Watching the Cleveland Indians lose in the playoffs again on Wednesday, it finally hit me what might make being a Cleveland sports fan a little bit different from, say, being a Cubs fan or Red Sox fans before the world got good or a Lions or Bengals or Clippers fan. Well, hey, it only took 46 years to figure out the difference.
The difference: Nobody warned us.
I was born in Cleveland in 1967, the bye week Sunday before Super Bowl I, and Cleveland was still sitting in first class on the American sports plane. This was barely two years after the Cleveland Browns -- powered by the indomitable Jim Brown -- upset the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship. The Indians had been a fantastic team less than a decade earlier, a team perpetually thwarted by the Casey Stengel Yankees. I grew up hearing stories about these great teams and their great players -- Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Al Rosen, Lou “The Toe” Groza. Cleveland greatness was still fresh in everyone’s memory.
These stories were not told for reasons of nostalgia. They were another reminder: Cleveland’s a great place to live.* We were often reminded of that when I was growing up in Cleveland, often reminded of the city’s grand history, its amazing arts community, its ethnic splendor. And, most of all, we were reminded that sports teams win in Cleveland. They have always won. Sports championships are part of the city’s fabric, part of Cleveland’s core. That was what I was raised on.
And THAT was the great lie.
Cubs fans grow up understanding their lot in life. They are doomed to disappointment. They can embrace it or rebel against it, but they know the pain that comes with rooting for a team that has not even been to a World Series since the American Flag had 50 stars on it. Lions fans fully understand the agony of a team that has not been a real contender since the Eisenhower administration. They know.
But Cleveland fans? That’s the thing. We didn’t know. We were never told that we were cursed; quite the opposite. We were told that Cleveland was a city of champions. We were blindsided.
* * *
*In the 1970s, when perhaps a few people began to doubt that Cleveland was a great place to live -- almost 25 percent of the population, more than 170,000 people, left Cleveland in the 1970s -- some people at the Chamber of Commerce wrote a song about Cleveland being a great place to live. It was called “Cleveland’s a great place to live.”
One stanza went like so. Please feel free to sing along:
“The best things in life are right here in Cleveland
From the Flats to the Cleveland Zoo
From the Play House to the Karamu
We’re a big league city!
We’re Little League too!
University Circle, Blossom and the parks,
Make it clear (very clear!)
That Cleveland’s a great place to live.
Because the best things in life are here!”
I should add that the Karamu House, the Blossom Festival, the Cleveland Play House, University Circle -- these are all incredibly cool things. You should absolutely go visit when you are in town.
* * *
The first sign? I guess for me it was Wayne Garland. A lot of people point to ten-cent beer night in 1974, when Indians fans rioted -- fights, smoke bombs, throwing heavy objects, the whole bit -- and forced umpires to call a game against the Texas Rangers a forfeit. I was only 6 then, though and have almost no memory of that game. I only remember people around town talking about it with (I thought) a somewhat surprising level of pride.
But Garland I remember clearly. I was 9. The Indians had a decent team in 1976. They were in second place on July 4, within shouting distance of the New York Yankees. On July 3 and 4, they played the Yankees in front of back-to-back crowds of more than 60,000 people -- we tried to go to the July 3 game and couldn’t get anywhere near the stadium. We drove around forever before finally giving up.*
*My Dad, being a Clevelander, took us bowling instead.
The Indians lost both those games, by the way, and they faded in the last three months. The problem -- all the adults told me -- was pitching. They just didn’t have enough pitching. They never had enough damn pitching.
Then in the offseason, the most amazing news came down: The Indians paid $2 million -- TWO MILLION DOLLARS, it was unheard of -- for ten years of Wayne Garland.
The day that was announced was one of the greatest of my childhood. Wayne Garland! He had won 20 games for Baltimore the year before. He was a superstar; all the papers said so. I didn’t know that wins meant almost nothing when judging a pitcher. I didn’t know that Garland’s low strikeout-high walk tendencies did not project well once he left Baltimore’s amazing defense. All I knew was the Indians got their pitcher. They were going to the World Series. There was little doubt about that.
