Believeland: So much misery, so little time

Believeland ESPN 30 for 30 CIFF
Scott Sargent/WFNY

Since word first leaked that ESPN would be putting together one of their critically acclaimed 30 For 30 documentaries about our fair city and its sports teams, I couldn’t help but be excited and sick all at once. I will admit to being very conflicted. A big part of me felt as though I didn’t need to relive the agony and despair of my upbringing as a diehard Cleveland Sports Fan. (It’s bad enough that we are always reminded by ESPN, et all, with the “Misery Montage” that pops up during Cavs, Browns, or Indians National broadcasts at least a couple time a year.) I also recognized how people outside of Cleveland may think they know the stories, but do so without knowledge of how deep some of the pain truly runs. So with that in mind, I was back on board.

As you know by now, Kris Bellman’s version of this film was tabled and gave way to a new director, Andy Billman. During the pre-production and investigation phase, I was in my writing prime for WFNY, and I was contacted by Adam Weinreb, who is credited as being the Associate Producer on the project. At the time, in talking to Weinreb, it sounded to me as if the voices of the fans would be a big part of the project. As it turns out, the Billman version of the story was very short on the fans and long on local sports personality and, for lack of better term, celebrities.

As a 40-year-old born-and-raised Clevelander, I thought it was important that my two kids—now nine and six—both watch this start to finish so they can get a little history lesson. They needed to know why their father is how he is. On Sunday morning the three of us sat down and viewed “Believeland” start to finish. A second viewing with my wife came Sunday night. While I think the overall story was told to the national audience, I found myself very unsatisfied and confused on how certain key events and stories were either completely left out or glossed over in a way that rendered them irrelevant.


BelievelandThe overuse of the same ESPN-related scribes

Let me just start off by saying that I really enjoyed what ESPN 850’s Tony Rizzo brought to the documentary. His passion for the city and insights on the many sports tragedies we all endured were spot on. Tony Grossi, also of ESPN Cleveland, did nice work as well. Same goes with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. See a pattern here? As much as I enjoyed Rizz, any particular reason he had more screen time than anyone other than Scott Raab (who produced of the flim)? Rizz was very effective, but completely overused. The same can be said for Raab, who I also really enjoyed.

You can’t tell a story of the sad history of Cleveland sports and leave out the town’s most respected and senior member of the media, Terry Pluto.1 Another giant figure notably absent from the doc was Joe Tait, the greatest play by play man the city has ever seen. Tait was the voice of the Cavs for 40 years as well as calling Indians games for 15 years in the 70s and 80s. Knowing Tait, it wouldn’t shock me one bit if he was asked and told the producers that he had no interest in it (he’s only given one interview since he retired in 2011), but how do you not have any of Tait’s calls in the film at a minimum?

[Related: Believeland is about Cleveland Sports, but mostly about Cleveland]

What about Les Levine? The Self Proclaimed Voice of Truth in Cleveland Sports has been through and has seen it all in his 40-plus years as a sports talk host here in the 216. He was spoken to early on, but was also conspicuously absent. You can’t give Aaron Goldhammer, a 33- year old Denver native, a platform in a documentary about the history of Cleveland sports and be taken seriously. I understand nobody outside of our city knows that about Goldhammer, but to see him on screen and not see Pluto was a crime.

Wouldn’t the film have been better-served with giving half of what Rizzo had to say over to Pluto? Or some of the excess Raab time to Les? Wouldn’t been nice to have heard what Tait had to say about the Cavs during the Lenny Wilkens era? This was obviously an ESPN production, which speaks to why all ESPN related media members were featured. However, I have seen every single 30 For 30 and I don’t ever remember one where only ESPN affiliated guys were featured so heavily.

The gaps in the story

Here in Cleveland, we all know the stories in depth. Heck, we can fill a book with them. I completely understand the producers of “Believeland” only had an hour and a half to work with, but there were major details of the stories that to me, were completely glossed over. Lets go in chronological order.

I was born in 1976, the year of “Miracle of Richfield.” It was given about 90 seconds. What wasn’t mentioned and was the first real sign of the Cleveland Curse in my lifetime was Jim Chones breaking his foot in the final practice before the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. Most believe the Cavs would have gone on to beat the Celtics with a healthy Chones, who averaged 15 and seven boards. They lost in six games. This was not even mentioned in “Believeland.”

Nine-year old TD was sitting frozen in section 37 in January of 1987 when John Elway went 98 yards to tie things up 20-20 in the AFC Championship game. “The Drive” itself got plenty of run, but what was missed was the fact that not only did the Browns win the toss in overtime, but they crossed the 50 yard line before stalling. Fine, that can be skipped. But for those that remember and those of us who were there, we still don’t believe that Rich Karlis’s game winning kick was good. I will go to my grave thinking the kick was wide left. “Believeland” never even showed the end zone angle of the kick! Watch a replay of the kick (2:01 mark)

Take a look at the Browns players. They are all waving as though the kick was no good. Again, not in the film.

Art Modell moving the team to Baltimore rightfully was the centerpiece of the documentary. I think Billman and company missed nary a detail telling the tale of how the carpet-bagging Modell stole the team from the city with the NFL’s blessing. They even allowed David Modell tell his father’s side of the story. But the move was only half of it. The Browns becoming the laughingstock of the NFL going through a legion of Quarterbacks, GM’s, coaches, and multiple bumbling ownership groups while posting only two winning seasons and playing in one playoff game since the return in 1999 cannot just be ignored. Lets also not forget that the NFL screwed the Browns over with their way too quick timeline and tighter rules after watching Jacksonville and Carolina come into the league and become playoff teams within their first two years. No mention of that. Modell took the team to Baltimore, won a Super Bowl before he eventually selling the team and watching them turn into a model franchise while the Browns can’t seem to get anything right gets no mention?

