After the Cavs imploded and may’ve ended the LeBron era, it’s time to reflect on Cleveland’s endless stretch of sports heartbreak.
I needed a few days, but I’m ready to talk Cleveland sports again. As we may have just seen the last gasp of a 25-year era where each of Cleveland’s three franchises had a period of legit title contention, I think it’s time for me to do one of my most frequently requested lists: The one about Cleveland sports disasters.
I was born in Cleveland in 1979. I haven’t lived there full time since I went to college in 1997, but I’ve never lost my allegiance to the city or its sports teams.
I’ve been cut deep by all of the playoff losses in my lifetime (except the ’81 Browns loss — I was too young for that one)… as Cleveland teams don’t just lose, they actually invent new, innovative ways to torture the fans as they lose. (And provide the signature moments for the careers of legends from Mays to Elway to Jordan to Craig Counsell.)
Every Clevelander can rattle off some of the city’s most memorable losses — I mean, four of them are so famous they start with the word “The” — and, when putting this list together, I came up with 13, off the top of my head, in less than 90 seconds.
This is only for stuff that happened on the field or court, so Art Modell moving the Browns, Eric Wedge choking at the end of ’05 baseball season, Shawn Kemp, Carlos Boozer, Romeo Crennel choking at the end of the ’07 football season, Tim Couch, Metcalf Up The Middle and LeBron signing with the Knicks are all exempt.
Also, for reference, the Cavs losing to the Bulls in ’92, the ’69 NFL Championship game, the ’76 Miracle at Richfield team losing in the conference finals to the Celtics, ’90 AFC Championship and the Tribe losing to the Orioles in the ’96 division series were five disasters that just missed the cut.
Here, ranked from totally disastrous to apocalyptically disastrous, are the 11 biggest playoff disasters in Cleveland sports history.
11 | Cavs get swept in the ’07 NBA Finals
The Cavs weren’t supposed to be there. The Pistons were the powerhouse of the Eastern Conference, and were expected to run over the young Cavs en route to the NBA Finals. Instead, LeBron had the greatest game of his career, singlehandedly winning game five, which gave the Cavs a 3-2 series lead that they cashed in on by winning game six.
Unfortunately, by the time they got to the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron was completely out of gas. Carrying 2,500 pounds of dead weight on his back (the heaviest of which was Larry Hughes’s 150 pounds) finally caught up with him and he couldn’t lead the Cavs to even one win in the series.
It can’t be viewed as tragic as the rest of the entries on this list mainly because the Cavs were playing with house money in the Finals.
But… it beats out the honorable mentions from above with the historical perspective we now have. With the LeBron era looking more and more like it’s going to be a memory (plenty more on that in the epilogue of this list) — this very well could be LeBron’s only Finals appearance with the Cavs. And it ended in a sweep to the boringest NBA championship team ever.
10 | The Browns lose the ’68 NFL Championship
In the 1968 NFL regular season, the Browns were the only team to beat the Baltimore Colts. So when they met in the NFL championship game, playing for the right to go to Super Bowl III, the Browns were the underdogs — but definitely looked like they had a legit chance to go to the franchise’s first Super Bowl. (All of the previous Browns title game appearances happened in the pre-Super Bowl era.)
Well… they didn’t. The Colts destroyed them, 34-0, to avenge their loss to the Browns both in the regular season and in the ’64 title game.
It’s disappointing because the Browns would’ve gone on to play the New York Jets in the Super Bowl — the game where Joe Namath famously guaranteed victory. If it had been Browns-Jets, perhaps God would’ve chosen to punish that hubris on behalf of the city he’d torture for the next four decades (and counting).
It ranks here because it was a loss in the championship game, not Super Bowl, as an underdog… plus it only happened a few years after the city had won a title, so Cleveland wasn’t considered “tortured” yet.
9 | “Red Right 88” — Browns lose in the ’81 playoffs
Red Right 88 was the play the Browns called, down 14-12 with under a minute to go in the 1981 AFC divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.
The Browns were on Oakland’s 13-yard line and quarterback Brian Sipe was supposed to either hit a wide open receiver or throw the ball away — leaving enough time for a field goal. (The Browns considered the field goal a last resort because the kicker was playing hurt and the four-degree weather made the football like a cinder block.)
Sipe seemingly forgot his directive and tried to force a pass to his tight end, Ozzie Newsome. It was intercepted, and the Browns lost. The Raiders went on to beat the Chargers in the AFC Championship, then beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XV.
I ranked this ninth because, while terrible and dream crushing, it was only in the division round of the playoffs — the Browns still would’ve had to win two more games to get a championship.
