John Dunbar is angry. He issues a warning to the 52-inch high-definition television above the bar that is broadcasting the Cleveland Indians game. Neither the TV nor Tribe manager Eric Wedge took his advice to change pitchers. Now, as the opposition scores on a game-winning double, an anguished moan rises from the assembled.
Dunbar fires off damning epithets and proclaims that he could manage better than Wedge, function as a superior general manager and, if need be, pinch hit. Nobody here doubts him. To emphasize his earnestness, he orders beers for the boys.
Known as J.D. at the bar, he is husky, in his 50s, with a friendly mustache and beard and a sly, Rasputin smile. He owns a successful scrap metal company and fears fate will eventually force him to switch off the last light in Cleveland.
J.D. is the ranking baseball analyst at the Winking Lizard on Miles Road in Bedford Heights. It is an important role. Except for occasions when Wedge fails to heed his advice, J.D. adds more to a baseball game than ESPN.
He is a ubiquitous man. When not at the Lizard, he is at the Duck Tavern, a sports pub in Boca Raton where he comments on the Florida Gators and promises to run for mayor.
More importantly, J.D. is a symbol of something that, over recent years, has morphed into an icon of American culture:the sports bar.
While the connection between sports and taverns is hardly new (boxer Jack Dempsey opened restaurants in the 1930s), the difference today is that the technology that began to evolve in the ’80s is now in full bloom — namely,satellite dishes and huge, crystal-clear television sets.
In Cleveland, the sports bar is a cultural destination that ranks just below the museum and orchestra. The phone book lists some 30 places that call themselves sports bars. Not since Lorenzo Carter served New England rum in the town’s first tavern in 1797 has drinking taken such a communal turn.
The sports bar also represents an evolution in sports. Today, a stadium is as much a studio as a field. At a recent lunch, I asked Indians great Bob Feller, now 90, what has changed the most in baseball since he was a rookie in 1936. The fans, he said. Those who come to the ballpark are not as serious about baseball as they once were. They socialize there rather than worship the game.
As sports have developed into a big-time business, more and more avid, old-school fans have been squeezed out of the stadiums built with their tax dollars.
The cost of attending an actual game grows yearly. A baseball outing can cost a family more than $200 for parking, tickets, food and drink. A family of four could do game day at the Lizard for nearly a quarter of that.
What hasn’t changed is that sports still serve as an escape for the average fan, especially in Cleveland, where we cling to our teams like children.
So the bars invest heavily in their seasonal television game packages, which cost $1,500 to $2,000. Filling a bar with state-of-the-art televisions can cost well into six figures, according to Winking
Lizard owner Jim Callam. Plus, technology is such that the system has to be upgraded every five years.
Sports bars come in various flavors. There are bright, chromey places with carefully framed and autographed photos and jerseys. There are humble neighborhood taverns with a single wide-screen HDTV beaming the Buckeyes or Browns to churlish fans bent on victory and another Bud Lite.
But to get the full flavor of sports-bar culture, you have to visit the Winking Lizard in Bedford Heights. It is next to the site of the original Lizard, which opened in 1983. There are now 14 of them: two in Columbus, 12 in Greater Cleveland.
Callam says the true beginnings of the sports bar as we know it came here in the 1980s, when the NFL blacked out some Browns games. The Lizard’s high antenna managed to snatch an out-of-town signal, which attracted a crowd and established a tradition.
Football afternoons are emotional. Callam remembers the legendary losses to the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship games in the late 1980s.
“It was like people witnessed a horrible accident,” he says. “They put down their drinks and were gone in 30 seconds. You know, the slowest day we have is after one of those devastating losses.”
It’s not just technology that makes the Lizard a haven. Jockeys and horse trainers from nearby Thistledown racetrack are regulars during the season. Former Cavalier and broadcaster Austin Carr can be found there, too, as well as former Browns wide receiver Reggie Rucker.
The bar also sponsors golf tournaments for its patrons. March Madness casts its craze over the Lizard. The Stanley Cup adds a little puck to the more than 150 different beers offered. Fantasy league players are a big part of the clientele. Pittsburgh Steelers fans arrive in their colors and trade insults with those clad in brown and orange.
“The best business is when Ohio State beats Michigan,” Callam says. “The place really gets amped up. Pittsburgh and the Browns [faceoffs] are good, too, but not like they used to be.”
Above the bar, facing into a spacious room, hang 10 52-inch, high-definition televisions capable of receiving every NFL game playing at any moment. For someone like myself, who grew up on radio, this sight is nothing less than amazing —and overpowering.
It takes concentration to follow 10 screens and digest the action without warping your mind. It is easy to get lost in this fulgurant atmosphere because the crowd is into different games, and its response is peripatetic. The challenge here is to pick your game and focus on it.
The fellow in the corner in a No. 24 Oakland Raiders jersey is a regular from California who asks that his Raiders be displayed. “Where you grow up is not where you are,” explains a Tampa Bay fan who comes with her husband regularly to watch the Buccaneers.
Yet Sundays this fall at the Lizard were more funereal than fun. The Browns’ dysfunctional play cast a pall over the assemblage, which had a thinning effect on their bar bills. When the Browns lose, people stop drinking and drift to the stark reality of their own lives.
Nobody was more chagrined at the Browns’ many losses than Al Cook. He and four other regulars, including J.D., provide the color commentary at the Lizard, much like their television counterparts — but these analysts are brutal.
Coach Romeo Crennel is no coach, they say. The linebackers are glacial in their movements, the 3-4 defense is like a drive-thru, and general manager Phil Savage has become as suspect as a county politician.
Cook, though far less exuberant than J.D., is a Browns fan on a level to which few aspire. He regularly e-mails sports writers with his observations, story suggestions and commentary on the nature of those who run the Browns.
In a message to The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto, Cook railed against the columnist’s take on Kellen Winslow’s staph infection.
“Mr. Pluto: In my opinion, you appear to be suffering from an extreme case of tunnel vision in your ongoing attempts to protect Browns management,” he wrote. “I doubt from your reasoning that you have ever taken a course in Boolean algebra or deductive logic. ... You are willing to believe that a low-level public relations employee acted solely on their discretion ... and messaged Winslow to remain silent about his illness?”
Cook is cynical, especially about the Browns front office. He began to believe this fall that the sports media often fails to portray reality. He believes fans only know, at best, half of what is taking place on a team. There are no half-truths tolerated in the Winking Lizard — or half-full glasses.
I’m sure Terry Pluto would understand Al Cook better if he knew the man’s beer of choice is Rolling Rock. Where I come from, that is pure Steeler quench.