Hypothetical: You're allowed to watch one decade of Cleveland Sports and only one decade. Which do you choose? You're in your sports viewing prime — whether that's your 20's with your friends, your 30's or so when you might have a son or daughter to take to games, or in your retirement, when you've got cash and time and you're old enough to grumpily blow off family and friends to watch ten years of games because, damn it, you've earned it. You will never see games from another decade.
Things to consider: Does overwhelming success from one team mean more than all-around success in more than one sport? Do you weigh championships and playoff appearances more than the chance to see all-time great players? Could you give two shits about basketball? Is it all about baseball for you?
It's the last December of the last year in this decade, so we're allowed — nay, obligated — to ask such questions. My rankings are below.
Note: Basketball seasons count toward the decade in which they began, not the one they end in, so the 1999-2000 Cavs are in the 90's. Options start in the 1940's when the Browns started. Not only does this list really only make sense if there are multiple pro teams involved, but no one wants to read my thoughts on the 1910-1919 Naps/Tribe vs. the 1900-1909 Naps squads (though, I will say, Tris Speaker killed it in 1918).
1. The 1940's (The Title Era) — Browns: 47-4-3; four playoff appearances, four championship games, four titles. Indians: 800-731; one playoff appearance, one World Series title.
So, even though the Browns don't show up until 1946, once they do, they take the AAFC like a gangbusters. Motley, Lavelli, Graham and company simply don't lose, winning each and every championship during those four years before joining the NFL. The Tribe wins its first World Series since 1920 (and, of course, the last one in team history), you get Bob Feller in his prime for ten years, plus Boudreau, Paige, Doby and others. Even with six years of mediocre baseball and nothing else on the slate until 1946, I'll take five championships, including two in the same year (1948), thank you very much. (Plus, I'll take baseball over football any day of the week, so the World Series cements the No. 1 spot here.)
2a. The 1960's (The Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly Era) — Browns: 92-41-5; five playoff appearances, two championship games, one championship, one all-time greatest running back candidate, one minorly douchey/legally troubled/socially controversially player (hint: it was the running back). Indians: 783-826, zero playoff appearances, one manager named Birdie.
The distance between the 2000's and 1960's and 1950's is infinitesimally small in my vote. It basically comes down to whether you'd rather watch LeBron or Jim Brown. If you could tell your kids about one athlete you grew up watching, as judged by current accomplishments, it has to be Jim Brown, right? LeBron has the potential to be better, more legendary, more memorable, but he's not there yet. Not to mention that when Brown is done you get to watch Leroy Kelly. Not too shabby. It'd be like following LeBron with someone like Carmelo when he was in his second or third year. Wait. Let's not talk about LeBron leaving. The point is: Watching Jim Brown in his prime and watching him for six years is more enticing than watching a team dominate a decade like we're about to see, or just watching the first part of a long career that has yet to hit its pinnacle.
2b. The 1950's (The Browns Venture to the NFL Era) — Browns: 88-30-2, eight playoff appearances, seven championship games, three championships. Indians 904-634, one World Series appearance, one embarrassing sweep in the World Series.
The move from the AAFC to the NFL really did little to slow the Browns down. They won the NFL championship in their first year in the league, made six straight appearances in the title game, won three, and Jim Brown begins is journey towards legendary running back status. The 1960's are ranked ahead, slightly, because 1964 brings the city its last championship, but the 1950's are damn close, even with a depressing World Series.
2c. The Aughts/2000's (The LeBron Era) — Browns: 53-102; one playoff appearance, utter suckitude. Indians: 816-814; two playoff appearances, one heartbreaking ALCS. Cavs: 376-379; four (soon to be five) playoff appearances, one Finals trip, one mega-super-duper star, one guy who liked to pound himself on the head to celebrate things.
One word for this choice and one word only: LeBron. Totally overshadows the putrid ten years of Browns excrement that has been laid at our feet. Makes up for, in my mind at least, the devilish way in which the Indians' magical 2007 campaign ended with the magician pulling a dead rabbit out of his hat at the end and throwing the bloody, limp carcass at fans. Answer this: Twenty, thirty years from now, when you're telling your kids about Cleveland sports, is there any way LeBron isn't at the top of the list right above or below Jim Brown? Transcendental figure. Took the leaps from prospect to star to superstar to one-of-the-best-in-this-era to possibly-one-of-the-best-of-all-time in record measure. Yeah, he hasn't brought us a championship yet, and who knows what will transpire once July 2010 rolls around, but name another guy who could single handedly redeem an entire decade of sports failure. (Note: Of course, should the 2009-2010 season play out as we hope, the Aughts jump to 2b in the rankings.)
3. The 1980's (The Sports Illustrated Jinx/ Coliseum/ Dawg Pound Era) — Browns: 331-489, seven playoff appearances, one side-arming quarterback, two utterly devastating cameos by John Elway. Indians 710-849. That is all. They were horrendous. Cavs: 331-489, four playoff appearances, one heart-crunching dagger from Michael Jordan.
Forget the Indians. Save for the Sports Illustrated jinx, there's really not much to say or remember here. The Cavs didn't make the playoffs as often as they did in the 1990's, but the formidable Daugherty/Nance/Price/Ehlo/Harper years were 19878-1989, and those are the ones we love the most. And for a certain sect of Browns players, nothing will ever capture our hearts more than Bernie's bunch. Yeah, we lost in unfathomably dramatic and soul-scarring fashions, but tell me you wouldn't love a chance to go back and see your favorite players again. Tell me you wouldn't take prolonged success even if it meant that, like your father did, you would cry in front of the television like the announcers just told you your whole family had died. Okay, maybe it wouldn't be that great.
4. The 1990's (The Jacobs Field Era) — Indians: 823-728, five playoff appearances, two World Series, one Opening Day hero named Kirby, one historic sellout streak. Browns 34-71, one move to Baltimore, one heathen masquerading as an NFL owner, one departure of Bernie Kosar. Cavs: 424: 364, one move from Richfield, six playoff appearances.
As much fun as the exhilarating ride was at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, as unforgettable as the sellouts and the comebacks were, as special as Belle, Thome, Ramirez and others were, there is no getting past Art Freaking Modell here. You can't reasonably argue that the decade that you would choose to watch would include your favorite NFL team being ripped away. It's not the worst choice in the world, but it's fallen this far because of it, even though the Indians enjoyed an unprecedented amount of success.
5. The 1970's (The No One Would Pick This Era) — Browns: 72-70-2, two playoff appearances. Indians 737-866, no playoff appearances. Cavs: 341-479, three playoff appearances, lots of short shorts.
Yeah, not even worth a discussion.
And the 2010's? Pretty fair to say July 2010 could set the next decade rolling into two distinctive directions. Could be LeBron in his prime, years of competitive basketball and multiple chances for championships. Or, we'll have to hope that Manny Acta, Mark Shapiro, Eric Mangini, Randy Lerner and Unnamed GM No. 1 bring us a chance at a title. In which case, the 2010's could very well be in a dead heat with the 1970's for the No. 5 spot in the 2020 version of these rankings. Otherwise, the 2010's might vault to one of the two decades in Cleveland sports history.