From Weird Moments in Cleveland Sports, by Vince Guerrieri
It’s the lament of a sports fan in Northeast Ohio after every season that falls short of expectations or trade that doesn’t pan out: “Only in Cleveland.” If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times, from dejected fans trudging back to the Muni Lot after a Browns loss, callers to local talk radio or fans commiserating at a bar or party.
Sure, any team’s history includes hard-luck losses and bad personnel moves. But you have to admit, a lot of strange things have happened in Cleveland sports. Part of that, no doubt, is because of the city’s duration as home to sports teams (121 years and counting for the current baseball team, and decades before for previous iterations; 52 and counting for the current basketball team; and 76 years—with a three-year intermission—for the football team). Yet there are plenty of other cities with even more sports teams or even longer histories that can’t claim the vast number of weird, random, wild, bizarre, creepy, and odd occurrences Cleveland can.
For example …
One of the great joys of watching sports is that there’s always a chance you will see something you’ve never seen before. Between the lines, they say, anything can happen.
Sometimes, it’s dramatic. No-hitters. Last-second Hail Mary touchdowns. Virtuoso performances from the finest athletes on the planet—and occasionally a journeyman who rises to the occasion for a piece of immortality.
And sometimes, it’s just hilarious . . .
Wrong-way basket, part I
The Cavs’ first season, 1970–71, was a memorable one—for all the wrong reasons. The team began its existence with 15 straight losses. After their first win (a New York newspaper actually had a daily counter for when the Cavs would win their first game), they lost another 12. But one play against the Portland Trail Blazers—another expansion team—on Dec. 9 seemed to sum up the season’s ineptitude.
Down three after three periods, Bobby Lewis recovered the jump ball that started the fourth quarter and fired a pass to John Warren. The team executed a perfect fast break, and Warren went in and laid it up before Portland’s LeRoy Ellis could block the shot. It was just the way for the Cavs to start the period—“a total team effort,” Warren recalled in a 2015 interview with the author. But the referee blew his whistle. Warren was afraid it was a traveling call. But the Cavs had scored in the wrong basket, and they went on to lose 109-102 to drop to 2-28.
Coach Bill Fitch was reviewing game film with the team at the next day’s practice. “Bingo [Smith] was really riding John,” he recalled in 2015. That stopped once they saw the play on film—with Bingo in the corner jumping up and down shouting for the ball! “As soon as I showed it, Bingo didn’t say boo after that. Nobody let him forget it.”
Frank Robinson gets in a fight at a friendly
Because of contractual obligations, the Indians had a choice in 1976: They could pay their Triple-A farm team, the Toledo Mud Hens, $5,000 or play them in an exhibition game. The Indians were in dire financial straits—allegedly finishing that season $500,000 in the red—so the payment was not an option.
So the Indians took the bus ride to Maumee, Ohio and Ned Skeldon Stadium, a former racetrack that had been reconditioned into the Mud Hens’ home, for the June 30 exhibition. It was a miserable night, including a 40-minute rain delay, but there were some bright spots. Coach Jeff Torborg got into the game, as did hitting coach Rocky Colavito, who was a fan favorite throughout the region, thanks to his playing career in Cleveland and Detroit.
Even player-manager Frank Robinson got into the game, inserting himself as a pinch-hitter. He stepped in, and the first pitch sailed over his head—an ostensible warning shot.
The pitcher was “Bullet” Bob Reynolds, who had been cut from the team in spring training. Worse yet, he had found out that he was cut not from Robinson or the coaching staff, but from reporters covering the team. He’d borne a grudge against Robinson since then, and now had the opportunity to share his feelings.
Robinson, always known for his competitiveness, was willing to give it right back. He flied out to center field, and according to multiple newspaper accounts, on his way back to the dugout, yelled at Reynolds, “You’re gutless! If you’re going to throw at someone, at least come close enough to knock him down.”
“At least you’re talking to me now,” Reynolds replied, and the fight was on. Before Reynolds could even get his glove off, Robinson had laid him out with a left to the jaw, followed by a quick right cross. The next day’s Toledo Blade said the fight happened so quickly that it didn’t even give the dugouts a chance to empty.
Robinson was thrown out of the game. Reynolds was treated for a cut tongue and a swollen jaw. Two days later, Robinson remained defiant as he met with the media, saying he didn’t have to apologize for his actions. “He’s the one who started it all,” Robinson said of Reynolds. “He took the cheap shot, trying to look big to his teammates.”
The Strat-o-Matic All-Star Game
No city warmed to a major league all-star game quite like Cleveland. Municipal Stadium had hosted three—the third-ever all-star game, in 1935; a barnburner in 1954; and the outlier in 1963 that drew small crowds and little interest—and was on pace to host a fourth in 1981 when the players went out on strike in May of that year. The strike put the Midsummer Classic, and indeed the remainder of the season, in jeopardy. Yet on the scheduled date, July 14, 1981 the All-Star Game was played at Cleveland Stadium.
Well . . . an All-Star Game was played.
Rocco Scotti sang the national anthem, accompanied by an accordionist. (Sports Illustrated said it was “the first All-Star Game that sounded like an Italian wedding.”) The Indians’ short-lived mascot the Baseball Bug entertained spectators. And Bob Feller came out to the roar of a crowd of 58, not to throw a ceremonial first pitch, but to throw the ceremonial first dice.
Tables were set up on the infield, where two producers from WKYC-TV, Jim Schaefer and Jon Halpern, were playing Strat-O-Matic Baseball—a tabletop game based on real MLB players and teams—with all-star rosters from the American and National leagues.
