I AM NOT SURE I BELIEVE IT: DID A CLEVELAND TEAM REALLY WIN A WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP?
I woke up Monday morning feeling groggy. It was like I was in a fog. The sun was shining in the bedroom window and I could tell it was another beautiful day in South Florida, but I had virtually little sleep and my head hurt. Then I thought, “Did that really happen?”
Or did I dream about the whole damn thing?
Did a team from Cleveland really win a world championship?
I still wasn’t convinced until I turned on ESPN just to make sure. And there it was: replays of players wearing Cleveland jerseys holding a golden trophy and spraying champagne on themselves.
One-hundred and forty-four professional seasons of the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers played ended with some other team from some other city celebrating, having victory parades and wearing championship hats and t-shirts.
Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas, Denver, Oakland, San Francisco. You name the major city, they’ve enjoyed championships. Even small markets like New Orleans, Tampa, Kansas City, and that other alleged Ohio city, Cincinnati, Ky., have had championship parades.
Growing up in nearby Ashland, Ohio, I was born into the territory that rooted for the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers. I was born into frustration.
Which means we rooted for our lovable losers for our entire lives, unless one is old enough to remember the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship. It was the year the Beatles came to America and the country was recovering from the Kennedy assassination. At four years old, I certainly wasn’t old enough to remember any of it.
To me, Jim Brown is a grumpy old man and bad actor who once snapped at me during an interview years ago. I never knew him as the NFL superstar who took the Browns to a title. But that was two years before the Super Bowl was even invented and the Cavaliers weren’t even born then.
Like any sports fan in Northeast Ohio, we came to know heartache and what the bottom of the standings looked like. It became familiar. It became expected. It became a ritual And you lived with it. Once in a while, we actually had hope. “This would be the year,” we would say. For some cruel reason, that year never came.
The weird thing is, I can remember where I was when most of those crushing moments occurred.
It was Jan. 4, 1981, and we all gathered in my buddy Dave Patterson’s apartment just north of the Ohio State campus. It was about 3 degrees outside. As we huddled around Dave’s tiny television, all of us Browns fans, we huddled in optimism knowing we were rooting for the best team in the AFC which home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Then a quarterback who grew up in San Diego, Brian Sipe, made a terrible decision, pulling the string on “Red Right 88” and it was a real taste of sadness for me. I couldn’t even study, knowing I had an exam the following day. That team had a real chance. It was the beginning of several rip-your-heart-out moments with the Browns.
On Jan. 11, 1987, the Browns scored to take a 20-13 lead over Denver and were just 5:32 away from the Super Bowl. They kicked off and the Broncos muffed the return and ended up on their own 2-yard line. It was then that I walked into the kitchen of my house in West Palm Beach, pulled the only bottle of champagne I had in my wine rack and stuck it into the freezer.
As everyone knows, John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards to tie the game, before they won in overtime 23-20. It is now famously called “The Drive.”
I call it the day I erupted in anger, breaking a remote control and the night my champagne exploded in the freezer. I had gone to bed, completely forgetting about that bottle. Fortunately, it was only Korbel, but it still left a real mess.
Three-hundred and fifty-nine days later, those same two teams would play again for another trip to the Super Bowl.
When the Browns practiced in Vero Beach, Fla., at the old Dodgertown complex to get out of frozen Cleveland before the game, I was assigned to cover their practices. After one, I wondered into the lounge where receiver Brian Brennan and running back Earnest Byner were playing pool. I put my laptop on a table, wrote my story and watched those two key players laughing as the pool balls sometimes flew off the table and dented the walls.
Then the players packed up and flew to Denver. That Sunday, I watched in horror as Byner forgot the football on the way to his game-tying touchdown. Broncos 38, Browns 31.
It became known as “The Fumble.”
All that pain culminated when owner Art Modell, who then had a condominium near the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, moved the team to Baltimore following the 1995 season. We all watched his Ravens win a Super Bowl only five years later. It was "The Move."
One day soon after, I saw Modell walking down Flagler Boulevard near his winter home. He was recovering from hip replacement and getting his daily exercise. I swear the thought of getting out of that car and pushing him into the Intracoastal popped into my mind, but before I could park, I had remembered the state of Florida had recently increased prison time for crimes involving assault and battery on the elderly.
The Browns were gone. Little did I know then that the NFL would bring them back to us again. Hadn’t we suffered enough?
Then there are the Indians. They last won a World Series in 1948, three years after World War II concluded. To put this into my perspective, it was two years into my parents’ marriage. Next week, on June 30, we will all gather on the shores of Lake Erie to celebrate my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary.
Sure, the Tribe has been futile for much of that time, but there were 1995 and ’97 when they had real chances to win the World Series.
It was Oct. 26, 1997, when the Indians were two outs away from beating the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the World Series. Then manager Mike Hargrove had stuck to his formula of going to closer Jose Mesa in the ninth, no matter the circumstances, no matter common sense, no matter what happened earlier in the game.
As the Indians clung to a 2-1 lead entering the ninth, Mesa got the first out easily… they were only two outs away. Then all hell broke loose and by the time it was over the Indians had lost 3-2 in 11 innings.
The Marlins were in only their fifth season of existence and most of their fans didn’t jump on their bandwagon until October began, perhaps a month earlier. Yet there they were jumping up and down and celebrating all night like they actually had a history with this team. Indians fans had waited a half-century. As newbie Marlins fans celebrated everywhere around me that next day, I had to visit the store where I had bought my TV ... to get a new remote. Again.
