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Hard Times Have Come to Two Old Baseball Cities : In Cleveland, They’re Dying for a Winner; In Pittsburgh, They’re Dying at the Gate

Newsday

A winter’s spring day on Lake Erie, the blue outfield fence at Cleveland Stadium displays some new banners. One reminds visitors that in this ballpark in 1948, the Cleveland Indians won the World Series. The banner next to it concerns the year 1954.

“Cleveland Indians,” it reads, “American League Champions.” Not that people in Cleveland need reminders. As most of the 61,978 in attendance on Opening Day knew, 1954 was the year the Indians won 111 games--a major league record that remains intact--but lost the World Series in four games. It was the year Willie Mays made his classic over-the-shoulder catch of a ball hit by the Indians’ Vic Wertz, a play that will haunt Indians fans until the team wins another championship, because it has all been downhill from there. The Indians lost that Series, didn’t win another pennant, and haven’t even contended for one since 1959.

So what do you do when it’s September and you’ve been in last place, in essence if not in fact, for 25 years? You talk about the past. You point to the new banners on the outfield fence commemorating the old days, which is appropriate in a rickety stadium that was built as a WPA job in 1932 and still has 44 poles holding the place together.

And if you’re a newspaper, you pretend it really is 1954. The Cleveland Plain Dealer is running a story each day this season recapping the Indians’ game played that date in 1954. The paper is also running a daily box tracking the 1985 Indians’ loss pace. The question: Will the Indians break their record of 102 losses in a season, set in 1914 and equaled in 1971?

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“This town is just aching for a winner,” said Tom Romanini, an ordinary fan. He was 12 when Vic Power hit into a September double play to end the Indians’ last pennant drive in 1959. “It’s a one-month season. The Indians are the only team out of the playoffs by May.”

A couple of hours away, one state over and down Route 76, is Three Rivers Stadium, one of those carpeted ballparks, circa 1970, that baseball seems to have ordered in quantity to get a break on the price. It is the home of another of this summer’s last-place teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates. But unlike the Indians, who have been so bad so long, the Pirates have collapsed quickly, completely and recently. They won six division titles in the 1970s and two World Series, including one in 1979, when they were a Family. Now they are without stars, money, and an owner who wants them.

The Pirates have been one of most successful teams in recent years, but now they have the look of a failing steel mill. Beset by an anemic farm system, open discontent among the players and a federal investigation of drug use among ballplayers that has implied involvement by members of the Pirates, this is a team that seems settled in last place for a while.

But the question in Pittsburgh this season is not whether the Pirates will finish last--that is assumed--but whether, before long, they will be finishing last in Denver or Indianapolis or New Jersey. The team is up for sale by a multimillionaire real estate man who prefers watching his horses win races to watching his ball team lose money. Win or lose, not many people want to pay to see the Pirates play.

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“The Pirates are not in vogue,” said Kent Tekulve, a longtime Pirates relief pitcher until he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies earlier this year. “It’s in to go to see the Steelers. It’s not in to go see the Pirates.”

Could this be the same city where Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente became legends, where Ralph Kiner couldn’t walk down Sennott Street without being trailed by an adoring mob? Could these be the fans who were so delirious one afternoon in 1960 that they nearly prevented Bill Mazeroski from crossing the plate after his Yankee-killing home run?

Cleveland and Pittsburgh are two old Northern cities--gritty, struggling places born of the Industrial Revolution and now suffering the effects of a fading blue-collar society. Not coincidentally, their major league baseball teams are two of the oldest clubs, both tied to the roots of the game. And they, too, are gritty, struggling teams with proud pasts and questionable futures. Cleveland was a charter member of the American League. Pittsburgh joined the National League in 1887. Now, both are entrenched in last place, fiscally disabled and begging for a buyer.

Baseball is not the most important thing going on in Pittsburgh or Cleveland, but if tradition and longevity mean anything, attention, as Willy Loman’s wife said, ought to be paid.

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Attention has been paid in places like Erie, Pa., and Youngstown, Ohio, towns in between where baseball loyalties are divided and where this is a summer to root for the California Angels. Welcome to the Valley of Despair.

Modern Tool and Die Inc.'s softball team is 22-8, in third place behind Burger King and Bunny’s Tavern. The Dies play a half-hour from Cleveland Stadium, at a place called Softball World, which has five diamonds with announcers and Bud Light scoreboards. On this softball team with blue pants and red hats--Indians’ colors--is a full compliment of Indians fans.

Mike Stepanik, the cynic: “You can make an all-star team of the players they’ve traded: Piniella, Nettles, Hendrick, Buddy Bell, Sutcliffe, Eckersly.”

Ron Nock, the optimist: “We’re two or three pitchers away from being a fourth-place club.”

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Ken Schneider, the wistful romanticist: “Some of us do remember the 1954 World Series. Rocky Colavito lived across the street from me. I used to play catch with him.”

Mike Walsh, the fair-weather fan: “I haven’t been to an Indians game in five years, and that was a free ticket. It’s too aggravating. I’d rather go to Cincinnati.”

Cleveland Stadium is an immense place with 74,208 seats that, despite the Indians’ immense failures, has given them many of the American League’s single-game attendance records. Opening Day is particulary well-attended each year in Cleveland. But in the dog days of summer, the Indians, who attracted just 734,079 customers last year, are drawing fewer than 10,000 fans a game. This is despite frequent promotions, including seventh-inning stretches that feature young women in leotards dancing on the Indians’ dugout with miniature baseball bats.

This is a typical season for the Indians, whose performance is so institutionalized that the Cleveland section of the “Let’s Go: USA” travel book notes, “The Indians struggle through the baseball season at Cleveland Stadium,” as if it were a permanent exhibit, like the Chinese collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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Things were different in Ralph Kiner’s day. “When I played there (Forbes Field),” he said a few days ago, “we drew over a million every year. And we had lousy ballclubs other than in ’48. Football couldn’t draw a lick when I was there.”

But in 1985, football is king in Pittsburgh. While the Steelers sell out Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates are not likely to match last season’s meager attendance of 773,500.

Attendance is not the Pirates’ only problem, but it may be their most important one. The Pirates have been losing money for a decade, and now they are for sale. Although a local group is trying to work out a deal with owner John Galbreath, the most capable buyers would move the team out of Pittsburgh.

And unlike in Cleveland, where a winning team would probably fill empty seats, Pittsburgh since the early ‘70s hasn’t shown a great deal of interest in the Pirates, win or lose. In 1979, when the Pirates last won the World Series, Pittsburgh looked like one of those championship-crazed towns. “We Are Family,” the players’ wives sang behind the Pirates’ dugout as the nation watched on television. But the image was just an image. That year, the Pirates drew only 1.4 million people and lost $1.5 million. They didn’t even sell out the World Series. “They don’t want to see a losing team,” said the Pirates’ manager, Chuck Tanner, “but they don’t want to see a winning team, either.”

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With the Pirates’ future home in doubt, a local radio station and newspaper promoted a Sunday game in June that was supposed to show that Pittsburgh wants to keep its baseball team. Still, only 31,000 people showed up. “And as soon as we got behind, they booed the hell out of our players,” said General Manager Joe Brown. “There’s almost an antipathy toward our ballclub.”


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