The National League had been riding a winning streak in recent years, and that continued with the simulated game, in which they trounced the American League 15-2. Dave Parker was named the game MVP. Because there were no major sporting events going on at that point, the Strat-o-Matic game got no end of news coverage, with write-ups in local papers and on the wire, and stories on the TV news. Later that year, Schaefer and Halpern were invited to bring the board, cards and dice they had used for the game up to Cooperstown for display at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The players’ strike ended, and the real All-Star game was played on Aug. 9—the first game back for Major League Baseball. It remains the highest-attended MLB All-Star Game, as 72,086 fans—including Vice President George H.W. Bush and entertainer Bob Hope—watched the National League prevail on the field as they had recently done on the tabletop. This time, Expos catcher Gary Carter, who homered twice in the game, was the MVP.
He’d also homered in the Strat-o-Matic game. Sometimes life imitates art.
It was a Sunday in December on the lakefront in 2001. On the field in Browns Stadium, the Browns were driving, hoping for a comeback in the waning moments of a game against the Jaguars, who were already mathematically eliminated from the postseason. The Browns were 6-6, and needed a win to keep slim playoff hopes alive under first-year coach Butch Davis.
Down 15-10 late in the fourth quarter, the Browns were facing fourth and 2 from the Jaguars’ 12-yard line. Tim Couch found receiver Quincy Morgan for what referees initially signaled as a completed catch for a three-yard gain and a first down.
On the next play, with less than a minute to play, Couch spiked the ball to stop the clock with 48 seconds left. The referees huddled . . . and then said Couch’s fourth-down completion to Morgan was under review. NFL rules, then as now, say that any review of a play must come before the following play. Crew chief Terry McAuley, in his first season as a referee and fourth as an NFL official, said that a communication error had kept the news from being relayed before the ball was snapped.
After review, Couch’s pass was ruled incomplete. The Browns had turned the ball over on downs and had no time outs. The game was effectively over, and the Jaguars would win.
Of course, some fans in the stands had a real problem with this. They voiced their opinion by showering the field not just with boos, but with debris. The game would soon become known as the Bottlegate game because of the massive amounts of plastic beer bottles—some not completely empty—thrown on to the field. “We feared for our lives,” Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith said, according to the Associated Press. “It was like dodging bullets.”
McAuley took the unprecedented step to declare the game over with 48 seconds left, and ordered both teams off the field.
Teams were starting to undress and shower in the locker room when they were informed that the league office had called to ensure that the final, meaningless 48 seconds were played. Both teams returned to the field as Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell took a knee on two plays to end the game.
National reaction was swift and negative.
“Cleveland Browns fans should be embarrassed today,” radio host Jim Rome said, according to the Plain Dealer.
“Football fans in Cleveland gathered early for the traditional exchange of their favorite yuletide gifts, half-drunken bottles of beer,” wrote Mike Penner of the Los Angeles Times.
“Now we know why they desperately wanted to have an NFL team back in town,” wrote Jim McCabe of the Boston Globe. “They needed the big arena to showcase their bottle-tossing talents just in case it becomes an Olympic sport.”
Browns President Carmen Policy, a bottle-half-full kind of guy, took the ending as a positive. “I like the fact that our fans care,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced following the season that the review process would itself be reviewed to avoid situations like that in the future. But the most immediate change came the following week, when alcohol sales at all NFL stadiums ended following the end of the third quarter—and the Browns stopped selling beer in bottles.
The legend of Bottlegate lives on—and not just for Browns fans. A Saints fan who filed suit against the NFL in 2018 cited Tagliabue’s actions to ensure the game’s final 48 seconds were played as examples of the commissioner’s power—which, they argued, extended to being able to replay the end of the 2018 NFC Championship Game. In that game, a missed pass interference call against Nickell Robey-Coleman led to the Rams getting the ball back and scoring to tie the game in the final possession of regulation. They went on to win in overtime.
Of course, the Browns and Saints have a special kinship because of Bottlegate. The day after the Browns-Jaguars game in 2001, the Saints were playing on Monday night. A dubious pass interference call against New Orleans prompted the bottles to start flying at the Superdome. The Saints’ opponent that week? The Rams.
J.R. forgets the score
In the 2018 NBA postseason, the Cavaliers advanced to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Once again, their opponent would be the Golden State Warriors. It was the first time in any of the four major league sports that the same teams met for the championship in four consecutive years. The Warriors were once again favored to win the series, which would start in Oakland.
But it actually looked like the Cavs would steal the first game. Down one with 4.7 seconds left to play, the Cavaliers’ George Hill hit a free throw to tie the game at 107. He then clanked his second free throw, but his teammate J. R. Smith came down with the rebound.
Smith had come to the Cavs midway through the 2015 season, recognized as a talented if not always focused basketball player. He had been a vital part of the 2016 championship team, and his shirtless antics during the championship parade had endeared him to fans throughout Northeast Ohio. Now, he had a chance at heroics again. A putback basket would give the Cavs a win and potentially set the Warriors back on their heels.
Instead, he dribbled the ball, running out the clock. He said immediately afterward that he had been looking for a time out to be called for a reset, allowing the Cavs to take a last shot. But later on, after the heat of the moment had passed, he revealed that he might have thought the Cavs were leading, and he just needed to dribble out the clock.
“Players fuck up, it just so happened that mine was in the Finals,” he said a year later on All the Smoke on Showtime. “We’ve all messed up.”
It’s easy to wonder what might have been. Would a Cavs road win in Game 1 have turned the tide in the series? Or would it just have postponed the inevitable?
The Cavs went meekly in the ensuing overtime, losing 124-114, and then went on to be swept in four games. LeBron left after the season, and eventually, so did Smith.