Playoff Baseball Is Back In Cleveland

Indians closer Joe Borowski celebrates with catcher Kelly Shoppach after the Indians beat the Yankees in New York to advance to the 2007 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. (mlb.com)

Indians closer Joe Borowski celebrates with catcher Kelly Shoppach after the Indians beat the Yankees in New York to advance to the 2007 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. (mlb.com)

There’s something special about baseball.

It was my first love. I couldn’t name more than a couple NBA or NFL teams until fourth or fifth grade, but I could rattle off stories about Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ken Griffey Jr as soon as I was old enough to read. For a while, baseball was the only sport I knew anything about, and until I was 15 or 16, baseball was my favorite. Somewhere, things started to fade. The Indians collapsed in the 2007 playoffs and slipped into six years that floated somewhere between disaster and mediocrity. That probably had something to do with it. Starting in 2007, the Cavs started to get really good on an annual basis. That probably had something to do with it. In 2011, I fell in love with the Cincinnati Bearcats, which ignited my love of college sports, especially basketball. That probably had something to do with it.

This group of Indians has reignited me. Not only is Terry Francona the best Indians manager I’ve had the privilege of watching, but this team is insanely lovable. There are scrappy young kids like Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Tyler Naquin. There are life-of-the-party veterans like Mike Napoli and Jason Kipnis. There’s the return of one of my favorite Indians of all time, Coco Crisp. There are enough dominant starting pitchers to bank on 90+ wins per season for as long as they stay healthy. This season, the Tribe stacked up 94 wins and locked up the division title for the first time since that 2007 season. What’s not to love?

October baseball is something special, and it’s something I haven’t gotten enough of in my lifetime. More than any other sport, the MLB playoffs are nostalgic, poetic, and romantic. Since I moved to Cleveland and became a Cavs fan in 2004, the team has played in more playoff games than I can count. Aside from the obvious, there aren’t really any games I can point to and say, “I remember exactly where I was when that happened.” The Indians 2007 playoff run, however, has stuck with me.

The ’07 Indians won the division thanks to 95 wins on the backs of pitchers like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Fausto Carmona––who I refuse to call Roberto Hernandez. In the first round, they faced the New York Yankees, who had won the AL Wild Card. In hindsight, the Indians were probably the better team. But going into the series, I wasn’t especially optimistic, even for a 15 year old. You see, these weren’t the Yankees of 2016. These were Joe Torre’s Yankees. These were the Yankees that had once pulled off four World Series titles in five seasons.

Imagine my excitement when the Indians punched them in the mouth in Game 1. I’ll never forget it. Yankee CF Johnny Damon cranked a homer down the right field line on the fifth pitch of the series, which gave everyone the Oh great, here comes the Cleveland Curse feeling. But the Indians responded quickly, taking the lead in the bottom of the first on RBI hits by Ryan Garko and prodigal son Kenny Lofton. The Indians were up 3–1, and didn’t look back. I’ll never forget the fifth inning that night, which felt like a baseball party I had never seen before. The Tribe loaded up five runs on four hits to blow the game open and earn a 1–0 series lead. The Indians––our Indians––were beating up the mighty Yankees.

Game 2 was on a Friday, which I remember because I was at a high school football game. If there’s one thing a bunch of 15-year-old boys love more than talking to girls at a high school football game, it’s Tom Hamilton calling the Indians on the radio. As a result, a crowd of us huddled around a boombox near the snack bar and patiently waited as the Tribe and Yanks slugged it out. New York grabbed an early lead with a home run before the city of Cleveland itself intervened to get the game knotted back up in the eighth.

The Yankees had a star prospect in the bullpen named Joba Chamberlain, and we learned that he didn’t like bugs. When a swarm of midges floated in off Lake Erie in the late innings, the Indians worked around it. The Yankees, on the other hand, were rattled. As they would later learn, these pesky bugs are immune to bug spray, and there’s nothing you can do but ignore them. Chamberlain wasn’t good at that last part, and Grady Sizemore was able to scamper home and tie the game on a wild pitch in the midst of the Midge Meltdown.

(Richard Perry/The New York Times)

(Richard Perry/The New York Times)

The game wore on into the 11th inning until Cleveland superstar Travis Hafner was able to rake home the winning run. The crowd at Jacobs Field erupted. The crowd at my football game erupted. The Indians were headed to the Bronx with a 2–0 lead in a best-of-five series. The Hafner walk-off is still the play I look back on to remember the glory of Tribe seasons past. (This video features the Hamilton radio call, which is what I heard at the football game. To this day, I can perfectly replicate “rips one up the alley in right-center” in my head.)

In a move that could only happen in the Bronx, George Steinbrenner came out after Game 2 and publicly declared that Torre’s expiring contract would not be renewed if the Yankees couldn’t beat the Indians. It was the last thing the Yanks needed to hear, but the Indians smelled blood in the water. Already boasting a two-game lead, Steinbrenner had sweetened the pot by also putting Torre’s head up for grabs. The Indians dropped Game 3, temporarily preserving the Torre era, but they bounced back in Game 4 and celebrated at (old) Yankee Stadium. My scrappy Tribe had somehow advanced to the ALCS while simultaneously ending the Torre era in New York. It felt surreal.

Everything in Cleveland sports between 1964 and 2016 was either ridden with rampant failure or laced with enough hope to get you hooked. The 2007 ALCS between the Indians and Red Sox was no different.

The Red Sox hammered the Indians in Game 1 before the Tribe awoke. Game 2 entered extra-innings tied at six runs apiece, but the Indians erupted for seven in the 11th to tie the series at 1–1. Returning to Cleveland for Game 3, a two-run Lofton homer was the difference, and the Indians took a 2–1 lead in the series. In Game 4, the Tribe unloaded their second seven-run inning of the ALCS to beat Tim Wakefield and the Sox and open up a commanding 3–1 series lead with the chance to clinch a World Series trip at home.

My dad and I attended Game 5 on October 18, 2007. CC Sabathia faced off against Josh Beckett in front of an electric Cleveland crowd. The only run the Indians scored all night was on a double play in the first inning. It was a miserable game. The series was headed back to Boston with the Tribe leading 3–2, but nobody could shake the ominous feeling.

We were right. The Indians got pounded in Game 6 and Game 7, and the final out of the series was recorded by former (and now current) Indian Coco Crisp. I was beside myself. The Indians changed the name of Jacobs Field to “Progressive” and entered a six-year depression that put a serious damper on my love of America’s past-time. I continued to fervently follow the team, but it was never the same after the 2007 collapse.

It’s hard to believe that Hafner walk-off was nine years ago tonight. I remember it like yesterday. The 2015 & 2016 Indians have managed to reignite my love for a game I once adored. The Cavaliers proved that anything is possible, and now I’m ready to see the Indians put it into practice. The Tribe faces the Red Sox again tomorrow night in their first true playoff game in nine years. Let’s make some noise. Let’s get revenge. 15-year-old Spencer is ready for it.