8 | “The Catch” — Willie Mays robs the Indians in the ’54 World Series
The 1948 Indians won the World Series, but the 1954 Indians looked like an even better team. They won a then-American League-record 111 regular season games, which easily got them the pennant and a trip to the World Series. Their opponent was the New York Giants, who’d won 13 fewer regular season games. (However, if you can learn anything from Cleveland sports, it’s that REGULAR SEASON RECORDS ONLY EXIST TO TAUNT CLEVELANDERS.)
Game 1 of the World Series was tied 2-2 in the top of the 8th inning. With two men on, Cleveland’s Vic Wertz hit a monster shot to center field. It looked like it’d easily be over the head of the center fielder… unfortunately, that center fielder was Willie Mays, who sprinted backwards and made an over-the-shoulder basket catch.
The Indians lost the game 5-2 in extra innings, and were swept out of the World Series three days later. They wouldn’t be back to the Series until 41 years later, in 1995 (which we’ll be talking about shortly).
7 | Cavs get destroyed by the Magic in the ’09 NBA Playoffs
The Cavs won an NBA-high 66 games for a winning percentage over .800… LeBron won his first MVP… the team swept through the Pistons and then Hawks in the first two rounds of the playoffs… and looked every bit of a champion.
Then the Orlando Magic came around and absolutely destroyed them. Every player on the Magic found a way to shoot .996 from three-point range, Turkoglu became the most cold-blooded Turkish assassin since the guy who tried to assassinate the Pope, every role player on the Cavs (aka everyone not named LeBron) bought the farm — and, before we realized what was happening, Cleveland lost the series 4-2.
It was a shocking loss for Cleveland, although the warning signs were there (almost none of the 66 regular season wins were against the other elite teams, for example). The good news: The team went out and made a ton of moves in the offseason to stack the deck for the inevitable 2010 playoff rematch against Orlando. (Plus, Orlando took a giant downgrade by losing Turkoglu and signing Vince Carter, making every Cavs fan believe a series against them would go a lot better the next time around.)
6 | “The Shot” – Jordan takes down the Cavs in the ’89 NBA Playoffs
It’s an iconic moment in NBA history, and the moment that unofficially began the Bulls’ dynasty (even though they eventually lost to the Pistons, it launched them to a new level), which is why it gets ranked this high.
But it’s not any higher on this list because: (1) It was the first round of the playoffs and (2) the Cavs were only the three seed, and would’ve had to beat the Knicks, Pistons, and Lakers.
Still, it was a devastating way to lose the final game of a series (just a five-game series, by the way)… a crushing moment for the Cavs who’d lose Ron Harper shortly thereafter and not get back to winning for three more seasons… and a confidence boost that Jordan really didn’t need, especially against the Cavs.
5 | The Indians lose to the Braves in the ’95 World Series
It’s always hard for me to describe to people just how good the ’95 Indians were. I have a VHS tape — the only non-home movie VHS tape I still have — with highlights from that season, and the team was simply amazing.
The team won 100 games in a short season (only 144 games after the strike was resolved) — that extrapolates out to 112 or 113 wins in a full season. Albert Belle batted .317 and had 50 home runs and 52 doubles, which would’ve guaranteed him the MVP if only he wasn’t an Ayatollah-level misanthrope. And the Indians’ closer, whose name I’d rather not type because he’s Cleveland’s Voldemort, set a then-record for consecutive saves without blowing one. Sigh.
They swept the Red Sox in the first round — remember, this was ’95, back before tens of millions of people said, “Oh, you didn’t know I’ve been a Sawks fan my whole life! It’s just a coincidence I didn’t buy my pink David Ortiz jersey until 2005. Sweet Caroline!”
Then they beat a loaded Mariners team in the ALCS (featuring three definite, possibly four, future Hall of Famers), earning a chance to face the Buffalo Bills of Major League Baseball — the Atlanta Braves. Who beat them handily, 4-2, for the franchise’s only World Series title during its entire decade-plus of top-tier baseball.
(And, I’d venture to say, if the Bills had played the Browns in the Super Bowl and not all those NFC a-holes, the Bills could’ve won their one, too. Of course, they’re in the same conference and the Browns were terrible during the good Buffalo years, but just go with it.)
The Indians losing that World Series was absolutely crushing. The ’95 Indians are the best Cleveland team of my lifetime (a few weeks ago, my friend JD and I had a debate whether that title should go to the ’95 Indians or ’09-’10 Cavs… oops) and really should’ve been the ones who broke the city’s title drought. The loss stings more in retrospect… in ’96, they still had talent but not the magic… ’97 we’ll get to later… and then, the team kept getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Yankees until the day that management blew it up for good.
