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Published:February 2nd, 2009 13:51 EST
East Meets West? Karma's Toll On Cleveland Sports

East Meets West? Karma's Toll On Cleveland Sports

By Christopher HIllenbrand

2008 has come and gone, thankfully. Let me tell you this writer had invoked the forces that be, to speed up the hellish year, but to minimal success. I assumed I had the same odds of having that improbable dream answered as any year I had asked to end swiftly in the past, but then I realized what my friends living in other cities in other regions of the country had told me. They said, intoxicated by the smudged wads of bills in their pockets undoubtedly, time couldn`t be flying any faster:  which they never said when they lived in Cleveland, Ohio, also known as the waif on the waterfront to many including this observer. So that got me to wondering: is it just me, or am I alone in bearing the seemingly endless sunny spring and the gloomy summer Northeastern Ohio threw me. One constant we greater area Clevelanders had to look forward to was the annual sub freezing winter still gracing us as I type: just the thing to pick our brokenhearted spirits up. I guess some consolation came from the fact many of my relatives felt the same way, but it still didn`t answer my question.


Why was it that time imbedded its toes into the cold hard Cuyahoga Metropark`s earth when I watched a towering drive to left field veer to the left of the foul pole, ending the game as a loss and dashing any hope for the Indians to clinch a playoff berth. I wasn`t alone and when it came to football season and Browns` fans griped about another dropped pass from Braylon Edwards, I knew the answer. 


Though I`m a die-hard fan of the Indians, I`ll be the first to claim my allegiance to black and gold football of Steel Town and have suffered the predictable aspersions from Browns` fans because of it. But for someone so intimate with this city`s history of only ifs " and what might`ve beens ", it`s difficult to ignore the abysmal results of Cleveland`s sports teams this past year and beyond.


The Indians posted a record of 96 and 66 in 2007 which garnered them the American League Central pennant. After displaying the potential to be a five tool threat the year previous, Grady Sizemore led the club in `07 with a .390 on base percentage, 33 stolen bases, and 118 runs scored, while boosting his overall average and slugging percentage. As the new face for the Cleveland Indians, Sizemore wowed the nation with his play in the All Star Game and eventually won his first Gold Glove for his spectacular defense in center field.


In his second full season in the majors, Victor Martinez was the Indians` best overall hitter on the year with a .301 average, 25 home runs, and 114 runs batted in. C.C Sabathia and Fausto Carmona became the first left and right handed pitching tandem to win at least 19 games apiece since the 1950`s. With one of the finest clutch hitting crews and pitching staffs in baseball, the Indians made a miraculous comeback in the ALDS to beat the Yankees advancing them to the ALCS for the first time since 1998. But after frittering away a three-to-one game lead in the Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox, the Indians lost the next three.


After a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar `07 season, the Indians were further insulted when 2008 found them plagued with injuries. Two of their most formidable hitters: Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez were sidelined with back problems. Pitching aces: Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona underperformed throughout most of the year. Due to his own sub par performance on the field and the free agent market awaiting him at season`s end, C.C. Sabathia was traded to the Brewers for farm hands by the trade deadline. A couple highlights of the season included pitcher Cliff Lee authoring an AL Cy Young award-winning season with 22 wins and a 2.54 E.R.A., and Brady Sizemore won his second consecutive Gold Glove and his first Siler Slugger award. They finished in last place in the AL Central Division with a mark of 78-84. Where will this coming season take them? Only the Tribe mainstays and overpriced, and over-hyped, free agents they picked up in the off-season will know for sure.


When Romeo Crennel coached the Browns to a 10 and 6 regular season record in 2007 only to lose in the playoffs, even the cynics touted the Browns as playoff contenders the next year. Even with two first round draft picks in Brady Quinn and Joe Thomas, the Browns` season was highlighted by breakout performances from many of their seasoned players. Starting QB Derek Anderson and his go-to star wide receiver Braylon Edwards ignited the high octane offense with 80 completions, 1,289 yards, and 16 touchdowns between them. Other key talents also contributed to one of the NFL`s most prolific offenses of the year. Kellen Winslow Jr., the Browns` tight end, finished the year with 1106 yards and 5 touchdowns. Joshua Cribbs, their versatile punt/ kick returner and wide receiver, had 2 kick-return touchdowns and 1 punt-return touchdown. Browns` fans could breathe easily, knowing they had a winning team with only a lackluster defense to address in the coming off-season.