While missing out on these events was bad, perhaps toe biggest miss to me was the complete ignoring of the 2007 Indians. Like the ’97 Tribe, the ’07 team felt like a team of destiny. They won the AL Central with 96 wins and had to face the New York Yankees in the ALDS. With a 2-1 lead, everyone wanted Manager Eric Wedge to pitch Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia on short rest. Instead, he went with veteran Paul Byrd, who pitched five plus innings of two-run ball before turning it over to the pen who closed out the series. Up next was the equally mighty Boston Red Sox. The Indians jumped out to a 3-1 series lead which included the incredibly memorable Game 2, 13-6 extra-inning win where the Wahoos dropped a seven spot in the 11th inning, capped by a grand slam of Franklyn Gutierrez off of Jon Lester. All they needed was one win in the next three games to reach the World Series. They had their top three starters — Sabathia, fellow 19-game winner Fausto Carmona, and Jake Westbrook — lined up. They lost 7-1 in Game 5, 12-2 in Game 6, and then came Game 7 at Fenway Park.

With Boston clinging to a 3-2 lead in the seventh and Kenny Lofton (featured in the film, but only to discuss the mid-90s squads) on second, Gutierrez laced one down the left field line fair. The ball hit the part of the stands that jut out just past third and ricocheted into short left. Third base coach Joel Skinner put up the now infamous “Skinner Stop Sign” which held Lofton at third.

He would have scored easily, tying the game. Casey Blake would go on to swing at the first pitch and ground into an inning-ending double play. After that game-changing mistake by Skinner, the wheels fell off and the Red Sox exploded with the momentum to finish off the Indians in another gigantic Cleveland collapse.

Someone explain to me how that gets absolutely zero mention? These are four major plot points that cannot be ignored.

Missing voice of The Fan

Back when I spoke to Weinreb, our conversations were centered on growing up as a Cleveland sports fan, the sense of community it gives us, and how we dealt with the many disappointments. I spun my webs. My earliest childhood memory was my now-late father smashing one of my toys when Tommy Kramer hit Ahmad Rashad with a Hail Mary to beat the Browns when I was four. How my father who was at the ’64 NFL Title game, had us leave the ’86 Divisional Playoff game against the Jets (also never mentioned) early because the Browns were down 10 with under four minutes left and things seemed all but over. We were literally back at my uncle’s house to watch OT and double OT. Then we came back the next week and stayed until the bitter end, walking slowly to the car after Elway did it to us. We sat in the car in dead silence for two plus hours. The man didn’t say a single word. None of us did. We couldn’t believe what we just saw.

Or my story from Game 7 of the World Series. When Mesa blew the save, I spent the 10th inning sitting on the toilet, leaning forward to see a small TV in my roommate’s bedroom because I was so sick to my stomach, then returning to the couch to see the Tony Fernandez error and the Edgar Renteria single. The second that ball got through I went right into my room, and lied on my bed staring at the ceiling. The room started to spin and I ran into the bathroom and began to vomit profusely. I jumped in the shower and began to weep. Yes, this was a little over the top and at the time, my father was still alive — I didn’t know what real loss was.

I’m not saying I should have been a part of the documentary, but thousands of us have stories like this and I believe a few of these to go along with the stories of “The Drive” or “The Fumble” or Game Seven in Miami or even the Browns move could have given better context to the story. Essentially we were left to get those stories from the same two people.

Things I did love

It is not as though there weren’t positive in the film. The Earnest Byner stuff was beyond riveting. What a spectacular human being he is. When he looked into the camera and apologized to the fans, I literally began to tear up. How can you not feel for the man? The game was played 28 years ago and the wound is still so deep. Adding Kevin Mack and an emotional Marty Schottenheimer talking about that day and that moment was perfection. They really captured what is what like to be there with Earnest.

The ’97 World Series run insight from Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome and Mike Hargrove was also fantastic. Hargrove summed up my exact same sentiments with one line: “Someone asked me when did I get over the loss in game seven. I told him ‘When it happens, I will let you know.’” Amen, Grover.

While they were overused, I found Rizzo, Raab, and Windhorst solid in their storytelling. From a historical standpoint, it was great for my kids to see the rise, fall, rise, fall, and re-emergence of the city where they were born and are being raised. They have had no history of Cleveland other than what I have told them over these years and I’m not sure how much has stuck with them.

And in the end…

My daughter only cried three time: When Byner told his story, when the Browns moved, and when LeBron left — all legit reasons to shed tears as a young sports fan. My wife and kids all thought the documentary was well done. My friends outside of Cleveland, many of whom reached out to me to get my take, all thought it was great. When I stressed my beefs with them, they all had the same reaction to me: “you are too close to what happened to see it for what it is.” I totally get that, and they are right. Nothing in the documentary was new to me. I lived it. We all did. I just wish things could have been put together a little differently.

But as my grandmother used to say: “That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.”

  1. Ed. Note: Pluto was billed to be a part of the first run of the film, but was not included in the Biillman version. []