Not to suggest that enough could ever be said about the singularly and unimaginably cruel plight of the Cleveland sports fan, but in the wake of one of the more depressing beatdowns in the thoroughly depressing history of the Browns/Ravens series, and with another such beatdown so close on the horizon, it’s an especially good time to remember: The Baltimore Ravens wouldn’t exist today — at least not in their current Cleveland-originated Ozzie Newsome-led “Real Browns” form* — if it wasn’t for Al Lerner, the late credit card billionaire whose son, of course, currently owns the Cleveland Browns and the wholly subsidized eight-figure lifetime annuity that comes with the privilege.
The only remotely credible accounts of the move hold that Lerner greased the skids for Art Modell’s deal to move the Real Browns to Baltimore, knowing that he was guaranteed ownership of a replacement Cleveland franchise; including this account from longtime Cleveland sports journalist Dan Coughlin** (via Eugene McCormick in the Cleveland Leader in October):
On Thursday, July 23, 1998, Cleveland mayor Mike White presided over a press conference at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Cleveland where he introduced his choice to become the new owner of the Cleveland Browns — Al Lerner. Sitting with them on the dais were Bernie Kosar and Carmen Policy. There were four of them up there.
Lerner, fueled by a fortune of $8 billion, was a last-minute entry in the NFL’s auction for the expansion Browns. Lerner had been quietly sitting on the sidelines and for good reason. In a sense, he had driven the getaway car for his good friend Modell. It wasn’t a car, however. It was a plane. Lerner used his private plane to fly Modell to Baltimore. The secret knock was tapped out on the door of Lerner’s plane.
This is what I wrote in the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram at the time:
Five other candidates who had declared their intentions earlier felt as though they had been stabbed in the back.
Howard Milstein, for one, checked with Lerner before he made his application and was assured that Lerner would not be a candidate.
Incorrectly, the other applicants believed the mayor would not choose sides in the race.
But Mayor White is a political creature and politics is a game of deception and vengeance.
“It was an ambush. It was a double cross,” someone complained.
White’s candor that day was astonishing. Shortly after the Browns left town, White said, he began a secret relationship with Lerner.
“He and I began to have back-channel discussions,” White disclosed.
It led to the mayor’s endorsement of Lerner’s ownership, which clinched the deal. All that remained was for Lerner to write the biggest check, $535 million. Nobody else could top his bankroll. Lerner was the guy all along, but he needed the endorsement of the mayor and Kosar to soften his landing.
Which of course both explains and is explained by the fact that Modell and his supporters have never been able to start to make the case that Modell’s only choice was to skate to Baltimore with the Browns. And also, of course, how great it is that the Lerner family owns the franchise today, with Al’s initials still stitched on the uniforms.
Billionaire money lenders. What would Cleveland sports be without them?
*It was especially great to hear Ozzie making his Cleveland sports radio rounds last week, talking about how much of the Ravens’ success is due to what he learned working with Bill Belichick in Cleveland.
In other news, there’s not much better than a good column about a press conference. Here’s one from Pat McManamon on Coach Shurmur’s yesterday. The mystery of the eye roller remains unsolved.