The other side: This Indians fan is a kindred spirit

The sign welcoming baseball fans to Jacobs Field is framed by a few of Cleveland's skyscrapers as the Indians face the Braves in Game 3 of the 1995 World Series at the new ballpark. (David Tulis/AJC)

Credit: DAVID TULIS

Credit: DAVID TULIS

Editor’s note: This is the latest in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution series on the 25th anniversary of the Braves' World Series-winning season of 1995. In stories that will continue through October, we capture all the key moments and hear from the participants as they share their memories. Today’s installment takes a different approach as AJC editor Kevin Riley, a long-time Indians fan, shares his thoughts from the other side of the field.

When we made plans at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a year-long celebration of the Braves' 1995 World Series championship, I knew it was a great idea.

Readers and fans would love it; players and coaches were still accessible and would be happy to reminisce about that historic and vindicating moment for Atlanta’s iconic team.

But for me, it would be painful, I believed. I’m a life-long fan of the team the Braves beat in the World Series – the Cleveland Indians. You know, the team that still hasn’t won a World Series since 1948.

As it turns out, the newspaper’s retrospection also awakened some great memories for me, and perhaps more important, showed me that the Braves fans I know aren’t so much rivals as kindred spirits.

More about that in a bit. First, let’s turn the clock back to a time even before that 1995 season.

***

Years before the ’95 Series, the Braves had already put the pieces in place for their historic run of winning division titles, and the Indians were stirring from a decades-long malaise. For much of my time as a fan, Cleveland’s baseball team stood firmly as one of the worst franchises in pro sports. On the occasion the Indians would develop a young star, fans marked the trade deadline on their calendar so they could prepare for the inevitable deal that sent a favorite player to the New York Yankees.

New owners took over. They invested in the farm system. The city had decided to build a new ballpark.

By 1993 a spark had been lit. That year I attended the final game in the old and decrepit Cleveland Municipal Stadium, capacity about 75,000. Even when the Indians were able to draw a crowd, it seemed empty. And they lost that day, an appropriate closing chapter as the team left some troubled history behind.

In 1994, I attended Opening Day at the new Jacobs Field. The Indians beat Seattle, 4-3, in 11 innings, and things sure seemed different.

One of my favorite memories of that frigid April day: when I visited the restroom, a guy held his hands under the water at a sink for a long time, smiling and looking around.

“Warm water,” he said. There was no such luxury at the old stadium.

And along with the warm water came a new kind of team. The Indians contended through that tantalizing season, competitive in the new Central Division of the American League.

With baseball’s new playoff format, they seemed assured of a place in the post season for the first time in 40 years – and the first time in my life.

Then the players' union decided to strike in August. Major League Baseball canceled the rest of its season.

It felt like the baseball gods had decide to punish Indians fans for convincing ourselves that we belonged anywhere but baseball’s basement.

When the MLB and its players finally got back together and agreed to a 144-game season in 1995, I was sure something would go horribly wrong for the Indians.

But it didn’t. The Indians won nearly 70% of their games, going 100-44, winning the division by 30 games. But even that offered no comfort. The last time an Indians team had that successful of a season was 1954, when the team went 111-43. They were swept in the World Series.

I have two vivid memories from that time when the Indians officially clinched a spot in the postseason. I wore my Indians hat at the office the next day – did I mention they hadn’t been in the postseason for 40 years? (I worked in Dayton, Ohio, at the time, which is pure Cincinnati Reds country. As you’ll recall, the Braves beat the Reds in the ’95 NLCS, dashing hopes of an all-Ohio World Series.)

I also remember how determined my father, a lifelong Clevelander, was to get all his six children to a postseason game. It seems a little strange now, but as fans we had no experience to tell us that 1995 wouldn’t be the only time in our lives the Indians would make the playoffs.

As it turned out, I attended a game in each of the three postseason series the Indians played that year, again with the thought this might be the only time I would get the chance to see them in the Division Series, the American League Championship Series and the World Series.

