CLEVELAND—On the eve of the Cubs’ first World Series game in 71 years, Cleveland brought out its G.O.A.T. You may not think LeBron James is the greatest of all time, especially if you are from Chicago, but Cleveland does not care what you think, especially if you are from Chicago.
This is a cathartic moment in Cleveland’s sports history, a wonderful juxtaposition of everything that used to go wrong suddenly going right. The Cavaliers raised their banner next door to where the Indians won Game 1 of the World Series, and Clevelanders are forgiven if they think they saw Corey Kluber strike out John Elway, or LeBron block Edgar Renteria’s shot.
Perhaps the strangest sight of all: a Cleveland team playing for a championship, almost completely unburdened by history. The Indians do not have to break Cleveland’s championship drought, because the Cavs did it. They do not have to wonder if baseball gods are conspiring against them, because they are playing the Cubs.
And when Kluber pitches, the Indians don’t even have to worry about fielding the ball. The Cleveland ace struck out eight of the first 11 batters he faced. At times he missed bats; at others, Cubs hitters started walking back to the dugout before they were even rung up. They should have just held up a sign that said MERCY.
“Kluber’s a beast,” Cleveland leftfielder Brandon Guyer said. “We know that. When he’s out there and you give him an early lead, you’ve got a good chance to win.”
This was always true, but it is truer now, with manager Terry Francona ready to drop the Andrew Miller hammer on opponents whenever he needs it. Miller was not that great in the Indians’ 6–0 win—he got himself into a bases-loaded jam, then got out of it—but he was good enough. How good were the Indians' pitchers? Well, Chicago manager Joe Maddon said he was very pleased with the Cubs’ plate appearances. They struck out 15 times.
Meanwhile, Cleveland catcher Roberto “Dellavedova” Perez, he of the .183 batting average this season, homered twice. He hit three in 153 at-bats this season.
How do you explain that?
You can’t, just as you can’t really explain this: On the evening of June 16, as the Cavs forced Game 6, Cleveland’s baseball team was 35–30. The Indians immediately went on a 14-game winning streak; 11 of the wins came after Cavs won the championship. They finished 94–67. They have won eight of nine in the postseason.
“I don’t think because another franchise in a different sport wins, it takes pressure off you,” said outfielder Coco Crisp, who played for the Indians from 2002 to '05 before returning this summer. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the pressure is off because Francona keeps it off, and because the Indians know their bullpen will likely protect any lead. Maybe it helps that the Cubs are favorites. Maybe somebody gets hot every October, and this year, it happens to be Cleveland.
Maybe there are 100 reasons. But as Crisp said, “We just come in and it’s the same feeling that I’ve had with this ball club during the regular season.”
There is no panic, no worry about overachieving against a favored team. When a talented team has that attitude, it can do amazing things—like come back from a 3–1 deficit against the best regular-season team in NBA history, winning Games 5 and 7 on Golden State’s home court.
The indelible image of the Cavs’ upset of Golden State was James crying afterward, like he never really did in Miami. It hit him immediately: This was different. His two titles in Miami were about career advancement; this was for the community.
James has not forgotten. He was visibly moved by the Cavs’ ring ceremony, and he understood, intuitively, that it called for an unrehearsed speech.
“If you’re not from here, or live here, or play here, or dedicate yourself to Cleveland, then it makes no sense to even live at this point,” James said. “Cleveland against the world!”
For so many years, you were wise to take the world and lay the points. But times have changed, and let’s face it: James changed them. First he chose Cleveland, then he led the Cavs to a title, and while Cleveland isn’t really even a basketball town at heart, nobody at the parade seemed to care. It’s a winning town now. This is all Cleveland ever wanted.
But now Cleveland wants more. Jim Brown said so on the big screen at the Cavs’ game. Cleveland wants the Indians to win the World Series, the Cavs to repeat, the Browns to win a game.
James mentioned his neighbors across the street when he addressed the crowd. David Griffin, the Cavs’ general manager, said Tuesday that after his team won the championship, “I hadn’t even walked off the court yet when one of the owners asked me how we were going to do it again. I hadn’t even gotten off the floor at Golden State. We’re obsessed with that. We’re obsessed with repeating. We’re obsessed with continuing to deliver titles. The second (that) one ended, it was time to get ready for the next.”
Griffin was so obsessed that the championship didn’t really feel like his: “The reality of the moment never really hit me … the parade and all of that, it just seemed surreal. It didn’t seem real.”
It was not until Tuesday that Griffin thought, “I’m allowed to give into this now.” He had seen the design of the ring, but not the ring itself. Griffin was waiting, like a groom who does not see his bride on their wedding day until she walks down the aisle.
Then Griffin watched his Cavs roll over the Knicks, 117–88. He said he thought he might wear the ring on his ride home, and he hoped to watch the Indians game, which he had recorded on his DVR. It was a good night.