While watching the Cubs – Indians opening World Series game last night, won by the Tribe, I couldn’t help but think how most of us fans who don’t have a horse in race would probably be rooting for Cleveland if the North Siders weren’t in the final pairing.
While game one didn’t live up to the hype, this series between the two long-suffering fan bases holds our interest in a lot of ways. There’s the local angle, for sure, with both teams being represented by native sons.
Many of you have met IVC grad Zach McAllister of the Indians. He still calls the Peoria area home in the off season and hosts a baseball camp with his World Series opponent Ben Zobrist of Eureka. Never met Ben, but had the pleasure of calling on the radio McCallister’s IVC state championship games in basketball (lost) and baseball (won) a decade ago. He and a few of his teammates dropped by the ESPN Peoria studio when he got drafted by the Yankees when I was the afternoon show host. Great guy, humble with a sense of humor.
While I slander Cleveland, at times, calling it the well worn “Mistake on the Lake,” I also kinda secretly pull for the fellow Rustbelt city. Living most of my life in Detroit or Peoria, I know all about the decline of manufacturing jobs, all about having an area’s economy tied too bigly to one industry. Cleveland has suffered some of the same fate as all of our Midwest cities. We have much more in common than not.
I was also fortunate in my career to visit the Indians locker room a couple times in 1995, when Cleveland was rockin’ and rollin’ to their first World Series appearance in over four decades. This team, with Peoria legend Jim Thome leading the way, won 100 games in a lockout-shortened 144 game season. Think about that stat for a minute. The Cubs this season won 103 of 162 games, by far the best in MLB this year.
I was doing sports talk radio in Toledo at the time, so I could get a media pass to visit anyway. I also had a hometown friend, baseball teammate and later high school and American Legion rival, Paul Assenmacher, on the Indians team. Diehard Cubs fans remember that “Aussie” pitched on the North Side for five seasons and another year on the South Side. I hadn’t seen Paul in about a decade, over beers at a fall party when he was still mired in the Braves minor league system. So when I contacted him and asked to visit, he was a bit leery in my role with the media, but accepted.
We never recaptured the loose friendship of our youth, when we were leading the 12 and 13-year-old Allen Park Athletic Club Panthers (red pinstriped uni’s!) to glorious victories. (Our mom’s were pretty good friends, too.) He was still the humble, awe shucks star, but more guarded, at that point a millionaire many times over thanks to his nasty left hand curve and brief, reliable bullpen appearances.
I would glance around the beautiful, new dressing room at the then-called Jacobs Field. My biggest takeaway was that many of the Indians players looked like they should be playing linebacker in the NFL. Through advanced strength training and, in some of their cases, performance enhancing drugs, baseball and bodybuilding had merged.
Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Manny Rameriz and others were, as the kids say now, quite “Swoll.” Back in ’79 and ’80, playing on elite high school and Legion ball clubs, we didn’t really lift weights. My high school coach advised against it, unless we did really high rep, light weight exercises, which seemed like a waste of time to me.
I’m not saying the Indians players were all doping, I doubt Assenmacher or huge-framed Thome were, but it was a visual shock. I also was my radio station’s beat reporter for the Detroit Lions that fall, and the Tribes’ muscles would not have looked out of place in the Lions dressing room.
While Cleveland was the dominant team of that time frame, it never won the elusive World Series title. So, Cubs fans, regular season records don’t matter at this time of the year. One thing on Chicago’s side is its youth. The window to win a championship should stretch for years to come. I’ll continue to root for the Cubbies, but will not find any anger towards the Indians or their equally unfulfilled, unsatisfied fans.