With the firing of the Browns` old defensive coordinator and the deal to bring Shaun Rogers, D`Qwell Jackson, and Brodney Pool on to bolster an encumbered defense, everything was, at hindsight, in place to hopefully improve on 07`s winning season. After the Browns started the season 0 and 3 against teams predicted to be in playoff contention, they finally eked out their first win for the year on the road in Cincinnati.


The offensive charge that produced ten victories the year earlier had barely shown up thus far, with several key players making too many bonehead mistakes: notably Braylon Edwards who had led the league all season in dropped passes. But on the high following their first win and a bye week to meditate on their success, they rolled back into Cleveland, and in front of millions of Monday Night Football viewers, tromped the undefeated world champion New York Giants 35 to 14.


The week before the upset, Kellen Winslow had been hospitalized for an undisclosed illness which turned out to be nothing more than a Staph infection. Once Winslow returned for Week 7, when the Browns lost to the Redskins, he had more than a few heated words for Browns GM Phil Savage who had spread rumors about his illness. Winslow was suspended for one game by the NFL Commission but successfully appealed the decision. But tensions had arisen between the front office and the players not performing up to their possibility and the fans who grew wearisome of their 3-6 record going into Week 11.


With Derek Anderson out, Brady Quinn in was named the starting quarterback. He could only go 1-1 on the year before being sidelined with a fractured finger. His week 11 win against the Buffalo Bills was the final one for the season. Any chances for revitalizing the Browns` offense were lost once Derek Anderson, the only other first string QB available, was injured. The remainder of the season for the team itself was not only played horribly but was spent by them playing the blame game at who was responsible for the dismal 4 and 12 mark after the final game.


The shoddy production was felt top-to-bottom through the lineup: Anderson only had 9 touchdowns, 20 fewer than a 2007; the receivers: caught for 11 TDs, 18 fewer; and rushers scored 6, 7 fewer than the year before. Though the mediocre performances of top ranked talents were mostly to blame, the top office felt the sting of the losing season most. GM Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel were fired within 24 hours of the final game and Jets` former head coach Phil Mangini was brought on as head coach. The unenviable job of GM has yet to be occupied.


Being in a sport that doesn`t command much respect in the area, the Cleveland Force/Crunch have played solid professional soccer for the past 31 years. For the first 11 years of its existence, from 1978 to 1988, Cleveland`s MISL team was known as the Cleveland Force, named for the Jedi`s spiritual energy from Star Wars. Although the fans flocked through the turnstiles for the gimmicky Star Wars music and Darth Vader theatrics at their games, the team finished 6th and 5th through its first 2 years. Until the ownership dissolved the name and changed the face of the team in 1988, the team finished in first place twice and made it to the Finals once only to lose in the final year of their existence.

After the Force`s final season ended, a group of local businessmen invested in a new expansion team to join the Major Indoor Soccer League to replace the void the Force`s departure left behind. At the start of the 1989-1990 season, the Cleveland Crunch was the next generation of Cleveland professional soccer. Under the observant eye of former Force star Kai Haaskivi, now the Crunch`s coach/player, the Crunch became a juggernaut of indoor soccer 7 out of the next 10 years in the NPSL. In 1993, the Cleveland Crunch prevailed in an edge-of-your-seat finale against the St. Louis Ambush, bringing a pro sports championship home to Cleveland for the first time in over thirty years. After a few regime changes in management in the nineties, the team returned to the MISL and resumed the Force banner in 2002.


The first hockey team based in Cleveland was the Cleveland Barons who were part of the NHL from 1976-1978. But the lack of their popularity in the city forced the owner, and the league, to disband the team. During the 1983 off-season, the Muskegon Lumberjacks relocated to Cleveland, bringing pro hockey back to the city. They played three losing seasons at Richfield Coliseum and another eight at Gund Arena before being renamed the Barons. The name change didn`t prove to dispel their unpopularity and losses. The Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League replaced the Cleveland Barons as the city`s hockey franchise after the latter folded in 2006. As of yet, they`ve been marginally successful in the Western Conference.


Arena football came to Cleveland when Bernie Kosar, former Browns` quarterback, formed a business partnership to create the Thunder. After going to the AFL Finals in 2008, the team suspended their 2008-2009 season for dubious reasons. 