In his first year, Garland led the American League in losses. The Indians lost 90 games. Garland’s arm began hurting that first year, I think, and the second, it hurt more. He started six games and had a 7.89 ERA before he went to the doctor. He had a torn rotator cuff. In those days, no doctor knew what to do with a torn rotator cuff except perform last rites. Garland bravely tried to come back but he never really did make it. The Indians did not finish better than fourth for the next 17 years. They finished dead last in attendance in seven of those years.
Years later, I heard Wayne himself tell a story that summed it all up. He said after he signed the contract with Cleveland -- a contract that even surprised him -- he called his mother to give her the amazing news. She said: “You’re not worth it.”
* * *
Red Right 88 should have ended all illusions. Well, there were a lot of hints then that I had been misled about Cleveland, that there wasn’t really a championship waiting around the bend. In 1980, a local advertising kook named Ted Stepien bought the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kook really is the only word. This was a guy who tried to promote his professional softball team by having a contest where he dropped softballs from the top of Terminal Tower, the tallest building in Cleveland. The first dropped ball dented a car, the second broke a woman’s arm*. Stepien was so inept as a GM that, at one point, the NBA made rules that prevented him from making any more trades without permission. Stepien was so odd that during games he used to encourage and apparently pay an act called “Fat guy eating beer cans.” I saw the act and must admit that it lived up to the name.
*According to Cleveland legend Dan Coughlin, Stepien refused to apologize or even send the woman flowers in the hospital. Later, apparently, her lawyer proved pretty persuasive.
All the while, the Indians were dreadful -- it was around this time that David Letterman, in his “Top 10 jobs in Hell” list put “Cleveland Indians ticket scalper” at No. 6, just one behind “Personal scratcher to Mr. Ed Asner.”
But we had the Browns. In 1979 and 1980 they were so exciting and had put together so many improbable last-minute comebacks that we called them “The Kardiac Kids.” We were proud of that “K” spelling. Their quarterback, Brian Sipe, threw the ball all over the place, especially to the great tight end Ozzie Newsome. They seemed capable of any miracle. We were utterly mesmerized as a city. Cleveland Browns songs played on the radio all holiday season.*
*Key lyric: ”On the first day of Christmas Art Modell gave to me, a Cleveland Browns Super Bowl team!”
And then, in the final seconds of the playoff game against Oakland -- the Browns’ first playoff game in eight years -- Cleveland trailed by two and was well in range for a game-winning field goal. To be fair: It was a bitterly cold and windy day, so a field goal was no sure thing. Their kicker had already missed two. Still, it was shocking when quarterback Brian Sipe dropped back to throw. What’s he doing? The play was Red Right 88. It was the safest pass play in the books. Sipe was told that if no one was open, he should throw the ball into Lake Erie. No one was open. He threw the ball into the hands of Raiders defensive back Mike Davis.
That was the day I should have realized Cleveland was never, ever, ever going to win a championship. But it wasn’t. I believed on.
* * *
So what followed? Let’s see. John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards to beat the Browns in a championship game. Ernest Byner fumbled just when it looked like he was crossing the goal line for a game-tying touchdown. The Cleveland Indians made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1987 -- “Believe it!” the magazine implored, and I did believe it -- and instead of finishing first as predicted they finished last with 101 losses.
Michael Jordan made his game-winning shot over Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo. You will see that clip again come the NBA playoffs. The Indians, tired of inflicting pain by being terrible, inflicted new pain by reaching the World Series and then losing.
The Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore.
Yes, the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore.
The Indians went into the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series up a run and blew it (to the five-year-old Florida Marlins, no less). A team called the Browns moved back to Cleveland and then, improbably, took someone named Tim Couch with the first pick in the 1999 NFL draft. I couldn’t get into them -- something had broken.
