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Cleveland wins at last

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There are a number of ways one can drive from Warren, Ohio, to Cleveland, and their merits are debated endlessly among the North Eastern Ohio folks (“NEOs we are called these days) from the Mahoning Valley. I have always favored taking Route 422. Others prefer the turnpike, a contrarian few insist that Route 5 to 14 is the best bet.

Mostly these debates are in the context of having to get to First Energy Stadium, Progressive Field or Quicken Loans Arena before kick-off, the first pitch or tip-off. In the old days the destinations were Municipal Stadium (the loved-hated “Muni,” or “Mistake by the Lake,”) the Cleveland Arena, or for two decades beginning in 1974, the Richfield Coliseum, which required an entirely different driving directions debate.

Driving to see the Browns, the Indians or the Cavs was usually an hour-to-90-minute affair, and full of ritual and laughter. The average Cleveland fan has rehearsed the city’s sports disasters so often that it’s a sort of fan liturgy of suffering. ESPN finally got around to making a great documentary about it this year with “Believeland.” It was like a cult film for NEOs even in its first showing because they knew the names, the lines and their sequence before it aired: “Red Right 88,” the Drive, the Fumble, the Shot, Jose Mesa.

That’s shorthand, though, for 145 seasons of long drives home and hot stove dreams dashed. Don’t get me started on the 1972 “deal” of Graig Nettles to the Yankees for Rusty Torres, Charlie Spikes, Jerry Kenney and John Ellis. There are lots of famous Indians who became famous elsewhere, like Louis Tiant, Dennis Eckersly and Chris Chambliss. Why would the Browns want to keep Warren’s own, Paul Warfield, anyway?

All of these conversations were replayed again and again, with sports talker legend Pete Franklin as the background music for a long stretch of the years. You don’t know my brothers Bill and John, or my pals Rob, Kim, Scott, John, Mark, Paul and Phil, but we made these drives so many times that it is impossible to guess the miles traveled. Gas was 30 cents a gallon for a lot of those years, so the tolls on the turnpike were the biggest obstacle, back when beer, to quote Alan Simpson, “was considered water,” especially for Indians’ games in August.

I attended every Browns home game from 1965 to 1974 and a few thereafter. (Yep, dad bought tickets the year after the last time the Browns won it all. I have no memory of the glories of 1964.) Families spent lots of time in cars talking about sports. And young men spent hundreds of hours driving back and forth with their friends, talking sports and girls, girls and sports. It is just hard to communicate the level of resignation baked into Cleveland fans 60 and younger. There are a handful of great Cleveland sports writers — Terry Pluto, Tony Grossi, Bill Livingston, Bud Shaw — who have been at their profession long enough and are skilled enough to tell it better than me. They are communing with Chuck Heaton, Hal Lebovitz and Russ Schneider this week, their predecessors above who got to the promised land in 1964 and told them about it, but never got back.

I was wearing my Cavs shirt in Hawaii this week — of course — when a stranger approached to tell me he was from Mayfield Heights originally and Las Vegas lately, and had gone to Oakland to watch game 7 with his boyhood friend. He was 41 and we laughed and laughed and spoke in the Cleveland code.

I viewed him as sort of a mid-career veteran of sports suffering, but long enough in the Cleveland game to have the scars to show for it, including a new one on me: “The first time I saw my dad cry was ‘the Fumble,'” he said. OK. Got me there. (My mom battled her last few days with cancer during the 1997 Series, and my dad, brothers and I would gather during those grim days to watch the games at night after long days at the hospital, which made that sports catastrophe uniquely both awful and beside-the-point at the same time.)

Every NEO has a story. That’s why a million of them showed up to celebrate this week. A million! A Sports V-E Day Parade. The rest of the country couldn’t quite believe it. But NEOs knew it was coming, and a kid from Akron — a NEO — made it happen.


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