A Closer Look at Cleveland's Sports Scapegoats - UPDATED
Face it: In Cleveland, there's a lot of bitterness and hate to throw at those who have caused a generation of sporting disappointments over the years.
And with "LeBenedict" James' departure, we now have another visible scar to make our history uglier. But over the years, Clevelanders have held grudges against some that, over time, might need a little review.
I took a handful of the tragic pillars in Cleveland sports history and with a little research, found that some of the assumed villains could actually be taking heat for others who might also be responsible for these droughts.
(I couldn't find an actual pic of The Shot on B/R's gallery, but I think you get the idea with this one.)
I don't think Craig Ehlo would be blamed as much if Michael Jordan could've waited another year or two before becoming "Michael Jordan." Magic Johnson anointed the Cavs the "Team of the '90s" when Jordan threw the first of many daggers into the heart of that dream, never giving it a chance. Although Cleveland wasn't Jordan's only victim, "The Shot" is the one that makes the Gatorade commercials.
While you cannot look away from the fact it was Ehlo's outstretched hand that Jordan shot over, much of the blame should also go to...
It looks like he's asking "Why Me?" Here's why.
Ehlo, who scored 15 of his 24 in the fourth quarter, was a hot hand on offense, but it's easy to question why he was on the floor to defend the play since he had a bum ankle and the Cavs certainly weren't getting the ball back.
A Long-forgotten fact is that Jordan wasn't Ehlo's mark. Coach Lenny Wilkens had Nance, a skilled shot blocker, covering Jordan. You might argue that Wilkens could've double-teamed MJ, who already had 42 points, but when he didn't, he could've told Nance to NOT let Jordan get between him and the basket. Nance did.
Red Right 88
(Note: This was the first playoff game I ever saw. Kinda sets the tone for my fandom, doesn't it?).
Down 14-12 with 49 seconds left and the ball on the Raiders' 13 yard-line, the Browns needed only a field goal to win their 1980 divisional playoff game. But no, Coach Sam Rutigliano called Red Right 88, which resulted in an interception in the end zone. The call is seen as the worst play call in Browns history.
But should it be?
Few seem to remember it was SECOND AND NINE! A shot at the end zone was completely logical. A run would've bunched up the defense, so you can argue for trying to stretch out the defense with a pass. You could still run on third down to position for that field goal.
"Coach Sam" also had to consider that his kicker, Don Cockroft, had missed two extra points and had two herniated discs in his back. Cockroft would later admit, "I shouldn't have been on the field."
So, if the play call isn't the culprit maybe the real culprit was the execution of the play. And responsible for that was...
When Rutigliano called the play, he instructed QB Sipe that if primary receiver Dave Logan (now the Broncos color commentator) wasn't open, he was to throw the ball "into Lake Erie." Logan was open, but Sipe misread Logan's defender. Then he checked down to tight end Ozzie Newsome, who was being covered by Mike Davis, who intercepted the pass.
If you credit Sipe for trying, good for you, but he still threw the pick. But the blame seems to lie completely on the play call instead.
(If you missed ESPN Classic's "Top Five Reasons you Can't Blame..." about this, I apologize that I'm paraphrasing one of their reasons because I agree with it).
This moment tops my all-time "Can't Watch TV" list. Byner, about to go into the end zone, completing a comeback that would've rivaled the Bills-Oilers game five years later. Even though he held the ball a little loose, here comes Jeremiah Castille, who is known primarily in NFL history as the guy who stripped Byner of the ball and recovered the ball...and nothing else.
Dawg Pounders blamed Byner for it, which is why he ended up redeeming himself by winning a Super Bowl as a Redskin.
Given how Byner was almost single-handedly responsible for getting the Browns back in the game, it's ironic we looked down on him so much, instead of the man who allowed Castille to make it to the hole instead, who was...
To this day, true experts of the game are quick to point out that Slaughter decided to take the play off. So his defender—Castille—decided to pursue the ball. If Slaughter even feigns a block, Castille doesn't make it before Byner walks through a giant hole to the end zone.
Slaughter doesn't. Neither has he really accepted any responsibility for it either.
If there's any player we hate, it's John Elway. The man who thwarted our best Super Bowl hopes ever. We painted No. 7's on every orange fire hydrant in Cuyahoga County. Even when he won Super Bowl 33, we raised up our middle fingers and joined Broncos Owner Pat Bowlen when he said "This one's for John!"
But after 10 years, it's time to let it go. After all, what was he supposed to do? Take a knee? His arrogance aside, it was his job to drive the ball down the field, and he did it. He deserves the same credit the rest of the country gives him. It was the defense's job to stop him. The defense simply didn't stop him. The Broncos only faced third down three times, and of those, only one was third-and-long. Another was the third-down touchdown pass to Mark Jackson.
It was a complete defensive meltdown. For that, you can point the finger at...
Know who this guy is? His name is Dave Adolph and he was Marty Schottenheimer's defensive coordinator. Both he and Marty were known for their "bend-but-don't-break" defenses. Unfortunately, that played right into the hands of the West Coast offense Elway was running.
