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What If ... George Steinbrenner had stayed in—and saved—Cleveland?

by Mark Bechtel

Boo-hoo for the Blazers. Sure, they got a couple bad injury breaks. But few cities can compete with Cleveland when it comes to heartbreaking What-if? moments across multiple sports. It's not just the sheer volume of them; it's the fact that for more than 50 years there wasn't a single championship to mitigate the sadness. What are the odds that one town could lose so many coin tosses in a row? It's incalculable. So there must be a ground zero, an event that triggered this butterfly effect of misery.... I know: Let's blame George Steinbrenner!

In 1962, Steinbrenner was a shipping magnate in his hometown of Cleveland. He was in his early 30s and among the crowd he ran with was Art Modell, owner of the Browns. Steinbrenner had a team too: the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League. He had a star player, reigning SI Sportsman of the Year Jerry Lucas (with John Havlicek slated to join), and his plan was to build a superteam that would merit an invite to the NBA. He supposedly had a deal in place (schedules were reportedly printed for the '63-64 NBA season, opening against the Knicks) but Steinbrenner couldn't consummate the deal. So: What if the Boss had pulled it off?

1966 REAL WORLD: Miffed that Modell intends to fine him $100 a day for missing training camp while filming The Dirty Dozen, Jim Brown retires at 30.

1966 BOSS WORLD: Over Scotches, Steinbrenner talks Modell out of such a shortsighted approach. Modell negotiates a producer credit in exchange for Brown's services. Cleveland wins Super Bowls II, III and IV.

1972 REAL WORLD: Steinbrenner's attempt to buy the Indians fails when he's outbid ($10 million to $8.6 million) by a local group. He sets his sights on the Yankees instead.

1972 BOSS WORLD: Firmly entrenched in Cleveland, Steinbrenner ups his bid and wins. The Indians don't trade away youngsters Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss, and when Steinbrenner signs free agents Reggie (the Straw that Stirs Lake Erie) Jackson and Catfish Hunter, Cleveland has the nucleus of a team that wins the '76 and '77 World Series.

1973 REAL WORLD: Modell negotiates a deal by which he takes over operation of the mausoleum-like Cleveland Stadium.

1973 BOSS WORLD: Flush with Dirty Dozen royalties—and buoyed by an investment from Steinbrenner—Modell builds a downtown dome (a plan that in real life was floated in the early '80s).

1981 REAL WORLD: On an icy day, Cleveland kicker Don Cockroft misses an extra point and two field goals. As a result the Browns go for a TD instead of a field goal while trailing the Raiders 14–12 late in a divisional playoff, and Brian Sipe gets picked off in the end zone to cap the loss.

1981 BOSS WORLD: In the comfort of the dome, Cockroft has a perfect day—including a last-minute insurance field goal—as Cleveland beats Oakland 23–14. The Browns go on to win Super Bowl XV.

1983 REAL WORLD: John Elway uses the threat of playing for Steinbrenner's Yankees as leverage to force a trade from the Colts to the Broncos. With Denver he beats Cleveland in three AFC title games, including the Drive and the Fumble.

1983 BOSS WORLD: Steinbrenner makes Elway an Indian. His bat is the difference in a '95 World Series win, and he pitches a 1-2-3 ninth to close out Game 7 of the '97 Series. Gary Kubiak and the Broncos go 0–3 in AFC title games against the Browns, who win Super Bowls XXI, XXII and XXIV.

1989 REAL WORLD: Michael Jordan hits the Shot over the Cavs' Craig Ehlo. Cleveland mourns as its team comes up short in its quest for a first title.

1989 BOSS WORLD: Michael Jordan hits the Shot over Craig Ehlo. Cleveland is mildly bummed as the Pipers come up short in their quest for a 13th title.

1995 REAL WORLD: Unhappy with his stadium deal, Modell burns the city of Cleveland by moving the Browns to Baltimore.

1995 BOSS WORLD: Flush with dome revenue, Modell burns his hand lighting a cigar with a $100 bill.

2016 REAL WORLD: The Cubs improbably rally from a 3–1 deficit to win the World Series in extra innings.

2016 BOSS WORLD: The Cubs improbably rally from a 3–1 deficit to win the World Series in extra innings. Hey, there's some mojo you just can't top.