I always try to remember, when cheering for a sports team, that not everyone has the history with that team that I do. Some people just got here. The first year I ever watched a full season of baseball was 1982. At the end of it, the Cardinals won the World Series. It turns out that it's not actually that easy: It would be 24 more years until they would win another one. If I would have grown up in New York and became a Yankees fan in 1982, I would have thought they were the most frustrating franchise in sports. It would 13 years until they would make another playoff appearance. Fans of the crosstown Mets, so superior that decade, would have mocked me mercilessly. I wonder if it would have made me like baseball less. I wonder if, at such a young age, if it would have seemed worth it. Every baseball season, someone, a young kid or just a late bloomer, is watching for the first time. Everyone's baseball history starts somewhere.
This to say: If out there, there's someone who started watching baseball in 2008, and that someone lived in Cleveland, I bet that person is having an awfully difficult time remaining a baseball fan. It must be so demoralizing. The last two years of Cleveland Indians baseball have caused the worst kind of pain: The expectation that your team is on the cusp of something great, and then the crushing, shockingly immediate realization that it absolutely is not. J.D. Drew's grand slam in the 2007 ALCS was the pivot. Everything went out of whack after that.
I can't figure out if it would be better for Indians fans if they were Pirates fans or not. The discussion of tortured fan bases has been discussed ad nauseam — though perhaps not ideally with tortured Jennifer Love Hewitt analogies — but no one ever resolves the central question: Is it better to have your hopes dashed, or not to have any hopes at all? The Indians are generally well-run by thoughtful, intelligent adults, and they do all the right things, all their fans could hope for them to do within the constraints of the hoary MLB payroll structure, and it doesn't work. They look farther away than they have in a decade. How doomed do the Indians seem? One of their revelations last season was Shin-Soo Choo, their right fielder who hit 20 homers and stole 21 bases. He is entering his prime ... right when the South Korean government might call him for military service. They can't win for losing. The pieces are always there, but they're never there at the right times, at the same time. When everyone's hitting, the young pitchers collapse. When the pitching is stacked, all the sluggers fall apart. In Cleveland, Mercury is always in retrograde.
Customers have voted with their feet, too: Last year, the Indians drew 1,766,242 fans, 26th in baseball. (Below the Royals, Nationals and Padres.) The Indians are a proud franchise, but if their fans have decided they can't take it anymore, you can't hardly blame them.
The Indians need a magical year. They need a season where everything, at last, clicks at all at once. (They're certainly in the right division for it.) It can happen. It should happen. That kid, watching baseball for the first time in 2009, needs to know it can. Cleveland might be the most miserable city in America, but in no way should it be. At some point this summer, LeBron James is going to decide whether or not he's sticking around. If he doesn't, and the Indians are lingering around fourth place again ... well, you know kid, there's always the Browns, or ice dancing, whichever hurts less.