I'm writing this in the most familiar of places: the wake of yet another disheartening loss by a Cleveland team. Today it was the Browns. A couple of weeks ago, it was the Tribe, who miraculously gave me the chance to take my son to a playoff game in Cleveland, and who managed to turn that game into a prolonged demonstration of ineptitude and futility. Soon, it'll be the Cavs' turn to transform all the paltry optimism we can muster—Kyrie! Dion! Tristan! Fat asthma kid!—into one more left hook to the cock.
So it goes. So it has gone for generations. And so it will always be—for me, at least. I'm 61 years old now, too old to believe that I'll live long enough to see again what I once saw, 50 years ago: a Cleveland team winning a title. I'll always know what Cleveland hope feels like—it feels like Brian Hoyer, quick and smart, poised to win—but it lives, like all of us, in the face of certain doom.
I have seen certain doom, by the way, and it looks exactly like Weeden's "pass" to Ogbonnaya in the fourth quarter against the Lions. On my deathbed, I won't relive The Shot or The Drive or any of the many profound Cleveland sports tragedies. Instead, I'll see Brandon Weeden sacked by fear and stupidity. I'll see Joel Skinner stopping Kenny Lofton at third base against the Red Sox in 2007. And I'll see Dinner Bell Mel Turpin, rest his soul, sixth pick in the 1984 draft, who ate his way out of the NBA by 1990 and killed himself on the same day the whore of Akron, LeBron James, straddled the ESPN throne to take an hour-long dump on Cleveland.
While we're on that subject, the odds of LeBron returning to the Cavs are only slightly better than poor Mel Turpin coming back. He has no 'unfinished business' in Cleveland, and no desire to be part of a mediocre NBA team, which is what the Cavaliers look to become—a seventh or eighth seed, tops. Hope doesn't win NBA games; talent does. If you look at Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson and see stars, you're not paying close attention to other teams' stars. If you believe that Anthony Bennett reporting to his first pro training camp sloppy fat and gasping isn't a bright red flag, you're in denial. And if you expect 10 productive minutes per game from Andrew Bynum, you're insane.
As for the Tribe, well, it was a nice season. They won't win 92 games again, and you'll get to hear lots more about how Cleveland isn't a baseball town, which is total bullshit, and how Major League Baseball's economic structure is ridiculously unfair, which is true—but no excuse for how lousy a job Mark Shapiro and his staff have done running the club. The organization has been stable at the top for more than 10 years now, and its failures—to draft and develop young talent and to connect with its customers—are pathetic. I've lived in other major-league cities over the years, and I've done a fair share of writing and broadcasting about pro sports, and I have never heard of a team executive saying anything remotely like this:
"If you base your decision to come to the game on whether we win or lose, don't come. You're missing out. You're missing out on what baseball is all about, and I'm fine with that."
There are many ways to spin that statement, and heaven knows the local sports media—who are an integral part of the ongoing cycle of lowering expectations for all of Cleveland's teams—did its sorry best not to make a fuss over Shapiro's condescending idiocy, but I assure you that any team executive in Boston, New York, Philly, Chicago, St. Louis, or Los Angeles who spoke those words would likely have been shit-canned. Mark Shapiro isn't running a ballet company or museum. The joys of watching baseball played are free each summer night and weekend day across Northeast Ohio. Shapiro's smug message—"Fuck Off"—came through loud and clear to his customers.
Only in Cleveland would a front office that incessantly preaches "value" as its excuse for trading its stars commit more than $100 million to aging disappointments like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher—and be praised for doing so. Only in Cleveland could management be dumb and desperate enough to put up a statue of Jim Thome—a lout who left the team after public vows of undying loyalty—instead of Larry Doby, whose courage and skill were as crucial to integrating Major League Baseball as Jackie Robinson's, and who helped lead the Tribe to its last World Series win. Instead, we get a monument to an Illinois farm boy, the whitest face on the teams that almost won it all—fitting for a franchise wed forever to Chief Wahoo, the most racist caricature in pro sports, and an ongoing disgrace to the city.
Which brings us to the Cleveland Browns, a caricature of the team that once called Cleveland home. Debating the dearth of talent and depth on the roster is beside the point—who could possibly believe that Brandon Weeden will ever lead any NFL team to greatness? No, the Browns' overarching problem is owner Jimmy Haslam, currently awaiting indictment by the federal government on charges relating to his main business, Pilot/Flying J, after a years-long investigation by the FBI and the IRS resulted in a raid on corporate headquarters last April.
Haslam has more or less admitted that his company defrauded hundreds of customers, while insisting that he knew nothing about any such malfeasance as Pilot's CEO. It's a fascinating defense for a blustering billionaire, and you needn't peruse the dozens of lawsuits filed against Pilot—or ponder the number of ex-employees who've admitted their guilt and agreed to testify for the feds—to grasp a couple of points germane to the Browns:
1. Jimmy Haslam is either a crook and a liar or he hires crooks and liars and pays little if any attention to the way they operate.
2. The NFL, which is ardently protective of its brand, won't sit idly by as the Pilot/Flying J case unfolds in the national media.
I have no reason to think that Joe Banner, Haslam's hire to run the Browns, is a crook. I do believe, after talking with Philly friends who covered the Eagles during Banner's long tenure with that team, that Banner's arrogance precludes collegiality. In short, he's a prick who's disinclined to listen to the opinions of others who might know more than he does about football talent. Banner hired Mike Lombardi, who was Banner's toady in Philly, and whom no NFL team had considered worthy of employment since 2007. Lombardi was no stranger to any Browns fans familiar with his work in the Cleveland front office in the '80s and '90s—which explains why he now works entirely hidden from public view, unlike every other GM in the NFL.
It's too early to pass fair judgment on Banner and Lombardi. Their signature move was the Trent Richardson trade, a complete shock. It may be true, as many fans now claim, that trading Richardson wasn't much of a loss; it's a matter of fact, however, that as a rookie with a pair of broken ribs playing on a lousy team, he finished sixth in the NFL in touchdowns scored, broke both Jim Brown's rookie rushing record and the franchise record for TDs as a rookie, and finished second on the team in pass receptions. We don't know what BanBardi will do with the first-round pick acquired from the Colts in the trade; we do know that the Colts are 3-1 since making the trade, that the pick is worth less with every Colts' win, and that the Colts' front office is among the league's most competent.
But all this is moot in view of Jimmy Haslam's murky future. The league already has contingency plans for a transfer of ownership—and is exploring the possible sale of the Browns. I'd say it's even money that Haslam, Banner, and Lombardi will be gone two years from now. By that time, Brandon Weeden will have gotten his PGA Tour card. If we're lucky.
Scott Raab will appear at the Happy Dog on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at 7: 30 p.m. with Zac Jackson to discuss Cleveland sports and the media that cover them. He'll also be reading from his work Thursday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. in the CSU Student Center.
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