Buffalo and Cleveland could be twins. Their locations are similar, their histories are similar, their lifestyles, vital statistics, and living costs are all similar. Hell, the two even share their sports pain with each other, at least to such a point that fans in the two cities frequently root for each other’s teams unless their own teams are compromised in doing so. The sports fans in Buffalo and Cleveland have both suffered more than any fans in proximity to the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs ever have. And yet, it’s Cleveland that seems to be getting all the publicity for how bad their fans have it, even though Buffalo arguably had it worse over the years. They’ve built such a brand name on hard losses that you wonder if any of the teams there really are interested in winning, just because a feel-good story would ruin the bad voodoo. Perhaps they think all the non-Clevelanders who follow Cleveland’s teams – and there are a ton of them, far more so than for any of the teams in Buffalo – would pat themselves on the back, compliment themselves for sticking it out, and bounce off to different teams.
A little movie called Draft Day was released this week. It’s about the GM of the Cleveland Browns and his fight for the year’s coveted draft pick, a guy who will uplift the city and its fans and relieve everyone of all their suffering. Buffalo has a small stake in this because Draft Day was dangerously close to revolving around the Buffalo Bills. After Cleveland stepped in and offered better incentives to Hollywood to make Draft Day about their football team, it was an instance of Buffalo getting nationally lowballed in accounts of its sports suffering yet again, and I asked myself: Which one of these cities really has it worse when it comes to professional sports? So let’s do this! Quantified sports suffering in Buffalo vs. Cleveland. One day, I’ll learn.
The thing about record books is that they’re there to preserve things. The histories of your sports teams are something you want to hold onto, because sports are part of popular culture, historical culture, and the entertainment industry. And once something happened to your sports team, it can’t be erased, and when a moment of real significance happens – whether it’s good or bad – it becomes something that helps define the team. This applies double to both championships and last-place finishes. When it comes to the defining moments of the past, Cleveland shines: Although the Browns never made the Super Bowl, they did win four NFL Championships which are their forever. If we extend the history back through the AAFC – which we should – that number is ramped up to eight, with the four titles Cleveland won in the four years the AAFC existed. (In the 1948 AAFC Championship, the Browns whomped the original Buffalo Bills 49-7.) Although the Browns stopped winning titles after the 60’s, they had plenty of huge moments after that, and they were also coached by one of football’s greatest innovators (Paul Brown) and fielded the greatest football player in history (Jim Brown). Of course, the original Browns are now the Baltimore Ravens, but for the sake of consistency, I’m going to play the same game with them the NFL does and pretend the team just “suspended operations” for two years and consider the brand new team the same team. In baseball, the Cleveland Indians won five Pennants and two World Series titles. Even a 1954 World Series loss became iconic to baseball lore when the Tribe became arguably the best team to ever lose the Series – they won 111 games that year; they were also one of Bill Veeck’s teams, and were the first AL team to integrate. The terminally bad Cavs even made a significant impact on the NBA when they drafted LeBron James, who became the league’s best player and took the Cavs to their only NBA Finals, an unwinnable series against an invincible San Antonio Spurs team. As for Buffalo, glory came in fleeting moments at its best. The AAFC Bills made the aforementioned title game in an otherwise resoundingly average existence before the AAFC/NFL merger stomped them out. The current Bills were one of the original AFL teams in 1959, and they reeled in dominant repeat championships in 1964 and 1965 and played in the game in 1966. The 1966 game is a big question mark among Bills fans regarding what could have been because winning it would have catapulted them into the first-ever Super Bowl (where they would have gotten trashed by Vince Lombardi’s Packers). After that, they experienced decency for a brief stretch in the 70’s with OJ Simpson, but were mostly terrible with an occasional average year thrown in to tease the fans. Even in the 80’s, when the Bills finally became legitimately good, they lost four straight Super Bowls. The Sabres have won three Conference Championships and one Presidents’ Trophy, but before today’s record losing became a problem with them, the Sabres made a habit of having a great season and watching it go to waste when the Boston Bruins would inevitably steal the division title and the Sabres would get knocked out of the first round of the playoffs. Buffalo’s strongest point right now is its lacrosse team, and while the city was once one of the richest and most important cities in the world, it somehow never had a professional major league baseball team – in fact it lost several bids for one.
There are those who might argue that Cleveland should get this, since it fell so much further. But my thoughts about that argument were explained when I mentioned records. I’m not doing this by ignoring any parts of a team’s past just because it didn’t happen in my lifetime, and past glories beat no glories any day of the week. Therefore, Buffalo is the so-called winner here.
