Day 926: Cleveland Rocks! (As Long As You Aren’t Talking Sports)

originally published July 14, 2014

Like a vintage facial scar or a controversial Foghorn Leghorn tie, I am proud to wear my fandom for Cleveland sports teams, boldly and without a micron of hesitation. While my tootsies have yet to come in contact with Cleveland soil – in fact, I’m not certain any member of my direct lineage has crossed the threshold into the Metropolis of the Western Reserve – I nevertheless cheer on their teams with a curious zeal.

Why is that? What compels my soul to that southeastern elbow of Lake Erie? From Eastlake to Olmstead, from Brook Park to Shaker Heights, there’s something about this blue collar town – a town that hasn’t scored a professional sports championship in fifty solid, dreary years – that appeals to me. Not in an I-want-to-live-there sort of way; I just want these stalwart fans to have some reason to cheer.

Some 732 days ago (hey, that’s two years and two days!) I wrote about the Cleveland Browns’ unfathomable seven league championships and ten championship game appearances in a ten-year span in the 1940’s-50’s, just as they transitioned from the AAFC to the NFL. The Browns were unstoppable. Well, except for those three years they didn’t win. But that’s pretty damn close to unstoppable.

Nowadays, Cleveland teams can barely get started.

Cleveland Indians fans call it the Curse of Chief Wahoo. The Chief has been the official (and moderately racist) face of the franchise since 17-year-old Walter Goldbach crafted the cartoonish visage in 1947. Sportswriters took to calling the symbol by the strange yet remarkably joyous name of Chief Wahoo shortly thereafter, though Goldbach ostensibly disagreed with the moniker. In a 2008 interview he pointed out that chiefs tend to sport a full headdress, whereas Wahoo’s lone feather would make him a brave. That didn’t cause Clevelanders to rescind the name, though it probably inspired a few chuckles from Atlanta baseball fans.

The smiling Cleveland Indian has been a source of controversy for decades, not unlike the perennial pouting that arises over the Washington Redskins’ name. But has this caricature weighed down the team’s fortunes? Is their record a reflection of some grand karmic design? Those who believe in such things might nod vehemently in assent; after all, the last time the Indians won a World Series was 1948 – only one year after Chief Wahoo’s creation.

In the grand history of trade-related curses, the Curse of Rocky Colavito apparently also plagues the Indians’ hopes of a victorious Series. In 1959, Rocky Colavito was the home run champ and the hitting champ, with a whopping .359 batting average. The Indians inexplicably traded him to Detroit, an act which purportedly had the same cosmic resonance as the moment the Red Sox allowed Babe Ruth to stroll into the Yankees’ locker room. The Indians wouldn’t finish within eleven games of first place between 1960 and 1993. They were perpetual basement-dwellers.

A myriad of other wholly unrelated events have been linked to the Curse of Colavito, including pitcher Sam McDowell’s alcoholism and left fielder Tony Horton’s mental illness, which caused the heavy hitter to retire from the game at age 25. Since 1995, the team has had a few competitive years. They finished first that year, a record 30 games ahead of the #2 Kansas City Royals, and were heavily favored to win it all. They lost World Series in six games, beaten by baseball’s other mildly racist Native American juggernaut, the Atlanta Braves.

Football has “The Catch”, and basketball has “The Shot”. The Cleveland Cavaliers were on the losing end of this athletic triumph, as the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan leapt magnificently over guard Craig Ehlo with less than three seconds to go, scoring the basket that would put Chicago up 101-100 and win them the game. That was Game 5, the deciding game of the series that would knock the Cavs out of the playoffs. And wow, did they ever need that win.

In their first 16 years in the league, the Cavaliers had only three winning seasons. When it finally looked like they had the superstar they’d need to launch them to the league’s peak, LeBron James decided to pack up and score his championships in Miami. LeBron is making his way back to C-Town this fall though, so we’ll see if he can hoist this city’s hopes back above the horizon. Or if he’ll slide into a nasty career slump.

Though they are the most recent Cleveland team to win a league championship (they lopped the proverbial heads off Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the final 1964 game), the Cleveland Browns perhaps best exemplify the sports curse that seems to hover over the city of Cleveland like some unidentifiable stench. On the fourth day of 1981, the Browns trailed the Oakland Raiders by only two points with less than a minute to play. They were on the Oakland 13 – all they had to do was kill the clock with a  run or two and kick the winning field goal. Coach Sam Rutigliano called “Red Right 88”. A pass play. Safety Mike Davis intercepted the ball for Oakland, and it was the Raiders who went on to beat San Diego and subsequently win Super Bowl XV.

In 1987 they were one win away from the big game, when John Elway led the Denver Broncos on the infamous 98-yard march down the field known as The Drive. The game went into overtime as a result of Denver’s tying score and the Broncos won it by 3. The Browns and Broncos faced off again the following year, again in the AFC Championship game. Running back Earnest Byner fumbled on the Denver 2-yard-line on what should have been the tying score in the 4th quarter. In NFL lore this is known as The Fumble.

The Fumble. The Drive. The Shot. For Cleveland fans, it has been little more than an unending parade of crappy disappointment for the last fifty years.

In 1995 Cleveland lost more than a championship; they lost the Browns. In a skull-thwacking controversial move, owner Art Modell shipped his team off to become the Baltimore Ravens. Four years later the team would be reborn in Cleveland, but fans would be forced to endure the Ravens’ triumphant Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2000 season. That should have been their win. Game MVP Ray Lewis should have been their guy.

Alas, the refashioned Browns have yet to scrape themselves off the gritty dirt-pile of irrelevancy. They appeared in one playoff game since their return (a 2002 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers) while the team Baltimore inherited has coasted to two Super Bowl wins. Hell, the Browns haven’t won more than six games in a season since 2007.

Nevertheless, every year the seats are filled for all three Cleveland teams – perhaps not to capacity, but to the point where one cannot dispute the resilient loyalty in this city. Cleveland teams are the Wile E. Coyote of the pro sports world: seemingly destined for disaster, yet cheered on by the masses. There is truly no greater underdog than a Cleveland franchise; how could any lover of sport not consider themselves a fan?

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