Watch film of The Drive. The linebackers are almost standing still, waiting for the play to come to them. It makes you wonder when either Adolph or Schottenheimer stopped calling for the "prevent" defense, as Dave Pizzouli sacked Elway for the drive's only negative-yards play when the Broncos made it to the Browns' 40-yard-line.
Another note. The drive that led to Red Right 88 began on the Browns 14-yard-line with 2:22 left on the clock. Although he had 12 more yards, Elway had 5:32 left. You think Schottenheimer, then in his first season as defensive coordinator, would've remembered that six years later.
But, if you're not keen on looking down on one of the most popular coaches in team history, there's always this guy...
A largely overlooked fact about "The Drive" is that Elway's fourth quarter gem only sent the game to overtime. On their second possession, kicker Rich Karlis kicked the game-winning 33-yard attempt.
Notice I never said it was a "good field goal." I just said he kicked it and it won the game. Denizens of the Dawg Pound are standing on their mothers' graves waiting to swear the kick was wide. YouTube video looks very questionable, especially, that it doesn't show if the refs at the back of the end zone even looked up, similar to Phil Dawson's ricochet kick in Baltimore.
If the field goal is called wide left, who knows what would've happened next? But in today's PTI-talk show world, it would definitely been more controversial—and remembered. Which would've made Karlis the anti-Adam Viniateri.
In Spanish, "Jose Mesa" translates to "Joe Table." Yet, in Cleveland, it's Spanish for words you shouldn't say in front of polite company.
If he had slammed the door on the Marlins in the 1997 World Series, we would've had our first championship since 1948, in addition to redemption from the power outage two years earlier against the Braves. Despite being trouble in the clubhouse, he still had over 100 saves over the past three seasons. So when he blew the save, allowing the tying run that sent it to extra innings, he was scorned in Northeast Ohio. Still is.
And although he got into a jam in the 10th inning, he didn't give up the winning run. That designation goes to the man who put out that fire, only to lose the game in the 11th. And there's more than that to hold against that fan favorite, too. In fact, I think we unduly protect him from what Mesa took the heat for.
And who is this fan favorite who might be taking that undue heat from Mesa, you might ask?
One could easily argue that Nagy could be responsible for there being a Game Seven in the first place. His pedestrian effort in Game Three (6 IP, 5 R) helped keep the Marlins in a game where the Tribe bats scored their usual seven runs.
That put the game into the hands of the Indians' bullpen, which imploded, allowing nine runs in the last three innings. (Note: Mesa allowed the two runners he inherited to score, in addition to two of his own, but in baseball's scoring system he was only charged with one earned run). If Nagy had shut down the Marlins and gone deeper in the game, the bullpen wouldn't have had such a load and even if the bullpen imploded, the Indians still scored four in the bottom of the ninth, and 11 overall.
Then there's Game Seven. He was pitching on five days rest, so that wasn't a factor. The box score shows him as giving up the Series-winning run, and he IS credited for the loss.
If there is a way to defend Nagy, it's by looking at the error second baseman Tony Fernandez made on a potential inning-ending double play. That error led to an intentional walk to load the bases, followed by Edgar Renteria's "forgettable" two-out single.
Either way, the game was lost in the 11th, when Mesa was in the showers.
The Catch (Willie Mays)
The Grandaddy of them all. Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series, in addition to being one of the greatest plays in sports history, is the symbol of a Cleveland team that won a record 111 games (in a 154-game season) only to fall apart and get swept in the Fall Classic.
It's well-known that the catch was in Game One, so what about the other three games? Was it so great of a catch that it disheartened an entire Indians team for four games? They must not have had much of a heart, if that's the case.
If there is a real culprit to why the 111-win Indians went 0-4 in the Series, it could be...
The Indians' Offense
Despite being best-known for having Bob Feller, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon in their starting pitching rotation, the Tribe also had some offensive firepower. Shortstop George Strickland was the only starting non-pitcher to hit less than 10 homers. Second Baseman Bobby Avila led the AL with a .341 batting average, as the entire team batted .271 collectively.
So what happened? As a team, the bats fizzled to a .190 average. That included the .500 (8-for-16) average by Vic Wertz—ironically the man who hit the long shot caught by Mays. Avila dropped to .133.
Granted, Sal Maglie was the only Giants starting pitcher with an ERA over 4.00, but no one's given the Giants' staff credit or the Indians' bats blame for what Mays' catch has been credited.
Note: This was 20 year before I was born, so I can't tell if the Tribe's bats fizzled or if the Giants' staff was that dominating. If you are or know someone more aware of this, please comment. Either way, you can't hang this totally on Mays' catch.
Save for the Dodgers' move to L.A., no team's fans have gone through anything as painful as Browns fans endured during the second half of the 1995 season. As soon as the Indians lost the 1995 World Series, Art Modell announced the unthinkable. After backing the NFL against Al Davis' move to Los Angeles and criticizing Robert Irsay for moving the Colts in the middle of the night, he moved the Browns to Baltimore.
His move had negative ramifications in the NFL world, as more than a dozen other cities quickly dipped into public tills to build new stadiums in order to prevent the same.
