Tonight will go down as one of the most memorable nights in Cleveland sports lore. The day that the prodigal son officially came home. The return of the Chosen One. That this night is even possible is the bucking of the trend that is Cleveland sports. This once dominant sports city is mocked around the country for its failures over the past half century and its rare successes are usually dismissed as a fluke. To understand the importance of tonight, you’ve got to understand Cleveland sports history.
First and foremost, this is a football region. Not just the city of Cleveland or Cuyahoga County. Northeast Ohio is traditionally a mecca of great high school football. Many of Ohio State’s best players come from Akron, Youngstown, and Cleveland. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton. Then there is the beloved Cleveland Browns. The Browns have the most loyal fan base in all of pro sports. For a team that has never been to a Super Bowl, had their franchise stolen from them and moved to Baltimore, a franchise that hasn’t sniffed playoff success since its return and even watched the “old” Browns franchise win a pair of Super Bowls; they sell out that stadium every Sunday. Their starting quarterbacks since their return? Tim Couch, Ty Detmer, Doug Pederson, Spergon Wynn, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thad Lewis, and Jason Campbell. That is since 1999. Some of those showed some promise before their coaches were fired early in a rebuild phase. Most were downright awful. Even though the team has largely been awful since they came home, that stadium is filled every week. The old stadium was filled every week too. Even after the Browns had a pair of Super Bowl appearances ripped away from them in the late eighties, the fans never left. The memories of The Fumble and The Drive haunt this town to this day. The Browns last championship came in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was president, before the first Super Bowl and before the escalation of The Vietnam War.
For the first time in a decade, there is hope for the Browns. They’re above .500 and they’ve already beat their hated rivals from Pissburgh. Hell, they actually should have swept them. They’ve got another date with the overrated Ravens. They’ve still got North Division favorites and suddenly vulnerable Cincinnati twice. For the first time in a long time, the Browns truly control their playoff destiny. Whether they get there this year or not is still to be determined, but their is finally legitimate reason for hope. Hometown boy, Brian Hoyer, is the 20th quarterback to start for the franchise since they returned fifteen years ago. He might not be Dan Marino, but he looks competent running the offense. He’s from the area. He wants to be there. He gets it.
Traditionally, Cleveland is also a baseball town. Some of baseball’s greatest players have donned the Indians uniform during their career. Bob Feller. Bob Lemon. Larry Doby. Lou Boudreau. Shoeless Joe Jackson. Satchel Paige. Gaylord Perry. Herb Score. Cy Young! Even with all of that talent, the franchise suffered through forty one years without playoff baseball in Cleveland. Forty one years without making the playoffs, between 1954 and 1995. Forty one years. 1995 gave the Tribe faithful hope though. The hometown Indians had been assembling a young team of future All-Stars and had just opened a brand new stadium. A year ahead of their time, the Indians raced to the World Series in 1995 to take on the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta was only two years removed from a playoff berth and three and four years removed from back to back World Series losses. The young Indians met their match in ’95 and fell to the Braves in six games. Even then, it was only a matter of when and not if. We all knew that this young group would end Cleveland’s title drought. The roster was littered with names like Baerga, Alomar, Lofton, Vizquel, Belle, Ramirez, and Thome. On most nights, you could make the case that the entire American League All-Star team was the Indians starting roster. After falling short in 1996, the Tribe returned to the World Series in 1997 to take on the five year old franchise in the Florida Marlins. It was finally time.
The two teams traded victories throughout the first six games of the series. In game seven the Indians took a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning and handed the game over to the previously un-hittable Jose Mesa. The key word there was “previously”. Mesa wasn’t able to convert the save and deliver Cleveland a championship and the game went into extra innings. Indians legend Charlie Nagy would go on to lose the game in the bottom of the eleventh and so continued Cleveland’s title drought. That core was able to stick together and dominate for the rest of the nineties and into 2001 but always fell short of the World Series.
After 2001, the Tribe wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 2007. 2007 featured a young team on the rise that was oh, so very reminiscent of the core group of the nineties. Sizemore, Hafner, Sabathia, Lee, Martinez, Carmona, and Peralta seemed like new faces in a familiar situation. That group would wind up blowing a 3-1 ALCS lead to the Red Sox as Boston would go on to win the World Series in a sweep of the Colorado Rockies. It was just one more punch to the gut of Cleveland sports fans. That promising young group of Indians never got to reach their potential like the group from the nineties. Injuries would derail promising starts to the season for the next few years that saw the Indians win back to back Cy Young Awards (Sabathia, Lee). The Tribe hasn’t won a World Series since 1948. Harry Truman was the president. The Korean War wouldn’t start for another two years.
