Outside, the streets of Cleveland are as barren as the sands of Alamogordo, but inside the night spot called the Theatrical there are live music and laughter, tinkling glasses and visiting ballplayers in ardent pursuit of postgame adventure. There is also an unlikely debate in progress on the real things of life between a white-maned, modishly attired Clevelander and a stranger arrayed in a 1954-vintage tweed sports jacket and rumpled flannel slacks. The local man has taken umbrage at the visitor's compassionate suggestion that "the trouble with winning is that someone must lose."
"That," said the resident, taking his opponent's measure, "is the difference between you and me. I'm no loser. I don't even like losers."
Inadvertently, this aging front-runner had hit upon a community truth. Clevelanders, as their baseball team has long had occasion to lament, simply do not like losers. It is a fact of life along the shores of Lake Erie that must have eluded any number of Indian owners, some of whom have excused their own incompetence with the shibboleth: "Cleveland is not a good baseball town." They cite attendance figures showing that the team has averaged little more than 650,000 paying customers per season since 1971. The Indians, they might have added, have finished sixth, fifth and sixth in the American League East during that period, which makes them a civic attraction on a par with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
Baltimore, where the Orioles win division titles with monotonous regularity, may not be a good baseball town. Oakland, home of the world champion A's, may not be a good baseball town. But Cleveland, which has not seen a pennant in 20 years, is. Nick Mileti, the intrepid Cleveland native who took control of the team two years ago, knows that from experience.
July 28, 1974
"We've been there, baby," says Mileti in the Las Vegas-hip vernacular he increasingly employs. "We have the grassroots in Cleveland. I was a junior at John Adams High here in 1948 when we drew two million six. We win and we can do that again. Yet people wanted to move this team. I tell you, we took over to keep the Indians here. Before us, they were going, baby, going."
Mileti's faith in indigenous fandom has been rewarded this season. Under the benign leadership of Ken Aspromonte, who only a year ago looked himself to be going, baby, going, the Indians have won 45 of their first 80 games, have been season-long contenders in the confusing AL East race and even were perched atop the writhing heap for three days—July 5, 6 and 7. As Mileti persistently had forecast, the fans have responded. Last weekend, with little more than half the season gone, Cleveland's attendance surpassed the 605,073 total for all of last year.
The fans' enthusiasm remained unabated even in recent weeks when the Indians reverted to their losing ways, dropping six games in a row and nine of 10. Then the spectators exploded when Dick Bosman dramatically halted the skid with a no-hit, near-perfect 4-0 win over the A's last Friday night. After the game, 24,302 at Cleveland Stadium cheered Bosnian's achievement with so much gusto that he felt obliged to return to the field from the clubhouse for an emotional curtain call.
The night before, a crowd of 41,848 turned out to watch Gaylord Perry lose 3-2 in a magnificent pitching duel with the A's Catfish Hunter. The fans were not only numerous, they were orderly on this, the team's second Ten-Cent Beer Night. The first such event on June 4 had resulted in a riotous brawl involving spectators, players and umpires that had earned Clevelanders at least momentary infamy. But despite a frustrating week of defeat during which the Indians blew leads like foam, the fans on Thursday were models of deportment, and their considerable enthusiasm for their vigorous young ball club seemed genuine.
"If a baseball team can't make it in Cleveland, it can't make it anywhere," said 22-year-old John Adams (no relation to Mileti's high school). Adams is a special fan who sits in the distant 50¢ bleachers and, at the slightest suggestion of an Indian uprising, beats tom-tom fashion on the bass drum he has been packing to home games for the past two seasons. "People here will support anything good, but they don't have the money to come out and watch bums."
The Indian players, some of them virtually reared on defeat, have been caught up in the beat of community enthusiasm. Third Baseman Buddy Bell, a 22-year-old veteran of two losing seasons, has become something of an urban analyst. "There isn't a lot to do in Cleveland," he says, belaboring the obvious. "This is a family-oriented town. People would rather stay home than watch something inferior. Some cities will support a loser, but Cleveland isn't one of them."
Outfielder John Lowenstein, who has played on four Indian losers, senses a refreshing new attitude among those of his teammates who, as he melodramatically puts it, "have not experienced the bitter defeat of the past few years." Lowenstein remembers that in his rookie season, "walking into the clubhouse was walking into a losing atmosphere. You could sense that the players really didn't expect to win. And if you don't think that's contagious, you've got another think coming." He thought then that the only way to lighten the leaden climate "would have been to hire Norman Vincent Peale as manager."
In lieu of the old Positive Thinker, the Indians have Aspromonte, a darkly handsome Italian from Brooklyn who completed his playing career eight years ago in Japan with the Taiyo Whales. Although he suffered mightily during the recent losing streak, Aspromonte remained accommodating even in the depths of what Lowenstein might describe as his despair and kept his players' best interests at heart. When George Hendrick, the team's leader in batting average (.303), home runs (16) and RBIs (48) and its best defensive outfielder, asked to be excused from playing against the A's and Hunter, Aspromonte reluctantly assented.
"Would could I do?" he said after the Hendrick-less Indians lost. "He said he was tired, and before the season I told all of my players to let me know when they felt too tired to do their best."
