Someday, Cleveland, you, too, will rock and join Boston.
There was a time when sports fans in Boston — and by extension many around New England — suffered mightily. Sure, the Celtics and the Bruins enjoyed their heydays. The Bs ruled during the Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito days, claiming the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972. The Cs dominated the early years of the NBA, won a couple titles in the ’70s, and had the Bird era in the 1980s, culminating in 1986 with an NBA championship run by a team that is arguably the best in the league’s history.
But since 1986 ... ouch.
The history of the Red Sox needs no retelling to anyone who has made it this far in a column that touches on sports, speaking of 1986. Suffice it to say my wife still remembers the look on my face when the ball rolled between Buckner’s legs to end the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Even when the Sox led the seventh game, Boston fans knew the clouds of doom were massing on the horizon.
The Patriots were always a laughingstock, the franchise that nearly electrocuted its new head coach, Clive Rush, at an early 1970s introductory press conference. The Pats, fondly known as the Patsies, did make it to the American Football League title game in 1963, before the merger with the NFL. They lost to the San Diego Chargers by 41 points. They also made it to the Super Bowl in 1986. They lost to the Chicago Bears by 36 points. So much for the high points.
Look, it could have been worse. Cleveland last won a major sports title in 1964, when the Browns, led by Jim Brown, won the NFL championship. Since then Cleveland fans have endured more than San Diego fans — that Chargers’ win was that city’s last sports title. But San Diego features better weather and fewer professional sports teams.
It’s not even close: Cleveland is undergoing the greatest sports drought of any American city.
To whit, the Browns have regularly flopped. In the 1987 playoffs John Elway led the Denver Broncos 98 yards to tie the game in the waning seconds, and Denver won in OT. In the 1988 playoffs, the Browns fumbled on the Broncos’ 3-yard line when headed in for a game-tying touchdown.
The Browns later moved to Baltimore, and there they won a Super Bowl as the Ravens, just to rub it in.
The Cleveland Indians reached a World Series in 1997, and clearly were a better team than the Marlins. Florida won, thanks largely to some of the most egregious home plate umpiring in the history of baseball — in Game 5 Eric Gregg repeatedly called pitches four-to-six inches outside strikes against the Cleveland hitters.
In this decade, Ohio favorite son LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers rose as an NBA power, but lost one NBA final and twice couldn’t get past the Celtics, even though they were heavily favored in 2010.
Then LeBron announced he was “taking his talents to South Beach” before millions of television viewers, spawning a much ridiculed phrase and making him one of the most hated athletes in America, fairly or not.
Let’s just say someday — possibly even in one of our lifetimes — a Cleveland team will win a title, and the area’s fans will either wander in speechless bliss, howl at the moon, or spontaneously combust.
So, no, from 1986 to 2001 it wasn’t quite that bad for Boston fans — even given the well-chronicled woes of the Red Sox.
But it was getting there. Two Celtics, the great Reggie Lewis and the potentially great Len Bias, died unexpectedly. Bruin Normand Leveille suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage, and for years Bs’ team ownership focused on concessions sales, not on finding hockey talent. The Patriots made the 1997 Super Bowl and were respectable, but architect Bill Parcells packed his bags and left.
It all changed in January 2002, when the Patriots stunned the heavily favored St. Louis Rams and won the first of three Super Bowls. In 2004, the Red Sox overcame a three-games-to-none deficit to the New York Yankees to win the American League Championship Series and then swept St. Louis in the World Series. In 2007, the Sox won another World Series. The Celtics won the NBA title in 2008.
And last week, the Bruins — a team I first saw live in 1963, a one-goal loss to Chicago in which Bobby Hull scored on a slap shot — snatched the Stanley Cup from the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks.
I don’t want to overstate what all this means to a fan. There are no real persuasive reasons to follow pro sports. Does the drama distract us from our personal woes or allow us to live vicariously through others? Does the simple zero-sum outcome of a sporting event appeal to us as we deal with the complexities, the shades of gray, in our lives? Are sports another form of soap operas?
No matter how the teams I follow do, I still would wake up next to my lovely wife of almost 24 years, who still thankfully tolerates my foibles. My daughters would still roll their eyes at my jokes, but nevertheless remember Father’s Day, even if they might have given me something besides a new Bruins hat if events in Vancouver had transpired differently last week.
But there is something to be said for enjoying this success, especially for those of us who started rooting for these teams in the early 1960s, when only the Celtics could get out of their own way. Having lived through Bucky Dent’s homer and Bill Buckner’s boot makes the good times that much better.
I do hope the good people of Cleveland can share some of the fun someday soon, though. Seems like we could spare some.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.