The Mistake By The Lake. The City With the Burning River. I have heard these jokes about my hometown ever since I was a kid. And yet, Cleveland is—and forever will be—my home.
Growing up in the tough East Side inner-city neighborhood of Hough Heights (Hough to the natives), the 1980’s thru the early 90’s were a tough time in Cleveland sports history. While the Indians were decades away from contending, let alone smelling the post-season, the Cavs were still in Richfield, playing their games at the now-gone Coliseum and the Browns just in the cusp of getting their hearts getting ripped out by some Stanford kid named John Elway in three AFC title games.
In the years of heartbreak, agony and torture that would follow of coming close in such typical Cleveland-style, I wondered if I’d ever see one of my hometown teams would win a championship of any kind.
While Ohio State is down the road in Columbus and they would win a national title over a stacked Miami Hurricanes team in 2002, they weren’t pro—let alone a Cleveland-based team.
Never in my wildest dreams, that I’d see anything short of the seemingly amazing four-month run of Cleveland sports fan heaven.
For years, I grew up hearing about The Catch, The Shot, The Drive, The Fumble, Jose Mesa and The Move seemingly played non-stop on a never-ending 24-7 loop by national media outlets as a way to proverbially troll my tough-luck, snake-bitten sports town.
For years, we’d hear anti-Cleveland-hating fans and “experts” mock Cleveland for being “cursed”, dysfunctional and always coming THISCLOSE but never closing the deal.
It pained me living deep in the heart of my beloved Browns most hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers—and their ever vocal fans—rub it in my face about their two Super Bowl wins in 2005 and 2008.
Even though I do claim the Pittsburgh Penguins as my NHL team due to living there—and one of my all-time favorite players—in Alexei Kovalev playing for them, the roots of my Penguins fandom were cemented in getting to talk to Mario Lemieux in person—and hold the pick from the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics!
That is a story for another day, but this is about my hometown finally getting it’s due.
On one magical night in the MMA octagon, a Cleveland-area born Croatian-American kid named Stipe Miocic won the heavyweight title over Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198 and proclaimed that his hometown has a new champion.
Seemingly after that, the proverbial sports gods, who were once so cruel and spat on Cleveland, seemed to forgive and lift whatever curse they inflicted on my city. Perhaps the single greatest sports documentary ever, ‘Believeland’ told the bone-chilling, and yet-so-close-to-home story of Cleveland sports woe.
In one moment, Cleveland went from a national punchline of Loserville to being a sentimental Cinderella-esque sweetheart overnight in the span of four months, and the biggest irony is that the single greatest sports troll of all Ohio sports—not named Mark May—produced it in ESPN.
Make no mistake, there is no love lost between the national media and Cleveland.
I still remember vividly the 1998 ALCS between the Indians and New York Yankees in which unabashedly uber-fan in Bob ‘Bias’ Costas seemingly talked NON-STOP about the Yankees every other breath he could breathe throughout the entire series. Or shall I talk about how MUCH a certain Bristol-based “network” took shots at Cleveland seemingly every day in talking about the Browns dysfunction, Indians woes and Cavs losing Lebron.
Whatever rhyme or reason they were, but Miocic’s bold declaration and ‘Believeland’ seems to be both a benediction from God himself that Cleveland would be spared his wrath and given a sports reprieve. And just like that, the Lake Erie Monsters won the Calder Cup, the 57-win underdog (?—they had LBJ!) Cavs rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals against the proverbial media darling 73-win Golden State Warriors.
To go from cursed to charmed is nothing short of the type of magic that Merlin, Harry Potter and Gandolf could only cast. Going into the 2016 ALDS series against the big and bad sluggers from Beantown was that the undermanned 94-win Indians couldn’t beat the Red Sox, minus Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar and that Big Papi would ride off into the proverbial sunset.
Despite being up 2-0, their Bristol-based cheerleader–BSPN, as I tend to call them–talked non-stop about the Sox having past success coming back from 2-0 deficits. Even more annoyingly was that their evil little step-brother wannabe in TBS having a commentating crew—namely Ron Darling—who sounded bored, overly nauseated and unabashedly gushing over the Sox, the same team he beat 30 years ago in the Fall Classic.
Now…that sound you hear, is the sweet sound of silence from Yawkey Way and the producers at ESPN, TBS and MLB Network trying to clip together some Emmy-worthy Ortiz highlights. You know what, that’s okay because as a life-long, die-hard unapologetic Cleveland sports fan, the only story that I am interested in the one they WILL have to cue up when the Indians continue Cleveland’s newly charmed life in sports.
As ESPN’s resident Cleveland sports fan and studio anchor Jay Crawford so eloquently put it, following the Cavs improbable NBA Finals win, the Worldwide Cheerleader in Sports will have to find a new mascot for losing, as Cleveland is no longer the kid that everyone loved to pick on, but the scrappy and dangerous underdog ready to win.
It’s Cleveland vs. the World(literally), as Cleveland looks to renew its burgeoning rivalry with the great city of Toronto in yet another league conference championship. Perhaps the Tribe can borrow from their fellow sports brethren in the NBA champion—God it feels great to type that!—Cavaliers and beat the Toronto Blue Jays in six.
We in Cleveland are used to being counted out, considered underdogs, laughed at for out past sports failures and being underestimated. And honestly, we in the 216 and 440 wouldn’t have it any other way.
In terms of being overlooked and left for dead, just ask Steph Curry, David Ortiz and the sports geeks in Bristol how that worked out for them when they counted us in ‘The Land’ out.
It’s Cleveland’s time now. And in the words of The King himself, Cleveland, this is for you.