WORLD SERIES: ATLANTA BRAVES vs. CLEVELAND INDIANS : An Erie Sensation : Did You Hear the One About Cleveland? The Jokes Are Over

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those Cleveland Indians and their American League pennants. Every 41 years, just like clockwork, the Indians are in the World Series.

In fact, Indian broadcaster and one-time star pitcher Herb Score, takes exception to anyone even hinting that there was this tiny parched span of more than four decades, from 1954 to 1995.

"We always had good baseball teams in Cleveland," Score said. "Unfortunately, it was the opponents."

Bob Feller, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was 13-2 for the 1954 team, said time hasn't exactly flown.

"It's a long time, I'll be honest," Feller said. "But why don't you talk to somebody from Chicago? The Cubs, they haven't been to the World Series since, well, I guess almost since God was born."

The most surprising thing about the World Series isn't that the Indians are in it, although that would have been pretty laughable not many years ago, but that they seem to have lifted an entire city's sports psyche.

Feller has noticed.

"There aren't any Cleveland jokes anymore," he said.

Bob Lemon was on that '54 staff with Feller and said he never heard jokes then about the Indians.

"They weren't joking about us," he said. "There was always Washington."

The Senators are long gone, of course, but there still is plenty of funny stuff going on in Washington. Not in Cleveland sports, though. Since they turned respectable last season in the new Jacobs Field, the Indians have made sure they are not anything like the Indians of old.

Those Indians, the ones who were lost for 41 years, were often targets of good-natured ribbing. Cleveland Brown tackle Doug Dieken once said of Duane Kuiper, an Indian second baseman, "Duane's game reminds me of a lot of the bars I go to--all singles and no action."

But the new Indians win, and the fans come to see them do it. Their attendance this strike-shortened season, 2,842,725, ranked third in the major leagues, behind only the Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles.

"If you give the fans a contender, they'll show up," said Lemon, who thinks it amusing that everyone has suddenly discovered Cleveland again.

Feller said there is only one real reason the Indians are succeeding.

"They've got money," he said. "That's the name of the game. It's No. 1. It's so far No. 1, I don't think there's even a No. 2."

Being a pro sports fan in Cleveland has been a long, wild ride that would probably have people fainting at Magic Mountain. Cleveland's image as a sports town generally relates to winning or losing, whether it's the Indians, Browns or Cavaliers.

And not a small part of the Cleveland image is shaped where the teams played their games. Take pro basketball, for instance.

Before there was the beautiful, new, downtown Gund Arena, there was the dingy, old, downtown Cleveland Arena, where Herman Munster would have made a perfect usher.

It was the first home court of the Cavaliers in 1970. The NBA expansion team was coached by 37-year-old Bill Fitch, who remembers the place with a peculiar fondness.

"That building should have been condemned," Fitch said. "It was great."

The Arena certainly had its quirks. Fitch said that workmen there would sometimes switch off the lights at night, toss hot dogs onto the floor, then wait awhile. When they brought the lights back up, everyone would shoot the rats that had gathered for a snack. Cagney would have loved it.

One problem visiting players had with the place was that it lacked certain amenities . . . such as showers. Oh, all right, there were showers, and if you bent over real low, you might even get your hair wet. But you probably didn't want to.

"[John] Havlicek said anyone who showered in there would get something terminal," Fitch said.

Covering the floor of the shower area were wooden slats--slippery, splintery wooden slats.

"The splinters would get you before the water did," Fitch said.

In time, most players learned that the best place to shower after a game was in a hotel room.

The Cavaliers got off to sort of a slow start that first year, losing 37 of their first 40 games. Undaunted, the fans showed up. The Cavaliers averaged 3,518 fans, enough to impress Fitch.

"Cleveland not only had the greatest fans, Cleveland had the bravest fans," Fitch said. "We led the league in stolen cars."

After the last rat shoot that season, the Cavaliers wound up 15-67.

"You'd have thought we led the league," Fitch said. "Believe me, those are great fans in that city.

"Problem was, Cleveland was catching a lot of flak as a city. It was a really tough downtown. You just didn't go downtown. The Indians and Browns really suffered from that too. This was about the time the Cuyahoga River burned."

No question, when a large body of water catches on fire in a town, it's not great publicity. At that point, Stephen King should have been named mayor.

Anyway, the line of progression in Cleveland pro basketball moved from a strange building to a strange owner. That would be Ted Stepien, the only owner in the history of the NBA who eventually was barred by the league office from making trades.

