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The Cleveland Indians, Chelsea FC, And The Dichotomy Of Fan Expectations

Photo via AFP
There’s no denying it now: the 2015 Cleveland Indians are supposed to be good. Pretty much regardless of which baseball-related corner of the internet you poke around in, the consensus it that the Indians will at the very least challenge the Detroit Tigers for Central Division supremacy, and they may even be the favorite to win it.
I’ve been rooting for the Indians since I can remember, and since 2001’s 91-win season the Indians were never really expected to be good. That’s born out in the results; the Indians went over .500 four times since 2001 and just twice from 2002-2012. During that time fans could certainly hope for the best, but there often wasn’t much empirical evidence to think of the Indians as any sort of favorite to make the playoffs. Lofty expectations were certainly out of the question.

In 2011 I started following and supporting Chelsea Football Club of the English Premier League. This fandom was born entirely out of my preference to use Chelsea’s squad in the FIFA 12 video game. It’s developed into something more concrete now. I have a real interest in watching soccer and I go out of my way to catch as many Chelsea games as possible, just like I do for all the Cleveland sports teams. I genuinely felt disappointed after Chelsea was knocked out of the Champions league by PSG (who were playing with ten men) a couple weeks ago.

But supporting Chelsea and supporting the Cleveland Indians are entirely different experiences. Chelsea is one of European football’s great financial superpowers. Owned by Russian Oligarch and silly sunglasses enthusiast Roman Abramovich, Chelsea can afford to buy basically any player they desire. Financially the Indians are the exact same, except the total opposite.

As such, my experience rooting for Chelsea is nothing like my experience rooting for the Indians. Chelsea is expected to win the Premier League every year. If they do not do so the manager’s job is almost immediately in jeopardy. They are expected to win the Champions League every year. Obviously they can’t; there are other teams that can match Chelsea’s spending might and performance expectations, but if they don’t at least show significant progress people are again asking whether or not the manager should be fired. The best comparison in American sports is supporting a team like Ohio State University Football. The Buckeyes are expected to win the Big Ten every year and at least mount a serious challenge for the national title. Anything less is unacceptable.
There are of course positives and negatives to supporting a team like Chelsea. The expectations exist for a reason: Chelsea are really good. Every year. They have so much money and so much talent purchased with that money that they are almost assured to finish in the top four of the EPL and earn a Champions League berth (basically the equivalent of earning a playoff berth in American sports). They are almost assured to have enough talent to make it out of the group stages and into the knockout round of the Champions League. As a fan, these are the bare minimums of success the team will achieve. It’s certainly nice to know that the team you support is guaranteed a good deal of success before ever stepping out on the field (or pitch as it were).
But that guarantee comes with a price, and that price is disappointment. Chelsea is expected to beat most of the teams they play in the Premier League. Outside of when they play the other top four or five teams in the league, their victories feel more like reliefs than triumphs. If they finish anywhere other than first in the EPL it’s a disappointment, which is strange considering they last won it in 2009-10, before I started following European football. If they don’t win the Champions League it’s pretty disappointing, and if they don’t even get passed the Round of 16 like this year it’s a true stomach punch.
Even when Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur, a club that’s a tier below Chelsea in the Premier League when it comes to financial means and success on the pitch, to win the League Cup, it felt more like a relief because it was a game they were supposed to win. Ultimately the majority of the time watching Chelsea is spent hoping they don’t screw up. The true feeling of triumph comes along very rarely.
People think the Indians going to be good, perhaps even the favorite to win the Central depending on whom you ask. But as a team living at the bottom of MLB’s payroll rankings they are far from guaranteed to have success this year (I realize no team is guaranteed to have success year in and year out, but the Indians less so than others). While a team like Chelsea has next to no chance of falling flat on their faces in a given season, it is a distinct possibility for the Indians every season. Expectations are usually set with this doomsday scenario in mind.  
The disaster potential is always in the back of my mind. I get worried when the Indians become the “trendy sleeper” amongst national baseball writers, as if the expectations of a handful of people somehow have a tangible and profound effect on how the team will do. It’s almost preferable when people think the Indians are going to be mediocre. That way I can maintain the potential for being pleasantly surprised while simultaneously being prepared for the worst. After all, Cleveland fans are the reigning champions of waiting for next year, and I’m no exception.
But being a Cleveland Indians fan offers the potential feeling of triumphing against long odds in a way rooting for Chelsea cannot. As much as I enjoy rooting for Chelsea, their successes will never have the same impact as a potential Cleveland Indians World Series title. Even after years and years of managing expectations, 2015 feels like the right year to be optimistic that the Cleveland Indians will provide that feeling of triumph Chelsea simply cannot.
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