Cleveland: The Real Mudville
A good friend that I met in college is an enthusiastic sports fan. That alone is of course not a notable statement; I made several friends in college, and I shared our great cultural obsession for the professional sports world with most of them. There is, however, something noteworthy about this guy. Given all the jawing about sports that he and I have done over the years, in my mind it has assumed the status of perhaps his most defining characteristic.
He was born in Cleveland.
I could simply leave it at that and end this column right there. In this context, that sentence is a punch line all by itself. You do not need to be a sports historian to reflect upon the last 45 years and realize that Cleveland sports success — or at least the ultimate success as opposed to heartbreak on the occasional brink thereof — is nonexistent. Given the demographics of those who frequent this website, “reflecting upon the last 45 years” is likely not even an option for you, and if the Cleveland successes that preceded that interval are within your memory, then we are probably reaching way back into your childhood when the primary means of broadcast for sporting events was the radio.
No, this sprawling tale does not have a happy ending, or at least not one that has occurred yet.
The 1940s and 1950s were an exciting time for the Cleveland sports fan. 1948 saw a World Series title for the Indians. In 1954 the Indians returned to the Series as favorites to win with an American League record 111 wins, but they fell in a four-game sweep to Willie Mays and the New York Giants, highlighted by Mays’ amazing and oft-replayed over-the-shoulder catch in the outfield in game one. In the pre-Super Bowl era, the Cleveland Browns won NFL championships in 1950, 1954, 1955, and 1964. They were league runners-up in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1957, and 1965.
It all went downhill from there. That play by Mays came to be known simply as “The Catch.” (This Cowboys fan will choose at this time to ignore any other plays that acquired that title almost 30 years later.) Over the subsequent years, Cleveland would find itself the victim of many other situations that earned that dreaded article “the” in their monikers.
In January of 1987 the Cleveland Browns had claimed the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Hosting the AFC Championship game, the Browns fell victim to “The Drive,” in which John Elway orchestrated the Denver Broncos offense 98 yards down the field for a game-tying touchdown with 37 seconds remaining. The Broncos would win in overtime.
A year later in the AFC Championship game of 1988, the Browns would have their chance at redemption. This time they were playing in Denver, and they engineered their own last-minute drive that could have tied the game. With one minute and twelve seconds left in the game, Cleveland running back Earnest Byner committed “The Fumble” at the three-yard line. Woe had visited Cleveland yet again.
In 1989 the Cleveland Cavaliers joined this dirge. The Cavs entered the league as an expansion team in 1970. They were contenders in that time but never champions. In ‘89 they were the third seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference and were matched against the sixth-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs (a best-of-five series back then). The Bulls had not defeated the Cavs in six tries over the course of the regular season, but they pushed the Cavs to a fifth game in Cleveland. A thrilling back-and-forth culminated in Michael Jordan’s “The Shot,” a buzzer beater taken over Craig Ehlo that was the third lead change in the final six seconds of the game and one of the top highlights of Jordan’s storied career. The Bulls would not win the championship for another two years, but this was the beginning of their rise to power, and in 1992 they turned the Cavaliers away again in the Eastern Conference finals.
What were the Cleveland Indians doing all this time? They were losing a ridiculous amount of games. Between 1960 and 1993 they achieved lofty levels of ignominy in their cellar-dwelling with no hint of contention for a division title in all that time. Hollywood even immortalized their franchise in 1989 with the movie Major League, dubbing them the archetypal example of a sports Cinderella.
The Indians turned things around shortly thereafter with two World Series appearances in 1995 and 1997. As the city had come to expect, though, losses to the Braves and Marlins, respectively, were the result. That seven-game loss to the Marlins was particularly painful. Here were the Marlins, a new expansion team in 1993, winning a title with only four years of history. What did they know about the blood, sweat, and tears that the Cleveland Indians endured the previous 49 years? How dare they secure their game-seven victory with an extra inning hit by Edgar Renteria that some called “The Single”? (That one apparently was not as catchy as the others.)
