CLEVELAND – In 1984, my grandpa Ray gave my father a bottle of Jim Beam. Since he had a good relationship (that’s putting it mildly) with liquor distributors, this wasn’t an ordinary bottle. It was aged four years in the barrel and was poured into a ceramic bear wearing a full Cubs uniform. You had to take off the head to open the bottle. Ray told my dad he couldn’t open it until the Cubs won the World Series, and then they would drink together.
I was born in 1987. Ray died in October of 2010. The bottle remained unopened.
I’d seen that bottle for years on shelves in the houses we lived in, and I don’t think I ever really knew the story. When the Cubs clinched the National League pennant, sending them to the World Series for the first time in oh so many years, my dad posted a Facebook status with a picture of the bottle. The Cubs were playing the Indians, and no matter who won I’d be toasting to something.
My earliest sports memories are Cubs games. My dad took me to the first (unofficial) night game at Wrigley Field when I was a little over a year old. The game didn’t count, which is fine, seeing as I don’t remember it anyway. We still have a hat with a pin from that game. Every time we visited my grandpa WGN would be on, and he’d be sipping an Old Style in his mobile home in the suburbs of Chicago. Harry Caray’s voice was as recognizable to me as an uncle’s. I thought I’d grow up and live on the North Side. I thought I’d be a Cubs fan forever. That’s how important that team was to my family. I wrote fake newspapers on an old Macintosh computer with headlines like “RICKMAN GIVES CUBS WORLD SERIES WIN” (with myself as the byline, because why wouldn’t a five-year-old write the article detailing his own exploits). I was decked out in Cubs gear in every picture from my childhood. These are also the only photographs you can see me smiling. Somewhere around the time we moved to Northeast Ohio I forgot how to smile in pictures. I still don’t know how.
I was introduced to Cleveland heartbreak just months after we moved from Cincinnati to a town halfway between Akron and Cleveland. I was in the basement after I’d begged my parents to let me watch Game 7. Little did they know they’d be dealing with an 11-inning game. Well, we all know how that one ended.
Even in the early 2000s I was grappling with which team had my allegiance. The 2003 Cubs I wanted it so badly for. I went to a concert the night of Game 6 of the NLCS with a bunch of emo bands including Motion City Soundtrack and Rufio. Fall Out Boy was also there. When I saw a TV over the bar playing the game, I posted up rather than watch the shows. Saddled up next to me after their set were the members of Fall Out Boy (so when you see them trotted out for every Chicago thing, at least they do care). We agonized together as the Steve Bartman thing happened. A couple members drank heavily. Patrick Stump stayed upbeat. I doubt that guy can be anything but upbeat. It was pouring when I left, and I had a parking ticket on my car on the drive home.
When I went to college, something changed. The Cubs still mattered. But my identity shifted. There is something about Cleveland and Northeast Ohio that grips you. LeBron James touched on it, although he didn’t quite phrase it the way he maybe wanted to.
“Anybody in this building,” James said during the team’s championship ring ceremony before the first game of the Cavs season this year, “anybody in this community, anybody in this state, anybody that’s got ties to Cleveland or northeast Ohio. From this building to next door where our guys are opening the World Series. At this point if you aren’t from here, live here, play here, dedicate yourself to Cleveland, it makes no sense for you to live at this point. Cleveland against the world!”
(I mean, I’m fine if people not from Cleveland are alive. But that’s just my hot take.)
When I had the chance to look for jobs after school, I did the only thing that made sense. I came home. And I stayed in Cleveland. I fled – much as LeBron did – a couple years later to find myself. Cleveland was a ghost and it would always be chasing me, but I needed a break. Later on, I couldn’t help myself. I came back a second time. By then, it really was “Cleveland against the world” as far as I was concerned.
That’s the thing about identity. You don’t really choose it. It chooses you. In a variety of ways. Something calls to you, compels you to align a certain way. My family would always be Cubs fans. I am Cleveland to the core. I don’t know how it happened. It just did. And I see that city in everything I do, all the decisions I make, how I talk, how I act, and my general demeanor. Trying to escape it did nothing for me. Embracing it made me who I am today.
When James left for Miami, he didn’t really expect the backlash. Years later, people would say it wasn’t that he did it, it was how he did it. The burning jerseys and the Dan Gilbert letter still dominate the conversation, but there’s something about the approach LeBron took. He drew a line in the sand between Akron and Cleveland and tried to pit the two against each other. With some time to look back on it now, that was where people took offense. James couldn’t outrun Cleveland either. Nobody can. It was his shadow. It was part of him.