4 | “The Fumble” – Browns lose in the ’88 AFC Championship
I agonized forever over which of the two late ’80s Browns disasters was slightly less soul-crushing than the other. Ultimately, I decided The Fumble was just slightly less harsh by the tiniest of margins.
The reasons: Byner’s touchdown would’ve tied the game, the Browns didn’t hold the lead like they did in The Drive game… it was someone on the Browns making the mistake, not a future legend having his iconic moment against them… the previous year’s Browns team was a stronger team that had a stronger regular season… this one happened in Denver, The Drive happened in Cleveland… the peaking Redskins team that was waiting in the Super Bowl most likely would’ve manhandled the Browns… and since we’d been crushed the year before by the Broncos, this crushing wasn’t as novel.
All that being said — this was still a city-shattering blow and the last gasp of the original Browns. They’d get shipped off to Baltimore less than a decade later; eventually bringing Cleveland the new, imposter Browns… who possess their own new-fangled brand of disappointment. (Notice how there’s no entry from the new Browns on this list or in the honorable mentions. With one playoff game in 10 years, they haven’t even been in a position to disappoint us in the postseason.)
3 | The ’07 Indians blow a 3-1 ALCS lead against the Red Sox
This was the moment. When the Indians finally blew up the team from the ’90s, they spent years and years and years rebuilding for this. This one season. This was the small market team cashing in on more than half a decade of rebuilding, nurturing and developing.
The team seemed primed for it. It was a great mix of young players who, *at the time*, looked like future superstars (Grady Sizemore, Fausto Carmona, Rafael Betancourt, Asdrubal Cabrera)… mixed with talent that would soon be too pricey for Cleveland (CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez)… plus a few veterans who still had one drop of gas left in the tank (Paul Byrd, Joe Borowski, Trot Nixon, Kenny Lofton).
After an incredible, exciting regular season, this finally felt like a team ready to win it all. (Unlike the ’05 iteration that crapped out one week before the playoffs and blew its chance.)
The Indians beat the Yankees in the first round in four games. Then the Boston series came and the Indians lost game one… then won three games in a row. Suddenly, the Indians were one win away from playing in an imminently winnable World Series; the NLCS was between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, both of whom seemed like cannon fodder after having to fight through the Yankees and Red Sox.
Not only did the Indians have a 3-1 lead… game five was at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, with Cy Young Award winner Sabathia on the mound. Sabathia had been shaky in the playoffs, but it was OK — if somehow he failed, Carmona would pitch game six.
Amazingly, what happened from there is foggy for me, even though I know I watched it less than two years ago. I remember JD Drew coming back from the dead to hit a grand slam and Kenny Lofton getting held at third base when he could’ve easily scored and tied up game seven (and the wheels completely coming off the team after that moment)… but that’s about it. The Red Sox came back, went on to murder the Rockies in the World Series, and we were left looking forward to our whole core of young stars coming back the next year.
In retrospect, we were dead wrong — it was all-or-nothing in ’07. The Indians collapsed out of the gate in ’08 and waved the white flag on the season by trading Sabathia. In ’09 they were equally awful and held a fire sale for pretty much everyone else.
Now, in 2010, you look at the Indians and see that all those trades amounted to virtually nothing — we got a bunch of prospects, none of which look ready to contribute to a contender ever. Suddenly, the franchise has almost no bright spots on the big league team, no farm system, an owner unwilling to spend money and a fan base that’s absolutely given up because of all that collective abuse.
So that’s why this is ranked so high on this list. This may sound overdramatic, but, with the economics of baseball today, is it unreasonable to think the Indians may never contend again? 2007 might have been the team’s last chance to win a World Series. Ever.
2 | “The Drive” – Browns lose in the ’87 AFC Championship
I’m not sure I can keep typing after that Indians one. I just needed to go to the gym and work out for 45 minutes I was so worked up. This is now, officially, the hardest list I’ve ever written. Wow. I should’ve seen that coming.
So let’s move on to The Drive. Bernie Kosar has the Browns up 20-13 in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship, the Browns are five minutes and 32 seconds away from going to their first Super Bowl. The Browns kick off, Denver botches the catch and Elway takes over on his own two-yard line.
Elway went on to engineer the most famous drive ever, an almost-perfect 15-play drive that ended in a touchdown. The only snag happened with 1:52 left in the game — the Browns sacked Elway on 2nd down, forcing a 3rd and 18. He completed a 20-yard pass. The Broncos tied the game with 39 seconds left.
And then, just to taunt the Cleveland fans even more, when the game went to overtime, the Browns actually got the ball first. The offense collapsed, they ended up having to punt, and Elway quickly lead a 60-yard drive that ended with a game winning field goal.