Meanwhile, back in the realm of football, Cleveland Browns Art Modell was committing what I will call “The Desertion.” Modell moved the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season and renamed them the Ravens. The announcement was made early in the ‘95 season and prompted lawsuits and death threats against Modell. The city eventually secured a promise from the league that they would receive the next available expansion team as a replacement, and they were allowed to keep their team records of the preceding decades rather than seeing them follow the team to Baltimore.
Cleveland received that new Browns team in 1999, but three years without football engendered much bitterness. In January of 2001 the Baltimore Ravens advanced to the Super Bowl. I watched that game with my Cleveland friend. Thinking that there might still be former Browns on the Ravens team, I asked him if he could be happy for the Ravens at all. I do not recall if there actually were any former Browns on that team, but I have never seen any sports fan more vehemently opposed to the prospect of any team winning a game than he was opposed to the idea of the Ravens winning that Super Bowl, and I have shared company with fans stirred up by Blue Devils-Tar Heels, Longhorns-Sooners, Lakers-Celtics, and many of the other most divisive rivalries that sports has to offer. (Sorry, Cleveland: the Ravens did win that one.)
Of course, “The Decision” is the most recent blotch on Cleveland’s sports history. I need not say too much about LeBron James’ primetime television special in which the top superstar publicly abandoned his team and home state for a free agent contract with the Miami Heat, as it has been scrutinized and dissected far more than was warranted. We probably should have concluded that there was no chance James would stay in Cleveland based on his favorite baseball and football teams (the Yankees and Cowboys, i.e., arguably the two largest sports bandwagons this country has to offer). James was well within his rights to leave, but the manner of presentation and lack of consideration for his Ohio fans were gauche, and James admitted a few weeks ago that in hindsight he should have handled the announcement differently.
I myself initially thought it would have been a nice story if James had stayed with the Cavaliers rather than moving on to a more prominent NBA market city. This past weekend I saw footage of Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco asking a very young Cleveland boy — probably not more than five or six years old — about his favorite basketball player. The kid chose Kobe Bryant. Prodding from a parent indicated that LeBron James was the kid’s former favorite player. A disillusioned young child must be one of the more heartrending sights this universe has to offer, even if his disillusionment follows merely from the ever-shifting reality of free agency in professional sports.
However, when I consider the narrative that the city of Cleveland has acquired over the last few decades, James’ departure seems a fitting addition to the tale. It is another badge of honor for the city. The shared adversity of Cleveland fans will only make them stronger. An eventual championship in whichever sport will not come easily, but it will be an earned and hard-fought title and quite the catharsis after all this time for the Cleveland fans.
I have joked with my friend that he enjoys the aforementioned movie Major League so much because it is a representation of wish fulfillment for him. That movie leaves no need for the ritual annual sacrifice of his Cleveland Browns doll. Having that fictional team to support might enable him to engage in a little “smack talk, “something that I have never heard him practice in support of his teams in all my years of knowing him. That might not be his style regardless, but what cause have Cleveland fans had for true, sustainable bravado in their recent history?
Major League opens with a mournful tune by Randy Newman called “Burn On,” as the perennial losing of the Indians is chronicled via montage. I like to use the lyrics in jesting email taunts to my friend whenever something else goes wrong for Cleveland sports. I only recently learned the story behind that 1972 tune.
The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted with detritus and oil that the river itself was known to catch on fire. It did so several times between 1868 and 1952. A fire in 1969 proved particularly embarrassing for the city, spurring negative attention from Time magazine and partially inspiring the environmental movement of the early 1970s.
A river aflame is a jarring and paradoxical image to consider. Going all the way back to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the ancient human-populated region of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent, rivers have represented the lifeblood of human civilization. The Cuyahoga River was no less critical in the development of the city of Cleveland and its commerce. Water should be a given. Water should be pure and available. Likewise, a city deserves at least the occasional parade in honor of its victorious sports team.
I have never been to Cleveland, but I hope its long-suffering sports fans are able to hold that parade soon.
C. Robert Dimitri is nothing more than your average American sports fan that has spent far too many hours in front of the television and has absolutely no further credentials. He reserves the right to change any opinions expressed here; unlike the practice of bandwagon sports loyalty, there is virtue in shifting a position when given new information.
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