As we approach the end of 2016 and look ahead to 2017, it seems fitting to look back at the sports world and reflect on the areas of significance. As a Cleveland resident since 2013, this past year has been a transformation one for the city, as the teams exerted their presence on their respective sport. For these two, what was once fairy tale championship hopes are now elements of a new reality.
Since entering the league in 1970, there have been few years where the Cavaliers have been serious championship contenders. In 2016, the Cavs ended Cleveland’s 42-year professional championship drought in dramatic fashion. Falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven NBA Finals against the 72-win Golden State Warriors, LeBron led the charge back to claim the ever-elusive championship for the city of Cleveland.
Things have not always been positive with respects to the Cavaliers in recent years. When I arrived in Cleveland in the summer of 2013, the Cavaliers were a league doormat. LeBron James departed for South Beach three years prior, and with that all hopes of a contending team vanished. Since that time, LeBron came back home and helped elevate the downtrodden Cavaliers into a contender, much like he did when he entered the league in 2003. In year one (2015, the Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history – both with LeBron). Had it not been for injuries, Cleveland could have possibly emerged victorious. One season later, LeBron would deliver on his promise to bring a championship to Northeast Ohio.
As for the post championship reaction, an estimated 1.3 million people flooded downtown Cleveland for the title parade. Among the parade attendees was the legendary Cleveland Hall-of-Fame running back Jim Brown, who was the last major sports professional athlete to accomplish what the Cavaliers did in 2016. It was a surreal experience for all in attendance and the millions more watching from home.
While the Cavaliers and the fans were still relishing their championship glory and were preparing for their title defense, the Cleveland Indians returned to a prominent position in the American League, where they were last relevant nationally nine year prior and another 10 years before that. As the Cavs were completing the first ever 3-1 deficit recovery in NBA Finals history, the Cleveland Indians were putting together an impressive season of their own. Finishing the season with 94 wins and led by a balanced lineup and strong starting pitching, the Indians entered the postseason as underdogs. Losing Carlos Carrasco (broken hand) and Danny Salazar sidelined most of the final month of the season with forearm/elbow ailments really reduced the impact of what was the league’s best starting rotation. Salazar would return to the postseason but would be limited to sporadic relief appearances.
Despite the pitching injuries, the Tribe would finish the season with the second most wins and would roll into the World Series, dismissing the Redo Sox in three games and the Toronto Blue Jays in five. The piecemeal starting rotation would get a huge boost from a dominant relief corps and bring the team to one win from the franchise’s first championship since the days of Lou Boudreau and Bob Feller in 1948. Unfortunately for the Indians’ fans, Cleveland’s ace Corey Kluber could not continue his excellence on only three days rest and would blow a 3-1 series lead in a crushing Game 7 loss to the Chicago Cubs in front of a capacity crowd at Progressive Field.
It almost seemed poetic that the Cavaliers and Indians both were involved in 3-1 series comebacks, although on opposite ends of the spectrum’ but there is so much to look forward to in 2017, as manager of the year Terry Francona will field a full complement of starting pitching, along with a full season from relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to close out games. In addition, the lineup will get a boost from the return of 2014 MVP finalist Michael Brantley, who missed nearly the full season from a shoulder injury. with the roster in place and possibly a couple of signings, it is looking like Progressive Field will be home to another strong stretch of contending teams as it had back in the mid-1990’s.
Lake Erie Monsters (now Cleveland Monsters for 2016-17 season)
While it is commonly believed that the Cavaliers are the first professional sports team in Cleveland to win a championship since 1964, in fact the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey Association (minor league affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets) won the Calder Cup, the minor league equivalent of the NHLs Stanley Cup in Cleveland during the summer of 2016 as well. While it will not garner the fanfare of the three major league professional teams in town, the team did complete an impressive campaign with a four-game sweep in the finals to claim the championship, and lost only two games through the playoffs.
OK, so the 2016 reflection has been a very positive one thus far, and I would like to state that the fourth of the four professional teams in town are also in a prominent position. But unfortunately we are talking about the Cleveland Browns, a franchise that has not been on the national contenders stage in 30 years. In fact, since returning to the league in 1999 after then Art Model’s moving of the original franchise in 1996, the Browns have played only one playoff game and, as presently constituted are a challenge to call even a professional level team. At present, the team is 0-13 for the season and also lost all four pre-season games. If they complete the season winless they will go down in history as the only NFL team to lose all 20 games they played in a full season. Clearly not the type of fanfare or image that the ownership and coaching staff want to be associated with. To be honest, while the team plays hard on a weekly basis, the team lacks talent, plain and simple. During the season, the Browns have put five different quarterbacks in games, including wide Terrelle Pryor, a converted QB from Ohio State who is now the team’s best receiver.
There is one ray of sunshine and that is the worst record in the league will result in the top pick in the 2017 NFL draft, along with obtaining the Philadelphia Eagles’ first round pick as well. This will help jumpstart the rebuilding process for 2017 and beyond. Through it all, the die hard Cleveland Browns fans still show un and hope that each week will result in a win.
Cleveland has a lot to be thankful for in 2016 and optimistic about what 2017 and beyond will bring. Having lived in New England for the first 45 years of my life, I have become accustomed to winning. Through it, I never took one team or one season for granted, for you never know what next year will bring. Being here in Cleveland for three years now, I see what is developing and witnessing the transformation of the sports fans in the city from sympathetic supporters to passionate, positive fans who are beginning to see the value of treasuring each season for what it brings. So long as Cleveland does not face off with Boston teams, I will support the Cleveland in their resurrection to an emerging sports power for years to come.