I write this on Wednesday night, the eve of the NBA Finals. I’ve been having a great time learning about the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, a tower of incompetence even in the Cleveland sports skyline, and I wanted to tell somebody about it. So thank you.
In short, the Cleveland Spiders of 1899 were the worst thing ever. They were owned by a guy called Frank Robison, who that same year purchased the St. Louis Browns, which had just gone bankrupt. Just as there weren’t rules governing draft-pick exchanges before Ted Stepien, there weren’t rules governing multiple-ballclub ownership before Frank Robison. We certainly know how to pick our owners, don’t we?
To paraphrase Rachel Phelps, the Cleveland Spiders didn’t draw dick. And while the Browns weren’t a great team, St. Louis was a great market. It was a top-five city at the time, one that would go on to host both the World’s Fair and the Summer Olympics in 1904. Cleveland, while a large and growing town, wasn’t spending much of its hard-earned scratch on the Spiders.
So what Robison did was, he sent seven of the Spiders’ best players, plus the entire starting rotation, which included a 31-year-old Cy Young, to the Browns. He mortgaged the Spiders franchise in hopes of propping up the Browns—and that might be insulting to mortgages.
The sediment left in Cleveland went on to go 20-134, the worst record in the history of big-league baseball. Their .130 winning percentage is the most putrid of all time. They lost 101 road games, a record that will never be broken and was only enabled because opponents refused to travel to League Park, knowing they’d be lucky to get 200 fans through the gate. The ace of the Spiders rotation was Jim Hughey, who went a cool 4-30 with a team-best 5.41 ERA. The pitching staff as a whole averaged 3.8 walks and 1.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
The point is, this team was absolutely God-awful. It was worse than even the Brownsiest of Browns; Charlie Frye probably could have won five games for the Spiders. They were sort of pro team that Kentucky or Bama actually could beat. I find them fascinating. They’re the biggest loser in a town that has seen hundreds of them.
Even after The Block and The Shot, much of Cleveland’s sporting identity, and civic fabric in general, is tied up in losing. We might be hopeful losers, or loyal losers, or losers on the come up, but we’re losers nonetheless.
I say that not with scorn, but love. With understanding. I’ve felt like a loser in life way more than I haven’t. I imagine most people have. I hope most people have. I struggle to understand people who genuinely think highly of themselves—I kinda can’t stand them. More power to them, I suppose, and I recognize that what I’m feeling is probably jealousy. My point is that it’s more fun to identify with being a loser. Expectations are low. Underpromise, overdeliver.
That’s a big reason why I love Cleveland so much. We’re a loser-ass city, and we have been for a while. As far as the crude mythology goes, we’ve been dying since about 1960 and have only recently shown signs of life. But there’s upside to that. There’s opportunity in that. Many of us hold on to this ideal that we’ll return to our past glory. That we’ll find a new path. That there’s a comeback to be made. (Note: I’m at least a little bit full of shit, as I’m writing this from my home in Philadelphia.)
With that in mind: Amid the Spiders’ losing, Cleveland sportswriter Elmer Bates outlined some of the benefits of cheering on this two-wheeled shopping cart of a team. They are ideas that should ring familiar to both Browns fans or military prisoners. The thesis, in short, is that in the absence of hope, any victory is a happy surprise. When your team has lost 24 games in a row as the Spiders did (still a record!), dropping 10 straight isn’t so bad. When one pitcher has lost 30 games, you don’t hate the guy who’s only lost 17.
“There is everything to hope for,” Bates wrote, “and nothing to fear.”
There is everything to hope for and nothing to fear.
That line stuck in my mind this Wednesday evening, the last before the dawn of the 2017 NBA Finals. Again it is the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Again the Cavs are magnificent, but again the Warriors are widely perceived to be better. And Golden State may well be better. They are a team comprised of outstanding shooters and passers and defenders. They are long and athletic and smart (the latter depending on where you stand re: JaVale McGee). They are good, and they have a bunch of good players, and it will take a hell of an effort to beat them in a seven-game series.
Hearing that storyline, the one positioning Cleveland as the overmatched side, brings me a tremendous amount of comfort. I wouldn’t know what to do with life as a favorite. Bring on the underdog status—it’s all we’ve ever known.
Akron native David Giffels wrote a book entitled The Hard Way On Purpose. It’s a series of essays, bursting with pride, sincerity and sense of place, about growing up in the Rust Belt. It’s about coming to understand that you’re from a place that a lot of people don’t care about, let alone how it shapes a person. That’s how I remember the book now, anyway. I remember it like somebody was sketching an outline of the back of my hand. It’s a book about being from northeast Ohio, and being more proud of that than anything, and trying like hell to figure out why.
Look, the Cavs might lose. That would suck. They might lose bad, and that would extra suck. Again, the Warriors are really really good. It’s fun to hate Steph’s mouthguard, and how Draymond never fully closes his mouth, and how KD is a giant ear of corn, but they’re a great basketball team. If you simulated a million 82-game seasons, I’m sure they’d finish with the best record in the lion’s share of them.
But we’re not talking about an 82-game season. We’re talking about a seven-game series. The NBA Finals. We’re talking about a Cleveland Cavaliers team that employs a continually ascendant Kyrie Irving and the eternally dominant LeBron James. The fearless J.R. Smith, the relentless Tristan Thompson, and the hairless Kevin Love. A bench lacquered with deep-range accuracy and veteran savvy. This is the best Cavs team, and indeed the best Cleveland team, period, that I have ever watched.
And they’re not just good. They’re charming. They’re funny. They’re fathers. They’re human. They’ve given us a glimpse of their real selves. We grieved with Channing Frye when he lost both parents within a month. We prayed for Dakota Smith when she was born five months premature. We celebrated the delivery of Iman Shumpert Jr., done with the aid of headphone cord. We scratched our heads at Kyrie’s thoughts on astronomy. It all, of course, revolves around LeBron, who has yet to meet an expectation he can’t overcome, on or off the court.
These Warriors are better than last year’s, sure. But these Cavs are better too. Regardless, odds should not faze us. We’ve seen this team do the impossible already. We saw them come back from 3-1. We saw them win Game 7 on the road. We saw them do it against a team that won 73. This isn’t ancient history. We all watched it. Together.
The Cavs are the defending champs, the team with the best player, and yet they’re the underdog in the eyes of many. They’re worlds removed from the Spiders of 1899, yet a thread connects them. A defeat would be unsurprising. A victory would be historic.
There is everything to hope for, Cavs fans. And we have nothing to fear.