The relationship between the success of a city or region’s sports teams to that city or region’s civic pride is one of the main reasons professional sports are so interesting. So consider what Cleveland sports fans have suffered in recent years:
The Drive: 1986-87 AFC Championship Game — Trailing by a touchdown, pinned on his own 2-yard line with 5:32 left to play in the game John Elway leads the Broncos on a 15 play 98 yard drive to tie the game with 38 seconds left, in front of a rabid crowd in Cleveland Stadium. Denver goes on to win the game in overtime.
The Fumble: 1987-88 AFC Championship Game — With 1:12 left in the game, Earnest Byner looks to be heading into the endzone for a game-tying touchdown when he’s stripped by Denver’s Jeremiah Castille. The Broncos recover the fumble and win the game. Byner played an outstanding game before fumbling, totalling 67 yards rushing, 7 receptions for 120 yards, and 2 touchdowns. The Fumble is widely attributed to Browns receiver Webster Slaughter’s failure to block Castille.
The Shot: 1989 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5 — With 3.2 seconds left in the deciding game of the series the Bulls inbound the ball to Michael Jordan who hits the game winner over Craig Ehlo, setting off the Bulls dynasty and sending home what was at the time the best Cavaliers team in history. The Bulls were winless in six games against the Cavaliers in the 1988-89 regular season.
The Move: Coming off a playoff season when the Browns lost to rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, hopes were high entering the 1995 season, until Browns owner Art Modell announced his plans to move the beloved Browns to Baltimore. Modell moved the Browns, who became the Baltimore Ravens, despite constant sellout crowds and feverish fan support in Cleveland. The Ravens won Superbowl XXXV in 2001.
Game Seven: With the Indians leading 2-1 entering the bottom half of the 9th inning in Game Seven of the 1997 World Series (after failing to score an insurance run with one out and a runner on third in the top half of the inning), Jose Mesa surrenders the tying run on a two-out Craig Counsell sacrifice fly. Counsell reaches base in the 11th inning when Tony Fernandez misplays his slow rolling ground ball, and eventually scores the winning run for the Florida Marlins, who become World Series Champions in their fifth year of existence.
We can’t help but wonder how the results on the playing field are connected to everything else going on in a city and region that’s seen plenty of hard times even aside from its absurdly tragic sports history. There has to be some truth to be found in the symmetry, and we’re optimistic about what it might be and what might be done with it. The cities of Northeast Ohio served uniquely well in their former roles as global manufacturing hubs and way-stations between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, so patience is probably in order as the region transitions to a service-based economy with the rest of the country — a transition that we’d naturally be the last to make. Put another way, there’s no question that Cleveland’s a city on the move, and that local sports teams will figure into the transition. Because the games these teams play are so much fun, they might be as good a lens as any through which to try to understand it. We’re all watching anyway, so …
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UPDATE: Another answer to the “why the long face” question: The Curse of Chief Wahoo