The King`s reign had already lasted three years and yet the Cleveland Cavaliers hadn`t made it past the second round of the NBA playoffs. But LeBron James and other core players of the squad including Daniel Gibson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas (pronounced Zy-droon-as Ill-gouse-cas), and Larry Hughes, had developed a closely knit rapport since their playoff loss against the Detroit Pistons months earlier. And their 2006-2007 season wasn`t going to be another devastating close yet no cigar story at a chance in the NBA Championship. Power forward LeBron James led the team with an average of 27.3 points per game, 2,132 points, and 470 assists. Daniel Gibson was the team`s finest three point shooter with 52 shots made at a .419 percentage. Zydrunas Ilgauskas set the bar with 683 rebounds. After going 50 and 32 and defeating the Wizards in the first round, the Cavs faced the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. Taking the series 4-2, the Cavs faced the highly favored San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. On the strengths of spectacular field goal shooting of Tony Parker and the defense of the team overall, the San Antonio Spurs decimated the Cavs in four straight.


As in each of his first four seasons in the NBA, LeBron James outdid himself in the 2007-2008 season in terms of average points scored in a game with 30.0, total points scored with 2,250, and assists with 539. Guard Zydrunas Ilgauskas also had improved his numbers on the defensive front but an ilk of key players did not rise to their expectations, notably Delonte West and Ben Wallace. And as a consequence, the Cavs finished the season in second place with a record of 45 and 37 and were pitted against the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Easily outgunned, the Wizards dropped three of the first four games, and won game five after LeBron James missed a crucial game winning lay up.


James didn`t waste time to redeem for his shortcoming as he had a triple-double in Game Six instrumental in the final: 105 to 88 and leading the Cavs to take the 4-2 series win over the Wizards. The next obstacle between them and the NBA finals was the number one Boston Celtics. Because of Boston`s first place ranking, they held home court advantage in 4 out of a potential 7 games played between the two. Being that both teams were for the most part evenly matched on their own turf, each team won all their games on their home court, giving Boston the 4 to 3 differential and the series. The Celtics went on and met the Pistons in the Finals on route to their 17th title (most for any current franchise).


Since the inception of the 2008-2009 season, the Cavs have been the second best team in the NBA with a cumulative record of and the best at home with a record of 20 and 0. Unlike many of the Cavs` teams in the past, the burden of being the chief playmaker has been lifted off LeBron James` shoulders, seeing how the production of the team has been more consistent throughout the roster. Blocker Anderson Varejao has 257 rebounds on the season already. And though LeBron James is leading the team in points once again with 998, Mo Williams and Delonte West have each scored at least 400 points thus far. With everyone performing up to the standards of a first place caliber team, look for the Cavs to be in serious contention as long as everyone here in Cleveland can keep their fingers crossed.


And keeping fingers crossed is one thing we Clevelanders have grown accustomed to all too well as sports fans, which brings me back to my problem. Seemingly every year is the same in this town: either, we blame a poor season on management; or when a team does make it to the playoffs in their respective sport and loses, it`s because of bad luck. In any case there`s always an excuse as to why a team loses whether it be rational or not.


The very same friend from earlier and I were talking about Eastern philosophy and religion; how holding in grudges and bearing ill will, especially an unhealthy amount of it, towards others could lead to that same destructive fortune happening to you. It`s also known as karma in Hinduism or simply just desserts " in the West, and something that can be attributed to oneself alone. So perhaps instead of blaming our sports` calamities on management or luck, perhaps they should blame themselves. Karma certainly can be a blessing when one has paid it forward but when one`s been asinine and spiteful; it can be a real bitch.

While rivalries are a natural part of sports, Cleveland has taken the concept to another level. The city prides itself on its fascination with bearing longstanding feuds with other city`s teams, and continues to create more grudges with each passing year. The most familiar and heated rivalry within Cleveland sports is the blood feud between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. But since 1999, they`ve held a grudge against themselves, being a grudge against the pre-1995 Browns who are now the Baltimore Ravens. As a team that in essence hates themselves, they`ve developed a chip on their shoulders for the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, and Indianapolis Colts: basically anyone they`ve faced who has a winning record against them which is basically everyone. The same goes for the team of my choice: the Indians, who`ve developed notorious contempt toward the Yankees, Red Sox, Marlins, Braves, and any team in the AL Central.


