Shaq is coming to town. He’s a pretty popular guy. I was inspired by the trade and our friends at the Ghosts of Wayne Fontes. The idea here is the most beloved Cleveland sports athletes of my time. Figure a starting point of 1980. (I was 8, and really that is about the earliest I remember following the scene closely.) These are not my favorites, just the ones that I think the city embraced the most. Hence the most beloved. So here we go-
1. Bernie Kosar– If LeBron James signed a 6 year contract extension tomorrow he could leap-frog Bernie I believe. But Bernie was the real deal. He wanted to play quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. It was his dream. He wasn’t a very graceful player, and he had terrible mechanics, but he was one of us. Much of that has come to light in the last few weeks with the attention he has gotten over his finances. Make no mistake- during the mid to late ’80s Cleveland was Bernie’s town. Songs were written. Boys were named for him. When he was unceremoniously dumped mid-season it cemented his place in our hearts. He never wanted to leave. He was run out of town by his coach.
2. LeBron James– Simply put the most talented athlete ever to wear Cleveland across his chest. The local boy turned a franchise around, and has the city closer to a title than ever before. Certainly there are some still trying to keep their distance from LeBron however, fearing heartbreak if he chooses to play elsewhere in 2010.
3. Omar Vizquel– His Tribe debut was an anomaly. He made three errors. From then on it seemed he never made another one. Omar made plays that we may never see again. And he made them look easy. Perhaps it was the playful toss to the pitcher while grinning from ear to ear after catches a pop-up in shallow left field with his back to the batter. Omar grabbed our attention with his defense, but was a pretty clutch hitter as well. The rock through the Tribe’s Jacob’s Field heyday, Omar received one of the most touching ovations I’ve ever seen when he returned to Cleveland as a member of the San Francisco Giants.
4. Ozzie Newsome– The Wizard is one of the top 10 Tight Ends in NFL history and a member of the Hall of Fame for his performances in the Orange and Brown. The three time pro-bowler was known for his consistency, catching at least one ball in 150 straight games. He played through pain and injury and was our iron-man.
5. Mark Price– Man, could he shoot. Automatic from the free throw line, and deadly behind the arc Mark ran the point for the Cavs during their most successful stretch pre-LeBron. Price was a 4 time all star, but couldn’t escape the shadow of Isaiah Thomas in the Eastern Conference. Mark wasn’t afraid to take the big shot, or to drive the lane and get to the free throw line.
6. Sandy Alomar– Sandy was the first piece of the rebuilding puzzle for the Indians. He won the rookie of the year award in 1990, and was a steady presence for the Tribe while young stars like Baerga, Belle, Thome and Ramirez settled in. His 1997 season is one for the Cleveland sports history books. If you were fortunate enough to be at the Jake for the all-star game that season you will surely never forget his home run to win the game for the A.L.
7. Clay Mathews– Consistency over time. #57 played for 15 years for the Browns at Linebacker. He played with everyone from Brian Sipe to Hanford Dixon to Tommy Vardell and Michael Jackson. Humble and fearless, Mathews always stuck his head in and made big plays. He wasn’t the biggest or strongest guy on the team, but he made 4 pro bowls. It seemed the Browns were always drafting his replacement, but he survived them all.
8. Kenny Lofton– The table setter. Kenny was Willie Mays-Hayes. He was exciting. Whenever he got on base you knew he could swipe a base. He was Rickey Henderson without the cocky attitude. He could have finished much higher on this list had he played his whole career here.
9. Doug Dieken– Dieken makes the cut here despite playing the majority of his career in the ’70s. A stabilizing force on the offensive line, Doug used every means necessary to win his individual assignment, even if that meant the occasional holding. He started 194 consecutive games. That’s mighty impressive for a lineman. He maintained his popularity by calling Browns games over the years.
10. Tie between Brad Daugherty and Eric Metcalf– Call it a copout if you want. No question Metcalf was the more popular athlete during his prime, but became the butt of jokes because of Bill Belichick’s stubborn habit of running him straight up the middle and into the teeth of the defense. (I’m sure it wasn’t Eric’s idea.) Daugherty was kind of quiet, but very efficient. He was the best passing center of his time, and could score in the low post. He was a big part of those Cavalier teams that just couldn’t get a big win against the Bulls and Jordan.
So that’s the list. I’m sure you will debate them. You will probably even be right on a couple. Here are a few guys that I give an honorable mention to- Josh Cribbs, Matt Bahr, Larry Nance, Carlos Baerga and Charles Nagy. These guys were absolute locks until they bolted town for bigger deals- Brian Sipe, Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. Throw in Sabathia, and Earnest Byner. Byner not because of money, but because of, well you know.