Northeast Ohio isn't blessed with many quality hockey rinks. Recreational skaters are used to playing on brown ice and dressing in locker rooms that smell like a fat guy died there in 1987 and no one bothered to remove the body. Ice Land USA, however, is a beautiful facility, featuring two rinks, a gear shop, a large concession stand, a bar, and a dozen pristine locker rooms ("pristine" being a relative term in hockey). It plays host to everything from figure-skating to high school games. And it offers players young and old, male and female, a chance to play in an arena that doesn't resemble an abandoned mine.
When the Indians were 15 games behind Chicago, it appeared that our best-team honors would go to the summer-league champ at Wickliffe Lanes. But since then, the Tribe's been hotter than a stolen habaero, chasing down the White Sox and posting the best record in the majors. They've done it with a string of breakout performances: Travis Hafner's 30-homer, 100-RBI season has garnered league-MVP talk. Grady Sizemore has become one of the league's most potent leadoff men. And Jhonny Peralta has rendered Omar a faded memory. The way this fall is shaping up, the Tribe might outlast the Browns.
Cuyahoga Community College was never much of a sports powerhouse -- until last year, its only championship team was a 1970s wrestling squad. But of late, Tri-C has emerged as a serious contender in the two-year-college hoops set. In 2004, it won the national championship. And this year, it almost repeated, going 25-8 before bowing out in the semifinals. Perhaps Tri-C could offer certain local pro teams a refresher course on winning.
Yes, LeBron James is a phenom, but Tim Mack has won it all. The Cleveland-born pole-vaulter - yes, pole-vaulter - won Olympic gold in 2004. He was a national indoor champion in 2002, and he won the Goodwill Games in 2001. Now, at age 33, he's still hanging around the track-and-field circuit, where 33-year-olds get their protein shakes at the senior-discount rate. He battled a calf injury this year, but scraped his way to a seventh-place finish at the U.S. outdoor championships. And if all goes as planned, he'll be fighting for more hardware in 2006. So until LeBron brings home a ring, Tim will remain the Mack Daddy.
This crazy Brazilian burst onto the scene last season, wooing female fans with his unruly hair and wild smile. When Andy shows up at his favorite haunt - downtown's Brasa Grill, a Brazilian steakhouse - heads crane upward to meet his boyish glance, which hovers at almost seven feet. Confronting that rare combination - the massive size to protect, the gentle eyes to nurture - ladies can't help but swoon. We're not sure, but Andy sure looks like he's enjoying his new country.
Maybe it's the reflection from all her medals, but this 23-year-old swimmer positively glows. Munz, from Chagrin Falls, won bronze in the 2004 Olympics for the 800-meter freestyle, a nice complement to her gold and silver from the 2000 Games. More important, she has the flowing blond hair of a princess, or one of those hotties from the WB. Her broad, gleaming smile makes grown men shiver. And her bright, friendly eyes make her appear utterly approachable, despite her clearly being out of our league. Oh, and needless to say, she looks good in a Speedo.
Division III college football is a world long forgotten by ESPN, a place where players don't get scholarships and fans come at a premium. But Mount Union has stolen at least one element from big-time college sports: an iconic head coach. Now in his 20th season, Larry Kehres has led the Purple Raiders to more than 100 straight regular-season wins. The best of the Rust Belt's D-3-caliber athletes flock to the battered industrial town of Alliance, where they keep winning national championships - seven since 1993. Kehres is known for his mild demeanor and his disdain for overexposure, but he's no secret to opposing coaches. "How does he win all the time?" a veteran rival once asked. "I wish I knew, because then I might beat him one day."
Wherever the Indians go, it's designated hitter Travis Hafner who takes them there. The Tribe started slower than a packed bus, largely because Hafner's bat was still in hibernation. He hit just one home run in April, but when he caught fire by summer, so did the Indians. "Pronk," as he's known, hit .345 with 29 RBI in June en route to Player of the Month honors, and he has yet to look back.
The Tribe's first-round pick in 2003, Miller quickly showed why he had scouts salivating like a lineman at Morton's. At just 19 years of age, he burned through Class A Kinston in 2004, fanning 46 hitters in 43 innings, while amassing an ERA of 2.08. He soon moved to Lake County, the Tribe's high-level Class A team, and continued his domination. In 19 games in Erie, he struck out 106 batters in 91 innings, giving up just 79 hits and winning seven of his starts. He ran into elbow trouble in 2005 and bounced around the Tribe's farm system. But Baseball America, the Bible of minor league baseball, still considers Miller the Indians' best hope for the future, thanks to his nasty slider and his voodoo-like command of the baseball. With several other minor league pitchers ready to break in, Miller could soon be the anchor of one of the league's deepest young pitching staffs.
When the minor league all-star teams were selected in June, Indians AAA pitcher Fernando Cabrera was a no-brainer. In 23 games for the Buffalo Bisons, Cabrera had pitched almost perfectly, going 6-0 with three saves, a 0.92 ERA, and 55 strikeouts in 39 innings. But then Cabrera got called up to the bigs. Major League Baseball needed to replace him for the Futures Game, so where did they turn? Why, Buffalo, of course, for Cabrera's teammate, Fausto Carmona, who in 21 innings had allowed only 21 base runners. So if the Tribe still has a few holes to fill, pitching won't be one of them.
In another year, another era, we hope not to be handing out awards to - ahem - a kicker. But last season, Phil Dawson's steady right foot was just about the only thing Browns fans could rely on - not counting bad play-calling and post-game bellyaching. Since breaking into the NFL in 1999, Dawson has quietly emerged as one of the league's most trusted kickers, hitting more than 80 percent of his field-goal tries - despite working in the Siberian frontier that is Browns Stadium. Last season was one of Dawson's best: He nailed 24 of his 29 field-goal attempts and all of his 28 extra-point tries. He also booted seven field goals from beyond 50 yards, often providing the Browns with their only chance for a score. With a new coach and a new roster, there's hope that next year's honor may go to someone who sees the field more than a few times a game. But either way, it'll be nice to have Dawson's trusty foot around.