Sunday, January 21, 2018
Sports

A year that can never be taken from Cleveland

Any recap of a year in sports demands a great lede, such as: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

But no. We're talking Cleveland sports.

And this year the sun shined almost all the time. The basketball team was tough, the baseball team was smart, and the football team was … the Browns.

You may have heard that the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals to give the city its first major sports championship since 1964. (If not, let me ask: How was Pluto?) It was sweet to watch a team that had dismissed its coach at midseason and been left for dead in the finals overpower Wardell Stephen Curry II and the All-Galaxy Warriors. (No need to mention Cleveland has treated the Californians as ginger-haired members of the blended family ever since.)

Sweeter still was hearing chants of "Real MVP!" rain down in Quicken Loans Arena every time LeBron James touched the basketball. And that was just June.

As a second course, the Indians' run to the World Series wasn't ramen noodles. The depleted Cleveland Indians' season — beset by key injuries and held together with baling wire, spearmint gum and manager Terry Francona's guile — was carried by a bullpen deeper than the Mariana Trench. The Fall Classic vs. the Chicago Cubs didn't disappoint.

Forget that at times the Fox broadcasters sounded as if they were reading from Kyle Schwarber's Tinder profile. Never mind that Cubs reliever Aroldis Chapman was sputtering in the late innings of Game 7 like the cyborg in Terminator 3. Forget even that it took divine intervention in the form of a 17-minute rain delay to keep Chicago from making America Goat Again. The Tribe fell short. And in so doing prevented effigies of manager Joe Maddon from being hoisted over Wrigley Field instead of a W flag. You're welcome, Chicago.

Any recap of the Cleveland year in sports requires a nod to our largely professional football team. Suffice to say that the Cleveland Browns are the only NFL franchise rumored to offer grocery bags with eye holes as official team shop headgear. There is, we are told, a method to the on-field madness, the pot of gold at the end of this awful rainbow being a Santa's sack of high draft picks. But watching the Browns' front office evaluate talent is not unlike watching your drunken uncle fire up his Christmas gift chain saw. Unease is definitely warranted. Remember, this is a team that has been rebuilding since the Visigoths took Rome and the points.

Civic types here have been floating the notion that our sports success means that, after years of decline, we have finally arrived — championship rings the size of soup tureens being the visible proof of our new place in the leisure-industrial complex. Nonsense. For one thing, it was possible to study a Picasso and spy an Iron Chef in the same evening here long before J.R. Smith ever rode a parade float. And for another, Cleveland — despite efforts to sell bobbleheads and woo conventioneers — remains a city with a chip on its shoulder.

We are still a place where old men gather under the onion domes of the Russian Orthodox churches in the Tremont neighborhood and shake fists at the holes in the sky where their steel mills used to be, while swells in martini bars toast the death of smokestack industry.

We are still a city where you can spend the house note on dinner at Red the Steakhouse, and where working folks line up before dawn at Slyman's restaurant for the corned beef they must serve the righteous in the Great Hereafter. Wee morning drive radio personages mine the city's history of garish sports gaffes (Hue Jackson's clock management!), but no one really expects anything worth remembering from Steve-on-a-car-phone.

And Cleveland fans still ease their suffering with jokes. (How does a Browns fan count to 10? 0-1, 0-2, 0-3 …

But there is a new buoyancy about town. It is a buoyancy that started between the lines in the ballparks and the basketball arena and has spilled out, largely undiminished, into some of the less scenic corners of the city. You can't stop hope here. You can't even contain it.

A new year is here, and in town squares everywhere the hardy braved the cold to ring it in. There's a burg along the Lake Erie shore about an hour from Cleveland where they forgo a ball drop and lower a 600-pound fiberglass walleye instead. Watching a game fish descend out of the dark might not be for everyone, but its unhurried progress allows time to reflect on the past, and the year ahead — like, what Edwin Encarnacion's 40 dingers will mean in the middle of the Indians' batting order. The wind off the lake will seem gentle. And in 2017 the sun will shine all the time.

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