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Dreams Redeemed

A brutal loss with a title on the line can haunt a team and its fans for years. The best way to move past that? Win it all the next time—which is happening more and more

THERE ISN'T an Indians fan I know who isn't reliving daily the Game 7 loss to the Cubs in last year's World Series. The Rajai Davis two-run homer that tied it in the eighth inning. The missed chance to win in the bottom of the ninth. The rain delay before the 10th. That Ben Zobrist double to put Chicago ahead 7--6. It was the sort of pain that'll haunt a franchise and a fan base for decades.

Or, perhaps, only a year or so. For an example of how such unpleasant memories can be zapped from the mind, Eternal Sunshine--style, the Indians need merely look within their own division.

Moments after the final of the '14 World Series, walking into the concourse outside the leftfield stands at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City with my fellow stunned observers, I heard a compendium of expletives that would belie the stereotypes about kindly Midwesterners. The Royals had just lost their first Series appearance in 29 years, falling to the Giants 3--2 in Game 7. Everyone in attendance was certain it was because Alex Gordon had not sprinted for home when his two-out single in the ninth inning got past centerfielder Gregor Blanco. Third base coach Mike Jirschele made the split-second decision not to send Gordon for the potential tying run, and after Salvador Pérez fouled out, Jirschele's choice seemed destined to live on forever in the minds of Royals fans: the Thwarted Dash. "That f------ play is gonna haunt me the rest of my life," one of them growled.

I suspect it haunted him for precisely 367 days—until that moment when K.C. vanquished the Mets to win the 2015 World Series. The Thwarted Dash, it turns out, was not a Steve Bartman moment, or a Bill Buckner moment, the what-if backbreaker that sticks with fans for decades.

As you might have noticed, the agony of an epic defeat has been a lot less scarring lately.

Clemson lost to Alabama in the 2016 College Football Playoff title game 45--40, after which images of O.J. Howard haunted the dreams of Tigers supporters. But memories of the tight end's two 50-yard-plus touchdown catches quickly dissipated in January, when Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 420 yards to avenge the loss to the Crimson Tide and seize the school's first championship in 35 years.

After their team's buzzer-beating loss to Villanova in the 2016 NCAA final, North Carolina fans couldn't help but dwell on the defensive breakdowns that left Kris Jenkins open for his 25-foot bomb. One year later, the Tar Heels shook off that disappointment and scored the last eight points to beat Gonzaga 71--65 and win the national championship.

Meanwhile, denizens of the Bay Area spent a year hearing "the Warriors blew a 3--1 lead" jokes after their record-breaking Warriors did the unprecedented last June by squandering that Finals edge—only to have the Dubs meet LeBron James and the Cavaliers for the title again last month. With their shiny new Kevin Durant toy, Golden State blew Cleveland and those memes away in five games.

This is not how it usually works. When a franchise falls just short of glory, that failure tends to become part of its identity. Who are the Arizona Cardinals without Santonio Holmes barely getting his feet down for Pittsburgh's winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII? Who are the Rangers without St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese breaking their hearts twice in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series? These are fundamental touchstones of these organizations and their fans: Being haunted by them is a large part of what it means to cheer for the team to finally break through.

But the last year has shown that a devastating defeat isn't the life sentence that it can seem like in the moment. And so, that hopeful panting you're now hearing is coming from Cleveland, Atlanta and Spokane.

The world was so excited by the Cubs' disrupting the space-time continuum last fall that it barely noticed the pain inflicted on Indians fans, who have seen their team drop two World Series Game 7s in the last 20 years. The Falcons' Super Bowl collapse against the Patriots was so monumental—blowing a 28--3 lead and losing in overtime—that it's perfectly reasonable if Falcons fans don their MATT RYAN jerseys with trepidation. And Gonzaga spent two decades building itself from a little-known afterthought to a national power only to deliver its worst performance of the season on the biggest stage.

The Royals, Tigers, Tar Heels and Warriors made the pain go away before it could fester and infect whole generations of fans. The Indians, Falcons and Bulldogs have a chance to do the same. But they best act fast. The longer it takes a scar to heal, the more you wonder if it ever will.

The last year has shown that a devastating defeat isn't the life sentence that it can seem like in the moment.