Tribe part of a larger-scale of sports success that Cleveland is desperate for

CLEVELAND – In a city desperate for a champion, in a state where finishing as the runner-up has become all too common, the Cleveland Indians are giving hope again that maybe this year will be different.

Don’t look now, but even LeBron James has switched from a New York Yankees cap to one with Chief Wahoo on it.

With Cleveland ahead 2-1 in the American League championship series against the Boston Red Sox, the feeling that the city’s 43-year title drought will soon end has never been stronger.

John Willoughby, who stood waiting outside the left-field gate at Jacobs Field for Game 3 to begin yesterday night, knows what a championship would mean to the city.

“It would not only help the image, but it would bring back the sense of being a winner again,” Willoughby, 59, said.

Cleveland has suffered some negative headlines recently. An erosion of manufacturing jobs, a high poverty rate and a school shooting just last week have damaged the region’s psyche.

But the city’s entertainment districts are getting new life, upscale condos are popping up in refurbished buildings downtown, the city’s hospitals are world renown, and the Indians, Cavaliers – even the long downtrodden Browns – are winning.

“We think there’s an upbeat tenor,” said Dennis Roche, president of Positively Cleveland, the city’s renamed convention and visitors bureau. “The Indians are a part of that. We’re all starting to feel good again.”

Cleveland needs to look no farther than rival Pittsburgh to see how a mid-sized city can get a boost and build a reputation on the success of one of its pro teams.

“Having the Steelers organization and the success they have. We consider them a regional asset and something we can market,” said Barbara McNees, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. “They generate a lot of attention, which helps us market the Pittsburgh region.”

Cleveland finally has some marketable sports figures, starting with James, the homegrown NBA superstar, who angered many in the region by wearing a Yankees cap to Jacobs Field when the Indians played New York in the first round of the playoffs.

James seems to have come around since the Yankees were defeated, donning an Indians cap during a news conference yesterday in Shanghai, China, where the Cavaliers are playing an exhibition game and giving Cleveland exposure that would be impossible to buy.

However, even with the success of Cleveland’s teams, fans were slow to respond to the Indians this season.

“That’s understandable. They’ve had their hearts broke by all the Cleveland teams for a long time,” said Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia.

Maybe it’s because they’re coming off an emotional basketball season in which the Cavaliers fell short of their first championship, losing to San Antonio in four games after an unprecedented run to the NBA finals.

Ohio State also lost college football and basketball national championships early this year to Florida, which has given the entire state an unwanted runner-up vibe.

But Ohio State is ranked No. 1 again, the Cavaliers are getting ready to defend their Eastern Conference title and the Indians are silencing the critics by handling the high-priced Yankees and Red Sox lineups.

Now, Sabathia looks at the fans around Jacobs Field in awe.

“They’re behind us now and this is the craziest I’ve ever seen them,” he said. “I love it.”

Deb Janik, senior vice president of Real Estate ‘ Business Development of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, thinks the Indians reflect the resilient people of the region.

“This team is something special,” she said. “You never can count them out.”

It’s no wonder Willoughby, who was born in 1948, the last time the Indians won the World Series, was anxiously waiting outside the stadium three hours before game time yesterday.

“This team I like because it’s really a team. They’ve got some great veterans and some good young talent,” Willoughby said. “They deserve everything they get, including a little recognition.”