core of several postseason runs in the coming years.
One time, after a very young Albert Belle angrily cursed repeatedly on his way back to the dugout after striking out, a fan yelled, “Oh (expletive) that’s the kind of (expletive) that (expletive)’d you up at LSU! GET IT TOGETHER, JOEY!” The fan was three sections away from where I was sitting, and the ballpark was empty enough that anyone could have heard it.
After the game, while I was legitimately fearful that Frank Thomas was going to find and kill me because I had called him a fat ass for nine straight innings, I noticed Albert out talking to that fan.
It was very conversational and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it very much looked like he was thanking him for the swift verbal kick in the pants. That same year, the only movie that has ever made me cry was released.
THE INDIANS WIN IT! THE INDIANS WIN IT! OH MY GOD, THE INDIANS WIN IT! I left the theater after seeing Major League with full-blown elephant tears tumbling down my face. Renee Russo and Tom Berenger will always be my Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Back in the eighties, major bands rarely toured through Columbus (if you wanted to see Jimmy Buffett in the capital city every summer, you were always in luck) but they’d regularly play Richfield Coliseum or Blossom. Whenever there was someone I wanted to see, those are the two places I’d check first.
Got to see Eric Clapton play Cleveland at a show where out of 20,000 people I must have been the youngest. Saw Guns n’ Roses with Skid Row at Richfield, where it only seemed like everyone dressed up for the show when in reality, just about everyone arrived dressed and looking as they always did. Saw Alice in Chains open up for Van Halen at Blossom. I’ve never lived in Cleveland, but I’ve lived there.
With all respect to Moses Cleaveland, who stuck around in Northern Ohio only long enough to have the city named after him before bailing back to Connecticut permanently, the Cleveland name and brand has taken significant damage. Name changes for the sake of improving one’s image happen very frequently.
For quite some time, nobody was interested in eating the Patagonian Toothfish, despite the fact that it is delicious and relatively easy to prepare. Chefs renamed it “Chilean Sea Bass” and all of a sudden it’s endangered because people can’t get enough of it.
Corporations also rename themselves regularly when their brand is irreparably damaged. Philip Morris products still kill millions of people, but it somehow seems less sinister when Altria is the company behind those same products.
Cities change their name too, but with decidedly different results. Istanbul was Constantinople. Beijing was Peking. Mumbai was Bombay. Kolkata was Calcutta. One thing you’ll notice is that all of those cities have dumber names now than they did before. St. Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad. The Russians eventually went back to St. Petersburg again. Good decision.
As enticing as Clevickistan, Kleevlay or Sahn Diahgo may seem in theory, Cleveland has brand equity that means something to people who have actually bothered to form their own opinion rather than have an opinion fed to them by others. The impact of a single championship, as you know, would be paramount. Cleveland is “cold and gross” but a ragged dump of a truck stop like Green Bay? Yeah, that’s “Titletown.” Right.
I lived in Chicago for over a decade and whenever I’d meet people in my travels, they’d always comment about how cold it must be. The fact is that if Chicago had a more temperate climate, 94 million people would live there. I was thrilled that Chicago had lousy weather eight months out of the year; the traffic and congestion was bad enough with just those already willing to persist.
Chicago had suffered from the same brand of white flight, urban rot and concentrated poverty that has been inflicted on Cleveland. It dug itself out in the early nineties and has been absolutely booming since. The difference is that the same unfair reputation that befalls Cleveland hadn’t grasped Chicago so forcefully, at least domestically (in Europe a surprising number of people will still respond to learning you live in Chicago with, “Capone! Bang bang!”)
Similarly, Cleveland is the place where the river caught fire because it was so polluted. It’s been 41 years since the Cuyahoga River caught fire, yet the event is treated as current news whenever Cleveland bashing decides to predictably spawn. That cloud will dissipate only once it has a reason to.
From an Ohio State standpoint, Cleveland is a strong, .oyal and worthy pipeline for the Buckeye cause. In football recruiting it’s sometimes even more disappointing when Cleveland kids go to Michigan than when Columbus kids do, simply because of the known phenomenon that some petulant Columbus kids will always gravitate to Michigan at an early age for no other reason but to be contrarians.
Cleveland is reliably as pro-Ohio State as Cincinnati is pro-Kentucky or Notre Dame. That reputation is deserved and appreciated, which is part of why it pains me to see Cleveland treated as it is.
This letter was born from profound empathy. However, Cleveland doesn’t need empathy. Cleveland is a city that has been toughened, strengthened and will continue to get better. It is to be loved, respected, admired and envied – and some day, its time in the sun will come again. Its teams will prevail.
Someday, the Browns will win. The Cavs will win. The Indians will win. No American sports town that deserves more has ever been the recipient of less, so when that day finally arrives, it will be as joyous a celebration as there has ever been. Just hope it doesn’t become insufferable like Boston after it happens. Those of us who like Cleveland want to keep it that way.