In 1993, by the time Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were closing in on their third-straight NBA title, the Bulls had become just like the 1985 Chicago Bears. A Chicago institution.
A few years later, after Jordan’s return from brief retirement and another “three-peat” and sixth title to follow, in 1998, the Bulls gained status as a legendary dynasty for the ages. Basketball’s observers and Bulls fans both knew, however, the run would soon be over.
That’s how things work with Chicago sports. When things are really good, they’re amazing. Otherwise things probably aren’t happening at all.
By the time Jordan and Company won their last game together in Utah, coach Phil Jackson had reportedly cleaned out his United Center office. Jordan, along with Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and other franchise players would be run out of town as a part of the organization’s “rebuilding” cost savings effort.
Lucky for Chicago championships would return within a decade. The White Sox won 99 games and swept the Houston Astros in the 2005 World Series, and Chicago’s hockey team, the Blackhawks, soon rebuilt into dynasty of their own, winning Stanley Cups for the first time in nearly 50 years, dominating the NHL in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
Chicago’s standing as a sports capital would continually be validated. Across the other end of the Great Lakes, Cleveland faced tougher times.
The Cleveland Browns – the AFC’s runners-up three times in the 1980s would spend the nineties in the wilderness. Eventually Browns owner Art Modell would move the team to Baltimore, leaving Cleveland with no football for three seasons from 1996 until a reboot in 1999.
Cleveland’s NBA franchise, the Cavaliers would encounter equal wilderness waiting for LeBron. From the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season to 2005 the Cavs missed the postseason seven years straight. Over the years, Cleveland’s population steadily shrank.
Back on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s North Side MLB franchise apparently missed the city’s memo about sports championships. The Cubs had some good seasons but little consistency as a contender. By the late nineties, a new generation of baseball Cubs fans would grow up on corked bats and missed chances, coming of age five outs from the World Series, thanks to the Bartman Incident during Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.
The Indians had been there twice in the nineties, bested by the deserving Atlanta Braves in 1995, then totally blowing it in Game Seven against the Florida Marlins, a four-year-old expansion team, in 1997. In both Midwestern cites, baseball fans in blue had ample right and reason to pout.
Lakes apart, not worlds
Despite a mere six-hour drive from each other, Chicago and Cleveland have never had any notable, sustained sports rivalry. And the two cities’ sports teams have rarely battled in games of large stakes.
Part of this might be because the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns – currently the NFL’s two worst teams – play in different conferences. Meanwhile, the Cubs don’t often face the Indians in inter-league play, while the White Sox and Indians, both in the American League Central Division, are scarcely competitive at the same time. The only recent exception was 2005, when the White Sox won the division (and later the World Series) with Cleveland six games behind in the division.
In the early nineties Chicago and Cleveland faced off in heated NBA competition briefly in the 1991-92 and 1992-93 postseasons.
Under coach Lenny Wilkins and led by stars Mark Price and Brad Daugherty, the Cavs fared reasonably well, considering, against the defending champs for the 1992 Eastern Conference finals series, losing 4-2. A year later the Cavs returned only to get their clock cleaned by the Bulls, losing 4-0 in the 1993 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Let’s not forget that Jordan established the tone of the Bulls-Cavs relationship early, on March 28, 1990, with a career high-scoring game. That day Jordan pounced 69 points against the Cavs at Richfield Coliseum while also grabbing 18 rebounds, six assists and four steals. To His Airness Cleveland was just another foe to be tossed aside on route to greatness. Jordan, like everyone else, had Cleveland’s number.
Past history aside, the fact that these two cities on the water have not only got exciting baseball teams now in this October, but also solid ones, adds an extra dose of World Series feverishness. Yet baseball’s history, with both clubs, is long.
Cleveland’s last World Series, in 1948, took place just a year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and just a month before Harry Truman was re-elected President of the United States. The last time the Cubs won the World Series a Roosevelt was in the White House – not FDR, but Teddy.
Likewise, the Indians’ last Series appearance, in 1954, was a lost in a four-game sweep to the New York Giants — yes the New York Giants. There was no pro baseball in the Bay Area then— and thereafter the Tribe went 40 years without a postseason look. The Cubs did nearly the same hard time as Cleveland, missing the playoffs for 38 years after the 1945 World Series loss to Detroit until 1984, when they almost got there again but came up short in the 1984 NLCS versus San Diego.
