How LeBron Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Get Excited About Baseball Again

Remember Rajai Davis’ epic game-tying home run in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series? Of course you do. It was one of the most thrilling sports moments in what was, for Cleveland, a year that was filled with thrilling sports moments — the final score of the game (and series) notwithstanding.

Just after Rajai’s laser cleared the 19-foot wall in left field, sending most of Northeast Ohio into complete and frenzied bedlam, there was an image that provided not just a beautiful summary of the moment but a perfect bookend to the past decade of Cleveland sports. It wasn’t the Indians’ jubilant dugout emptying to greet the city’s newest hero at home plate. It wasn’t even Davis himself banging his chest and pointing to the sky as he rounded first base. In fact, it wasn’t an image of a player at all. At least not a baseball player.

As the Fox broadcast showed a series of cutaways from the dugout, the Gateway Plaza and the field itself, there was one shot that should still be seared in the brain of every Clevelander who has ever given a fraction of a shit about sports, this city, or sports as they relate to this city.

It was LeBron James, in the private box from which many of the Cavaliers had watched several postseason games. The cameras caught him in mid-scream. He was leaning over the guardrail, flexing — his arms and shoulders nearly bursting out of his black “Cleveland or Nowhere” T-shirt. LeBron has carefully maintained a mostly stoic public image throughout his career, but this was 100 percent unscripted. It was primal. It was us. It was Cleveland.

It was also a far cry from the LeBron we knew 10 years earlier.

Remember the Yankees hat? Again, of course you do. During the 2007 American League Division Series against the Bronx Bombers, back before anyone knew that troll could be used as a verb, Cleveland’s favorite native son showed up at then-Jacobs Field wearing the baseball equivalent of a Darth Vader mask — an official MLB-licensed navy blue cap with the iconic interlocking “NY.” He was, the story went at the time, a lifelong Yankees fan. A fair enough (and unbelievably disappointing) reason, but that didn’t stop the backlash from coming fast and furious. “The guy is the face of Cleveland sports and he’s not even rooting for a team that’s 100 feet from the building he plays in,” one fan told ESPN. Imagine if, back then, Twitter had been more than a fledgling startup that nobody understood as LeBron hoisted the devil’s wear into the air with both hands, his Hollywood smile beaming for the cameras.

After the Yankees hat incident, LeBron, the Cavs and the Indians each took wildly different paths before converging once more for the batshit celebration during Game 7 in November. It’s important to remember during the 2016 MLB postseason, LeBron was just six months removed from winning the first professional sports championship Cleveland had seen since 1964. When he rocked the Yankees hat, he was six months removed from having been swept by the San Antonio Spurs in his first NBA Finals appearance. It’s also worth mentioning that just shy of two weeks later, the Indians would lose to the Red Sox (managed by Terry Francona) in the American League Championship Series after blowing a 3-1 lead.

Years passed, and Cleveland’s relationship with LeBron, the Cavs and the Indians would waver, at various times, between loving, tense, apathetic and outright hatred. The Cavs were plenty good in 2008 and 2009, but both seasons saw the team lose in disappointing fashion in the postseason while LeBron grew more and more unhappy. Meanwhile, the Indians followed up their emotional 2007 run with a .500 finish in 2008, then three consecutive losing seasons. In 2010, LeBron tore off his Cavs jersey in disgust — both figuratively and literally — and decamped for Miami. In the process he became the most hated man in Cleveland since Art Modell. Both teams were in the tank (joining the Browns, naturally) and all of a sudden it was 1974 in Cleveland again.

Which brings us back to Game 7. Obviously LeBron had nothing to do with the Indians’ postseason success. He had nothing to do with Rajai Davis’ home run. Hell, the Indians didn’t even win the fucking series. But with that scream, with that Hulk Hogan pose, with that “Cleveland or Nowhere” T-shirt, he became the personification of our own id as Cleveland sports fans. What was fascinating about his rare show of unbridled enthusiasm was that he didn’t look shocked. He looked like he’d been waiting for something just like that to happen. He expected it. The scream was not just pure excitement; it was the relief one feels when validated. When the Cavs won the NBA title, he felt a different kind of relief, and it brought him, and many others throughout Cleveland, to tears. This time he was just a fan, a witness himself. And he was showing us that it was okay to possess and show that one thing this city’s sports fans had lacked for a generation: He was confident.

And look at us now, on the eve of another baseball season. When was the last time you remember the city having this kind of swagger? Sure, the Cavs are coasting into the playoffs on fumes, but they’re still the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. The Indians are loaded and are expected to repeat as Central Division champions. Edwin-freaking-Encarnacion has come to town. Michael Brantley is (supposedly?) healthy. Every member of the pitching staff still has his limbs. And for the first time since 2008, the season after the team’s last deep playoff run, the Indians are expected to draw 2 million fans.

Almost. It’s a word we’re familiar with here. The 1980s produced two almost-Super-Bowl appearances for the Browns. In the ’90s, the Indians gave us two more almost-World-Series crowns. This century, LeBron became the king of almost — until he wasn’t. Which is why there is something poetic about the man who finally won Cleveland a championship becoming the lasting symbol of yet another almost-title just a few months later. Only this time it was different.
It wasn’t Bernie Kosar consoling Ernest Byner. It wasn’t Julian Tavarez sobbing in the dugout. It wasn’t a shellshocked Jose Mesa or Omar Vizquel’s dejected thousand-mile stare.

This was the city’s most-beloved, then most-hated, then most-forgiven athlete showing us it was okay to want, and expect, more.

For a long time after Game 7, I couldn’t watch the replay of Rajai’s dinger. Eventually I did, dozens and maybe hundreds of times by now. (Yup, just watched it again, and so should you.) When I watch it or think about it, it’s not painful, because there’s LeBron, there’s me, there’s Cleveland.

And it’s what we should all remember when we think about the moment we found, or at least rediscovered, our collective mojo. It’s springtime in Cleveland and the city is finally ready to be excited again.
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