This isn’t an on-field embarrassment I’m trying to cover now – every team has those, even the Yankees. For this category, I’m covering something that transcended what happened on the field and worked its way into national consciousness. And both cities provide very easy choices: For Cleveland, it was The Decision. In case your memory is geared toward the short term, here’s what happened: Cleveland had LeBron James, the NBA’s most transcendent and gifted player since Michael Jordan. However, he became a free agent, and some media prick decided his decision about where he was going to play was a big enough deal to warrant an hour-long TV special on ESPN. There was speculation about James everywhere, and the show was little more than waffling for an hour until decision time came and James publicly humiliated his devoted Cleveland fanbase by saying he was off to the Miami Heat. It wasn’t the actual decision that sparked outrage in Cleveland so much as it was airing it on national TV. Rust Belt people are a prideful group who believe in their cities, no matter how poorly reputed, and are always willing to do their part in trying to bring them back from the dead. James failed to understand that he was putting a viable face on Cleveland, and The Decision flew right in the face of a city trying to pull itself back together and positively promote itself. So when the Cavaliers owner told James off in a public note and Clevelanders started burning James in effigy, it was an effort to spare their own pride. Another group of people who failed to understand Cleveland’s mentality were critical theorists – who, notably, in my experiences, all say with great pride that they don’t care about professional sports (unless they’re griping about someone’s insane contract, an issue which I think unites everyone) – who couldn’t resist the urge to apply their favorite label to Cleveland by calling fans racists. Buffalo’s greatest embarrassment was so terrible and so wrong that calling it an embarrassment is being way too soft. In the 70’s, Buffalo had a star running back named OJ Simpson, who was comparable to LeBron James for everything. Simpson didn’t bounce from Buffalo, either – although he lived in California, he was always very proud to represent Buffalo, never said anything bad about the city, and was a regular at Bills games after retiring. And then in 1994, he was accused of murdering his wife, and while the law said he wasn’t guilty, the evidence was more than strong enough for the people to be very convinced otherwise. Simpson turned out to be a public projection presented in the place of a private scumbag. In 2007, Simpson robbed a Las Vegas hotel, and received a disproportionately long sentence of 33 years which many people believe was the law making up for what it didn’t do in 1994.
Buffalo. Although people in Cleveland will certainly try to use a metaphorical argument, no one was killed in regard to The Decision. In fact, after the initial anger period, Cleveland’s basketball fans are starting to act like they would welcome him back if he ever returned to the Cavaliers. While James himself had image problems in the immediate aftermath of The Decision, he’s also conducted himself in a way which laid them to rest, and even he now admits he sees why The Decision was a bad idea. By all accounts, James is a good man and a class act. Buffalo sports fans are actively trying to remove themselves of any connections to OJ Simpson, and have passed around several petitions asking for his name to be pulled from Ralph Wilson Stadium’s Wall of Fame.
Unfortunately, while the record books say the Cleveland Browns “suspended operations” for two years, records and ownership are very different things, and so the shared history won’t nullify the fact that one of the proudest NFL cities in the country was robbed of its team. Yes, they got them “back,” but the Browns being taken at all was no small thing. The owner who committed the robbery, Art Modell, is more hated in Cleveland than LeBron James ever was. We’re talking about a rabidly nutty fanbase here, and a very extensive one – Browns Backers Worldwide is the most extensive fan organization in the United States, and branches can be found in every major US city. (The largest is in Phoenix.) They also have an enormous foreign presence on US military bases, as well as proper foreign countries including Egypt, Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka…. And even the McMurdo Station in freaking Antarctica! Their two largest international chapters are in Alon Shvut, Israel, and Niagara Falls, Canada. The latter chapter is saying something because Niagara Falls is a clear encroachment in Bills territory. Bills Backers International is no slouch either, but how does a group as huge and devoted as Cleveland lose its team in the first place? Buffalo also has a serious lost team in its past: In 1970, the NBA oversaw the foundation of the Buffalo Braves, an exciting, run and gun team which featured coaching legend Jack Ramsey and MVP center Bob McAdoo. The Braves did manage to catch a base of hardcore fans, including current Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, a New York City native who chose the Braves as his team over both the Knicks and Nets and attended college in Buffalo because of his respect for them. The NBA is one of the most visible and ubiquitous sports leagues in the country. Its stars tend to be the most popular, because they’re the most versatile in regards to the way the sport is played (unlike baseball or football) and the ones who spend the most time in the game (unlike hockey, where stars get shifts of a few minutes and play maybe 20 minutes, a great basketball player can spend 35-40 minutes of a 48-minute game on the floor).
