Cleveland turns hopes from basketball to baseball
At another airport bar, the Tequileria (understandably empty at 10:30 a.m. on this Friday morning), a TV is running highlights of Thursday night's Game 4, subjecting any viewer who walks by to the sight of Manu Ginobili running buck wild on the hometown team.
In a nearby newspaper dispenser, the headline on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reads, "FINAL CHAPTER: Spurs' sweep ends storybook playoff run."
On the concourse walkway, two airport workers -- one in a backwards Cavs hat -- are talking about the future of the Eastern Conference. "Shaq has two years left," one of them says. "By that time, LeBron ... " but he's out of earshot before the sentence is complete.
Meanwhile, the windows of airline baggage service offices are plastered with Cavaliers paraphernalia: a 2007 Eastern Conference Champions pennant and signs of all sizes emblazoned with the team's slogan, "Rise Up!"
Heading into town via taxi, a quick glimpse at the scene of Game 4 -- Quicken Loans Arena (aka "The Q") -- seems to sum everything up. Just next to a huge 2007 NBA Finals mural, a digital billboard is promoting upcoming events. Currently, it's advertising a Tim McGraw and Faith Hill concert on June 29.
There's no mention of an upcoming basketball game, because there's no more basketball left to be played.
The mosaic of sights makes it abundantly clear: The morning after being swept in the NBA Finals, Cleveland is in a state of stunned denial. No one seems equipped to understand how it could have happened so fast.
* * *
But by 6 p.m., something has changed. Signs of life spring up on the streets outside The Q, where just across the street, the Indians are getting ready to take on the Braves at Jacobs Field.
It's the start of a six-game homestand for the Tribe, but more importantly, it's the first time they've faced the Braves in Cleveland since losing to Atlanta in the 1995 World Series. In a welcome break from the Cavs-induced hangover, there's suddenly a hint of baseball-related revenge in the air.
As it just so happens, The Q and The Jake are virtually adjacent to one another. And on this night, the vibrant baseball crowd lining the streets brings life to what would otherwise be a basketball graveyard.
In between the two arenas, there's a pedestrian-filled plaza. And at one end of it, a country singer is performing on stage. For some unknown reason, just in front of the stage sits a huge pile of sand complete with surfboards, lifeguard chairs and other various beachfront items. While this makeshift beach may not exactly resemble Key West, the scene can undoubtedly be described as festive.
The band's current tune is Jimmy Buffett's "A Pirate Looks at 40." And as the Margarita Man imposter belts out his rendition, one particular stanza stands out:
I've made enough money to buy Miami
But I threw it away so fast
Never meant to last
Never meant to last
* * *
You can actually see Quicken Loans Arena from certain sections of Jacobs Field, but inside the park it's easy to forget about basketball. One method fans are employing is the "drowning" technique, best facilitated by 24 oz. bottles of Corona poured into gonzo plastic eight-dollar cups.
A more innocent distraction is only about 50 feet away, where three old men in red and white pinstripe jackets and Indians hats are making music of their own. With a trumpet, accordion and clarinet, they're hammering out jolly renditions of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "When the Saints Go Marching In," as a small throng of happy onlookers claps, dances and sings along.
In this strangely carefree corner of The Jake, sports-related anguish hardly seems to exist.
* * *
Shortly after the game begins, that familiar Jacobs Field sound pierces the summer night: the rhythmic pounding of a drum from deep in left center field. The drummer's name is John Adams, and while he's not as famous as our country's second president, the man is a bona fide Cleveland icon. Adams has been hammering away for over three decades, noisily yet patiently waiting for a champion.
With no World Series titles since 1948 and only one winning season since 2001, the Indians aren't exactly cooperating. But this year's team, 39-26 coming in, has the look of a contender.
The Indians stake ace C.C. Sabathia to an early 3-0 lead, but it doesn't hold up. And with the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 8th, Adams' drum -- silent through most of the middle innings -- cries out for a rally.
Leading off the inning, Casey Blake answers the call. Facing one of the game's most unforgiving relievers in Rafael Soriano, Blake flicks his bat at an inside fastball and floats a drive over the wall in left. Fireworks scream out like a cannon shot. It's just the 12th hit Soriano's allowed in over 28 innings this year. The Indians have a 4-3 lead.
But that margin is quickly erased in the Atlanta half of the ninth. After a double, error, sacrifice and a ringing shot into the gap by Yunel Escobar, the score is a crowd-silencing 5-4 in favor of the Braves.
In the bottom half of the ninth, a crisp single to left by Josh Barfield breaks that silence. Suddenly, with one out, the winning run is at the plate. And Grady Sizemore -- the city's baseball hero, second only to LeBron in the Cleveland sports hierarchy -- comes to bat.
The crowd is on its feet, and the stands are buzzing at full tilt.
No one knows it, but the reality of the situation is that in a few minutes time, the game will be over, a 5-4 loss on another cruel night in Cleveland.
But right now, with Sizemore at the plate, nothing has been decided.
At this moment, as the drum rings out from deep in left field, hope is alive and well in the City by the Lake.
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