CLEVELAND -- Believe me, it's not easy being a sports fan when you're from Cleveland and living in Baltimore. Albert Belle? Can deal with him, sort of. I root for the O's. But Art Modell? Can't deal with him at all. Couldn't possibly root for the Ravens. Ever.
So I arrived here last Wednesday to get my football fix in Cleveland, my boyhood home, a place splashed with orange and brown and foamy beer, where people are preparing for the biggest party in a long, long time.
The Cleveland Browns, thank the Lord, are back.
And, I (who have not covered a sporting event in a decade) have scammed a media pass to the first real Browns game since Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore three years ago.
Not only that, the Browns are playing the Steelers.
Can't deal with the Steelers.
"I waited my whole life -- OK, the last three years -- for this," says Pat Teresi, 29, who, with his friend Mal Dakeduk, 23, will begin tailgating near Cleveland Browns Stadium beginning on Thursday. That's tailgating since Thursday. For a Sunday night game.
"Add the Steelers and, oh, man ..."
Like in Baltimore, Clevelanders are extravagant tailgaters. They arrive in recreational vehicles, many of them rented just for the occasion. They bring gas grills and stereo systems. Banners. Dawg masks. Beer. Lots of beer.
Before game time, they are barking, what they've done since the mid-'80s when fans took on the nickname the "Dawgs." One man dressed as a dog wears a helmet with a roll of Steelers toilet paper attached to it.
Turns out we have a mutual friend.
One of the benefits of growing up in a blue-collar town is people you have known since you ate dirt are still around when you come home. I grew up in Brook Park, a little suburb adjacent to Cleveland, where most people work at either Ford or GM or hitch on with the city or the gas company or some place like that.
They have jobs tougher than attending football games on the company dollar. It gets mighty cold here in the winter, but the work doesn't stop, even the outside work. That's one of the reasons the Browns have been so important to this town: Without them, the winters are not broken into little, manageable, Sunday-to-Sunday units, but instead are long, extensive, miserable stretches of ice and snow and frozen nose hairs.
A Browns loss can ruin an entire week -- but there's always next Sunday. A Browns victory can make you laugh at those 2-feet-of-snow-in-an-hour blizzards.
"My kids could say `Go Browns!' before they could say `mom and dad,' " says Dale Darrow, 56, who on Saturday was at a bar in the Flats, a district near the stadium. "And that's no lie," he adds -- but it should be pointed out he had long ago finished his first 32-ounce bottle of Bud Light.
I like talking to people like Dale Darrow but a good chunk of my time here will be spent talking with my friend Joe. His wife is more tolerant than most, so I know he'll be allowed to explore the town with me even though she knows we'll get to talking and end the nights somewhat -- how shall we say? -- unsober.
When we were kids, Joe and I went to the old Browns stadium and bought tickets from a scalper. It wasn't until the scalper was long-gone with our money that we realized the tickets were to the previous week's game.
We circled the gates of that leaky stadium and looked for the absolute oldest ticket-taker we could find. "If this doesn't work," we promised each other, "we tell nobody. Nobody." (We found a guy who couldn't have seen a hashmark if he were laying on the 20-yardline. It worked.)
This story comes up while we're driving into downtown. My job is to chronicle the return of the Browns, putting to use my experience dealing with these fans, the most rabid people I have ever known. Thanks to the Baltimore Browns Backers, I have heard there is a new beer being brewed honoring the new Browns. It is called Cleveland Browns Expansion Draft. Being a serious member of the working press, I don't feel I could write about the beer without tasting it.
"We can't make it fast enough -- unfortunately," says Chris Livingston, whose Crooked River Brewery makes the beer. He punches his calculator. "I'd say we've sold 5,000 cases a month."
Then he asks sarcastically: "How's my friend Art?"
Everybody here hates Art.
(Let's do away with something right here: Clevelanders do not hate people from Baltimore. They believe that Colts owner Bob Irsay acted like a malicious weasel and they know the NFL inexplicably and inexcusably passed over Baltimore for expansion teams in Charlotte and Tampa Bay. And they know they got lucky to win their own expansion team after only three years. No, their bitterness has been reserved for Modell.)
There are a million stories. When we were in high school, we used to corral as many buddies as we could and all chip in to rent the kind of hotel room that sold by the hour. We'd fill the bathtubs with ice and beer, watch Mike Pruitt and Mike Baab and Brian Sipe and Ozzie Newsome.