Suffering Sports Cities: Cleveland

Editor’s Note: Isaac Huss concludes his Suffering Sports City series. After looking at the woes of his hometown in Minneapolis and sharing in the difficulties of Denver & Oakland, he goes for the longball and empathizes with the people of Cleveland.

LeBron James was smiling Saturday night.  Sorry, Cleveland fans.

His Miami Heat had just eliminated the Boston Celtics in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, and he was the biggest reason.  James was everything he’s supposed to be: an unstoppable force on the offensive end, a menacing defensive presence, and a man whose charisma and effortlessness in pretty much everything he does leaves you shaking your head.

For most of us, like him or hate him, that shaking of the head is out of respect and admiration at least.  But for Cleveland fans…  Oh, Cleveland fans.

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wrote a letter to Cavs fans everywhere (no, it was not in Comic Sans).  In it, he lamented along with them the loss, pain, and downright betrayal he felt in the wake of James’ exit.

Then he predicted that his newly LeBronless Cavaliers would win an NBA Championship even before James, Dewayne Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat.  At the time, it was unthinkably unlikely, and even though the odds improved ever so slightly after the Cavs won the draft lottery, followed by the Heat’s meltdown in last year’s NBA Finals, LeBron and the Heat are now just four victories away from proving Gilbert dead wrong.

Forgive Gilbert, though, if he allowed his disappointment with his team and its fresh and gaping LeBron-sized hole to spill into irrational angst toward the Heat.  But these are the things that happen in the sorriest sports city in America (with apologies to Buffalo).

How sorry is Cleveland?  Let us count the ways.  The aforementioned Cavaliers have never won an NBA Championship.  In fact, before LeBron James showed up, the team had never made an NBA Finals.

It seemed that God Himself ordained the franchise would win the draft lottery in 2003, the year the most highly anticipated prospect in the history of American pro sports would emerge from nearby Akron.  Things were looking up, and LeBron did end up restoring credibility to a team that hadn’t really recovered from Michael Jordan’s “The Shot” game in 1989.

Reaching the Finals in 2007 and then rattling off back-to-back 60-win seasons wasn’t enough to convince LeBron to stay when he became a free agent in 2010.  Taking his “Decision” to national television, he, plaid shirt and all, announced—with a smile, no less—that he was essentially leaving Cleveland for dead.  It would be safe to say that LeBron put the “Diss” in The Decision.

Fans of the local NFL team, the Cleveland Browns, are well acquainted with being left for dead, literally.  For three years, after owner Art Modell took his players and personnel out of Cleveland to form the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, the Cleveland Browns were “deactivated”.  In 1999, the Browns were reassembled, essentially as an expansion team, as a settlement between the city and Modell kept the franchise legacy in Cleveland.

Which also meant that the memory of football failure would be remain alive and well in the state of Cleveland.  The Browns have never won a Super Bowl, never even played in one.  However, they did lose three conference championships between 1986-1989, including “The Fumble” game in 1987.

And no conversation of tortured Cleveland fans can exclude The Fumble.  Two yards away from scoring the tying touchdown in the AFC Championship Game, Broncos DB Jeremiah Castille stripped Browns running back Earnest Byner of the football and the Broncos recovered, game over.  On the other hand, the Browns never recovered.

In the 23 years since The Fumble, the Browns have made the playoffs just twice, and only once since starting anew in 1999.  But hey, at least they have the ugliest uniforms in football, not to mention fans who dress up like dogs.  Like beaten-down dogs still loyal to their thankless master, you gotta be loyal to love a team like that.

But neither the Cavs nor the Browns can touch the longevity nor the so-close-yet-so-far-away losing of baseball’s Cleveland Indians.  The storied franchise does not lack for legends, as a walk through the museum beyond Progressive Field’s left-center field fence proudly proclaims.

Yet the Indians last won a World Series in 1948, although they came so very close in 1995 and 1997 when they lost the World Series in six and seven games, respectively.  In 1997’s game seven, they led 3-2 in the ninth inning over the Florida Marlins.  But in true Cleveland fashion, the Indians were unable to stay out of their own way.

A potential insurance run, Robbie Alomar, was thrown out at home in the top of the ninth on a fielder’s choice.  Then in the bottom of the ninth, still leading 3-2, two-time all-star closer Jose Mesa blew the save, allowing the Marlins to tie the game at three.  Finally, in the bottom of the 11th, four-time gold glove winner Tony Fernandez’s fielding miscue allowed the eventual winning run on base, and the rest is history.

Since then, the Indians have lost twice in the American League Championship Series, but more recently have bottomed out.  In 2009, the Indians lost 97 games, and another 93 in 2010, and promising starts to last season and this have been followed by cold spells.

And as loyal as Cleveland fans are, a beaten-down fan base can only take so much.  The Indians sold out every game from 1995-2000, but this year they’re dead-last in attendance at a little over 17,000 fans a game.  This in one of the nicest urban ballpark settings in America.

So there’s no joy in Cleveland these days.  Gilbert’s prediction for a Cavs’ Championship before LeBron and the Heat get theirs might even be less likely at this point than Lebron’s prediction of fifteen championships or however many he promised Miami at his welcome party back in 2010.

Maybe LeBron will build upon his strong series against the Celtics and continue to silence his doubters.  Maybe he’ll finally exorcise his demons and win the championship that eluded him in Cleveland and his first year in Miami.  And maybe he’ll do it in such a dominant, effortless way leaving us to again shake our heads in amazement.

And when you do finish shaking your head, maybe just shake it one more time in honor of those suffering fans in the sorriest sports city in America, the City of Cleveland.