The Cleveland Indians have been streakier than Will Ferrell in Old School this season. As of this writing, they have just completed a sweep of the Texas Rangers, a team ahead of them in the American League Wild Card race, and find themselves at 55-48, just three games back of the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. Yet, as of last Thursday, much of Cleveland can’t be bothered to take notice.
Instead of heading down to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario to watch the Tribe and their suddenly dominant starting pitching (who would have thought that phrase would be typed this season), Clevelanders have headed west in throngs. Their destination: 76 Lou Groza Boulevard in Berea – Cleveland Browns team headquarters. To illustrate this point, consider the juxtaposition from Sunday. The Indians went for the sweep against the Rangers in a day game and drew just 19,673 fans to Progressive Field, capacity 43,345. Meanwhile the Browns held their first practice in full pads that was open to the public and drew 4,466 fans, a single day record at the Berea facility. Capacity is estimated at 3,000.
The Browns of course have a new coaching staff and front office, as well as new ownership entering their first full season piloting (beware awful Pilot Flying J commercial tie-ins this season) the success-starved franchise. However, in spite of all that new car smell wafting out of the facility, that is not why Browns fans have flocked to Berea to watch grown men practice tossing a strangely shaped ball around a field.
While the new faces within the organization surely don’t subtract from the excitement, the large crowds in Berea are far from abnormal. Last season I interned for the Browns during training camp, and I can’t recall a practice session that wasn’t standing room only. Fans, myself included, were excited to see rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson (who actually ended up sitting out all of training camp after knee surgery). The season before it was the arrival of new head coach Pat Shurmur that had Cleveland – again I was guilty of this – abuzz. You can surely find some source of excitement for every season of the Browns’ expansion era, all the way back to 1999 when fans were simply starving for the return of professional football to the shores of Lake Erie.
Of course, the dedication of Browns fans has rarely been rewarded in the last 14 seasons. The ineptitude has been almost as constant as the fans themselves. Clevelanders surely love the Tribe and the Cavaliers enjoyed high levels of support during the LeBron James years (hopefully this offseason will inspire a renewal of Cavs fandom in town), but Cleveland is undeniably a Browns Town first, second, and third. The percentage of Clevelanders who would describe themselves as a Browns fan first and foremost must approach 75 percent, if not higher. They were certainly my first love, just as they were for my father before me and his father before him.
While I’ve already admitted that the Browns fill me with blind optimism every summer, something feels different this year. High profile free agents agreed to come to Cleveland, the city mocked as “The Mistake on the Lake” where the river once caught on fire. It finally seems like there is NFL-level talent at almost every position on this roster. They may not all be All-Pros, but there are plenty of guys who are proven contributors in this league. And, perhaps most importantly, those players are being led by a coaching staff, front office, and ownership group that make it plainly clear that they care about this franchise and will do everything in their power to build a team that will put up double digit wins instead of losses. Federal investigation or not, I still believe in the energy and enthusiasm of Jimmy Haslam.
But, as has proven true so often in the past, my own enthusiasm and the excitement that runs high from Bay Village to Bainbridge could be misplaced. This new regime could be another false start that ends with a draft pick in the single digits. We won’t know the truth until they start playing regular season games on September 8. On that Sunday afternoon, the renamed FirstEnergy Stadium will surely be full of orange and brown, just as it was so often as Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Indians may continue to battle for a playoff spot – I’ve actually invested much more time and energy in the Tribe this season than I ever have before and I hope a postseason berth is in the cards – but if a crucial game happens to fall on a Sunday afternoon in late September, Tito Francona and his squad should not expect to lead the six o’clock news. The Browns have the A Block on lock in this city.
Now imagine that Haslam, Banner, Lombardi, Chudzinski and company actually deliver. The team rattles off some wins and the Dawg Pound begins to get its bite back. If that comes to pass, the Indians might not make the news at all.