The Ghosts of Championships Past

What a ride it’s been, Cleveland! It has been eight years since a Cleveland team has made it to a championship series/game. Let’s take a look back at each team’s last trip to its respective title opportunity. We’ll start with the most recent, which was the Cavs in 2007, where they got swept by the San Antonio Spurs (brace yourselves for the heartbreak, Cleveland fans).

The 2006-07 Cavs entered the playoffs with a 50-32 record, good enough to capture the #2 seed in the East. After dismantling an extremely undermanned Wizards team in the first round (4-0 sweep), the Cavs took some lumps against a pesky Nets team that featured Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson. But, the Cavs ultimately won the series in six games, setting up a rematch with the Detroit Pistons.

A year before, the Cavs took a 64-18 Pistons team to the brink in the second round, before the more experienced Pistons shut down the Cavs offense in Game 7. Things would be different this time around, or at least we thought. LeBron passed up the game-tying shot, giving Donyell Marshall a chance to be the Game 1 hero. It didn’t work, and the media chastised LeBron for passing up the shot. Things would be different in Game 2, but the final outcome would remain the same, as this time, LeBron took and missed the potential tying shot as the Cavs would head home down 0-2 in the series.

The Cavs tied the series at two, thanks to some strong home-cooking as the series headed back to Detroit. Game 5 featured one of the greatest games ever played by an NBA player, as LeBron scored 48 points, including 28 of the last 29 Cavalier points. It was a Herculean performance, and one that often gets overlooked in Cleveland because of what Daniel “Boobie” Gibson did in Game 6. Gibson rained fire, scoring 31 points, and making all five of his three attempts as the Cavs almost let a malfunctioning shot clock ruin the night. But it was just too much Boobie as the Cavs stormed to their first NBA Finals on the heels of a 98-82 win.

In my opinion, the Detroit series felt more like the Cavs had won the championship, maybe it was the bad taste the real Finals left in my mouth. A Spurs team with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan all still at their peaks dominated the Cavs from start to finish. Bruce Bowen locked LeBron up all series, holding him to 22 points per game on just 36% shooting. Even though it was a sweep, there would be better times ahead for the Cavs, or at least we thought.

The next three seasons, the Cavs enjoyed great success. They posted two 60+ win seasons, and LeBron won his first two MVPs. But another team always got in their way, be it the Celtics juggernaut of 2007-08, the three-point barrage of the Orlando Magic, or LeBron quitting. The Cavs could never get back to the NBA Finals. Then LeBron left, and the Cavs toiled with the NBA lottery for four seasons. They took home three #1 overall picks (but missed out on the #1 pick in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes).

Then, on July 11, 2014, LeBron James announced he was coming home. The Cavs traded for Kevin Love, signed a bunch of aging, past-their-prime veterans, made a couple of midseason trades, got rid of the Toxic Avenger (Dion Waiters) and were rumored to be firing their coach every other day. LeBron took a mid-season vacation, came back, they ripped off a bunch of wins, won the division, swept the Celtics, lost Kevin Love, lost J.R. Smith, got J.R. Smith back, endured a Derrick Rose bank-shot buzzer beater, almost called a timeout, almost had LeBron take the ball out, watched LeBron fill his veins with ice, ended the Thibs era in Chicago, lost Kyrie, watched Delly become a “dirty” player, watched Delly became the most beloved Cleveland athlete, swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, got Kyrie back, and wait for June 4, 2015.

The Indians.

Hank Peters told ownership that under his management, the Indians would never win, and they were okay with that. Why, because Peters had a plan. That was in 1988. Seven seasons later and the Indians were in the World Series. Unfortunately for the Indians, good pitching beats good hitting. Or it least it did this this series as the 90-54 Atlanta Braves beat the 100-44 Cleveland Indians four games to two. Management wanted to win badly, though, and two seasons later the Indians were back in the World Series, this time against the upstart Florida Marlins. Despite having their worst season since 1993, the Indians still finished 86-75 and won the AL Central by six games.

