Demolishing The Ruins In Cleveland

It's not that LeBron returning to the Cavaliers changes everything -- or even anything -- about Cleveland sports. It's more that it feels that way.
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For a long time, adrive to downtown Cleveland on I-71 North would take you past an old, rusted bridge. It was on the right hand side, next to the new bridge that leads into the city and across the highway from Progressive Field. The old bridge was an eyesore, and unmissable. To be stuck in construction traffic on the new bridge, staring at the old one, was to be stuck in a metaphor for Cleveland sports history. There was a new and modern way in, but there was also, directly parallel and headed in the same direction, an unavoidable mass of rusting blight.

In the hours after LeBron James announced he would be returning to the Cavaliers last Friday, the past became the present, and a strange future opened up. On local radio, Clevelanders called in to talk about how much the homecoming meant; whether they knew it or not, were telling stories about how their present life is shaped by the past.

One man called into the local ESPN affiliate, weeping before he even spoke a word, to say that his wife, who died of cancer two years ago, always believed that LeBron would come home and that she would say he made the right decision. Another called in to say he was planning to take his 81-year-old father to a Cavs game in the fall, because his father had always regretted missing the chance to see Babe Ruth play in person. And another called in to criticize new Cavs GM David Griffin, but was cut off by the hosts before he even really got going.

Cleveland sports radio is usually the place to air grievances, rational and not, about the Cavs, Browns or Indians. Or all three at once. Friday was different. In between bits of Pharrell’s “Happy” and replays of the clip of host Aaron Goldhammer reacting to the news that LeBron James was coming home, this was all very different.

As it happened, I was driving past that old rusted bridge while I listened to that fan get cut off live on the radio, on my way to Progressive Field. Or, as it was once known -- and still is, at least on a number of t-shirts I saw at the game -- The Jake. I was going to the Indians game with my father. The present was the focus.

The day that news broke of LeBron’s return was the last time I or anyone else making the trip would ever see that bridge. It was demolished the next day.

***

We parked in a parking garage on the corner of East 9th Street and Bolivar, just across the street from Progressive Field and the statue of Bob Feller in front of the stadium. As we exited the garage, men hawking various LeBron-themed t-shirts immediately surrounded us. They declared FORGIVENESS and announced a new reign by the returning King. On the corner, another salesman had two LeBron jerseys for sale.

These were old LeBron jerseys, of the vintage of Cavaliers uniforms that were retired when James left for the Heat. From where I was standing, it didn’t look like they had any burn marks on them; it was as if the owner had put them in storage, waiting for the day when they’d be okay to wear again.

There was a different energy in the ballpark even an hour before the first pitch. In place of the usual pre-game walking and grazing and browsing, fans were seated and chatting amongst themselves. Whoever was near by, friend or family or stranger, seemed to do. Even in our section, tucked amid a group of White Sox fans, the conversation blazed through lulls in the game. They, we, everyone else was talking about LeBron.

And throughout it all, LeBron was there. From time to time, he actually showed up on a digital billboard behind center field, doing his best Dr. T.J. Eckleburg impression. Progressive Field was his Valley of Ashes.

The Indians acknowledged LeBron’s return in the second inning on the Jumbotron, using the same picture that ran with his letter in Sports Illustrated. On cue, Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Coming Home” pumped through the speakers. Even the image of James, accompanied by the word “home,” drew a sizable reaction from the crowd. Many stood up, giving him a short ovation. Many of those standing had on old, uncharred LeBron jerseys. Eckleburg could only wish for such adulation.

In the fourth, unheralded outfielder Chris Dickerson, newly arrived in a notably minor minor league deal and batting ninth, came to the plate with the bases loaded. Normally, unless Dickerson did something extraordinary, his at-bat would have been about as ordinary as any at-bat imaginable: a turn at the plate in the middle innings of a middling team’s mid-July game between a home team one game under .500 and visitors that were four games worse.

And Dickerson, fittingly, did something rather ordinary: he drew a walk. That walk allowed Carlos Santana to score from third and tied the game. The fans reacted as if he’d just broken an extra-inning tie in the American League Championship Series. As a general rule, it’s unwise to look for much in the way of perspective at a sporting event, let alone one in Cleveland. But we were, clearly, in some new universe of giddiness, in which everything was fated and everything was, suddenly, looking up.

Later on, a friend sent a link to a Vine of Anthony Bennett throwing down a vicious two-handed dunk in Summer League play. I immediately leaned over to show my dad, saying, “Dad, look what Anthony Bennett did.”

A lady sitting in front of us immediately turned around, gushing about the same Vine. “He looks so good,” she said, and we spent the next few minutes talking about how svelte Bennett looked and how damn high Andrew Wiggins can jump. LeBron was part of this conversation too.

It wasn’t too long ago that Bennett was in a similar place as James. While he didn’t go full heel and turn the city against him, his awful rookie season made him an easy target for both wry jokes and something like actual anger. Cleveland fans, the world’s greatest -- or, at least, saltiest -- armchair GMs, have tweeted many times that Nerlens Noel, who came into that draft with a blown ACL, should have been the pick.