It was a special night to attend a Division Series game with my older brother (Dad’s two eldest children got the first set of tickets), and to see how much my father, who is now dead, reveled in his kids going to the games. Just writing this gave me a reason to call and talk with my brother about it.

For the record, the Indians swept the Boston Red Sox in that series, and they beat the Seattle Mariners on their way to meeting the Braves.

I won’t run through the game-by-game of the World Series, but I am reminded of a few things:

· Five of the six games were decided by one run, which shows how close the ’95 World Series was.

· How about Braves' catcher Javy Lopez picking off Manny Ramirez on first base in the eighth inning of Game 2? The Braves led by one, and slugger Jim Thome was at the plate. I still believe things may have come out very differently without that play. In my long-ago baseball-playing days I was a catcher, so over time I have come to admire Lopez for his talent and sagacity in that moment.

· The Indians had the best offense in baseball, lost the clinching Game 6 by a score of 1-0, and only had one hit. Then, it was painful and frustrating. Now, I can appreciate just how good that Braves pitching staff was.

My pain over the World Series loss to the Braves began to wane when I came to Atlanta in 2011.

Attending the 2014 baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony also softened my feeling toward that 1995 loss. Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were gracious – and deserving of the accolades they received that day.

My time in Atlanta has helped for me to develop an awareness of the frustrations of Atlanta pro sports fans. More about that in a bit.

My Indians loyalty requires me to pause here and talk about 1997 and 2016.

In 1997, the Indians returned to the World Series, and it looked like the curse would end. After all, they were playing the Florida Marlins, which were a Wild Card team and had only been around for five years.

The heavily favored Indians let the Series get to a Game 7, and then found a way to let the Marlins tie it in the ninth inning and win it in the 11th.

After that series, I ran into our baseball writer in the newsroom. He gave me a copy of the story he’d written that had the Indians winning. I couldn’t bring myself to read it.

In 2016, the Indians led the Chicago Cubs 3-1 in the World Series, but baseball’s lovable losers evened the series. In Game 7 in Cleveland, the Indians scored three runs with two outs to tie the game in the eighth inning. Then rain delayed the ninth inning. The Cubs won in 10 innings.

(Just between us, I am really sick of hearing Cubs fans tell me how much they deserved that World Series victory. I would prefer they remain “long-suffering.”)

I believe Braves fans and Indians fans can find plenty of common ground.

First, let’s join in our hatred of the Minnesota Twins – you because of ’91 and me because they remain in the Indians division and appear to be spoiling this season for me.

Also, let’s hold hands and forever loathe the Yankees.

And we can always revisit some recent heartbreak. No, wait. I know better than to even mention that 10-run first inning in the division series last year.

Braves fans and Indians fans are a lot alike. We know pain. We know disappointment. We know what it’s like to stick with our teams through unbearable losses. To clearly have the better team and still lose.

And deep down, we know it says important things about our loyalty and commitment that each April, we are back.

I admire Braves fans for those reasons. They can cling to 1995. Never let anyone cast aside your framed copy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution front page from that day.

I respect that because I don’t have much hang on to, except a distant 1948, the last time an Indians team won the World Series.

Did I mention they beat the Braves, then of Boston?

MORE FROM THE SERIES

» About the series

» FURMAN BISHER: Atlanta’s finest moment

» SPRING TRAINING: Starting with replacement players

» MARK BRADLEY: A subdued season, a giddy ending

» BOBBY COX: The best manager we’ll ever see

» BUILDING THE BRAVES: How the championship team was built

» CHIPPER JONES: ‘No bigger beneficiary of ’94 strike than me’

» TOM GLAVINE: Completing the journey back to fan favor

» MARK LEMKE: Improbable journey capped by World Series ring

» JOHN SMOLTZ: No Game 7 for him, but one heck of a celebration

» ANNOUNCERS: Championship call years in the making

» GREG MADDUX: At his best during ’95 World Series run

» DAVE SHOTKOSKI: Remembering pitcher killed in spring training

» MARQUIS GRISSOM: Dream comes true for Atlanta native

» MARK WOHLERS: Played prominent role in team’s success

» GREG McMICHAEL: How he found his pitch and earned his ring

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