Cleveland by a distance of at least three states. They lost a team in the country’s most popular sport, the one whose championship game is seen as almost a national holiday. While no one could ever argue the popularity of the NBA, first of all, the NBA is the youngest pro sports league in the country, and the Braves existed before it morphed into the juggernaut it is today. The Braves left in 1978; the league was seriously cash-strapped right through the early 80’s, and moving teams was still fairly common when the Braves were on the outs. Hell, even the NBA Finals were usually shown on tape delay, if they were shown on TV at all. There’s also the impact of what the teams became after leaving. The Browns became the Baltimore Ravens, two-time Super Bowl champions. The Braves became the San Diego Clippers, then became the Los Angeles Clippers six years later, and they still haven’t won anything. Hell, they’ve been the poster boys of losing basketball, and it’s not until just now that the Clippers are giving their fans the kinds of successes they enjoyed as the Braves (who were consistently good for several years). Also, this can’t be understated: Cleveland got a team back, and that team was given the right to say it was the old team! While the loss of the Braves undoubtedly hurt, that’s nothing on losing a world class NFL franchise.
The Title that Got Away
Buffalo and Cleveland both have moments of pain quantified by the fact that they were a hair away from winning the league title when karma snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In both cases, the events happened in the 90’s, long enough for the title draughts to have really sunk in by then. The Cleveland Indians had been in the dumps since the trade of Rocky Colavito, but in the 90’s, they were finally dominant again. They brought home two Pennants during the decade, and as for what happened during the World Series, I’m fairly sure the 1995 loss to the Atlanta Braves team no one was expected to beat is forgivable. In 1997, though, it was different: The Tribe played against the Florida Marlins to a seventh game, and they were one run up in the ninth inning with two outs left when close Jose Mesa – one of baseball’s best – spaced out. Long story short, the Marlins made up the run, the game went to extra innings, and the Marlins pulled it out. The Indians haven’t gotten that close since. The Bills played the closest Super Bowl in history against the New York Giants. Behind 20-19 with eight seconds left, their kicker shanked a 47-yard field goal try to the right.
I’m calling this a draw. It’s disgusting the Bills lost to the Giants in such a way – while revisionist NFL commentators like to say now the Bills couldn’t have won, they ignore the fact that the Bills weren’t playing like themselves. They were making mistakes and errors all game against a Giants team playing at its absolute, peak best. Had the Bills been doing the same, the closer score of that game would have been about 38-10, Buffalo. As for Cleveland, yes, they were fielding what was pretty much an all-star team too. However, what everyone conveniently forgets is that they were also playing against an all-star team. Florida won by spending big on guys like Al Leiter, Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, Kevin Brown, Robb Nen, and Luis Castillo. That’s not what you would call light makeup. Jose Mesa was an outstanding closer, just as Buffalo’s Scott Norwood was an excellent kicker, and both blew it when they couldn’t afford to.
Signature Losing Streaks
This is a tougher and more significant contest than you might expect. A nice long streak can say a lot about a team. I guess the logical place to start with Cleveland would be in the NBA, where the Cavaliers have managed to reel in 26 losses in a row on more than one occasion. Everyone knows that. The more significant streak, though, is the brief run of appearances the Browns made in the AFC Conference Championship back in the 80’s. How much of a streak this really is depends on interpretation, but the Browns appeared in three AFC Championships in the 80’s, all against the Denver Broncos. They lost all three. Then, of course, there’s the Buffalo Bills and their two very famous losing streaks. They made it to the Super Bowl an unprecedented four years in a row, and are still the only team to ever do that. They also lost all four, as if anyone in Buffalo needs reminding. Known as well in Buffalo, however, is that back in the terrible 70’s, the Bills also managed to drop 20 games straight to the Miami Dolphins. You think they have it bad with their recent losing streaks against the Belichick/Brady Patriots? That was nothing compared to what Schula’s ‘Phins did to them every year for ten straight years.
Buffalo. I take nothing away from Cleveland here, but both of Buffalo’s major streaks were in the country’s major sport, and one of them involved, you know, losing the damned Super Bowl every year! Also, the Bills have a streak of playoff-free years that dates all the way back to 1999. The Browns have a similar streak, but it “only” goes back to 2002.
You don’t get a bad team without a bad owner, and the owners of the Browns and Cavaliers have proved that many times over throughout the years. Bad as the new Browns are, though, they all still take a backseat in Cleveland to Art Modell, who sinned against Cleveland when he moved the Browns to Baltimore. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Cavaliers fans have had to deal with Ted Stepien. While Stepien was only there for a few years, he left a mark. He was Jerry Jones before Jerry Jones was, interfering with the running of the team’s operations to such an extent that the NBA had to instate a rule specifically to prevent him from drafting first-round picks in consecutive years. Buffalo’s ownership problems have also been apparent, but the Bills were owned by Ralph Wilson for 54 years before Wilson died last week. The Sabres have had a more eclectic ownership history which involved the Knox family, the NHL, and Tom Golisano before Terry Pegula took them over and wimped out when it came to making the necessary changes of guard.
