Arnold Toynbee defined history as fortuitous flux. Events, large and small, he said, occur by chance. O.K., I'll buy that. But what about the old adage: "What goes around comes around"? That's an unfamiliar concept for the long-suffering sports fans of Cleveland. They always seem to be the ones getting fluxed.
Don't bore me with all those "mistake by the lake" or "river catching fire" jokes about the town. This native Clevelander knows them all. What you are about to hear transcends the merely comic. Sure, a lot of burgs have had their share of misfortune: Chicago had its fire; San Francisco its earthquake; Johnstown its flood. But their trials had limits. Even the 10 Plagues had a beginning, a middle and an end. The darkness lifted, the boils healed and the murrain (whatever that is) subsided. People didn't wander the Nile Valley forever, saying, "I know we're in for an 11th plague."
There has been no rise and fall in Cleveland's misfortunes, no ebb and flow, only endless misery. Ford Madox Ford opened The Good Soldier with the line, "This is the saddest story I ever heard." Perhaps Mr. Ford would have amended his novel had he lived today—and in Cleveland.
For the sports fans of the city, there has been only despair, especially because Cleveland teams have come tantalizingly close. This despair can be neatly compressed into a few simple words: catch, drive and shot. These innocuous words take on a cruel edge for Clevelanders when preceded by a the: the Catch, the Drive, the Shot.
August 27, 1989
The Catch: Indians versus N.Y. Giants, the 1954 World Series. Although it occurred well before my time, the agony of this Series lingers in local lore. My stepfather is still unable to talk of it without becoming hysterical. The Tribe won 111 games that season (an American League record) and boasted a pitching staff brimming with future Hall of Famers (Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn). In Game 1 of the Series, Cleveland's Vic Wertz tattooed a 460-foot drive over the head of Willie Mays, who made his famous over-the-shoulder grab. The Giants went on to sweep. The Indians have finished higher than fourth only once since 1960.
The Drive: Browns versus Broncos, the 1986 AFC Championship Game. Game tied at 13. My cousin and I were poised in the upper deck of Cleveland Stadium, chewing the fingertips off our gloves. Quarterback Bernie Kosar hit receiver Brian Brennan with a 48-yard touchdown pass. Browns led 20-13. I turned to my cousin and gave him the thumbs-up sign while mouthing the words, "Super Bowl." Kickoff. Denver got the ball on its two with slightly more than five minutes to play. John Elway highlight film. Broncos won in overtime, 23-20. Kosar & Co. watched the Super Bowl on TV.
The Shot: Cavaliers versus Bulls, first round, 1989 NBA playoff's, fifth and deciding game. The Cavs had taken six of six from the Bulls during the regular season. Prone to displays of frenzy, I watched the game alone. With 16 seconds left, the Cavs were up by one. Michael Jordan hit an off-balance jumper from the baseline to give Chicago the lead. Six seconds remained as the Cavs executed a perfect in bounds play to a battered Craig Ehlo for a layup, putting Cleveland back on top. I ecstatically high-fived the picture tube. Then, with three seconds left, Jordan—twisting and gliding, hanging long enough to accumulate frequent flyer miles on three different airlines—took the shot. Chicago 101, Cleveland 100. I spent the rest of the afternoon spread-eagled on the floor.
Some of my friends, particularly those from Boston, claim I'm too emotional. Come on, they say, it's only a first-round playoff game. Look at the Red Sox, they say: You would be hard-pressed to find a team that has jerked its fans around more than they have.
I reply: How can Boston fans even begin to compare their suffering with the Clevelanders' ordeal? True, it has been 71 years since the Red Sox won a World Series. And yes, it must have been frustrating to get so close in 1986. But the Celtics won the NBA championship that year. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl. And the poor, pitiful Red Sox made it to the seventh game of that Series. We should enjoy such suffering.
There's more. In 1980, I sat bundled in Cleveland Stadium, on the coldest day in the history of the world, watching as Browns quarterback Brian Sipe threw a corner-of-the-end-zone interception in a playoff game against the Raiders. Bye-bye, Brownies. Or how about the '87 AFC title game in Denver? The Browns scored 21 third-quarter points, only to have Earnest Byner fumble away the game-tying touchdown on the Bronco goal line with a minute to play. And remember the Indians' last Rookie of the Year (1980), Super Joe Charboneau? He was the guy who could open a beer bottle with his eye and then drink it through his nose. Charboneau was last spotted in a locker room scene in The Natural. Yes, even Hollywood can't work its magic on this town. Witness the recent epic Major League. They couldn't even make a decent movie about how bad things are in Cleveland.
You think this sounds grim? I haven't even touched upon the truly tragic. Like the Indians' Ray Chapman, the only major leaguer ever to be killed in a game. He was fatally beaned by the Yankees' Carl Mays in 1920. Or Herb Score, who won 20 games in 1956, averaging more than one strikeout per inning, and then caught a Gil McDougald line drive in the eye in '57. He retired six years later with just 55 lifetime wins.
Through it all, my loyalty remains undaunted. It takes something very special to be a Cleveland fan—and I don't mean an iron stomach. While the carrot has dangled for what seems like an eternity, we Clevelanders still salivate just as voraciously as if it were Day 1. Besides, we have our own brand of consolation. You know the kind—like telling ourselves that we couldn't afford Super Bowl tickets, anyway.