Commentary

Indians finish off a complete collapse

Originally Published: October 21, 2007
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The e-mails didn't wait for the inevitable Sunday collapse, arriving late Saturday night after the Cleveland Indians were stomped into the Fenway Park ground 12-2 in Game 6. The tone was not anger but resignation that their team could not survive the free fall, that kind of wrenching heartbreak that the Boston Red Sox and their legions have somehow left far behind since the turn of the new century.

ALCS

Indians-Red Sox
series page
The Red Sox are going to the World Series for the second time in four years. This time, they did so not merely by overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the American League Championship Series, but by demoralizing a Cleveland team that just days ago appeared to be coming into its own as a new power. The Red Sox did not just win -- they sent the once-surging Indians back to the classroom, outscoring Cleveland 30-5 in the final three games.

Sunday night's ALCS finale, an 11-2 Boston romp that at numerous junctures was a close, winnable game for the Indians until each key moment went horribly and fatally wrong, underscored all that lives deep in the veins of both cities. There was Jeffrey, whose e-mail arrived at 5:50 p.m. ET, a full two and half hours before Game 7 started, before the carnage, before the finality of the season's end:

I am a Cleveland guy and proud to admit it. Our year has been blessed with pleasant surprises as well as expected successes. But, as a baseball fan primarily, I am feeling that Cleveland jinx creeping in the shadows. Though my optimism wields heavy bullets, I can't seem to penetrate the monster of The Drive, The Fumble, the Jose Mesa incident. ...

Do I celebrate tonight ... or do I wake up in the morning with that feeling like my dog just died? We'll see, Howard.

P.S. I love my dog.

There was a time when a share of the pain Cleveland is feeling today was the province of the Red Sox. An entire literary tradition, for better and worse, was built on the curious and inexplicable Boston penchant for turning the Holy Grail into a dribble glass. True Bostonians, the ones who knew the city and the team before pink Sox caps and Monster seats, knew that the killing blow hid through a sure puff of victory smoke: Pesky and Galehouse, 1949, Aparicio, Doyle and Willoughby in '75, Dent, Buckner, recrimination and beer.

Indians players
AP Photo/Elise Amendola)The Indians were outscored 30-5 by the Red Sox in the final three games of the ALCS.
Then, somewhere around 2003, the Red Sox received a blood transfusion, and the winning has come in droves. Perhaps it was new ownership's commitment to spend with the Yankees year after year, the result being better players and with that better fortune, for good players have a habit of tilting the odds in one's favor. The Red Sox became a superpower while luck, always a hated commodity in Boston, became an ally. And Fenway Park -- a place where the Red Sox were eliminated from the postseason in 1967, 1975, 1995, 1998 and 1999 and in the 1978 one-game playoff -- has become the greatest home-field advantage in baseball, the only blip coming in 2005, when Chicago eliminated Boston in Game 3 of the AL Division Series.

In the 2003 ALDS, the Red Sox should have been eliminated by the A's in three straight games, but Oakland wasted a brilliant pitching performance by Ted Lilly by running into outs on the base paths and thus wasting an opportunity in an elimination game. Trot Nixon won that game with a home run off Rich Harden in extra innings.

Since that game, the Red Sox have faced elimination 13 times and have won 11 times. That's an 11-2 record when facing the gallows. The Red Sox turn elimination games into winning streaks.

The Red Sox became a superpower and both luck and Fenway became their best friends, a collective paperweight to tip the scales. In the first inning of Sunday's Game 7, with runners on first and second and one out, Manny Ramirez smoked a liner to shortstop, a sure double-play ball that somehow caromed off of the lip of the infield grass and nearly decapitated Cleveland shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Instead of ending the inning, Ramirez drove in the first run of the game.

The cruelest statistic of the game was that Jake Westbrook will be known as the losing pitcher. The Indians will hurt for a long time, but Westbrook's performance should always be a source of pride. He allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in each of the first four innings, gave up single runs in each of the first three and, down 3-0, seemed destined to get blown out.

But he fought Fenway fate and luck, overcoming the loss of a sure double play in the fourth -- Jacoby Ellsbury's steal attempt pushed Asdrubal Cabrera out of position as Julio Lugo's double-play ball rolled past Cabrera's vacated position -- by forcing white-hot Dustin Pedroia into an inning-ending double play.

Then fate took the Red Sox by the hand and led them closer to the World Series. In the fifth, with Boston ahead 3-1, Kenny Lofton banged an opposite-field line drive off the left-field wall and tried to stretch the hit into a double -- only to be thrown out by Ramirez. Down by two runs, it was an unnecessarily risky play (even if replays showed Lofton to be safe) made only more so when Franklin Gutierrez and Casey Blake followed with base hits and Grady Sizemore hit a sacrifice fly off a weakening Daisuke Matsuzaka. Lofton could have tied the game.

Travis Hafner
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTravis Hafner batted just .148 with two RBIs in the seven ALCS games against the Red Sox.
In the seventh, with Cleveland still down 3-2, the toughness of Westbrook -- he struck out four of the final six batters he faced -- and the Indians appeared to wear the Red Sox down, reversing the pressure. With one out, Lugo dropped a pop fly that put Lofton on second. When Gutierrez ripped a single past Lowell to left, the score should have been tied, but Lofton was held -- fatally -- by third base coach Joel Skinner, who first waved him home, then held him up with a two-handed signal, then bizarrely waved him home with his left hand while holding him at third with his right hand. The confusion was multiplied when Blake bounced into an inning-ending double play two pitches later.

These are the kind of plays that generations of Red Sox fans and players have lamented for decades, sequences that stole pennants, broke hearts and made scores of people wonder why they were never the ones allowed to sip the champagne. Now, in the biggest games, the Red Sox watch and benefit as teams inexplicably crumble under their weight.

The season ended for the Indians shortly thereafter, as the Red Sox broke free for two in the seventh -- Blake's error was followed by Pedroia's two-run homer that made it 5-2 -- and another six in the eighth.

Minutes after the Game 6 defeat, at 11:36 p.m. ET on Saturday, a man named Craig sent an e-mail in which each letter seeped with special pain:

Oh man. Pathetic. I bought into the hope again.

The Cavs ... Jordan ... The Browns ... The Drive. The Fumble ... The Indians in '97 against the Marlins in extra innings ... This year's sweep of the Cavs by the Spurs ... Ohio State getting blown out against Florida.

I'm about ready to call it quits on sports, dude.

I can't be doing this all the time.

At least the other losing baseball teams have another sport to fall back on. We got nothing. Boston had the Celtics, the Pats, the Bruins.

Cleveland's combined losing records over the years for all sports without a champion ... 60 years for the Tribe. ... 50 years for the Browns. ... 40 years for the Cavs ... wow ... We are pathetic. I don't get why we still sell out games.

We got nothing.

Game 7 is tomorrow, and honestly, dude, I am not going to watch.

The reason is because the business of caring is oftentimes more important than the result of the journey. The Indians may be defeated but they are not losers, having given themselves and their fans something in short supply -- and that is hope. The details of the loss -- the combined collapse of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, the disappearance of Travis Hafner and Rafael Perez, losing a 3-1 series lead -- will hurt for a long time, but the journey is all about having the chance to care at this late date in the first place. If sport is to have any value at all, the road traveled, even when it leads to a dead end, should always be a trip worth taking. Without the pain, the champagne, when it finally flows, will have no taste.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE