Curses! Why Cleveland Sports Fans Deserve to Be Miserable: A Lifetime of Tough Breaks, Bad Luck, Dumb Moves, Goofs, Gaffes, and Blunders

Curses! Why Cleveland Sports Fans Deserve to Be Miserable: A Lifetime of Tough Breaks, Bad Luck, Dumb Moves, Goofs, Gaffes, and Blunders

by Tim Long

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781598510188
Publisher: Gray & Company, Publishers
Publication date: 10/28/2005
Pages: 140
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Tim Long, a native Clevelander, became infected at an early age with serious cases of Indians Fever and Browns Blues—and learned quickly that rooting for Cleveland teams is not for the faint of heart. He went on to become a Cleveland sports memorabilia collector and a serious student of Cleveland sports. He is a graduate of St. Edward High School, John Carroll University, and Cleveland State Graduate School of Business.

Read an Excerpt

Biggest Bummers

The Drive

Did you just cringe when you read those two words? Did you close your eyes for a second and contemplate skipping this section? Because there is no more angst-filled description of a Browns game than “The Drive.”

The Browns were confident of a trip to the Super Bowl before the 1986 AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos, and it seemed a certainty with only 5:32 left to go in the game. Cleveland had just scored on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar to Brian Brennan to go up 20-13. Now Denver was planted on their two-yard line with 98 yards to go for a tie. Then Denver was at the Cleveland 40-yard line facing a second down and 10 yards to go with 1:52 remaining. Elway was then sacked for an eight-yard loss by defensive tackle Dave Puzzuoli. How much more promising could it be? California dreamin’ (as in Pasadena, site of that year’s Super Bowl) swept away the iciness of Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Broncos were third and 18 at midfield, with less than two minutes to go, and they needed a touchdown to tie. From the packed home crowd to the 60 million NBC television viewers, the consensus had the Browns taking this one from the Broncos.

Alas, Denver did tie it, and Elway’s march to paydirt was memorialized in the damning phrase known simply as, “The Drive.” Cleveland coach Marty Schottenheimer said after the game, “We had them third and 18, but they got the first down. There were others, but that [play] may have been the most important.”

Thrust into overtime, the Browns won the toss and would own the pigskin first. Surely a Mark Mosely field goal could win this in OT, just as it had a week before in the playoff game against the New York Jets. The Browns began their drive at their 30-yard line, with Kosar forced to run for two yards. A six-yard pass to Brennan made it third down and two yards at the 38-yard line. What follows has got to be one of the Browns’ most poorly conceived plays with the money on the line. The Browns needed two yards. They had a bruising fullback in Kevin Mack, who thundered for 3.8 yards per carry in 1986 and an amazing five yards per carry in 1985. The play? An inside off-tackle run by utility halfback Herman Fontenot. The result? No gain. Fotenot’s worth was as a pass receiver, not a runner. Mack, who outweighed the 198-pound Fontenot by 27 pounds and was built, well, like a Mack truck, did not get the call for two of the most precious yards in Browns’ history. Chances are good the Browns could have moved into position for the game-winning field goal. Instead, they punted, and Elway engineered a 50-yard drive, enabling kicker Rich Karlis to boot the heart-stabbing three-pointer that turned the California dream into a

Red-Right 88 flashback.

Schottenheimer told his team in the locker room to hold their heads high and that this team “would be back.” And so they would—one year later—to face the same Broncos, only this time in Denver. As much as that bit of news may have lifted the team’s spirit on January 11, 1987, it was better that the Browns not have that glimpse into their future.

He Knocked the Rock

This is the queen mother of all bad Cleveland baseball trades, the horror of which still lives to this day. This trade would even spawn a phrase that explains more than 30 years of bad Indians baseball: the curse of Rocky Colavito. Rocky was a product of Cleveland’s farm system who played for the big league Indians from 1955–1959 and again in 1965–1967. With his powerful bat, rifle right arm, and good looks, Rocky quickly won the hearts of fans. To them, he could do no wrong, as evidenced by the oft repeated phrase, “Don’t knock the Rock.” Yet on April 17, 1960, Cleveland’s general manager, Frank “The Trader” Lane, pulled off a deal with Detroit Tigers’ president William DeWitt that sent Colavito to the Tigers in exchange for Harvey Kuenn, the 1959 American League batting champ. Rocky was a power hitter; Kuenn hit singles and doubles for a higher average. Rocky was younger than Kuenn by three years and had the edge defensively, but, more significantly, Colavito was and remains one of the most popular Indians players ever.

Why did all of Cleveland take the trade so hard? Here’s what Cleveland Plain Dealer sports editor Gordon Cobbledick wrote the day after the trade: “Many are aware of Rocky’s limitations. They know he is an indifferent outfielder. They know he is a slow and uninspired base runner. They know he is capable of long spells when his bat is a feeble instrument. But they love him because he is Rocky Colavito! No more than a half dozen players in the history of Cleveland baseball have been accorded the hero worship he enjoys. Rocky was our boy.”

Indians pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant put it best when he said, “You want to know why Lane traded Rocky? That’s easy. Lane was an idiot.”

T.S. Stands for “Too Stupid”

If ever there was a true Cleveland sports embarrassment, Ted Stepien is it. Stepien started out as the owner of Nationwide Advertising and the Cleveland Competitors major league softball team. As the whole country would witness, it was a big jump, from owner of the Cleveland Competitors to that of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Too big, it turned out.

Just before the start of the 1980 NBA season, Stepien bought the Cleveland Cavaliers from original owner Nick Mileti, and truly dark days befell professional basketball in Cleveland. Stepien was unpredictable and inept, as evidenced by his goofy publicity stunts and irresponsible trades of draft picks in the early 1980s for questionable talent. The NBA was so outraged at Stepien’s moves they created what has become known as the “Stepien Rule,” which prohibits a team from trading future first-round picks in consecutive years. What an honor!

And who can forget the Cavaliers’ cheerleaders named after the egotistical owner himself . . . the Teddy Bears. The Cavaliers had four coaches in one season, tying an NBA record set by the old Toronto Huskies in 1947.

Away from the world of pro basketball, Stepien was no better at controlling himself. In 1980 he sponsored a publicity stunt that injured two pedestrians on Public Square when softballs were dropped from the 52nd floor of the Terminal Tower.

After three years of the Stepien insanity, both on and off the court, the NBA basically forced the sale of the Cavaliers to an ownership group that would actually provide some adult supervision. The Gund brothers, Gordon and George, came to the rescue and purchased the Cavaliers for $20 million in 1983, just as Stepien was trying to move the team to Toronto, where he intended to name them the Toronto Towers.

But the most entertaining episode of the Stepien era has to be his feud with sports-radio talker Pete Franklin. Franklin hosted the Sportsline radio show on Cleveland radio station WWWE, (now WTAM), in the 1970s and 1980s. Franklin was constantly on Stepien’s case, insulting him every chance he got. For those who remember Pete Franklin, that was normal behavior. He insulted everyone. Here’s one of his diatribes on the hapless Stepien, delivered in March 1983: “Other than being a certifiable nut and pathological liar, there’s probably nothing wrong with the guy. He’s an infestment, a cancer, that has screwed up the league, has escalated salaries and is responsible for everything from venereal disease to whooping cough.” Franklin went on to say the NBA considered Stepien “too stupid to operate” the franchise. From then on, Franklin referred to Stepien as simply “TS,” or “Too Stupid.”

Stepien filed a defamation of character suit against Franklin that was heard in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas court by Judge Bert Griffin. Griffin’s opinion stated: “Franklin’s diatribe consisted of the common language of a tavern or locker room sports outburst transferred to the airwaves . . . such radio dialogue cannot be regarded as ‘atrocious and intolerable in a civilized community’ however much one might prefer a different public style.” Griffin found no damages for the plaintiff Stepien and ordered him to pay court costs. If asked at the time, most Cleveland fans would probably have regarded Stepien himself as “atrocious and intolerable in a civilized community,” based on his near destruction of the Cavaliers.

No Tricks Up His Sleeve

When he was named the first head coach of the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970, Bill Fitch knew what he was signing on for. He told the media early in his tenure, “Remember, the name’s Fitch, not Houdini.” The Cavs went 15-67 their first year and a combined 84-162 over the next three seasons.

Dubious Draft

Mad Dog in a Meat Market

Sending an All-Pro player and your first two draft picks to another team in exchange for their first pick is a high price to pay for an unproven college player. But if that player can really play like a “mad dog in a meat market,” it’s worth it. If he doesn’t, well, you have a whopping draft bust on your hands.

In the 1987 NFL draft, the Browns traded All-Pro linebacker Chip Banks plus their first- and second-round picks for the San Diego Chargers’ higher first- and second-round picks. They used the first-round selection on Mike Junkin, a 6'-3", 230-pound linebacker from Duke University. Pro scouts touted his great potential as a starting linebacker in the NFL, even though he suffered a severe knee injury in 1985. Junkin did not sign a contract with the Browns until August 10, 1987, missing valuable training camp time. A wrist injury in 1987 cost him most of his rookie season. The 1988 season was cut short by a knee injury. In 1989 he was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs and was out of pro football by the end of the season, never to return.

The choice of Junkin ranks as one of the Browns’ worst draft picks; it cost them dearly. Gone was four-time Pro-Bowler Chip Banks, who finished his 10-year NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts in 1992. Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer, a much better game coach than talent evaluator, was enamored with Junkin. But hitching the Browns’ wagon to Junkin’s star meant Schottenheimer disregarded the talent of defensive tackle Jerome Brown (two Pro-Bowl selections), linebacker Shane Conlan (three Pro-Bowl selections), and defensive back Rod Woodson (11 Pro-Bowl selections), all of whom were available when Junkin was picked. Now that’s a real draft bust!

The Worst Team in Baseball History

In a 2003 article, Sports Illustrated ranked the precursor to the Cleveland Indians—the Spiders—as the worst team in baseball. Admitting that baseball statistics in 1899 don’t amount to much, SI was swayed by the Spiders’ 20-134 record (.130 winning percentage) and the circumstances under which they operated. The Spiders went 81-68 in 1898, but then their owner purchased the St. Louis Browns and, thinking the Brwons had the better chance to win, sent the nine best players on the Spiders to St. Louis—including pitcher Cy Young. Cleveland lost 40 of their final 41 games. They attracted 6,088 fans for the entire year. The Spiders would have had a 21-133 record, but they choked during a game in June, squandering a 10-1 ninth inning lead.

What Time Was It?

“I went through Cleveland once and it was closed.”

Jay Johnston, journeyman outfielder who played with eight major league teams from 1966–1985.

World Series Drought

The Tribe ranks just behind the city of Chicago’s Cubs and White Sox in enduring the most years since their last World Series Championship. We can lament our 56-year drought but keep in mind something former L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda once said. “The best possible thing in baseball is winning the World Series. The second best thing is losing the World Series.” Some teams haven’t even had the chance to lose a World Series. The problem is, once you’ve lost one, you don’t ever want to lose another.

Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx

Ryan Shoulders Heavy Load

On January 4, 1965, Browns quarterback Frank Ryan appeared on the sports weekly magazine cover passing the football, in the Browns victory over the Baltimore Colts in the December 27, 1964, NFL Championship game. Did Ryan become jinxed as a result of his appearance on the cover? Weeks later, Ryan suffered a shoulder separation in the annual Pro Bowl all-star game that plagued him the rest of his career.

Still Waiting

“About a year and a half or so after that World Series, a guy asked me how long it took me to get over that last game. I told him, ‘As soon as it happens, I’ll let you know.’”

—Mike Hargrove, Indians manager, on Game Seven of the 1997 World Series.

Super Bowl-less

Here’s how the Browns stack up against the other NFL teams in Super Bowl appearances. The Browns are one of eight NFL teams never to make it to the ultimate game. Perhaps the Browns need to be heeding the advice of former Houston Oilers coach Bill Peterson who said, “Men, I want you just thinking of one word all season. One word and one word only—Super Bowl.”

A Brown By Any Other Name . . .

In 1980, the Browns drafted a defensive end from the University of Arizona by the name of Cleveland Crosby. How appropriate. Crosby didn’t pan out and never played in a regular season game for the Browns. Could it have had something to do with his middle name? His full name was Cleveland Pittsburgh Crosby.

The Curse of Bobby Bragan

Was Bobby Bragan the father of a string of Cleveland baseball curses, sentencing the Cleveland Indians to 35 years of bad luck with a few bright spots of mediocrity? Bragan denies it. Yet he has made it into Cleveland sports lore as having put a hex on the Cleveland Indians. From the Tribe’s glory years between 1946 and 1957, the team had a winning percentage of .578 and drew an average of 1.5 million fans per season. From 1958 to 1993, right before the Tribe moved into Jacobs Field, the Indians struggled with a .468 winning percentage and attendance averaged 945,000 per season.

Hired to manage the Indians in January 1958 by general manager Hank Greenberg, Bragan never worked under Greenberg. The infamous Frank “Trader” Lane replaced Greenberg only a month after Bragan was hired, and in early July 1958, it was Bragan’s turn as Lane summoned him to his office after a 1-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox. “I don’t know how we’ll get along without you, Bobby, but starting tomorrow, we’re going to try,” Lane said.

Once fired, rumor has it that Bragan put a curse on the Indians by walking out to the infield at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, ripping out the second base bag, and declaring that no future Indians team would ever come close to a pennant.

In 1984, members of the Cleveland media brought a witch named Elizabeth from Salem, Massachusetts, to Cleveland Stadium for Opening Day. Her task was to lift the so-called Bragan curse. Making her way to the second base bag, Elizabeth chanted, incanted, and bantered her way to transforming the curse into good fortune. After collapsing on second base, she announced the complete eradication of Bragan’s evil spell.

Two years later, Richard and David Jacobs bought the team. Then, a new stadium was built, and the Tribe appeared in two World Series in the 1990s. As Bragan describes it in his book, You Can’t Hit the Ball with the Bat on Your Shoulders, “There’s an ongoing rumor I put a curse on the Indians after Lane fired me. To this day, I get calls from Cleveland sportswriters and disc jockeys who ask if it’s true. No, it isn’t. I didn’t need to hex the club. Having Frank Lane as its general manager was curse enough.”

[Excerpted from Curses! Why Cleveland Sports Fans Deserve to Be Miserable, © Tim Long. All rights reserved. Gray & Company, Publishers.]

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