Saturday, December 20, 2008

Is This the Best Team in Cleveland Sports (Recent) History?

In any context, the phrase "Best Ever" is always dubious in the respect that there is no real basis for comparing teams over the course of time, other than a person's subjective opinion. We see this all the time in college football with the talking heads spewing over USC's latest stars, this year especially as ESPN analysts were saying Joe McKnight and Mark Sanchez were more talented than Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart,and Carson Palmer (all of whom won Heisman Trophies remember). One fateful night in Oregon squelched those thoughts, but the sentiment was there.

An even more risque proposition is to compare teams' dominance or futility across sports. Can you compare a point guard to a quarterback? I suppose you can in the respect that the players who play both positions are counted on to make important decisions and create scoring opportunities for their respective teams. Is there a baseball equivalent to that position? Realistically no, in part because the defense always has the ball in baseball. Is there any position in any other sport that is of uber-importance the way a starting pitcher in baseball is? A player that sets the tone for the entire game, a player who can literally single handedly win a game for his team (think hitting pitchers in the National League)? I do not believe so.

The background you just read is the reason why I will tread carefully as I guide you through a discussion of whether or not the 2008-09 Cavaliers is the best Cleveland team in recent history (1970-present). Although the Browns teams in 1986 and 1987 were very, very good, the vast majority of fans remember these seasons with nothing but despair. John Elwayand Ernest Byner pretty much cemented the legacies of these seasons as painful failures, even though the regular seasons were phenomenal. 1986 saw the Browns post a 12-4 record under Bernie Kosar,a double overtime victory in the Divisional round of the playoffs over the Jets, and a seven point lead with two minutes until the Super Bowl. Objectively, this team can certainly be in the argument for the title of Best Cleveland Sports Team of the Recent Past (indoor soccer not withstanding).

Subjectively, however, there is only one team that can be in the same argument with the 2008-09 Cavaliers, and that is the 1995 Cleveland Indians. Why do I say this? First and foremost, each day, when these teams took the field/court, you were truly confident the Cleveland team would win. As Cleveland sports fans, we are typically not confident in anything. Each team had star power. Obviously the Cavs with Lebron, but the Indians had a host of big name players, both homegrown and free agent signees. And, among other things, both teams had the ability to turn what is historically a football city, into a baseball or basketball city. So which team is the best?

Of course the Cavs are just roughly a third of the way through the season, but they have been nothing short of dominant. Unbeaten at home. Four very tough, close road losses to the best the NBA has to offer. Stifling defense, and an offense firing on all cylinders. Ranked number one or two in just about every power rankings poll. The team is led by the best player in the league. The coach is not a flashy big name coach, but he has been phenomenal at getting the team to play the type of defense needed to win championships. The hot streak they have been riding has been remarkable. However the NBA is about as balanced as the national budget. There is an amazing number of crappy teams in the league, and the fact of the matter is the Cavs have been feasting on them. That is not a knock on the Wine and Gold, just a fact. They are doing what any dominant team would be doing versus the dregs of the league. They are incredibly fun to watch, and put on an excellent show at the Q. Quite a resume for the current Central Division leaders.

The 1995 Tribe was exactly what the city needed for the a baseball renaissance, specifically after the promising 94 season was cut short by the strike. Every time the Indians took the field you expected them to win. Even when they were losing 8-0 after three innings you expected them to come back and win. Even when they were down 5-3 going into the ninth inning vs. the all time leader in saves you expected them to win. The offense was absurd. The best leadoff hitter in the game. A pair of future 500homer guys hitting 6thand 7th. A mercurial 4 hitter, who, if given back the 18 games lost to the strike, may have preempted Mark McGwireand Sammy Sosa in the pursuit of the single season home run record. And not only did Albert Belle hit 50 homeruns, he also became the first player ever to pair that with hitting 50 doubles in the same season. He and Jim Thomesandwiched one of the few 3000 hit/500 homerun guys in history. I can go on. The pitching staff was led by a pair of aging starters who were dominant at times. They were aided by a homegrown talent who was surely happy to be along for the ride, and a midseason acquisition. The bullpen was anchored by an amazingly effective starter-turned-closer who went by the name Senior Smoke. The city was captivated by the Indians. They won the division just 8 days into September. They won their first playoff game in 41 years on a walkoff homerun at 2:30am by a lighthitting, elderly catcher. They went down 2-1 to the Mariners in the ALCS. Paul Assenmacher swept Griffey, Buhner, and Martinez away in the next three games, and Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel took care of Randy Johnson to send the Indians to the World Series. The Indians went on to help the Atlanta Braves shed their Buffalo Bills-like moniker by not hitting against the Braves superior pitching, and lost the series in six games.

You may ask yourself, what is the difference between the 1995 Indians results, and the 1986 Browns results? Neither team won a championship so who cares. While this is true, the Indians raised an American League Championship banner, and also played the very last game of the season, which is always pretty cool.

Now, obviously you can say a lot more about the 95 Indians than you can say about this season's Cavs. That Indian season is in the history books. The Cavsare just getting going. As the NBA season moves along, we will find out if this team compares to the 95 Indians, blows it out of the water, or fizzles out to the point that we no longer need to have this discussion. However it will be fun to see the Cavs, seemingly on a collision course with the Boston Celtics, play this season out, as they have enthralled the city, and its fan base. I have a feeling that Mo Williams might be quoting Kenny Lofton (Sept 8, 1995), when he helps raise a Central Division banner, "Cleveland, you ain't seen nothin yet..."

1 comment:

Biff said...

Great post and a very interesting topic. I think you hit the nail on the head selecting the 95 Indians as the only other Cleveland team in modern history to be in the conversation with this Cavs team. Overall, even though we are so early in the season, I have to give the nod to the Cavs (even after adjusting for the recency bias). My simple reasoning is this: The 95 Indians had a murderers row lineup but was far from dominant on the other side. Their pitching was good but far from great. It would be like this Cavs team being dominant offensively but having an average defense. Plus, the Cavs have the most dominant weapon in the game by far in a sport where you can let everything ride on your best player at the end of close games. The Indians lacked a similar ace up their sleeve. For that reason, as of right now, I'm going with the 08-09 Cavs.