The Minnesota Case For Rooting For Cleveland

The 2016 World Series is finishing tonight in Cleveland for game seven with the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians tied up at 3-3. It’s a championship major league sports event with something of a middle America feel. Who should we root for as Minnesota sports fans?

Indeed – it has been awhile since we’ve experienced a World Series of geographical proximity. Milwaukee has not won a pennant since 1982, St. Louis and Detroit are beyond the Minnesota eco-system; and the White Sox are hard to reach in their South Side Comiskey Park (now Guaranteed Rate Field) venue.

But with the advent of cable television, WGN beamed into our home and the Cubs were a line-of-site presence. Cleveland is the one city (until the Cavaliers’ championship) whose pro sports record was as desultory as Minnesota’s. So, we feel some bonhomie with these cities and franchises.

Of course, we also in a most tenuous Minnesota way in the realm of baseball point out that whereas the Twins had won a World Series 25 years ago (the greatest one at that – read Steve Rushin’s retrospective in “Sports Illustrated” to remember) it has been 108 years for the Cubs and 68 years for Cleveland. This unstable rope-bridge-across-the-Amazon articulation of a supposed sports security will now fall when one of these teams is handed the Commissioner’s Trophy by Commissioner Rob Manfred.

So, since they’re playing this World Series in two Midwestern cities who should receive the rooting interest of Minnesotans – or more dangerously – receive this form of a beso de muerte.

Since this is the season the analysis begins with personal introspection. Initial connections and formative influences are important. Visiting Chicago in August 1969, my dad managed to negotiate reasonably priced seats from a ticket scalper for three grandstand tickets for a Sunday afternoon game against the Atlanta Braves. Veteran Cubs fans will now what is coming next: Ken Holtzman’s no-hitter which was the high-water mark for their team before the epic five week collapse before the hard charging “Amazin’ Mets.” That Holtzman was Jewish made the game no less thrilling. I should have been a Cubs fan for life given this propitious event.

Things like fandom are never so simple, though. The Mets were led by their righty-lefty pitching combination Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman – two young, dynamic thoroughbreds. Koosman was a native Minnesotan which made me a Mets fan with respect to my National League allegiance. Although the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson and Southern California relatives made the Dodgers a close second.

Years later, though, attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I became friends with many Chicagoans from the swath of their north from Evanston to Highland Park to Skokie. This coincided with the great and marvelously entertaining 1984 Cubs team with Rick Sutcliffe, Andre Dawson, and Ryne Sandberg. This also coincided with the rise of the Young Twins of Puckett, Hrbek, Gaetti, and Viola whose 1984 West Division title hopes mathematically expired in a long, cruel Friday night in Cleveland’s Memorial Stadium when our boys blew a 10-0 lead. (And I listened as Herb Carneal sank deeper into dirge four stories above Gorham St. in Madison.) This Minnesota meltdown, and because of the playoff beatings the North Stars suffered at the hands of the Blackhawks in ’82 and ’83, I was not despondent when the Padres rallied from down 2-0 to win the National League pennant – ah, schadenfreude.

From the Cleveland perspective, I have been granted observer status for a coterie of expatriate Ohioans whose disaster-is-around-the-corner mentality is comfortably accommodated in their Twin Cities’ exile. Their torments involved the John Elway losses in the AFC Championship games to the Broncos in ways Vikings fans can appreciate, and the unmentionable name of the Cleveland closer in the 1997 World Series. Their suffering is now past tense. The Cavs and LeBron have won. It is Believeland.

Of course, Chicago has been piling up championships for the past generation between the ’85 Bears, the Jordan-Bulls dynasty, and the Blackhawks Stanley Cup playoff runs of the past few years. Meanwhile, the flickering half-burned match has been passed from Cleveland to the Twin Cities. That is, Minnesota is now the professional sporting community with the four major professional franchises which has gone the longest without a championship.