The Cavaliers lucked into the first pick of the 2003 NBA draft and a local phenom named LeBron James, who singlehandedly made the Cavaliers just good enough to fall short of a championship and break everyone’s heart annually. The Indians blew a 3-games-to-1 lead over Boston in the 2007 ALCS, losing the last three games 7-1, 12-2 and 11-2.
LeBron James happily announced to the world in prime time that he was leaving Cleveland for South Beach. The Cavaliers owner wrote an angry letter in response, using Comic Sans type. LeBron James happily won two championships in South Beach. The Browns continuously stink. The Indians go back into hibernation.
And suddenly, I’m 46 years old, and my hometown teams collectively have won exactly zero championships in my lifetime. I don’t remember signing up for that.
* * *
Here’s a quick list of the cities with three-plus sports teams and how long it has been since they won a title:
Miami: 0 years
Chicago: 0 years
New York: 1 year
San Francisco: 1 year
Boston: 2 years
Milwaukee (Green Bay): 2 years
Dallas: 3 years
Detroit: 5 years
Philadelphia: 5 years
Denver: 12 years
Phoenix: 12 years
Atlanta: 18 years
Houston: 18 years
Minneapolis: 22 years
Washington: 22 years
Cleveland: 49 years
* * *
In the moments before the Cleveland Indians played the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday in the wild card play-in game, or whatever thing they call that one-game inanity, I promised myself not to get worked up about it. It had been a surprising season for Cleveland. Nobody expected them to reach the postseason. It was all good, and the future looked bright. Anyway, a one-game playoff is a coin-flip, a black-red roulette wheel spin. I resolved to just enjoy it.
But then I saw how wild the Cleveland crowd looked. How many times had I seen that buoyant Cleveland crowd? I heard how loud they screamed. How many times had I heard that? I sensed the energy, the belief, the hope, the irresistible hope of sports. Even my friend, Esquire’s Scott Raab -- whose lifelong fury with Cleveland sports inspired him to swear at length and write a book called “The Whore of Akron,” with LeBron James at the center -- exuded hope.
And then the Indians’ young pitcher, Danny Salazar, came out, and he threw laser beams. “Look at how well he’s keeping his composure,” the announcers said. Yes, it was true, he looked composed. He struck out two in the first inning, the last on three consecutive 98-mph fastballs. He struck out another and induced two measly foul pop-outs in the second. The crowd grew louder with every pitch.
Remind me again: Why couldn’t it happen in Cleveland?
The first pitch Danny Salazar threw in the third inning was thrashed 9,384,372 feet by Tampa Bay’s Delmon Young. And I remembered. The Indians never came close the rest of the night. Oh, technically, they came “close” if you consider having the bases loaded with one out and having two-on with nobody out “close.” But they didn’t score a run in either opportunity and by then I knew they wouldn’t. We all knew. The final score was 4-0 Tampa Bay. And another season ended.
Anyway, it was during that game that I thought about the beginning, all those years ago, and how certain everyone in Cleveland was that that next championship was right around the corner. Then came the losses and the jokes and the heartburns. Now the Indians again lose their last game in October. Now, the Cavaliers paddle helplessly against the currents without LeBron James. Now the Browns …
… Wait a minute. The Browns. They were 0-2. They traded running back Trent Richardson, who was supposed to be their franchise player. They gave the team to a 28-year-old backup quarterback named Brian Hoyer who grew up a huge Browns fan in North Olmsted, a southwest Cleveland suburb. It looked irreparable.
Then, somehow, the Browns won a game in Minnesota. A fluke, sure. And the Vikings aren’t very good. But, you know, Hoyer looked pretty good. But then the Browns beat Cincinnati. And Thursday night, against Buffalo, Hoyer got hurt, but the Browns kept going, and the Bills are pretty dreadful, and Cleveland won again.
It doesn’t mean anything. I know that. Of course I know that. How could I not know that? But you know something? The Browns are in first place. And Cleveland’s a great place to live because the best things in life are here.