Like the Browns, though, there is hope for the Indians. There is a new core of young players that led this team to the playoffs last year and within a few games of returning this year. Brantley, Kipnis, Santana, and Kluber are just a few of the names that are leading this new rebirth in Indians baseball. Buckeye native Nick Swisher chose to come to Cleveland. High profile free agents don’t do that. Manager Terry Francona, who won a pair of World Series in Boston (including 2007!!!), came home to Cleveland. His father played for the Indians when he was a young boy, and he chose to come to Cleveland in 2013 to be the manager of that same team. A manager with two World Series titles could have chosen to coach for any MLB team that he wanted to. He chose Cleveland. He wants to be there. He gets it.
The Cavaliers are the youngest of Cleveland’s major franchises. They’ve enjoyed periods of success and also some unsuccessful seasons as well. Like their brother franchises from the Forest City, the Cavs had their chances at titles. Most notably, there was a heartbreaking loss to the Bulls when Michael Jordan tore Cleveland’s heart out with a buzzer beater. The Shot. That 1989 game would occur a mere few months after the Browns were eliminated from Super Bowl contention by the Broncos for the third time in four years. The Cavs were postseason regulars for much of the next eight years but could never get past Jordan and the Bulls. From 1997 through 2002 the team was generally awful.
Akron boasted a talented high school kid that was drawing comparisons to Jordan. That kid was LeBron James, a local phenom that was so good that his team’s high school games would be aired on ESPN regularly. His team, St. Vincent-St. Mary, appeared in the Ohio championship game all four years with LeBron and his teammates winning three state championships. In a very un-Cleveland like stroke of luck, the Cavaliers won the draft lottery and the right to select the hometown hero with the first overall pick in the draft, straight out of high school. James made an immediate impact and in his third season in the league, the Cavs finally made the playoffs. They would be staples in the postseason for the rest of LeBron’s initial tenure in Cleveland. With little supporting cast, James and the Cavs even made an appearance in the NBA Finals, falling short of bringing a title home to the San Antonio Spurs.
LeBron never really seemed to embrace the whole “hometown kid” story line, even though he promised to bring them a championship. He was always quick to point out that he was from Akron and not Cleveland. He wore a Yankees hat to an Indians game against New York, in Cleveland. A lot of people felt that he quit on the Cavs in the playoffs in his last season there. I never thought that he quit on the team, but the writing was on the wall that he wasn’t happy there. At the time, I don’t think us Cavs fans fully understood why he wasn’t happy. We didn’t look at him as a twenty something old kid that had never left Northeast Ohio. He was King James, after all. He was literally the King of that town. We’d seen countless free agents leave the Browns and Indians over the years for greener pastures, but we never expected one of our own to do the same; especially in the manner that he did. It was simply gut wrenching and was so perfectly Cleveland. Right up there with The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, and The Blown Save.
I supported those burning his jersey. I supported the letter that owner Dan Gilbert posted on the team’s website. Maybe it was my own immaturity. Maybe it’s because we wanted to believe that someone would actually want to stay. A sports town that had grown accustomed to being mocked by outsiders had just been turned into a joke by one of its own; on national TV. For four long years I rooted for every team that played the Miami Heat. I was so happy to see Dirk and the Mavericks beat Miami in the championship. I was disgusted when James and company win it all the next two seasons.
Even though I rooted against him, we always held out hope that he’d come home. After the Heat lost this past year’s championship to San Antonio, LeBron made the decision to come home. The Sports Illustrated feature that he wrote to announce his return, instantly erased four years of bad blood for most Cavs fans. I don’t think that there was a more perfect way for him to do it. That letter showed that four years later, as a man, that he now understands that Cleveland sports is bigger than him. It’s bigger than Jim Brown. It’s bigger than Jim Thome. He realizes that this isn’t just for Cleveland. It’s for an entire region. From Toledo to Youngstown and from Lake Erie down to Columbus and every Rust Belt town in between; this is a culture. Cleveland’s professional sports franchises have the support of these cities and towns, even though those franchises have often provided little to no hope for them. Like he said, living here is tough. When you are growing up in Ohio, everyone dreams of running off to Florida, or California, or New York City. As you get older, the allure of being surrounded by fake and superficial people from those places wears off and you come home. LeBron came home. He wants to be here now. This time; he gets it.
If and when King James delivers this town its first title in anything since before Vietnam, there will still be a slight stain to it. Like the high school sweetheart that ran off for bigger and better things before coming back home, there will be that small, nagging thought: “But…he left us.” Can you imagine that? That fan base, celebrating its first major championship in over fifty years, and there being an almost guilty feeling with it. That would/will be perfectly imperfect. It really doesn’t get any more Cleveland than that.