In the ALDS, the Indians took on the 96-66 New York Yankees. Facing a 2-1 series deficit and facing Mariano Rivera, the Indians had a better chance of walking on the moon (really, more people have walked on the moon than have hit a postseason home run off Rivera). Up stepped the All-Star game MVP Sandy Alomar. After getting ahead in the count 2-0, Alomar flashed his opposite field power when he launched a home run to right. As Joe Buck said, “Deep to right field, well hit, track, wall, tied!” With their new-found confidence, Omar Vizquel ended the game with a walk-off single in the ninth, to tie the series at 2, and send it to a win-or-go-home Game 5. The Yankees sent Andy Pettitte to the mound, while the Indians countered with rookie phenom, Jaret Wright. The Indians got to Pettitte in the third inning for three runs, then again in the fourth with an insurance run. Turned out that was all the Indians needed as they advanced to the ALCS by a score of 4-3.

Revenge was on the mind of the Tribe in the ALCS. In 1996, an 88-74 Baltimore Orioles team took down a 99-62 Indians team with World Series aspirations. The roles were reversed in 1997, as the Orioles posted a 98-64 record, winning the AL East. With the series tied at one, the Orioles and Indians took the series to Cleveland. In Game 3, Mike Mussina pitched one of the greatest games since the postseason expanded. Mussina went seven innings, allowing only three hits, and struck out 15 batters. However, a Matt Williams RBI single in the seventh spoiled Mussina’s masterpiece. Indians pitcher Orel Hershiser was able to match Mussina zero-for-zero, going seven strong innings, giving up four hits, and striking out seven.

As good as both starters were, neither would factor in the decision as the game would go to extra innings. The game would end on one of the strangest plays in MLB history. In the bottom of the twelfth inning with Omar batting, and Marquis Grissom on third base, Omar (one of the best bunters in the game) squared up for a suicide squeeze, and missed the ball. Grissom, assuming Vizquel would put it in play, started home, and never stopped. Vizquel missed the bunt, and the ball careened towards the backstop, ballgame. Indians win 2-1.

A Sandy Alomar walk-off in single in Game 4 gave the Indians a 3-1 series lead. The Orioles stole the final game at Jacobs Field and were able to send it back to Baltimore down 3-2. Game 6 resulted in 10 innings of zero runs, until the top of the eleventh, when Tony Fernandez broke a 0-0 tie with a home run, giving the Indians a 1-0 lead. Jose Mesa would close it out, and the Indians were heading back to the World Series.

The Marlins were only in their fifth year of existence; therefore, it seemed like the baseball gods would favor a team that was on a 51-year championship drought. The series began in Miami, with the Marlins coming away with a 7-4 win. In Game 2, the Indians would come away with home field advantage due to a 6-1 win as the series headed to Cleveland for three straight games. The Marlins and Indians entered the ninth inning of Game 3 tied at seven, then the Marlins exploded for seven runs in the top of the ninth, giving the Marlins a 14-7 lead. The Indians were able to make things interesting, scoring four runs in the bottom of the ninth, but couldn’t continue the comeback, losing 14-11. Game 4 was a Tribe clubbing, as the Indians routed the Marlins 10-3, tying the series at two.

In Game 5, the Indians entered the ninth inning facing a four run deficit. Thanks to two Marlins errors, the Indians were able to make it a one-run game. With a man on first, and two outs, Sandy Alomar hit a fly ball to deep right field, but couldn’t get enough mustard on it as the Indians dropped Game 5 by a score of 8-7. The series headed back to Miami, and the Indians took Game 6 by a score of 4-1, tying the series at three, and forcing a Game 7.

With the Indians up 2-1 with one out in the bottom of the ninth, Cleveland fans could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Indians locker room had been taped up, and the World Series trophy had been wheeled in. Then Jose Mesa blew it, giving up a game tying sac fly. And just like that, the Indians locker room was cleaned of everything. Two innings later, and Edgar Renteria lined a ball just by Charlie Nagy’s glove, and the Marlins celebrated a World Series title.

