A party must start somewhere, and for this once-woebegone city, it started Tuesday with the measured dramatics of umpire Larry Vanover. He drew the assignment of a lifetime, behind the plate for Game 1 of the World Series between the Indians and the Cubs, and he announced his presence with flair.
As Cleveland starter Corey Kluber sank a fastball on the outer edge of the plate and catcher Roberto Perez framed a third strike, Vanover stepped back with his left foot and set his right foot as a base. He gripped the air with his right hand, then yanked backward, as if cranking an aged lawnmower. His left fist rushed forward and his left knee swung along. The crowd at Progressive Field caught on as he leaned backward, and roared with approval.
On five different occasions, as Kluber dissected the Cubs in a 6-0 victory, Vanover repeated the gesture, a testimony to Kluber’s deception and Perez’s receiving. Kluber set an Indians franchise record with nine strikeouts across six innings of four-hit baseball. The Cubs appeared unable to recognize what he was throwing, unable to stifle his rhythm, unable to dampen the civic enthusiasm that spread from the ballpark to the basketball arena next door.
On the same night the Cavaliers commemorated their first NBA championship, the Indians moved within three victories of their first title since 1948. Cleveland repeated a formula the team perfected during the first two rounds of these playoffs. The offense scraped together enough production to secure an early lead. The pitching staff held the line, unbending in the face of the sluggers from Boston, then Toronto and now Chicago. Perez swatted a pair of homers, including a three-run, doubt-remover in the eighth.
“That’s our team,” outfielder Rajai Davis said. “That’s how we like to play.”
The evening lacked for tension. The Indians pounced on Cubs starter Jon Lester for two runs in the first inning, and Perez smacked a solo shot in the fourth. A pair of jams arose in the eighth, but relief ace Andrew Miller snuffed out both.
The performance allowed for pride to spread across the city, which teemed with a sartorial mix of the wine and gold of the Cavaliers and the red, white and blue of the Indians. “There were a lot of fans out there tonight,” Perez said.
Cleveland is not accustomed to satisfaction like this. An inspection of the strikeout record Kluber broke hinted at the inglorious past. The original mark was seven, set in Game 1 of 1995 by former Dodger Orel Hershiser and matched in Game 7 in 1997 by Jaret Wright. Cleveland lost both those games and both those series.
For decades, this city was synonymous with sporting heartbreak. The 1980s brought "The Fumble" and "The Drive" that cursed the Browns. The Indians fell twice on this stage in the 1990s, including that Game 7 defeat in 1997 on a walkoff hit by Marlins infielder Edgar Renteria. In the 2000s, Cleveland saw LeBron James lift the Cavaliers on his back, only to bolt for a warmer climate and sturdier teammates in Miami.
The seemingly endless futility feels long gone in 2016 – at least for everyone besides the Browns – but vestiges of the pain remain. There is a store a few blocks from the ballpark called Cleveland Clothing Co. that specializes in soft cotton and sarcasm. The slogans offer a slice of pathos.
“Cleveland... We’re Not Detroit.”
“Cleveland... It’s Not That Bad. Have A Beer!”
“I Liked Cleveland Before It Was Cool.”
The renaissance began in the summer of 2014, when James returned home from his South Beach sojourn. This past summer, James led the Cavaliers as they stormed back to snatch a title from the world-beating Warriors. The team started its defense on Tuesday, hosting the season opener across the street, raising a championship banner and distributing rings to the roster.
The twin bill, the product of a rare convergence between the baseball season and the basketball season, transformed the area around the Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field into a block party. Fans clogged Euclid Avenue five hours before the first pitch. Vendors hawked shirts and copies of The Plain Dealer.
A couple hours before the game, third baseman Jose Ramirez sent a message to James on Twitter.
“I left you two tickets at will call,” Ramirez wrote. “Just bring your I.D. with you.”
James could not have made it in time for the first inning, when his team was busy dismantling the Knicks, but if he had, he would have seen Ramirez drive in a run with a swinging bunt, and seen Lester plunk a batter with the bases loaded. After Perez went deep, the three-run lead appeared enough to survive.
When Kluber gave up a leadoff single in the seventh, Manager Terry Francona opened his bullpen. Miller specializes in extinguishing fires. On Tuesday, he sparked a pair, loading the bases in the seventh and putting runners at the corners in the eighth.
On both occasions, he unleashed his hellacious slider to escape. Cubs catcher David Ross could not check his swing to end the seventh. Batting for only the ninth time all season, after tearing knee ligaments in April, Chicago slugger Kyle Schwarber swung through a pair of sliders as Miller wriggled free.
A three-run blast by Perez in the bottom of the eighth allowed the ballpark to relax. Three hours and 37 minutes after the first pitch, Vanover pumped his fist to signify the final out of the night. The ballpark emptied into a city suddenly transformed into the nation’s sporting capital.