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Herb score and seven years ago, their forefathers were in first place. Thirty-seven years after they last won a pennant, the Cleveland Indians are not in first, or even in last, but in a crawl space somewhere beneath the cellar of the American League East. On Sept. 12, 1954, however, the Indians were not only in first, but they also drew a record 84,587 fans for a double-header at home against the New York Yankees.
The Yankees returned last Friday night to an eerily unchanged Cleveland Stadium. Sure, the ballpark has aged a bit, and a bit ungracefully at that. It may now be best known for, in the words of Indians president Hank Peters, "all the things that we lack here: cleanliness, concessions, all the things that make the game an enjoyable experience." But who needs fancy newfangled amenities like...like...all the things that make the game an enjoyable experience?
Oh, and, yes, Cleveland itself hasn't changed much in the last 37 years. But then, civic fatalism runs fairly deep, so deep, in fact, that the city's most venerable building is called Terminal Tower. In front of it stands a statue of General Moses Cleaveland, his left hand gesturing toward his stomach as though he has just ingested a plate of bad clams.
This may have something to do with the changes in the Tribe. The Indians have seen a spot of trouble in the last four decades. In fact, if the 20th century were a single continuous season, Cleveland, through Sunday, would have dropped 780� games out of first place since 1954—that is, since shortly after the All-Star break. Talk about a second-half swoon. "We hear about it all the time," says Indians pitcher Greg Swindell, "but I tell people that we haven't been here the last 40 years. The last 40 years aren't our fault. Well, the last few are, but...."
But are any of these aforementioned trifles enough to explain the Indians-Yankees attendance of Friday night, which wasn't 84,587, or 44,587, or 4,587, but appeared instead, to the naked eye, to be half a dozen folks huddled under the same tartan blanket? The attendance was announced as 6,163 and the temperature at game time was announced as 54�—there's that inescapable number again—but from the frigid upper deck, both figures appeared to be inflated by at least half.
Then again, the Tribe was 32 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East going into Friday's game. The Indians were seeking their 100th loss of this season, which is likely to end up as their worst. They have taken the L more often than most Chicago commuters; they have been bringing up the rear longer than Phyllis Diller's plastic surgeon; they have, in short, been the butt of these and every other bad joke imaginable, including many uttered by the citizenry of Cleveburg. So perhaps a more appropriate question is, Why did anybody show up at Cleveland Stadium on Friday?
For some, the answer is, Because it is there. Of course, Cleveland Stadium is there not so much like Mount Everest is there, but more like the Grand Canyon is. It is a place where one can be swallowed in the sheer enormity, the vast emptiness, the sweeping silence of the surroundings, year after inglorious year. We asked the first person we saw seated in the ballpark, Cleveland welder Robert Lusk, if perhaps that was the reason why he was there. "I'm here because my daughter won a drawing to be the ballgirl tonight," said Lusk, free ducats in hand. Lose the lottery, win Tribe tickets.
Meanwhile, security guards vigilantly patrolled the empty reserved seats around Lusk, lest some riffraff refugee from the cheap seats tried squatting there illegally during the late innings. As one American League scout observed of the Cleveland ushers earlier this season, "They're afraid 77,000 people are going to show up at midnight."
There has been no reason whatsoever to show up late for an Indians game this season. With a 2-0 deficit after the sixth inning on Friday, the Tribe shuffled on lifelessly and was finally shut out 3-0. (Not incidentally, Cleveland Indians is an anagram for Nine Cadavs Nilled). The loss made the Indians' record 4-73 when they were trailing after six innings and pushed them to triple figures in overall losses on their very first attempt at the mark this season.
"For us to lose a hundred this year was fairly much a given," says manager Mike Hargrove. Hargrove, a.k.a. Grover, a.k.a. Grover Cleveland, has provided the earliest measures of hope since taking over for the fired John McNamara on July 6. He is one of the game's brightest young minds and, fortunately, a patient man, for his roster of largely anonymous 26.1-year-olds is the youngest, on average, in the major leagues.