Karma may be setting Cleveland up as the fall guy: making an example of us that hate isn`t as important as the love of our team is, as we`ve come to believe. Recently, as late as 1996, when Cleveland lost the Browns to Baltimore, Pittsburgh Steelers` fans voiced their support of the Browns staying in Cleveland to continue the storied football feud between the two cities. On the other hand, a recent poll of Browns` fans stated they`d support the proposal to move the Steelers out of Pittsburgh. So as the poll confirmed, even Cleveland seems to hate their best loved feud?


It hasn`t been merely in the last two, three, four or even ten years that we in Cleveland have tolerated a city of losers. It wasn`t always like that though. Cleveland did have a time when our sports teams weren`t a joke. In the forties and fifties, we had two professional football teams and four championships between the two, and an Indians team that won the World Series in 1948. The former Cleveland Rams won 3 Championships in the ten years they resided on the blustery North Coast before going to St. Louis while the Browns won the championship in 1955.


Though their Hall Of Fame fullback Jim Brown frequently led them to the playoffs throughout his career, the Browns were never the same after winning their last championship in 1964.  The Indians hadn`t fared much better when the heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants in the 1951 World Series was only the beginning of their woes. Sadly, Tribe (another name for the Indians) greats such as Bobs Feller and Lemon, and Larry Doby were denied the thrill of owning championship rings during their careers. Both teams were run by incompetent and/or self-serving managements responsible for trading away their top talent to save themselves money: most infamously right fielder Rocky Colavito from the Indians.


Though the Kardiac Kids of the 70`s and the Bernie Kosar era in the 80`s inspired Cleveland fans again , those beacons of hope fell short of reaching the harbor. Indians` fans persevered through the horrendous 60s, 70s, and 80s before GM John Hart briefly turned around their fortunes with a nineties decade that saw many All Star players rise through their ranks. After the 2001 season, new GM Mark Shapiro unloaded the megaton salaries of Jim Thome, Juan Gonzalez, Roberto Alomar, and Kenny Lofton, in favor of rookie farm system players. The Cavs hadn`t seen much success before the LeBron James era, save when Mark Price and Brad Daugherty dominated the court, and have never won the Championship since the 70s when the Cavs were founded. But through it all, citizens and denizens alike have found this city`s sports heritage a source for blind faith or countless punch lines.


But many things about the sports loyalties here don`t seem to add up to a town sick and tired of not having an officially recognized sports championship. (And by recognize: I mean by the stubborn sports loving public that still only recognizes the Crunch`s Championship in 1993 as a championship in an illegitimate sport.) Yes, every year the local news shows the dejected frustrated fans, wearing their ridiculous masks right out of the Dawg Pound, who say: no matter what, they`ll stick by their team and better luck, next year ". Correct me if I`m wrong, but there will come a time when they can`t say that, when the owner has sponged all he can out of the gullible, brainless fans still willing to pay fifty dollars a ticket to see a losing team. The Indians have resorted to raising talent through their farm system instead of paying for tried and true superstars. The team is consistently in the bottom half of spending amongst MLB teams and yet is consistently in the top half of ticket prices. Though they`re still one of my favorite teams, I`d rather stay at home than to pay twenty five dollars for a mezzanine seat which is my advice for the ignorant fans out there not seeing who actually pays to have failures pickpocket them of their pride, let alone their checkbooks.


This past year Browns had to stomach the unacceptable play of Braylon Edwards, their star wide receiver, who had led the League in dropped passes for the year with 16 (3 more than the person in second) and caught for twenty less touchdowns than in 2007. The year previous, he`d been a Pro-Bowl receiver and been given a dump truck of money as a bonus in the following off-season. Cleveland`s pro sports teams are all guilty of hyping up top picks and one year sensations as the winning fix this town`s been looking for. Then we`re all astoundingly let down once they turn out to be another glorified crybaby and the last person to deserve millions of dollars. Maybe the money went to his head, and boycotting the games would be the swiftest way for the fans to lobotomize his swelled head. Whether it`s their own stupidity or a will beyond their own control, Cleveland fans have been the poster children of where bad karma may lead you.


Between the Prima Donna players, some of whom charged fans for autographs before they even played one professional game, and money-hungry management, Cleveland has seen its share of sporting misery. And if karma is to blame, maybe Cleveland should forget watching sports, for a while at least, until we`ve sought therapy for our anal retentiveness and the owners will get the hint that we`ll only attend their games when they care about having a winning team. Then hopefully she`ll be a bit more merciful to us knowing we`ve learned our lesson.