Most Devastating Losses In Cleveland Sports History

Cleveland has long had a chip on its shoulder as a city that doesn’t get the respect it feels it deserves. Some of that has flipped in recent decades with the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1983, and the emergence of a revitalized downtown and lakeshore area.

In the 1990s, Cleveland’s baseball team woke from a long slumber to become one of the best teams in the game even setting an MLB sellout record. The city has invested millions in parks and recreation in an effort to keep residents in the area. After losing almost one-quarter of its population from 1970 to 1980, Cleveland has stabilized and emerged as a tourist destination in the Midwest. People remain in Cleveland or visit the city for the attractions, the sports, and even the bars.

In 2016, the city celebrated its first sports championship in more than five decades when the Cavaliers won the NBA title.

But the difficult sports history of Cleveland still hovers over the city a reminder of the heartbreaking losses and near-misses faced by its teams.

Here’s my list of the seven most devastating losses by Cleveland teams.

7. “The Heinz Catch-Up”

2003 AFC Wild Card Playoff: Browns vs. Steelers

In the 2002 season, the Browns were a flawed team. They went 9-7 but sneaked into the playoffs. As a punishment of sorts, they had to play the rival Steelers a first-place team with a high-scoring offense built around wide receiver/slash player Antwaan Randle-El and bulky behemoth running back Jerome Bettis.

Cleveland hopped out to a 14-0 lead in Pittsburgh on a cold, wet, snowy day. Then in the fourth quarter, the Browns still held a 33-21 edge, but Pittsburgh scored two touchdowns in just over three minutes. The rally was punctuated by the game-winner a Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afal three-yard touchdown plunge.

Having suffered the embarrassing playoff collapse at Heinz Field, the Browns’ defeat has been labeled “The Heinz Catch-Up” from the Pittsburgh side of things.

6. Red Right 88 and a Playoff Loss

1981 AFC Divisional Playoff: Browns vs. Raiders

They called the Browns “The Cardiac Kids” in the early 1980s because behind the arm of quarterback Brian Sipe, the team frequently turned deficits into victories late. The 1980 team went 11-5 and won the tough AFC Central, leaping past the perennial champion Steelers.

Cleveland drew the Oakland Raiders for its first playoff game in nine years. In a snowy, cold clash at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, both teams had difficulty moving the football. With minutes left in the fourth, the Browns led 12-7, but the Raiders forged a drive behind great blocking and running and short passes by masterful QB Jim Plunkett.

On third and goal, the Raiders called “Red Right 88,” a ground play for RB Mark Van Eeghan. On the handoff, Van Eeghan tip-toed and almost stumbled, but after righting himself, he glided into the end zone to secure the winning points. The Browns were sunk and didn’t win a playoff game until 1986. But more on that team below.

5. Michael Jordan Makes “The Shot”

1989 First Round NBA Playoffs: Cavaliers vs. Bulls

In 1989, Michael Jordan was not quite yet the icon he later became. His team had never been able to get past the second round, still bullied by its nemesis the Detroit Pistons. But in 1989, Jordan delivered what was his first high-profile dagger in NBA prime time.

The Cavs were a talented group led by point guard Mark Price and center Brad Dougherty. They also boasted dynamic playmaker Ron Harper and forward Larry Nance, who had a 40-inch vertical jump. In 1988-89, the Cavaliers won 57 games, finishing second in the Central Division and earning the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. The fourth-place and No. 6-seeded Bulls were slight underdogs, but Chicago had defeated Cleveland the previous season in the first round.

The series was sent to a decisive Game 5 after the Cavs won the fourth game in Chicago.

The fifth game was close throughout, and after a bucket by Craig Ehlo with three seconds left, the Cavaliers led by a point. The Bulls inbounded and the ball got to Jordan, who elevated over Ehlo a few feet outside the free-throw line and made a buzzer-beater. Bulls 101, Cavaliers 100.

In all, the Price/Dougherty Era Cavs were eliminated in the NBA Playoffs by Jordan and the Bulls five times.

4. Collapse Versus Cubs

2016 World Series Game 7: Indians vs. Cubs

The 2016 World Series was going to end a “curse” one way or another. Cleveland hadn’t won the Series since 1948, and its opponent, the Cubs hadn’t won it since 1908. Initially, it appeared that the Indians would win as they built a 3-1 series lead.

