There was Elway and The Drive in '87, Jordan and The Shot in '89. There was Jose Mesa's blown save in '97, and LeBron's vanishing act last summer.
There was the movie, Major League, that kind of said it all about the mostly miserable, mostly agonizing existence of Cleveland teams over the last half decade. The faithful at the Mistake by the Lake have been waiting 46 years for a pro sports championship. Will the long wait end this October?
That may all depend on Carsten Charles Sabathia, Jr. All summer long he had been The Man in Cleveland, steady as a rock, but then October arrived and C.C. lost his groove. Tonight at Jacobs Field, with a World Series berth on the line, Cleveland needs Sabathia more than ever. With the Indians leading the ALCS 3-1 (and looking to avoid a return to Fenway Park) the biggest question heading into this delicious Game 5 matchup between a pair of fireballing Cy Young candidates -- Sabathia and Boston's Josh Beckett -- is this: Which C.C. Sabathia will show up?
There is the old Sabathia: the hothead who's prone to meltdowns on the mound at the worst possible time, the thrower who tries to win games by overpowering the other team. There is the new Sabathia: the cool cat who's in control of every game, every moment, the pitcher who doesn't worry about the radar gun and steps off the mound and slows everything down in a game's biggest spots.
In his first two games this October, Sabathia has been a disappointment -- his control has abandoned him and his emotions have taken over. In his Cy Young-worthy season Sabathia had remained a strikeout pitcher but also a control artist: In 2007 he recorded the second highest strikeout-to-walk ratio by a left-hander in history. "He's been a different pitcher [in the playoffs]," says one scout. "He's kind of reverted to his old ways -- the things that got him into trouble in the past. He just needs to settle down and throw strikes. He doesn't have to blow them away."
Sabathia can learn from Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd, who don't have Sabathia's 96 mph fastball but won Games 3 and 4, respectively, because they attacked Boston's hitters, who try to wear down opposing pitchers with their patience. Westbrook threw first-pitch strikes to the first 11 batters he faced and 21 of 27 overall. Byrd tossed first-pitch strikes to the first seven hitters that came to the plate and 18 out of 21 overall.
"That's a tough lineup over there, and the way they pitched was unbelievable," Sabathia said on Wednesday as he faced reporters before a workout at Jacobs Field. "I think it was just going out and trusting their stuff, knowing what they do well and sticking with it. That's something that I'm going to have to do."
All his life Sabathia has been waiting for this moment. He was drafted No. 1 by the Indians in 1998 out of Vallejo (Calif.) High School. Just three years later he was in The Show. In his rookie season in 2001 Sabathia was 17-5 and seemingly destined for stardom. But today Sabathia will be the first to tell you he wasn't ready -- he was too young, too cocky, hanging with the wrong crowd, not committed enough to the game.
In May 2002 Sabathia was partying with acquaintances in a Cleveland hotel room when he was robbed at gunpoint. (Two Cleveland State basketball players were later convicted of the robbery.) "I realized that I had to change a lot of things because things could have gotten a lot worse real quick," he says. "That was a big turning point in my life. I realized: If you want to be a serious professional athlete, you have to be 100 percent committed to being a serious professional athlete."
The big turning point in Sabathia's career came in 2005. He was going through a horrid summer when, in a July game in Oakland, he allowed eight runs on eight hits in 2 1/3 innings. The worst part: Sabathia's family and friends from Vallejo were in the stands that day. The next day Sabathia arrived at the ballpark committed to change. In his next bullpen session pitching coach Carl Willis tweaked his mechanics, but Sabathia says it was his attitude that changed the most. "Things couldn't get any worse," says Sabathia. "So all my anger, all my negative emotions, they went away."
Sabathia vows to attack Boston hitters tonight with a barrage of first-pitch strikes, but he also knows that he must keep his emotions in check. "Just stay calm," he said. "It's going to be loud. It's going to be fun. Everybody is going to be excited. But I've been doing a pretty good job of being able to keep my emotions under control, staying even keel all year. I look to stay calm and stay in control and not try to overthrow and do so much, and I think I'll be fine."
Said Indians manager Eric Wedge on the eve of Game 5: "I know that C.C. feels like he needs to do more, and hopefully he won't feel like that tomorrow. He doesn't need to do more. All he needs to do is just go out there and be himself and pitch the way he's capable of."
Still, as hot as the Indians are, as good as they have looked in October, it's hard to imagine Cleveland winning a World Series without Sabathia emerging as a postseason ace. With the world watching tonight, Sabathia is ready to make his mark. The people of Cleveland are counting on him.