Expanding the measure of equities requires even deeper drilling to determine who is worthy of our support in the World Series. Between the two World Series’ teams and Minnesota – the most prominent sports rivalry is the Vikings and Bears. This in the main – though – has been genteel competition by NFL standards. As Sid Hartman has reported in his last two Minneapolis Star Tribune columns from first-hand knowledge, “Poppa Bear” George Halas was the godfather or at least an avuncular figure to the expansion Vikings. Vikings fans – and all of the NFL – admired two of the greatest running backs of all time: the incomparable talents and indomitable spirits of Gale Sayers and Walter Peyton. We even have a shared icon in Justice Alan Page whose historic career spanned both franchises – fortunately he was inducted into Canton as a Viking, after making All-Pro six times and being named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1971. (Not even the thoroughly disliked Doug Plank and Gary Fencik can cast too large a shadow over the great rivalry.)

The record of Minnesota versus Cleveland in the professional spirits realm is without the development of a long-standing rivalry so it adds little to the question at hand. The Vikings have experienced two moments of serious celebration against the Browns. The Vikings actually won the last NFL championship pre-merger beating Cleveland 27-7 in December 1969 before losing to the Chiefs in the 1970 Super Bowl. And no one of sufficient age will forget Ahmad Rashad’s catch of Tommy Kramer’s Hail Mary – proceeded by the Joe Senser to Ted Brown hook-and-ladder play – which gave the Vikings the 1980 NFC Central championship. The Minnesota and Cleveland relationship has been additive. The old Cleveland Barons of the NHL were merged with the North Stars which provided – along with the drafting of Bobby Smith, Steve Payne, and Craig Hartsburg – for the foundation of the rise of the North Stars starting in 1979.

In short, there is not too much Minnesota professional sports animus towards either Chicago or Cleveland to disqualify either World Series team from receiving our support in the World Series.

Growing up in our household in St. Louis Park, the interface between sports and politics was often permeable. So, are there any political inclinations which might distinguish the two cities?

I’m gravitating to Harry Truman as a great admirer of the 33rd President and because of a friend – a Chicago native – who pointed out this is the Harry Truman World Series. He was president for both the Cubs 1945 World Series appearance and Cleveland’s 1948 championship.

Chicago was geographically central to Truman’s eventual assumption of the presidency. Joseph Lelyveld’s brilliant new book – “His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt” – chronicles FDR’s choreography of Truman’s selection as vice president. On his way to the West Coast, Hawaii, and Alaska, FDR secretly visited Chicago aboard his train the Ferdinand Magellan a few days before the beginning of the 1944 Democratic National Convention. FDR conferred with the chairman of the Democratic National Committee Robert Hannegan at the Fifty First Street railyard in Chicago. This set in motion the events which led to Truman’s nomination as the vice-presidential candidate on the second ballot – but not before behind the scenes machinations and a convention adjournment for the night allowed for the completion of the side deals necessary for Truman’s victory. Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly was at the center of the maneuvering.

Three years later – at World Series time – Truman was in the midst of his remarkable “Whistle-stop campaign” which catalyzed his upset victory over Thomas Dewey and confounded the political pundits of the time. Truman’s margin of victory in electoral-vote rich Illinois and Ohio were excruciatingly narrow: in Illinois, 33,612 votes out of almost 3,984,000 votes cast; in Ohio, 7,107 votes out of 2,936,071 votes cast. Illinois and Ohio provided 53 of Truman’s 303 electoral votes by a combined margin of about 40,000 votes.

Given the critical roles of Illinois and Ohio in the presidential fortunes of Harry Truman, this is also a draw from my perspective in evaluating the relative merits of the Cubs and Cleveland in terms of rooting interest.

At bottom, the uplifting comeback of the City of Cleveland from the days of the burning Cuyahoga River – the same year as the Miracle Mets – tips the balance in favor cheering for another title for Believeland.


Steve Hunegs is the executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.