Ted was a serial trader. He probably felt really bad after each swap. Maybe all those trades were simply pleas for help: "Stop me before I trade another No. 1 draft pick!"

Stepien made millions in his advertising business and promptly lost millions running the Cavaliers. Said Tom Nissalke, who coached the Cavaliers for Stepien in 1982-83, "It was a wild time. All the GMs in the league were afraid to go out to lunch because they might miss a phone call from Ted."

Stepien traded a 1984 No. 1 draft choice to Dallas for Mike Bratz. The Mavericks drafted Sam Perkins.

Stepien traded 1983 and '86 No. 1 picks to Dallas for Jerome Whitehead and Richard Washington. The Mavericks drafted Derek Harper and Roy Tarpley.

Stepien traded Chad Kinch and a 1985 No. 1 pick to Dallas for Geoff Huston. The Mavericks drafted Detlef Schrempf.

After that last one, the NBA stepped in, declared a moratorium on any more Cleveland trades and eventually introduced the so-called Stepien rule, which is still in effect: Teams cannot trade first-round picks in successive years.

Through it all, the Cavaliers continued to draw well, especially after they moved to the Richfield Coliseum, about midway between Cleveland and Akron. When the redevelopment of downtown Cleveland began, the Cavaliers became part of that movement too, but the loyalty of the fans remained unchanged.

"Hell, I still feel like the Cavs are my team," Fitch said. "The fact being I started them. The fans in Cleveland are just a special group."

That's especially true when it comes to football. In Cleveland, the ball's laces might just as well be heartstrings, the way the Browns are supported at hoary old Cleveland Stadium. Built in 1931 on the shore of Lake Erie downtown, the big gray fortress seats 78,512 for football, now that obstructed-view seats are no longer sold.

The Browns won Cleveland's last major pro sports championship when Jim Brown led the way to the 1964 NFL title. The Browns averaged more than 78,000 that season. Only twice since 1964 has average attendance been less than 60,000--in 1975 when the Browns were 3-11 and in 1984 when they were 5-11.

Lou (the Toe) Groza began playing in Cleveland in 1946 when the Browns were part of the All-America Football Conference, some of whose teams merged with the NFL in 1950. Groza was a left offensive tackle and kicker and played in Cleveland through the 1967 season when he was 43.

He wouldn't have played anywhere else, said Groza, from Martin's Ferry, Ohio.

"This is the best sports town possible," he said. "I don't think there is any town that compares to Cleveland."

And listen, better not tell Groza any Cleveland jokes or he just may boot your backside through the uprights.

"The only thing I know is, we have a good town," he said. "I don't care what anybody says."

Another Brown Hall of Famer is Paul Warfield, the fleet receiver from Warren, Ohio, about 50 miles east of Cleveland. Warfield has heard all the Cleveland jokes.

"There used to be a lot of bad press from the media," Warfield said. "Johnny Carson, Rich Little--they were not very helpful with their jokes. Cleveland has been the butt of jokes. I guess it took over from Philadelphia with W.C. Fields."

But how the fans have felt about the Browns isn't funny, Warfield said.

"The support for the Browns goes back to 1946, with players like Otto Graham and Marion Motley and the legendary and great Coach Paul Brown," he said. "Since 1964, when we won the championship, there have been some bleak years, but the fans are immensely loyal. It's an ongoing love affair."

Television ratings released by the NFL show that Cleveland was the No. 1 local market for Sunday afternoon games in 1994 of the 32 markets that were metered. Cleveland had a 21.3 rating and a 40 share and No. 2 Dallas had a 21.2 rating and a 39 share.

There are Brown fans everywhere, many of them in Southern California. The Browns Backers here number 2,500 paid members, which is just about one for every step Groza took on a frozen Cleveland Stadium field. As if he cared about a little thing called frostbite.

"If you are a real sports fan, you don't care what the weather is," he said.

And if you're a real sports fan, you probably don't care about sitting in Cleveland Stadium, where Max Schmeling fought Young Stribling for the heavyweight championship in 1931. It's where the Beatles played, where Bob Hope sang "Thanks for the Memories" at the last Indian game there and where the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame concert was held last month.

It's also where the Browns are studying renovation plans. The Browns already have improved the visitors' locker room, according to Kevin Byrne, the team's director of public relations.

"We've installed new hooks," he joked.

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