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.
"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."