On Monday afternoon I was driving home from work when a friend from college sent me a text message: "You have to come to Cleveland this week."
This made no sense. If you're not from Cleveland, there's never a good reason to go to Cleveland. He called a few minutes later, but I missed it. Then he sent an e-mail explaining things. He had two tickets for me:
• One to the Indians' single-game playoff Wednesday night.
• One to the shockingly relevant Browns-Bills game on Thursday.
So I went to Cleveland this week. Because playoff baseball is great even if you don't like baseball, because the Browns turnaround is so ridiculous I had to see it in person, and mostly because my editors said yes. Why not?
It's Tribe Time Now
The plight of the Cleveland fan has been beaten into us so much that anyone who watches sports could probably list the numerous horrible things that have happened here over the years (the Browns against Elway, Jordan over Ehlo, the '90s Indians never winning a title, LeBron's failures, LeBron ditching the entire city on national TV ... ). Besides the supernatural levels of sports pain, what's crazy is that everyone in this city is still obsessed with all these teams.
As far as I can tell, 50,000 people cut out of work early Wednesday, threw on some Indians gear, and went down to get drunk and celebrate playoff baseball. By 5 p.m. Wednesday, all of the bars downtown were full in the kind of way that can't possibly be up to fire code.
In the middle of this scene, there were dozens of street vendors hawking various Indians gear, but the best one was the 60-year-old outside our bar, walking around selling Indians beads and deadpanning to every passerby: "It's Tribe Time now, boys." Over and over again, never cracking a smile.
This is the type of person who appears completely normal for sports fans, but makes it all look 10 times more ridiculous to anyone who doesn't care about sports. That's how all of Wednesday afternoon was in downtown Cleveland, where you could yell out "Tribe Time!" anywhere you went and high-five strangers. Our bar shut off the music at one point and the loudspeaker reminded everyone, "It's 6:42 in the afternoon, and MICHIGAN STILL SUCKS."
It was all perfect.
As one guy next to me said, "We got the game tonight, the Brownies are .500, shit's great!"
But then, it's still Cleveland. I wore my buddy's Indians jersey for the game. It didn't have a number on the back. As he explained, "That’s blank because every other time I buy someone’s jersey they get traded."
While we were walking out of the bar, he asked another friend: "What do you think tonight? Probably loss?"
"Oh, definitely loss. Definitely."
Welcome to Cleveland
Playoff baseball was fun in Cleveland for exactly two innings. In the top of the third Delmon Young led off with a home run and the stadium went silent. The Rays added two more runs in the fourth. And playoff baseball became excruciating.
Fans in Cleveland didn't stop cheering. If there was a sense of doom as soon as Delmon Young hit that home run, that anxious murmur only lasted for a few minutes before the stadium got loud again and everyone went back to shouting through every inning, standing for third strikes and full counts, and everything else that normal, well-adjusted fans do at baseball games. This actually made the rest of the game much worse.
Because the Indians were just awful. Over and over again.
Fourth Inning: After the Rays jump to a 3-0 lead in the top of the fourth, Cleveland loads the bases and looks ready to take back control. The stadium goes nuts. Two minutes later, Asdrubal Cabrera hits into a double play to end the inning.
Fifth Inning: Cleveland puts two runners on with nobody out and the top of the order coming up. Result? Three straight outs, culminating with a depressing little dribbler right to the mound from no. 3 hitter Jason Kipnis. I was beginning to recognize the city people have been making fun of for 25 years.
Seventh Inning: We all sing along to "Cleveland Rocks" during the seventh-inning stretch. In the bottom of the inning the Indians put two more runners on base, with Nick Swisher, the tying run, coming up to the plate. The Rays bring in a reliever. The entire stadium stands and claps for about three minutes before Swisher's at-bat. He strikes out swinging. Inning over.
Eighth Inning: "Hang On Sloopy" blasts during the middle of the inning, we all chant "O-H-I-O" like they do at every Ohio State game. That top of the eighth ends with another standing ovation, and then ends with Ryan Raburn striking out looking, with a runner on base.
Ninth Inning: They play "Dream On" and "In the Air Tonight" to get everyone fired up, fans have their rally caps on, and ... the game ends with a lineout to the shortstop and two strikeouts.
So this is what these people have been dealing with. Jesus Christ.
Earlier in the night I'd made friends with the woman sitting next to me. After the fourth or fifth inning we stopped talking as much, and then she and her husband left in the eighth. On the way out she grabbed her purse, looked over, smiled, and said "Welcome to Cleveland."
We left the stadium looking forward to some good ol' fashioned sports fan belligerence in the streets, but instead it was pretty much dead silent. No anger — not even depression, really. At this point Cleveland fans are familiar enough with the stages of grief that I think they just skip right to acceptance. We ended the night in a half-empty bar, eating Buffalo Chicken Macaroni and Cheese Pizza. I swear to you, that pizza was so amazing at 1 a.m., it rendered any sporting event irrelevant and immediately made the trip worth it.
Then came Thursday.
The Brownies Are .500
Cleveland honored Jim Brown at halftime Thursday night, but nothing could ever top the naked Jim Brown sign in the parking lot. Really hope that sign is there every week.
We got to the tailgating lots around 5 p.m. On the way, we passed a guy selling T-shirts out of his trunk. He held one up as we passed and it read, "Only Bitches Wave Little Yellow Towels."
Perfect. Steelers hate was a perfect gateway to the Browns bandwagon.