But the Cubs won a one-run affair in Game 5 and a blowout in Game 6. That set up an epic Game 7. There’s no way that game would deliver on the hype, right? Wrong. Game 7 of the 2016 World Series is one of the greatest to ever be played.

The Cubs built a 5-1 lead and handed the game to Jon Lester, a starter coming out of the bullpen. He held the Indians lineup at bay and maintained a 6-3 Cubbie lead into the eighth. That’s when Chicago skipper Joe Maddon panicked, summoning his closer Aroldis Chapman with two outs and one on. Chapman had faced five batters the night before with his team ahead by five runs. It was nonsense, but now Maddon was asking his closer to get him four outs to secure the title.

Chapman folded like a cheap Walmart lounge chair and 14 pitches into his outing, the game was tied after a double by Brandon Guyer and a home run by Rajai Davis. But the drama was not finished, and it was destined to break Cleveland hearts.

The game moved to extras, and a rain delay served as an intermission in what was becoming an instant classic. When the 10th inning started, the Cubs’ offense pounced and scored two runs, the big blow coming on a double by Ben Zobrist. Cleveland plated a run in its half of the inning thanks to Davis again, but fell one run short and lost 8-7 in 10 excruciating innings.

This completed a collapse from a 3-1 series lead to a 4-3 series loss. To pour salt into the wound, the final game unfolded in front of the Cleveland crowd.

3. Jose Mesa’s Blown Save

1997 World Series Game 7: Indians vs. Marlins

The 1990s Cleveland Indians were a great team, but the franchise never won the World Series in spite of two trips to the Fall Classic. In 1997 it was the cruelest of endings.

In Game 7 the Indians took a 2-0 lead over the Marlins, who were in their fifth MLB season. Jaret Wright pitched into the seventh inning but gave way nursing a 2-1 lead that was handed to the bullpen. The Cleveland pen had finished second in the AL in ERA, but in this game, the most important pitcher in the back-end failed them.

Needing three outs to win the first Cleveland title since 1948, the ball was handed to closer José Mesa, a two-time All-Star who has saved 38 games that season. But he allowed a pair of singles to put runners at the corners with one out. Still, a groundball double play or a strikeout could put the game back in control for the Indians. But Craig Counsell hit a sacrifice fly to score the tying run, and the game was sent to extra innings.

In the 10th inning, a clearly rattled Mesa surrendered two singles and was removed from the contest. Cleveland wriggled out of that jam, but in the bottom of the 11th, Edgar Renteria singled in the championship-winning run for the Marlins.

This loss stung — not just for baseball fans in Ohio, but for everyone involved. Years later, shortstop Omar Vizquel called out Mesa as having “choked” in Game 7, and Mesa responded in his own memoir with nasty words for his former teammate.

2. The Fumble

1988 AFC Championship Game: Browns vs. Broncos

For the second straight January, the Browns were one win away from advancing to the Super Bowl. This time it looked like Cleveland’s season would end in a blowout.

Denver opened the game with a pair of TDs in the first quarter and built a 21-3 halftime lead, but Bernie Kosar threw two TDs in the third quarter and RB Ernest Byner scored to pull Cleveland to within seven points. With a few minutes left in regulation, the Browns drove the field, and inside the 10-yard line. They needed five yards for a new set of downs. Byner took the handoff and was barging his way to the end zone for the tying score when the football was stripped from his hands. The Broncos recovered on the 2-yard line and preserved their victory.

Broadcaster Dick Enberg summed up the situation, referencing the Brown’s loss to the same team in similar heartbreaking fashion 12 months earlier:

“And wasn’t it ironic that Denver got the ball back on the 2-yard line? Wasn’t it just one year ago where the Broncos were on their own two before putting together what became ‘The Drive’?”

Irony: it can break your heart.

1. The Drive

1987 AFC Championship Game: Browns vs. Broncos

Why does this one rate ahead of The Fumble? Because this loss was suffered in OT. Ouch.

At stake was a trip to the Super Bowl, and Cleveland held a 20-13 lead with just over five minutes to play at Municipal Stadium. That’s when John Elway cemented his legend with a 98-yard touchdown drive that knotted the game with 37 seconds left. In the extra period, Denver booted a 33-yard field goal to sink the Browns. A year later, the Broncos delivered more heartache.

AP Photo

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes has written three books about sports. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He enjoys writing, running, and lemon bars. He lives near Lake Michigan with his daughters and usually has an orange cream soda nearby.