When he returned, there was a shift. Whether it’s carefully crafted and a genius decision by his marketing team, or wholly genuine, who cares. It was there. LeBron started making Cleveland the focus. Cleveland wasn’t a place. It was an identity. People in Akron could claim that identity too. And he started to.
LeBron won the title, and screamed “Cleveland, this is for you.” That meant something. The banner a few hundred yards from Quicken Loans Arena, which has dominated that space in various forms since he was drafted in 2003, has been swapped out once again. This time it has LeBron, with his back turned, and in place of “James” it just reads “Cleveland.” All throughout Cleveland’s run through the MLB playoffs, James wore shirts invoking that sense of identity.
During Game 7, his shirt said “Cleveland Or Nowhere.” That a guy, who a decade earlier wore Yankees hats to Indians games and basically said he’d never be a Clevelander, would make such a cataclysmic shift is remarkable. But he learned, just as I did, that you don’t choose Cleveland. It chooses you.
A couple hours after I got home from Game 1 of the World Series, I hopped in a car to the airport. I had agreed to attend a press trip to London for Gillette’s recently announced partnership with the new Star Wars: Rogue One film. Their tagline for it is “Every story has a face.” Press trips are hit or miss, and always depend on the group. But from the get-go this group gelled. The reason? Everyone had a common interest. Like in sports devotion, Star Wars fanhood is a lifelong thing.
Everyone gets pulled in somehow, whether through family or an anecdote you tell someone later on, and it takes hold of you for good. You don’t choose Star Wars. Star Wars chooses you. Everyone’s story is different, but in a lot of ways they’re all the same. Each face gets there and can’t let go.
For years, since entering the sports world full-time, I stripped myself of allegiances. I decided I needed to be unbiased to be good at my job. People always said that, so it had to be true, or at least that’s what I kept convincing myself. But as I sat in the K West hotel streaming a baseball game at 3 a.m. local time, I realized I still cared. And it was okay to care. This is part of who I am. And I’m hurting myself by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Many of the press attending the Rogue One event at Pinewood Studios wore Star Wars apparel without a second thought — if they did a similar thing sportswise, they’d end up as a joke on Twitter. In this setting, it not only was encouraged but was endearing. Their stories brought them here, and they get so much joy out of that franchise that they continue to celebrate it.
I almost lost my father in September of 2012. He was in Shanghai for work, a multi-year assignment that took him all over Asia, the first time he’d lived anywhere but Ohio since shortly after I was born. He woke up one morning, knew something wasn’t right and rushed to the hospital where the waiting room was a complete mess. They airlifted him to Hong Kong, but right before, I got a call from a family member giving me the details on a flight I was to take back to China. I packed a funeral suit. I didn’t know if my dad would be alive or dead when I got off the plane. He was in surgery for what seemed like days. There were complications later, but he made it. He moved back home — to Bath, just a few miles from LeBron’s house — shortly after.
My dad is a collector. He’s passionate about sports memorabilia, and gets pulled into absurd auctions for items that are one-of-a-kind. Estate sales, entire lots, people’s personal collections, and stuff someone decided was worth holding onto, for some reason, for decades. Whenever I’m home he shows me his newest finds. They’re a bridge to the past. They give him something to hold that crystalizes a particular moment in time. He didn’t choose sports. Sports chose him.
We buried my grandpa in Antigo, Wisc. where he spent much of his life. Ray got a Purple Heart for his time in the Korean War. He told me about it for a school project when I was a kid. He’d never told my dad the story. He used to jump out of planes. He was a constant joker and an endless flirt. He’d have a drink with anyone as long as they were willing to sit on the barstool next to him. In a lot of ways I’m more like him than I am anyone else, even my father. As complicated and problematic as he was, he had a huge heart and a big soul. And he loved the damn Cubs.
I visited his grave for the first time since the funeral on a trip up to Crandon for an off-road race they call the “Indy 500 of off-road racing.” His headstone is clean and shiny, and they take care to trim the grass around it to make sure you can still read it — and all the other veterans nearby — clearly. I drank an Old Style for him, and I got back in the car.
After Game 7 was over, after my dad and mom – and their close friends – flew the W, after I finally shook myself out of the knowledge that the Indians came this close once again but I had witnessed one of the greatest World Series games of all-time in person, we drove home. We went to the basement, to a bar my mom had built for my dad with a glass top that he can slide all his tickets under. On a counter was that bottle of Jim Beam.
It was finally time to open it. We toasted to friends. To each other. To Ray. And for 32-year-old Jim Beam, it tasted like home. You don’t choose family. Family chooses you. My family finally got to see the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, but I’ll always be Cleveland ’til I die.