And this is ... a great time to get on the Browns bandwagon? That might be the first time in history anyone's ever written that, but here we are.
Before Thursday night's game with the Bills, they'd won two straight after giving up on the season when they traded Trent Richardson after two miserable losses. They might actually be a good team now, and they've definitely got a ton of young talent for the next few years. They shut down a good Bengals team last week, and as of Thursday afternoon local radio hosts were saying things like, "We don't know if Brian Hoyer is a championship quarterback, but we don't know if he's NOT a championship quarterback."
Hoyer's the hometown hero here — we drove by his high school, St. Ignatius, on the way to lunch on Thursday — and he's been at the center of the transformation from awful and hopeless to shockingly decent. The Browns have talent on defense and some sneaky good skill players, and after two miserable weeks that culminated with the team trading its most famous player, it all clicked when Hoyer took over for Brandon Weeden. That gave them the first solid quarterback they've had since ... Kelly Holcomb? Right? Wasn't he good that one year?
Anyway, Browns fans have reason to be excited for the first time in forever, so the tailgate scene was full of irrationally confident fans drinking and talking trash to Bills interlopers. This is exactly what we needed after the meltdown the night before.
So, fast-forward to the game.
Things get started with Josh Gordon dropping what might have been a 90-yard touchdown, and then Brian Hoyer throwing the ball 10 yards over Greg Little's head. Three-and-out. OK. Then the Bills score a touchdown in two plays. OK! Next series: Brian Hoyer hits two passes for 25 yards, and it starts to feel like maybe he's actually a good quarterback. Then he scrambles for 11 more yards but gets destroyed by Bills rookie Kiko Alonso, and he doesn't get up.
We weren't even five minutes into the first quarter and the new superstar was already out indefinitely and the Bills were about to go up 10-0. Cleveland.
My thoughts during all this:
• How is this even possible? Are you serious?
• The jokes about God hating Cleveland ... they are not jokes.
• When do these fans just light themselves on fire?
Someone text messaged us later that Hoyer probably has torn ligaments in his knee. He added: "This has turned into the worst week in Cleveland sports history."
But then somehow it got better. When wide receiver Travis Benjamin went back for a punt return, another friend I was sitting with said to all of us, "Pro Bowler Travis Benjamin! He better house this, because our offense isn't scoring tonight."
He didn't quite take it all the way back, but he went 57 yards and got the Browns into field goal range to at least get on the scoreboard. This was already an upgrade over the Indians.
Later, after a long Browns drive tied the game in the second quarter, the Bills went three-and-out. Time to punt. "Pro Bowler Travis Benjamin! Let's do this!"
And then he went 79 yards on a return where he went across the entire field, 50 yards down the sideline, then cut back across the field again, spun out of a tackle, and finally scored. All with the crowd melting into delirium and the stadium vibrating as it happened. Those 15 seconds were perfect. Long live Pro Bowler Travis Benjamin.
Any punt return touchdown is great, but this felt twice as cool because of how desperate everyone was for something good to happen. That's actually how the whole game felt.
Buffalo bounced back with 14 straight points to take the lead, but then Brandon Weeden shocked the entire stadium with a perfect 37-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon, and the Browns never looked back. After two field goals gave the Browns a six-point lead, this was all setting up perfectly for the Bills to drive down the field with two minutes left and score the game-winning touchdown. That would have been perfectly Cleveland. But then the game-winning Bills drive turned into a pick-six that sealed it for Cleveland.
Afterward everyone left the stadium high-fiving each other, racing to bars, yelling about Travis Benjamin ... it was pretty much the exact opposite of the night before.
The Browns are not .500 anymore. They are 3-2 and currently in first place.
Will they stay in first place? Who knows! Probably not. But that's beside the point. After 48 hours of highs and then violent lows, ending on a high note was awesome enough. I was 100 percent on the Browns bandwagon Thursday night, and I'm not sure I could've handled double Cleveland heartbreak in two days.
As for actual Cleveland fans? I'm pretty sure they'll be fine regardless. It's easy to look at all the history in Cleveland, come here and talk to people, see games like the Indians Wednesday or Hoyer's injury Thursday, and walk away baffled by how awful sports can be for some fans. But that's not actually how it feels when you talk to people around here.
Losing sucks, but most people in this city have a pretty good sense of humor about it. They can complain about everything, but then laugh about it. And win or lose, sports still give everyone a great excuse to get excited about something, ditch work early, show up, and throw a gigantic party.
In the parking lot Thursday, I talked to one fiftysomething Browns fan who tailgates every week — he owns the bus pictured above — and in a few weeks he's going up to Green Bay. One of his friends has cancer and wanted to check a trip to Lambeau off his bucket list, so he bought hotel rooms and tickets for everyone, and they're all going up to Wisconsin. The bus is coming, too.
The Browns will probably get killed that day, but who really cares?
More than anything else, diving into Cleveland sports for two days was just a solid reminder of something I learned a long time ago as a Wizards fan: The worst teams always have the best fans. Losing weeds out all the entitled people, and you're left with a much better group. People who have a sense of humor, people who get irrationally excited about guys like Travis Benjamin, and people who never stop showing up regardless of what happened last time. In a sports world dominated by stats and market size and expert analysis, the people who don't give a shit about the odds are probably more fun than anyone. And that's Cleveland.
(Major thanks to Kevin Benacci and Jeff Gleason for hosting me this week.)