And that may well prove to be the case in time. But it’s startling to see how Bennett getting on a new workout plan and dropping a reported 40 pounds can get even an average Cavs fans excited and energized. His rookie season now doesn’t mean as much as it did a week ago. But, of course, it’s not just that. In this optimistic moment, Bennett isn’t playing in the same city that he was last year; the people talking about him have the same accents, but are not quite the same, either. At any rate, there was the sense that it was easier to believe that things could be otherwise. That they could be better, maybe much better.

***

When Cleveland’s two-run lead became a three-run lead in the seventh, the crowd got even more energized. Fans walking around the concourse leaned over the nearest railing to watch. An older Indians fan walked up from several rows down and took a seat next to my father and I, solely, he said, because we both had something Cleveland on. Immediately, he began complaining about a supposedly ornery White Sox fan, “that Spanish guy in the Konerko jersey.”

“I can’t believe these people, coming here and cheering like it’s their ballpark,” he said. “They should be the ones sitting on their hands. This is our park!”

He ranted for a few more minutes and my Dad played him off as I ate some peanuts. A White Sox fan next to us who looked like a wannabe version of Alien from Spring Breakers responded by getting louder and taunting every Indian who stepped to the plate. The ornery man responded in kind, arguing with every White Sox fan around us, with his wife joining in meekly. It is hard to say that this was a new defiance, or if it was a half-dozen beers and other pre-existing issues. At any rate, he was comfortable getting loud.

Cory Allen, Cleveland’s solid but mostly anonymous new closer, struck out first Alex Nieto and then Leury Garcia to start the ninth. For the third out, Allen would fan Adam Eaton with ease. On the last pitch, right as Allen’s arm was on its way down, James again showed his face above center field.

As the crowd roared and celebrated, the image of James, in the jersey he wore in his first tenure with the Cavaliers, stayed on the screen. The real James, of course, was on his way to Brazil to catch the World Cup final. But someone decided that it was important that he be in Cleveland that day, as well, even if it was only through a pixelated image of his past self.

***

I tried to keep count on the way out. The numbers are unofficial, but I have: ten people in LeBron jerseys, maybe twice that in years-old “Witness” t-shirts. One man, who looked too young to have seen “The Shot” as it happened, had on a throwback Craig Ehlo Cavaliers jersey.

We crossed back towards East Bolivar and 9th Street, past fans looking at the LeBron jerseys for sale at the t-shirt stand. The number of men selling t-shirts -- a few of which were knockoffs the “Forgiv6n” shirt -- had seemingly tripled.

The first thing we heard on the radio was a caller, celebrating the Indians win and bemoaning Corey Kluber’s exclusion from the All-Star Game. Rather quickly, the conversation turned back to LeBron’s return. It was background noise as we drove over the new bridge and past the old one. Once again, I forgot to notice it; it wasn’t until two days later, when I picked up the Sunday Plain Dealer, that I realized I’d never see it again.


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Whoever was near by, friend or family or stranger, seemed to do. Even in our section, tucked amid a group of White Sox fans, the conversation blazed through lulls in the game. They, we, everyone else was talking about LeBron.
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It was background noise as we drove over the new bridge and past the old one. Once again, I forgot to notice it; it wasn’t until two days later, when I picked up the Sunday Plain Dealer, that I realized I’d never see it again.
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ust across the street from Progressive Field and the statue of Bob Feller in front of the stadium. As we exited the garage, men hawking various LeBron-themed t-shirts immediately surrounded us. They declared FORGIVENESS and announced a new reign by the returning King. On the corner, another salesman had two LeBron jerseys for sale.
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In between bits of Pharrell’s “Happy” and replays of the clip of host Aaron Goldhammer reacting to the news that LeBron James was coming home, this was all very different.
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To be stuck in construction traffic on the new bridge, staring at the old one, was to be stuck in a metaphor for Cleveland sports history. There was a new and modern way in, but there was also, directly parallel and headed in the same direction, an unavoidable mass of rusting blight.
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take his 81-year-old father to a Cavs game in the fall, because his father had always regretted missing the chance to see Babe Ruth play in person. And another called in to criticize new Cavs GM David Griffin, but was cut off by the hosts before he even really got going.500px

On local radio, Clevelanders called in to talk about how much the homecoming meant; whether they knew it or not, were telling stories about how their present life is shaped by the past.
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take his 81-year-old father to a Cavs game in the fall, because his father had always regretted missing the chance to see Babe Ruth play in person. And another called in to criticize new Cavs GM David Griffin, but was cut off by the hosts before he even really got going.
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They declared FORGIVENESS and announced a new reign by the returning King. On the corner, another salesman had two LeBron jerseys for sale.
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still is, at least on a number of t-shirts I saw at the game -- The Jake. I was going to the Indians game with my father. The present was the focus.
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