Now there is a sense of urgency simmering above the waters Lake Michigan and Lake Erie. Arguably both the Cubs’ and Indians’ rosters have been constructed by management for the long haul, stacked with young players in what should be an ongoing, bright future for each city. But as both Cubs and Indians fans know now, winning a pennant only conjures a taste for world domination – right now.
Moreover, the Indians and their diehardest fans may feel a surge from the Cavs’ first ever NBA title, wanting to match that feat. Meanwhile, Cubs ace Jon Lester said what the rest of the team knows – that a 103-win season isn’t legit without a title.
The Best World Series Ever?
Baseball is the same game it always was, but a different business than a decade and a half ago. Back then, between 1999 and 2002, fans filled ballparks to watch barrel-armed hitters like Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa belt balls into the streets surrounding Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field, to the tune of 60-plus home runs a season. Years following, Barry Bonds kept hitting into the waters of San Francisco Bay, and when you weren’t looking, the New York Yankees would buy up every breakout star, from Roger Clemens and Jason Giambi, to Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez. It was all about big names and big hits and it looked like few other parts of the game mattered.
Since 2007’s Mitchell Report and its findings about widespread performance enhancing drugs in baseball, the last traces of the PED era have wained as baseball gradually returned to normalcy. For reference, compare 2001’s MLB-leading 72 home runs by Bonds with 2016’s more earthly 47 homers by Mark Trumbo, a solid starter for the Baltimore Orioles who is hardly a household name.
Baseball isn’t just a home run derby anymore, but the game still has plenty of good stuff.
What’s also true is that the Cubs and the Indians have both made all of the good parts of the game stand out. Beside having stellar hitters – especially Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist for the Cubs, Frankie Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis for the Indians, both sides excel on defense and have even made great fielding sexy again.
Whether it’s 39-year-old Cubs catcher David Ross popping up twice a game to throw out a base stealer at second, or the spunk and elastic arms of the Cubs’ Javy Baez or the Indians’ first-choice third baseman Ramirez, both squads make the game exciting to watch in its entirety again.
Each club has great personal stories too. Lester and Rizzo, both young cancer survivors, built a relationship on personal support long before they arrived in Chicago from Theo Epstein’s dealing. Lester also smoothed out what was a rocky start in 2015 with the help and encouragement of his preferred/only catcher, Ross. Lester, 32, is now is in the running for the NL’s Cy Young Award.
At the same time, Cubs’ star Bryant all but waits for the National League MVP accolade, while Lindor, also a second-year starter, has soared this season to become possibly the Indians best position player. Like many international players, Lindor grew up in meager beginnings, in Puerto Rico. And yet he revels in everything his community gave him, from his every little league uniform and neighbor’s lift to the game, as well the skills gained days as a hardworking youngster, chasing ground balls thrown downhill by his dad, near a cow patch. Both Lindor and Bryant started opening day last season, for different reasons, in the minors. So did the Cubs’ rookie catcher Willson Contreras, who debuted for Chicago on June 17, hitting his first-ever major league pitch far into Wrigley’s bleachers.
Surely, Cleveland has no absence of great role players (or great names) either. DH Carlos Santana summons the same sort of swagger and mastery as his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame namesake, and offers Indians manager Terry Francona and his teammates a steady bat, with a healthy 151 hits and 87 RBIs this season. Also, veteran Coco Crisp returned to Cleveland in August and provided a series winning two-run homer against one of his former teams in the Indians’ 3-0 ALDS sweep over Boston.
The City of Cleveland’s feisty resilience can be seen in the Indians’ pitching too. Corey Kluber has been magnificent the last three seasons, earning 2014’s AL Cy Young Award, while last year tying Bob Feller’s club record for strikeouts in one game. Along with fellow starters Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and a bullpen that has ten-win reliever Andrew Miller, the Indians are formidable on the mound. They’ll need to be against Joe Maddon’s solid rotation of Lester and hot home-field hand Kyle Hendricks, plus the experienced two-time World Series winner John Lackey, and 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.
As the Indians aim to make Cleveland great again and break a 68-year title drought, the Cubs seek to end their club’s own 108-year curse. Somebody will win, and another city will endure another cold winter thinking about what slipped way. But whatever happens, it will be a World Series for the ages.