Cleveland. Ted Stepien was just too vile of a human being, and Art Modell screwed the city out of a champion football team. Whatever can be said about Wilson or Pegula, they were truly committed to their area and were class acts and fans of the teams they owned, for better and worse.
Bad Draft Picks
In Cleveland, Tim Couch, Luke Jackson, and Brady Quinn aren’t lacking for haters, but I don’t even have to do any research to know their worst draft pick, ever, across any sport: If your starting quarterback is a rookie who is already 29 years old, you fucked up. With competent coaching, poor Brandon Weeden could have been a nice placeholder for a year or two until their guy finally came to town, but we can’t allow ourselves to go very far beyond that. There are a few Buffalo players in history who could qualify as the worst – John McCargo, anyone? Say what you will about the Bills’ bad picks, though, but they all at least signed contracts. Barrett Heisten, the 1999 first round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, never did that. Although that might have been a blessing in disguise, because Heisten played ten NHL games in his entire career, all with the New York Rangers, and his points column has a big fat goose egg in it. Six picks later, the Ottawa Senators got Martin Havlat.
Cleveland. Brandon Weeden was in the more popular sport, with the more visible team, and the media never let anyone forget the Browns were staking their future on a first round quarterback who was about to hit the wrong side of 30. Either the team was trying to outsmart itself or it stopped giving a shit years ago. How the hell does a general manager mess up like that?
Both cities are steeped in the lore of bad losses. Cleveland has incidents like The Fumble, The Drive, The Shot, and Red Right 88 to live down. All of those were playoff losses, and two of them involved the Browns in the AFC Championship. The Shot, we can say, wasn’t too bad because the Cavaliers were in a lower playoff round playing against the Jordan Bulls, and it was Jordan who made The Shot. The Drive is sort of the same – John Elway was being John Elway, and the incident didn’t win the game for Denver, but took it into overtime. The other two, however, are inexcusable. Buffalo is still living down The Drop, No Goal, the Music City Miracle, and The Bounce. Buffalo likes to blame bad refereeing, and makes the claim about No Goal and the Music City Miracle. The Bounce was a wild act of physics that happened to defy Dominick Hasek’s spine. The Drop, like The Fumble (running back Ernest Byner fumbling at the two yard line) and Red Right 88 (the Browns making a desperation pass that failed when a field goal would have worked), just inexplicably happened when it shouldn’t have. The Music City Miracle, though, was entirely legit. It was a great play made against bad kickoff coverage, and no amount of griping about the refs being under someone’s belt will change the fact that science and math have both proven that amazing play was either backward or straight to side side, at the very least.
This one is a tie. Even though No Goal happened in the Stanley Cup Finals and gave the Cup to the Stars, the Sabres could well have lost anyway even if it had gone in their direction. Cleveland’s gaffes cost them more than one trip to the Finals, so those are just as evil. The Drop and The Fumble are very similar – almost comical robberies of surefire game-winning touchdowns. So how about Buffalo and Cleveland meet in a nice sports bar over this and cry into our Great Lakes and Brooklyn Brewery microbrews together?
Signature Athlete Who Gave the City the Finger on the Way Out
Poor Cleveland. LeBron James came, and we all believed he would be a Cavalier forever. For seven years, all basketball aficionados were Cavs fans to at least some extent. When they made the Finals for the first time in 2007, I think nearly everyone was rooting for him to defy the odds and lead Cleveland to a stunning upset over the Spurs. Then in 2010, James briefly became the enemy of NBA followers everywhere with The Decision. Although there was more subtlety to it, Buffalo got a whiff of what this might be like when the Bills used their first 2002 draft pick on Willis McGahee. McGahee sat behind Travis Henry for a year, and when the Bills turned the corner in 2004 – their only winning season of the millennium – it was largely because McGahee was given the keys. McGahee played brilliantly for the next couple of seasons, but he also took his complaints about Buffalo to the media. Buffalo had loved McGahee, and he decided to turn around and spit right in the city’s face. Buffalo is one of those places where insiders can trash the place as much as they please – when we do it, it has a lot to do with frustration over how the city isn’t using its full potential. When outsiders do it, it’s because they never made the effort to get to know the place. McGahee was shipped to Baltimore. When he found that out, he apparently ran screaming around his house.
Cleveland. A fiasco like The Decision will get a tortured sports city pretty far when it comes to athletes sticking up their fingers.
The so-called winner in the tortured sports pantheon truly is Cleveland. You have to admit, though, Buffalo made it a hell of a fight.