So Awesome, It Hurts

Even when Awesomefest isn't awesome, it's still awesome.

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Awesomefest Best Week Ever bar-hopping weird festivals
"We bring people together, whether they remember it or not," says Brian Saracusa, Dean of Awesome (center). - Joe P. Tone
Joe P. Tone
"We bring people together, whether they remember it or not," says Brian Saracusa, Dean of Awesome (center).
An old man has his shirt off in a crowded bar. His chest looks more like an old woman's, droopy and sad, but his face is that of a young boy. He's holding up a new T-shirt. He looks giddy. So do the cluster of young men circling him, especially the guy taking the old man's photo.

It's 6:30 on a Saturday evening, the night the Cavs will win the East. The foreplay to the night's climax is heating up in bars around town. None is more packed than the Clevelander, a sweaty slice of man heaven just a heave from Jacobs Field. It's a sea of 100-percent-cotton hope, freshly printed T-shirts emblazoned with Rise Up, Detroit Sucks, and Witness.

But the old man's new shirt -- along with all the shirts in this corner of the Clevelander -- isn't wine or gold. It's bright red and reads, somewhat cryptically, "Team Awesome."

The mischievous man clicking the photo is Brian Saracusa. He's been charging $15 per shirt all night, but the old man gets his gratis. Saracusa can change the rules like that. It's one of the perks of being the Dean of Awesome.

A 31-year-old Lakewood native, Saracusa is both symptom and victim of Cleveland's brain drain. He booked for New York after graduating from Bowling Green in 2000. "I love Cleveland," he says, "but there's nothing for me to do here."

He'd grown up a TV-comedy junkie, so he interned at VH-1 and worked his way into production roles for Best Week Ever, the channel's hilarious batch of celebrity eviscerations. He's now the show's producer. "It's kind of a challenge to make the 17th Britney Spears story interesting," he explains. "There's only so many ways you can call her a crazy fucking bitch."

Such dilemmas keep Saracusa from getting home often. So in 2004, he started his own festival. It would mark no anniversary, fall on no special date. It would celebrate nothing save its own awesomeness.

He made up T-shirts and told friends to meet at the Clevelander. Fifty people showed. They got drunk, went to the Indians game, heckled everyone they could find. It was nothing more than a vague celebration of enduring friendships and an excuse to get needlessly drunk -- a truly midwestern endeavor.

They called it Awesomefest.

Over the years, the festival grew, with people traveling in from all over the country and random strangers making repeat appearances. Saracusa's not sure who that old shirtless guy is, but he's been to Awesomefest three years running.

It has become, for those in the know, a can't-miss event.

Last year Troy Scott, an Army infantryman, was stuck in Iraq on the big day. "It was the only day of the year I was sad," he says. He used his phone privileges to call friends for updates: Where are you guys now? How 'bout now?

This year, a portion of the group's Indians ticket sales will go to the American Cancer Society. "It helps me sleep at night," Saracusa says. "If we're going to rampage and go through this city and destroy it, the least we can do is help some people out."

About 100 people showed this year -- down from last year's 150, probably because of the Cavs. "This year was very different," four-time attendee Katie Foxx explains. "The Cavs overpowered it." In years past, Team Awesome moved around the city like a swarm of piss-drunk bees; this year, it looks like someone shook up the hive, with red shirts scattered everywhere.

At around 7:30, with plenty of beer in his system, Saracusa rounds up Team Awesome, and they make their way toward their usual spot outside the Jake.

As they walk, Saracusa starts chucking T-shirts into the crowd at a nearby bar. People leap to catch them and read the front, looking bewildered. It's part of the fun of Awesomefest: watching people try to figure out what the hell it is. "I usually just tell them it's a church group," Saracusa says. "It's hard to explain a celebration of awesomeness."

Like a squad of unruly Little Leaguers, they band together in front of a statue of Bob Feller for photos. "I just wanted to be here for the picture," David McGlynn says. He was supposed to fly in from Chicago, where he planned to work this summer. Then he was barreled over by a taxi, which shattered his leg. But earlier tonight, the red-cotton sea parted when McGlynn rolled through the Clevelander in a wheelchair.

"This is something that's going to go on forever," he says. "Our kids are going to be coming to this. You have no idea what that shirt means."

The group stumbles through the Jacobs Field gates and straight to the Batter's Eye bar, behind center field. Not a single one of them takes his seat; those are behind home plate, much too far from the bar. They double-fist beers and boo everyone who saunters past wearing anything labeled "Detroit."

A bartender immediately cuts off two members who appear overserved. Their shirts probably don't help: Team Awesome has a reputation for heckling opposing fans, taunting bullpen security guards, and faux-fellating statues. More than one attendee has learned firsthand the not-so-awesomeness of jail.

The bartenders seem to have been warned.

"If they were wearing a collared shirt," Saracusa says, "it might have taken a few more beers to get cut off."

After the Tribe game, Saracusa and his band of mischief moves back to the Clevelander. Then they part ways to visit their favorite closing-time haunts. Saracusa winds up at Lakewood's Old Stand, trying to explain his shirt to strangers. Foxx winds up at West Park's Public House. She'll be there the next day too, when Indians reliever Roberto Hernandez will show up, inexplicably wearing a "Team Awesome" shirt.

Needless to say, no one knows where he got it.

"We bring people together," Saracusa says, "whether they remember it or not."

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