Then, after so many close calls in Cleveland (plus an 0-6 record in games to go to the Super Bowl), he won the Vince Lombardi Trophy in his fifth season in Baltimore. (Just in case you needed clarification about the picture).
This move is highlighted as the reason why Art Modell shouldn't be allowed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, despite his roles in TV revenue-sharing and the creation of Monday Night Football. That, and the placement of the Hall of Fame two counties away, where the idea of serious threats are still possible.
Plus, he fired Paul Brown, too, who was a championship game mainstay from 1945-57.
Losing, as we called it, was a Work of Art. His "refusal" to pay players that would bring home a title eventually led to the "Jump, Art! Jump!" signs. Never mind he had to take out loans from a local bank to sign free agent Andre Rison.
But is there another way to look at this after 14 years? Who else can we aim our ire at?
It's well-documented that the private jet Modell flew to Baltimore on was owned by Al Lerner. But that's not all we really have to aim at him for what he did when he was alive—and his son Randy.
First, Al Lerner could've prevented the move by simply buying the majority share from Modell. He paid $530 million for the new expansion franchise; it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Modell settling for less.
Second, both he and his son repeatedly hired people to run the franchise that were either incompetent, inexperienced, or uncooperative. Not to mention that he was starting with an expansion rules format that was unforgiving—an over-correction from the instant successes of Carolina and Jacksonville. The front office has yet to be stable. (I'm not assuming a thing about Holmgren yet. Hopeful, but I'll believe it when I see it). So has the roster—with the exception of kicker Phil Dawson. After all, how many jerseys have we bought from Tim Couch to Braylon Edwards—not to mention the pink No. 10 jerseys—that are now obsolete?
The most memorable moment involving Randy Lerner is when he showed up angry after another miserable loss in Chicago last year. It was as if he didn't know the team was 1-7 and getting outscored by 18 points a game. The rest is him not being around. While that may have finally changed, the seven years we waited for him to establish a foundation for success was something Modell would never have done.
We wanted Modell gone, and we got it. In its place, we got someone driving our team with, well, a Lerner's permit.
It seems like Cleveland is at the forefront of finding new ways to have our collective hearts broken.
It seemed like a fairy tale. Tragically stuck in the middle of the lottery no matter how bad we finished the Cleveland Cavaliers finally won that sought-after first overall pick - just in time to pick the local boy (from Akron - some get picky about it.) who would finally give Northeastern Ohio something to be known for besides a burning river, the much-ignored Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and an elite history of sports heartbreak. Finally, we caught a break, it seemed.
For seven years, we saw our fortunes imrpove. A premature NBA Finals appearance was followed by two 60-win seasons. Cleveland gradually became a basketball town, wich is something considering that NE Ohio is the birthplace of the NFL and home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the post-season was another deal. Despite having home-court advantage, he never led the Cavs back to the finals, much less end our city's title drought. But in the middle of that quest he initially agreed to take, he quit. Some blame him, others blame team management that didn't give him the "right" supporting cast, while another fact also sits there that more elite players wouldn't sign unless they got a comittment from James. The blame game is winding down now and the Heat is now "the chosen three," and the Cavs now miss the playoffs before a single game is even played.
But throughout it all, one element of the whole over-played saga was quite bothersome to all Cleveland fans, and I think this element deserves a closer look.
(Oh, I Hate To Go There, But...) The Media
Was it my imagination, or did the over-saturation of suggesting that LeBron would be better off elsewhere start as soon as Eva Longoria ran onto the court to help soon-to-be husband Tony Parker celebrate the Spurs championship in 2007?
As soon as the Knicks began clearing cap room, the suggestions began. The photoshopping of unis on him. In 2008, the possibility of him leaving was on the cover of ESPN magazine. For months, it loomed over our heads. And even before the Cavs' series with the Celtics was done, it was "Is this going to be the final game for LBJ in a Cavs uniform?"
As the discussion ensued and commentoators asked where he could go, the idea of him staying in Cleveland was literally joked about as an afterthought by many national voices, who fittingly were based in New York, Chicago, and other places who had a vested interest in where he went.
Then the suggestions that staying in Cleveland was bad business for him off the court - something else I've never seen.
And who's going to buy into that first? Vultures like "World Wide Wes" and national marketing "experts" that are in his grill, telling him that his talent is "wasted" in Cleveland. They really didn't campaign against the Cavs as much as they campaigned against Cleveland - the city. We don't have the media exposure New York has. We don't have the nice party atmosphere like Miami. We don't have our act together like Chicago.
They highlighted that Chris Bosh wouldn't play here - and somehow never portrayed that as arrogant, smug or elitist. The message was clear through the entire ordeal: We suck as a city. There was no debate about it.
All we had was a rabid, loyal fanbase and the best record in the NBA regular season.
But oh, yeah, we're Cleveland. Like Emile Hisch in "The Girl Next Door," we're not supposed to bring Elisha Cuthbert to a party and be expected to actually leave with her.
The hour-long debacle in Connecticut was just the climax of it, but never before had I seen such one-sided coverage against a city for so long as what eventually led to "The Decision."