For Browns fans, this was rock bottom. I debated long and hard whether to make this number one on the list — after all, no matter what the other teams do, the Browns are and always will be the number one team in Cleveland. I ultimately couldn’t, because of the circumstances of the final moment on this list — it happened in the bottom of the 9th in game 7 of a World Series, the Browns still would’ve needed to beat a very strong Giants team to win a title — but it’s damn close.
1 | Indians blow a 9th inning lead in game 7 of the ’97 World Series
The ’97 World Series was pure back-and-forth — the Indians and the temporarily hired guns of the Marlins alternated wins, leading to a game 7 in Miami. (You know it was a big game: All six of the Marlins’ die-hard fans turned out for the game, and somehow the Marlins’ management held off on salary dumping any of their players before or during the game.)
Cleveland’s miracle pitcher of the ’97 playoffs, Jaret Wright, got the Indians a 2-0 lead. Florida got one back when Bobby Bonilla (who’s still on the Mets payroll to this date for some reason) hit a solo home run in the 7th. The Indians choked away a chance to tack on any insurance runs in the 9th and that set it up: A one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th of game 7 of the World Series. 49 years after the last Indians World Series win, the team was three outs away from finally bringing the city another one.
And in came — I’m going to say the name — Jose Mesa. I mentioned him a few points back as the guy who, in ’95, was the greatest closer on the planet. By ’97, he was not. His confidence was shakier. Longtime Indians pitcher Charlie Nagy, who’d been dropped from the playoff rotation for Wright, was available and ready to pitch the 9th. But manager Mike Hargrove opted for Mesa. He was the team’s closer, and he was going to close out the game.
You know what happened from there.
This is the closest Cleveland has been to a title in my lifetime — and the lifetime of any Clevelander who is FORTY-SIX YEARS OLD OR YOUNGER
And that’s why it’s the number one biggest playoff disaster in Cleveland history. Think about this — since that moment, 12-and-a-half years ago, no Cleveland team has won a single game in a world championship series.
Now… as for where the Cavs losing to the Celtics in the ’10 NBA Eastern Conference semis ranks. I initially had it fifth, but then decided I couldn’t have it on the list at all, because its grade is incomplete.
The tendency of the National Media in the 24-hour sports news cycle is to have an instant, over-the-top reaction to everything that happens — and hey, if you yell loud enough, you might get to host Cold Pizza. I’m not going to do that.
But clearly, throughout this list, I’ve made references to the LeBron era being in the past. But… that’s more than me jumping on the frothing-at-the-mouth media’s “New York! New Jersey! Chicago! Miami! [Insert one of the other 25 teams here]!” frenzy.
The end of the LeBron era, for me, doesn’t just mean the possibility that he jumps ship and displaces Art Modell as the most hated man in Cleveland history. In the Cavs loss to the Celtics, for the first time, we had to question whether the Cavs can win a title even with LeBron.
Certainly, the team is dead without him. But when you have LeBron, it’s LeBron’s team. The Cavs have an ultra-passive players coach because LeBron does what he wants. LeBron dominates the ball. If he wants to jack up jumpers every possession, he does. If he wants to post up once a season for seven straight years, he does. He’s the unequivocal leader and his teammates feed off him. Normally that makes them raise their game. But when, in these playoffs, he decided to sulk and fade, they all took that cue too.
And I find myself, for the first time, questioning whether LeBron is truly going to be the centerpiece of a championship team in Cleveland. If he’s Ewing, not Olajuwon. Drexler, not Jordan. Malone, not Duncan. Paul Pierce, not Paul Pierce surrounded by several superior players. Chachi, not the Fonz.
And I don’t know. The Cavs are locked into expensive contracts with a ton of players who, two years in a row, have shown they’re not even close to clutch playoff performers. People are questioning whether LeBron has the killer instinct it takes to be the one and only star on a championship team… and rightfully so.
The Indians are brutally bad and show no promise of reaching contender status anytime in the near or far future. The Browns are rebuilding again, won five games last year, are starting Jake Delhomme at quarterback in September… and actually might be Cleveland’s best chance at fielding a contender in this decade.
The LeBron era definitely ends if he leaves. But the era where Cavs fans believe they’re looking at a championship contender may have just ended, even if he stays.
In other words, unless LeBron stays *and matures* and the Cavs make some magical roster moves, we very well could be heading into a brand new dark age of Cleveland sports. Our 25-year non-dark age yielded two World Series appearances, one NBA Finals appearance, an expansion football team and no titles. So I won’t even let myself think about what an actual dark age may look like.
I’m going to stop typing now.