The misery of the Browns and Indians somehow became ingrained in us. It was like it was part of our DNA. Pro sports = failure. I know my Dad watched every game with extreme pessimism over the years, simply because he has been hardened by their inexcusable losses. They were never called the Browns in my household -- without the word “bumblehead” in front of their name.
I would call home on Sundays and Mom would answer the phone.
“What’s Dad doing?” I would ask.
“He’s in the den yelling at the Bumblehead Browns,” she would answer.
As far as the Cavaliers, when I first received my driver’s license in 1976, somehow Mom and Dad let me take the car and make that 45-mile drive to the old Richfield Coliseum where they played. Remember that place? It was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cow fields. I made that trip often. Back when Cavs’ tickets were cheap and attendance was sparse, no matter the weather, I was there. By the time the fourth quarter came around, I always found myself somewhere near courtside because ushers didn’t really pay attention like they do now.
The players had names like Bingo Smith, Dick Snyder, “Footsie” Walker, Austin Carr, Campy Russell and Jim Brewer.
After the games, I often stood outside Pete Franklin’s glass both in the upper level, listening to the cranky radio host rant and rave about Cleveland sports. I peered through that glass like a little boy at the zoo watching a lion roar. In fact, that is exactly where I saw Reggie Jackson hit his third home run into the upper deck as the Yankees won the World Series on Oct. 18, 1977. Reggie's feat meant nothing to me, but the Cavs’ 91-88 season-opening loss to the Bulls that ended moments earlier had surely ruined my night.
Then came the era with names like Craig Ehlo, Mark Price and Brad Daugherty and some really good Cavs teams. Unfortunately, the Bulls had a North Carolina kid with the number 23 and we Cavs’ fans had no hope.
It was Nov. 4, 1988, and I remember being on the road to cover a Florida State football game when my sports editor called me in my hotel room in Columbia, S.C., that Friday afternoon. “Jeff, get in your rental car and drive up to Charlotte to cover the Bobcats’ first game tonight,” he ordered. “Your credential will be at will call. You have three hours to get up there for tipoff.”
What a stupid assignment, I thought. Who in the hell in South Florida cares about the Bobcats, an expansion NBA team playing their first game? Then I noticed it was against the Cavaliers. Still, I wasn’t thrilled. I would be returning to my hotel room at about 2 a.m. and then have to cover a college football game the next day.
When I arrived in the Charlotte Coliseum that night, I checked the press row seating chart and noticed legends Bill Russell and Bill Walton were to my left. There were a lot of NBA dignitaries there that night. Then something made my heart jump. Sitting to my right would be Jim Chones and Joe Tait – the Cavs’ radio team.
Believe me when I say I hardly looked to my left all night, only to notice fans behind us continually bothering the two Bills for autographs. I spent the night leaning to my right and talking to Chones every time he took off his headset. He and Tait were celebrities to me, when nobody in the stands behind us that night in Charlotte would have been able to name either one of them.
As for Tait, he owned the voice I grew up with since he was the play-by-play man for Cavs and Indians games on radio. I had a small transistor that was never far from my ear all those nights as a boy. I didn’t watch many sit-coms back then. Regretfully, I didn’t study enough back then. I listened to Tait and partner Herb Score as they made music for my ears.
And for some reason, I don't think it never mattered that the Indians were 20 games under .500. I just thought that was normal. And listening to them was a great way to spend the night.
Anyway, Chones was the nicest guy in the world that night in Charlotte and at times I know he was talking to me when he was supposed to be on the air. Finally, when he went to get a Coke after the third quarter, Joe leaned over in that familiar voice that I had heard so many nights during my childhood and whispered, “I love reminiscing about the Cavs and the Indians as much as anybody, but Jim’s got a job to do and he’s getting distracted. I’ve been doing the play-by-play – and color! – by myself all night!”
Message received. I shut up for the fourth quarter and quickly filed my story (the Cavs won 133-93) from the perspective that Charlotte had pro basketball for the first time. Big deal. After the game, Chones actually said something to me like, “Always great to meet a Cavs fan, but I am sorry we weren’t better back then.”
Better back then? I guess I had forgotten that part.
It hardly matters today, does it?
A Cleveland team fought back against all odds and shocked us all. I would like to say I never gave up when they trailed 3-1 to Golden State. I would like to say I expected this. But I’ve been conditioned my entire life to expect the worst. To expect the heartbreak. (Thank God for the Ohio State Buckeyes or the entire state would be filled with a bunch of gloomy pessimists who walk around muttering to themselves.)
Monday afternoon, the skies sure were blue in Cleveland when the Cavs’ Delta charter rolled to the gate.
Wednesday, the city of Cleveland will hold a parade. It won’t be a Memorial Day parade, a Gay Pride parade or a Christmas Parade.
It will be a championship parade.
It will surely be something the city has never seen before. Confetti will fly and people from all over Ohio will travel to stand along the streets for hours and hours. It will be one big, long, way-overdue party. I hope Jim Chones will be there. I hope Joe Tait, long since retired, will be there.
Dad is 97 now and I am glad he lived to see this. A Cleveland sports team. A world championship.
Hell, who am I kidding?
I didn't expect to live long enough to see it, either.
Last Updated (Monday, 20 June 2016 19:23)