Despite his laissez-faire approach, Aspromonte has been successful in generating a Pealeish positiveness among his players, possibly because as manager of the Indians the past two seasons he has grown hypersensitive to the loser's syndrome.
"Fellows who have a history of being on a losing team tend to regulate themselves that way," he said shortly before another defeat. "They say to themselves, 'If I hit my .250, .260, I'll be O.K. I'll get my raise.' That is the type of person we don't want here. They are a bad influence on young players who can learn to lose. The type of guy I want is someone like Dave Duncan. He's been on a pennant winner and he's been in a World Series with the A's. He knows what it takes to win."
Duncan learned most about winning from his former Oakland manager, Dick Williams. "I remember Williams coming into our clubhouse and telling us he didn't give a damn if not one player hit above .250," says Duncan, a tall man of 28 with shoulder-length blond hair who looks more like a refugee from Sherwood Forest than a major league catcher. "He didn't care what we did individually as long as we gave 100% and played fundamental baseball. You know, when we weren't winning pennants people always asked me what my batting average was. When we did win, nobody cared about that. All they needed to know was that I was a winner."
Duncan's batting average this year is perilously close to .190, but he has hit 13 home runs and provided invaluable counsel to the younger Indians, including his next-door neighbor in the clubhouse, improved Second Baseman Jack Brohamer. He also has deftly handled the team's venerable pitchers, the eldest of whom are the brothers Perry, Jim and Gaylord.
Last week was not a happy one for the grimly competitive Perrys. Thirty-seven-year-old Jim led the Angels 5-0 entering the eighth inning Wednesday when he tossed consecutive "hangers" to Ellie Rodriguez, Denny Doyle and Bobby Valentine. All of them promptly lashed doubles to right center field and the Angels were off on a rally that resulted in a 7-5 win.
The following evening before the sober Beer Night patrons, Gaylord, 35, failed to hang on to a 2-0 lead and lost. He also gave up three successive hits to 19-year-old A's rookie Claudell Washington, who nine days before had spoiled Perry's bid to tie the American League mark of 16 consecutive wins. Gaylord, who still has not won his 16th, nonetheless enters the All-Star Game with a superb 15-3 record. Jim is 9-8. The Perrys have 395 victories (203 for Jim, 192 for Gaylord) between them, the highest total ever for a pair of siblings.
Despite the second of the back-to-back setbacks of the Perrys, Aspromonte did not have the hangdog countenance of a born loser when he settled into his managerial chair for a postmortem. A little earlier he had received a call on his private telephone from a woman trying to order a subscription to The Cleveland Press, a publication that has not always been charitable toward him. "Sorry, wrong number," he informed the potential subscriber, reflecting perhaps on the losing score.
"We've gotta keep going," Aspromonte said. "We gotta hope some breaks go our way. We've actually been playing excellent baseball, but we've got guys struggling at the plate. All six bats in the middle of the order are quiet. We can't seem to get one guy hot. This is the same type of club the A's had at Kansas City. Look how they came along. All we need is a little more experience, a little more confidence. I'm very optimistic."
Aspromonte may be comforted to know that his boss has confidence in him. "Everybody fired Kenny last year but me," said Mileti, strolling around the construction site of the $20 million coliseum he will open south of Cleveland in October as the home for his Cavaliers basketball and Crusaders hockey teams.
Mileti directed a visitor's attention to one of the 1,000-watt light bulbs that will illuminate his dream palace. "Look at that. The man who invented those things lived right up the street from here. A man named Thomas Edison. What you have to have is stability in any sports enterprise," he continued, abruptly abandoning the Wizard of Menlo Park. "That's what the Indians need. Cleveland hasn't had the reputation for being a class city, but it's all here, man, all here. Eighth largest market in the country."
Mileti is not a whimsical hirer and firer of the Charlie Finley stripe. His radio station, WWWE, is liberally staffed with his cousins. Indian Executive Vice-President Ted Bonda is his close friend. Aspromonte has been his only manager. And by his own assessment, he is probably the nation's largest employer of alumni from his alma mater, Bowling Green State University. "When you are a Sicilian peasant's son, you have a long memory," says Mileti.
So must Cleveland fans, who can only look longingly back to 1954 and Larry Doby, Al Rosen, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, et al. for solace. Even with Beer Nights, 20 years is a long time between drinks. But the city is caught up now in a kind of boosterism more characteristic of another Ohio town, the fictional Zenith. On Aug. 16 the Indians will help celebrate something called "Rally Around Cleveland Day." Last week it was rally around the Indians time as the hopes for a championship season seemed to wane.
Then along came Bosnian, who had pitched fewer than 40 innings and won only one game before his masterpiece. The lone runner to reach base, Sal Bando, made it there on Bosnian's own error. Otherwise he was flawless, throwing only 79 pitches.
The fans exulted in him, cheering continuously through the final three innings and rising to their feet at the finish. "The crowd meant a lot," Bosnian said in the steamy clubhouse afterward. "I had to go back out there and thank them."
It is a tough town on losers. But, oh, how they love a winner.