In an effort to win a World Series, the Indians traded away many young players for proven talent and pitching. Players such a Brian Giles, Jeff Kent, Sean Casey, and Richie Sexson were all deemed expendable as the front office tried to build a better team. The Indians remained in contention for four more seasons, but never got back to the World Series. The Jacobs sold the team, the Dolans bought, tried to keep a top payroll, realized they couldn’t, rebuilt, won the AL Central in 2007, blew a 3-1 series lead to the Red Sox, traded C.C. Sabathia, traded Cliff Lee, rebuilt again, signed Terry Francona, made the Wild Card game, then were jinxed by Sports Illustrated.

The Browns.

I remember this one like it was yesterday. The Browns were coming off a NFL championship in 1964 (no Super Bowls yet, but you knew that), and had the best player, in Jim Brown, who racked up 1,544 yards and 21 total touchdowns in just 14 games. After going 11-3 in the regular season, the Browns met up with Green Bay Packers in the championship game. The Packers were led by Coach Vince Lombardi, and star quarterback, Bart Starr; they finished with a 10-3-1 regular season record.

With the game being played on the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, the Packers got on the scoreboard first, with a 47 yard touchdown pass from Bart Starr to Carroll Dale. The Browns were able to answer with a 17 yard Frank Ryan touchdown pass, and then later took the lead on a Lou Groza field goal, giving the Browns a 9-7 first quarter lead. In the second quarter, Packer kicker, Don Chandler nailed two field goals to give the Packers a 13-9 lead, but another Lou “The Toe” Groza field goal made it a 13-12 Packers halftime lead. That would be all the Browns would be able to get on the board, but the Packers were able to add a Paul Hornung touchdown, and another field goal, giving them a 23-12 win and the NFL title.

The Browns would go on to enjoy more than a decade of success, but never made it back to the newly minted “Super Bowl,” despite making the postseason five times from 1967 through 1972. On the other side, the Packers returned to the championship game the next season, and won the first ever Super Bowl, then followed it up by winning Super Bowl II. So yes, in the bad luck of Cleveland, the Browns made the championship game in 1964 and 1965, missing out on the Super Bowl by one year. #JustCLEthings

After toiling around with mediocrity for much of the late 70s and early 80s, the Browns experienced a renaissance behind the arm of Bernie Kosar. Between 1986 and 1989, the Browns made it to the AFC Championship game three times, but every time John Elway was there to slam the door, whether it by a drive or fumble.

The 90s brought more mediocrity even though they had the great Bill Belichick roaming the sidelines. Despite going 11-5, and making the playoffs in 1994, longtime owner Art Modell decided that Cleveland didn’t deserve a football team anymore and moved the team after the 1995.

Triumph! The Browns returned in 1999, or at least we thought they did. The Browns returned and went 2-14 and 3-13 in their first two years back on the lake. Meanwhile, the old Browns, a.k.a the Baltimore Ravens, won the Super Bowl in 2000, as Art Modell spat in the faces of Cleveland fans everywhere. The Browns have spent the entire century as the laughing stock of the NFL and the nation. While there have been a few good seasons, the real Browns never came back to Cleveland.

But enough sadness, the Cavs have returned to the NBA promised land, looking to bring Cleveland its first championship since 1964. The Indians still have time to make up their bad start. Remember, it was only a few months ago everyone was raving about the Indians rotation. Then there’s the Browns, eternally searching for that quarterback, is it Johnny Manziel, Josh McCown, or will it be Cardale Jones? That’s the thing about sports: you never know what will happen.

Sure the Golden State Warriors just had one of the greatest regular seasons ever, as they roughed up the hell that is known as the Western Conference to the tune of a 67-15 record. Things can change real fast though; one year ago no one thought LeBron would ever leave Miami. Yet here we are, Cleveland on the cusp of a championship. I just have one thing to say, and I’d like to think most Cleveland fans think the same thing: “Let me just see one.”

— Chris Sladoje (@CST_Doje)

AP Photo/Ron Schwane

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