- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

CLEVELAND — Across Heartbreak City, they’re beginning to believe this October could be different.

In the unofficial sports capital of failure and frustration for more than 40 years, there are even Indians fans daring to dream.

“Hey, it happened for the Boston Red Sox,” Adam Prevost of Brooklyn, Ohio, said while waiting in line at Jacobs Field to buy tickets for potential playoff games. “Why not us?”

Why not, Cleveland.

The Indians, overlooked as a World Series threat until recently and largely unloved by their own fans most of this season, are a few wins away from making the American League playoffs for the first time since 2001.

And with a little luck, they might even pull off one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history.

The Indians, who haven’t won a World Series title since 1948, are in two races going down to the wire — for the AL Central title and for the wild card.

“We’re in a great position,” third baseman Aaron Boone said after Cleveland’s 5-4 loss at Kansas City on Sunday, just the Indians’ third loss in 20 games. “We’ve put ourselves in good position.”

It hasn’t always been that way.

On Aug. 1, the Indians were 15 games out of first in the Central Division, a seemingly insurmountable deficit so late in the season. But by going a major league-best 38-14 since July 31 and 18-6 in September, they have trimmed Chicago’s lead to two games entering the final five days of the regular season.

With the same 92-65 record as the AL East co-leading Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, Cleveland also shares the AL wild-card lead.

With six games left, including a three-game, season-ending showdown series at home against Chicago next weekend, the Indians have a chance to push a season that began with guarded optimism into the postseason.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, if they surpass Chicago, the Indians will match the 1914 Boston Braves for baseball’s biggest rally.

“Nobody gave this team a chance,” said Amber Eakin, one of 500 fans on line outside the Jake when the team put tickets on sale for playoff games that might not take place. “They’ve had to fight for everything they’ve gotten.”

Even the respect of their fans.

Cleveland fans haven’t flocked to the Jake as they did while selling out 455 consecutive games from 1995 to 2001 when the club averaged 3.2 million fans a season. Although the Indians boast baseball’s most balanced lineup, best bullpen and a deep starting rotation and have been in the postseason hunt for weeks, they rank No. 25 among 30 major league teams in attendance.

The Indians will draw fewer than 2 million fans — half the Yankees’ record-setting total.

“This whole town is full of skeptics,” fan Phil Cumming of Cleveland said, straightening the bill of his replica 1975 Indians cap. “I’ve come to 30 games this year, the stadium is half full, and I’m like, ‘Where is everyone?’ ”

Selling these Indians has been especially tough for the club’s front office. Cleveland, one of the nation’s poorest cities, is hurting because of a sluggish economy, unemployment and soaring fuel prices.

For many fans, a family trip to the ballpark is a luxury they can’t afford.

“I’ve got two kids and I usually bring my grandmother and wife,” said Joe Jarabeck, a laid off Cleveland firefighter. “That’s expensive. It’s more important to fill up my two cars with gas than get to a ballgame.”

Another reason for fan apathy can be traced to the city’s cursed sports history. No city has suffered a longer championship dry spell than Cleveland, which hasn’t celebrated being the best since 1964 when the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts 27-0 for the NFL title.

Since then, there have been a few close calls as the Indians lost twice in the World Series, the Browns dropped three AFC title games in four years to John Elway-led Denver teams and the Cavaliers’ best seasons were sunk by Michael Jordan.

“The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot,” Prevost said, rattling off the nicknames of Cleveland’s darkest pro sports moments. “In this town, everyone always has the feeling that the other shoe is about to drop.”

Or, in the case of Sunday’s loss at Kansas City, a harmless fly ball.

When Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore lost a fly ball in the sun, allowing the Royals to score the winning run in the ninth inning, scores of Cleveland fans undoubtedly viewed it as a fatal sign of things to come.

Still, there are believers such as Cedric Wilson, who was first in line last Saturday when the Indians sold out Games 1 and 2 of a possible Division Series against an unknown opponent in two hours.

“Cleveland fans have suffered so much heartbreak that they aren’t ready to be hurt again,” said Wilson, a bird feather behind his right ear serving as a mini-Indians headdress. “But they gotta believe. It’s hard, but it’s time to let go.”

Nancy Hogan never lost faith in the Indians or manager Eric Wedge. She always believed this October would be filled with baseball.

And as the grandmother of 14 shopped for bargains at one of the Indians’ suburban team shops last week, she summed up the feelings of Cleveland fans everywhere.

“I just hope the Indians can win it before I croak,” she said.


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