Last night’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Orlando Magic reinforces what I’ve believed about Cleveland sports and our athletes for forty-odd years now. Whenever I share my Theory of Failure with friends and acquaintances, I’m always greeted with the same response: bemused annoyance followed by a kind of thoughtful albeit morbid curiosity. You may be able to dismiss my theory, but you can’t ignore the overwhelming evidence that plays out in Cleveland stadiums and arenas year after year, season after season, regime change after regime change, decade after decade.
Cleveland teams fail because Cleveland athletes consciously or subconsciously sabotage the Big Games.
Let’s be brutally honest for a moment. Before any season starts here, the overwhelming majority of Cleveland athletes aren’t even thinking championship. Most simply pray to survive intact without a career-ending injury. As the season plods along, these same athletes will usually play well enough to pad their stats, thereby increasing their trade value and expediting their departure from town. If, by some cruel twist of fate, one of our teams meets with sustained success—e.g. the ’95 Indians or the ’07 Cavs—the players may find themselves caught up in the hype for a season or two. But eventually better judgment sets in. You see, winning a championship in Cleveland means one thing and one thing only to a pro athlete. He may actually have to stay in Cleveland.
“So?” I hear the native Clevelanders crow. “What the heck does that mean?”
Listen, I am one of you. I was born and raised here, and I hate saying this as much as you hate hearing it. But someone needs to speak the truth.
No one wants to be here. Think about yourself for a moment. If you could get the heck out of Cleveland, land a great new job and a brand new life, you would. Anyone who says otherwise is lying, mentally ill or waiting to die.
Yes, you may love this city. I know I do. But it’s the self-destructive love you reserve for an old flame that does nothing but rip out your heart and let you look at it before you die. Cleveland is the no-account, ne’er-do-well “bad boy” of hometowns. It drains your wallet and harrows your soul, never giving anything of value in return. If you’re here, you’re trapped here. Sorry. The truth hurts.
But let’s forget about ourselves for a moment because, honestly, we don’t count. Rather, put yourself in the place of a pampered pro athlete. For your entire life you have excelled in your particular sport. You have focused your God-given talents in pursuit of the best that life has to offer: the best house, the best ladies, the best parties, the best endorsement deals. Suddenly, through no choice of your own, you wake up and find yourself stranded on our fabled North Coast.
What do you think you would do? Revel in Cleveland’s “great museums,” “award-winning symphony orchestra” and “world famous zoo”? Or spend every waking moment trying to escape our little Portmeirion like Number 6 on a rubber raft?
If that reference is too obscure for you, then let me put it to you in more visceral terms. You’re LeBron James, C.C. Sabathia or Manny Ramirez. You are arguably the best athlete in your particular sport. As such, you know you deserve the best life has to offer. Would you rather spend your down time: A) partying at Slam Jams with secretaries from Sheffield Lake or B) hanging in the Viper Room slurping jello shots from Lindsay Lohan’s belly-button? Note, if you answered A, then you are not a professional athlete, although you may be an Indians’ relief pitcher.
But back to my main point, i.e. the long succession of Freudian Chokes plaguing Cleveland sports franchises since 1964. I’m not saying each and every one of our Waterloos resulted from premeditated perfidy (although I am convinced a number of them did). But forty five years—a combined 129 seasons between baseball, football and basketball—without one single championship is statistically inconceivable. I mean you may as well predict that a black man with an African first name, Arabic middle name, and a last name rhyming with the world’s most notorious terrorist would be elected President of the .. oh yeah, scratch that.
We always hear what a big part Desire plays in the triumph of championship athletes and teams. What gets ignored is the role that Disgruntlement plays in the collapse of also-ran athletes and under-achieving teams. Combine distaste for playing in Cleveland with the knowledge that success here means staying here, and it’s no wonder that tackles are missed, balls fumbled, bricks thrown, and saves blown. I don’t care how much a Cleveland athlete may say he wants to bring a championship to our city. At some point, usually late in the game with everything on the line, reality sets in, and the soul-crushing prospect of being stuck here offsets any physical training or mental conditioning.
In all fairness, Cleveland has seen a handful of athletes in the last 45 years attempt to buck this trend. For the most part, these atypical Cleveland athletes are local products hailing from the Cleveland area. Bernie Kosar is the prime example, and from what I’ve seen LeBron James also fall into this category. Both these men internalized a sense of The Cleveland Curse, and both saw themselves as agents of change, Prince Charmings, so to speak, waking Cleveland from its municipal nightmare. I could never accuse either man of intentionally blowing the Big Game. But sometimes our failures don’t reside in our conscious choices, but rather our subconscious reservations.
When all the dust clears, LeBron will view the ‘09 season as a personal failure. He may offer lip service to our disappointment as Cleveland fans, but he won’t attach the same significance to the Cavs’ collapse that we do. Ultimately, in the superstar’s mind, he will comfort himself with the thought that “It’s just Cleveland.” And why shouldn’t he?
Cleveland is a black hole of professional sports from which no ray of light can escape. Cleveland has no tradition of success to emulate, only a legacy of failure to flee. When LeBron finally finds greener pastures, his missteps here in Cleveland will barely exist as footnotes in his biography. Like Bernie before him, Lebron will eventually get his ring. Whether in New York, New Jersey, LA or some other big city with bright lights, the world will one day hail The King’s true greatness just as he finally free breaks from the ever-sucking event horizon of Lake Erie’s south shore.
So where does my theory and its resulting accusations leave us, the Cleveland fan? Unfortunately, the same place we’ve been the last forty-five years.
When all is said and done, we are simply the fans. We don’t play the games. We can’t make Cleveland athletes feel what we feel, want what we want and need what we need. Gone are the halcyon days when pro athletes walked the hometown streets and fought for us as citizen soldiers. Like Alaric’s Visigoths in the fourth century, our local warriors are nothing more than barbarian mercenaries paid to due battle for a crumbling city they neither revere nor even respect. After losing the war, they shed nothing, not blood nor tears. While we keen and wail, the Cavs simply pack their golf bags into their Gulfstreams and jet off to their real lives.
In the wake of the team’s hasty departure, I see Cleveland fans clearing off the cobwebs of Dortmunder Gold and staggering forth into smog-soaked morning. I hear them chattering the age-old refrain: “What we need to do is dump Mo .. or Ben .. or Z .. or Wally …” Yeah, that’ll show ‘em. Ship them out of Cleveland. That’ll really hurt them. That’ll prove we won’t put up with mediocrity. Meanwhile, NBA players everywhere cringe at the mention of Cleveland like Colonel Klink being threatened with the Russian Front.
And so it goes in Cleveland, where we always hope and never learn …