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Published: Thursday, 5/12/2011

COMMENTARY

Tribe fans not comfortable at the top of the heap

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COMMENTARY WRITER

CLEVELAND -- There was no need to leave the game early to beat the crowds. There were no crowds. Granted, it was thermal blanket weather at Progressive Field for the early season matchup with the Chicago White Sox, but the sun was warming rows of empty seats.

It was one of those Cleveland Indians games where what happens on the field is almost secondary to the conversations in the stands. Occasionally a single or foul ball gets your attention, but catching up with good friends over a cold beer is more to the point.

If you're a Tribe fan for life, you make the best of a ballgame even when the team doesn't. We've loved the team through lots of losing seasons and adjusted to lower expectations.

Some years, we don't even bother learning the players' names when the Indians are on a fast track to the bottom. In other seasons, we put up with prima donnas and undependable talent to bask in the sporadic thrill of victory and a shot at postseason play.

But frankly, winning is harder for diehard Indians fans to accept than the pain of defeat. We're just more comfortable with the latter as born-and-raised devotees. Losses are what we grew up with, as well as generational stories of the team's underachievement.

Long winning streaks make us nervous. Sure, it's nail-biting excitement, but always in the back of our minds is the suspicion that the baseball gods are playing a cruel joke on us -- again.

It gives us pause and whole sections of empty bleachers. Why fall head over heels in crazy anticipation of fireworks on and off the field, when chances are we're looking at another could-have, would-have, should- have-been season?

Today the Indians are called baseball's biggest surprise. They've already racked up more series sweeps than all of last year. Fans are pinching themselves over the team's hot start, its record at home, its reign as No. 1 in the American League's Central Division -- which is weak, but we'll take it.

Some of the old-timers say this may be the best start ever for the Indians, and if they keep winning they could win the division and maybe, just maybe, well, you know.

It's enough to drive a rational but faithful Tribe follower loopy. I know these impossibly young guys are good. No one makes it to the majors without being good. But they're not supposed to be this good this soon.

We all figured 2012 would be the year. Let the rookies mature and get their pitching, defense, fielding, and hitting mojo down. Then we'll talk contenders.

But they're a year ahead of schedule and still going strong. They're healthy, happy, and healed. Even when they're down on the scoreboard, they're not out. This team rallies with unexpected walk-off hits and extra-inning magic that forces fans to their feet in a euphoric dance akin to a revival meeting.

It's terrific and terrible. Will they fold against tougher, division-leading competition? Or string fans along with the promise of playing .500 ball the rest of the season and then predictably limp to disgrace in September?

Here's the dilemma of lifelong Indians cheerleaders and sympathizers: We want our team to continue building winning suspense as the 2011 season rolls on. But we're afraid to let go of our collective cynicism that says our customary hapless team will crash and burn.

That we can deal with. As I write this, the Tribe is in a tough game with Tampa Bay. Ultimately the Indians pull it out in the ninth. Who are these guys confounding Major League Baseball before minor-league audiences?

The ladies all know Grady Sizemore. There's the resurgent Travis Hafner and Shin-Soo Choo. But the rest of the mostly unknown players, who genuinely seem to get along with each other, look as if they're having a blast playing a fun game.

And whether they're playing before a sellout opening-day crowd of 41,721 fans or the 9,000-some pseudo-optimists I joined under blankets, this first-place team is not to be underestimated. If the boys stay healthy and fired up, with winning performances that are no fluke, they'll make believers of reluctant fans.

Admittedly, it won't be easy to handle the hitting, pitching, catching, and scoring from a ballpark packed with converts. But we'll manage.

Go Tribe.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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