Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On winter's doorstep

Last Wednesday, Bob Feller died. Last Thursday, the Sun came up -- as much as it can in Ohio, on one of the shortest days of the year.

Last Thursday, life went on. Just as it went on when Art Modell gave Baltimore a new lease on NFL life at our expense. Just like when we had to suffer the final-straw indignity of watching him win a Super Bowl five years later. Just like when LeBron told us we weren't good enough for him anymore, mere months ago.

There was something of a numb feeling about last Thursday. Like waking up the morning after Game 7 of the ALCS three years ago, Game 7 of the World Series 13 years ago, after the AFC title games in '86 and '87. It's over. It's really over.

Yeah, those were games. This was a life. But Feller represented so much about Cleveland that we want to remember. With his passing, we lost one of our most important links to that past, when Cleveland was the stately lady of the lakeshore, the manufacturing mecca that helped build America into a 20th Century world power on the sweaty brows and strained muscles of the men and women who went to work at the factories and mills each day.

A time when billowing smokestacks were a sign of profit and riches, not an environmental taboo. A time when the Indians were winners, a World Series parade was fresh in everyone's memory, and Cleveland was the polar opposite of the national punchline it would become in the ensuing decades.

Paul Simon wondered where Joe DiMaggio had gone. But even when times became less simple and supposed American innocence withered in the face of social change and war in Southeast Asia, the Yankees still had Mantle. A decade later, they had Jackson and a pair of World Series titles. Then Donnie Baseball, then Derek Jeter and more titles. Now their roster is a monument to excess, even by their own standards. The cupboard was either stocked, or on its way to being stocked.

DiMaggio has been gone for 11 years. But DiMaggio's Yankees never really died. The names just change.

In Cleveland, the days of Feller are truly never coming back.

So it's fitting that Feller left us in December. A moment of silence at 7:05 p.m. before the first pitch of a midsummer home game wouldn't have yanked us out of our charmed summer existence nearly enough. We need the winter to meditate on the loss of Feller and everything he means to us and our history. We need him to not be there to throw out the first pitch of spring training, as he has been for years. We need March to become April, May, June and July, and all of the routines of what promises to be another mundane, non-contending Tribe season have a gaping hole where Feller used to be.

Then, we'll know what we've lost.

Last Thursday, the Sun came up cold and distant, offering little more than filtered light-droplets from behind hazy clouds. Downtown, street grates belched steam that covered salt-encrusted roads and sidewalks. The cold air sliced against open skin at the slightest movement.

If you wanted to pay tribute to Feller at his statue on the plaza by Gate C at Progressive Field, you had to want it. And people did come. At 10:30 in the morning, a few items lay on the base of the statue, which was splattered with salt residue like every outdoor surface in Cleveland.

A bouquet of yellow flowers. A small American flag, draped over itself. A package of sunflower seeds. A red capital A cut from a wooden block, to honor Feller's service on the U.S.S. Alabama during World War II. On the back, a note scribbled in pen:

"Mr Feller, thanks for fighting for our freedom!! Rest in peace & here's your lucky 'A!!'"

Cleveland's only sporting king is gone. Jim Brown wanted to make movies. LeBron wanted to go to school with the cool kids. That leaves Feller. A proud man with a lion's heart and an ego to match. The perfect combination of dominance and cockiness that exemplified our town, our region, in a different time, when you put a baseball career on hold indefinitely to go fight for your country because it was the right thing to do, then came back and helped your team win a World Series a few years later.

Anything was possible, and it wasn't just the hollow bloviations of a local political candidate stumping for votes.

Above the trinkets left at the Feller statue on Thursday morning, a yellow bow hung from Feller's bronze pitching hand. It's frozen in the split-second in which Feller is at the apex of his delivery, left leg airborne, ready to shove a 98-mile per hour heater down the throat of Ted Williams, or buckle DiMaggio's knees with a table-drop curve.

This was Feller at his zenith. Cleveland at its zenith. Something to admire. Something to fear. Something to reckon with. Something that now exists only in black and white and bronze.

Friday, December 03, 2010

You're the man now, Dan

The king is dead. But he can still play like one when he's motivated enough.

Maybe LeBron will wilt against the Celtics or Magic in the playoffs again next spring. Maybe his time in Miami will yield no rings. Maybe he'll retire closer to verbal sparring partner Charles Barkley than personal idol Michael Jordan on the spectrum of NBA superstars.

We can watch that play out over the next five months. But what is certain is LeBron's superlative talent, which by itself is more than enough to polish off one of the league's dregs in an early December regular season game.

National media scribes are hailing LeBron's 38-point effort in a 118-90 obliteration of the Cavs on Thursday night as a triumphant return to his old stomping grounds. LeBron gets the laurel wreath and we get painted as petty scoundrels who would dare boo such a majestic talent for having the audacity to leave our smelly burg for bigger and better things.

But LeBron's performance could have been predicted. Maybe he fed off the jeers. Maybe he was back in his comfort zone playing on the court he called home for seven years. But more likely, he was facing a team that simply didn't have the personnel to stop him.

That's the real story to come out of Thursday's game. The Heat can measure success based on the rings they win or don't win. The Cavs' forthcoming challenge is based on survival. This team is in a world of hurt, and the responsibility of yanking this franchise out of the muck will fall squarely on the shoulders of a very rich man from Livonia, Mich. who sat courtside and simmered as the Heat toyed with the Cavs.

The man is Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, now the central figure of the franchise with LeBron drinking in the vices of Miami.

Gilbert has a history of making smart business moves. He's shown an ability to get creative with developing revenue sources. But he's also a very emotional person, and he took LeBron's departure quite personally.

Gilbert did have reasons to be angry. LeBron cut off all contact with Gilbert in the weeks leading up to his decision. There were strong indications that LeBron had inappropriate contact with members of the Heat, including Dwyane Wade, while he was still under contract with the Cavs.

Then LeBron turned his departure into an hourlong TV spectacle, rejecting us in front of an international audience.

Gilbert flew off the handle with an open letter roasting LeBron in the hours following "The Decision." And you could make a case that he hasn't flown anywhere near the handle since.

Now, Gilbert's obsession is showing the world how LeBron, his cronies and the Heat conspired to wrong him and his franchise. He's retained a legal team, which is reportedly going through records as far back as 2008, trying to find evidence of collusion and premeditation that Gilbert can drop on the desk of David Stern.

In Cleveland, we think it's cool to have a justice-minded owner willing to go the Woodward and Bernstein route to try and take down LeBron. But at what price?

What is obsessing over how LeBron wronged the Cavs and Cleveland really going to accomplish? LeBron is still going to make his one or two trips to Cleveland over the next six years, he's probably going to administer beatdowns more often than not, and his teams will be far more successful than the Cavs, regardless of whether he's now a member of the Heat for life, or has yet another team in his future.

LeBron's not going to jail for this. He didn't commit a statutory crime, no matter how much damning evidence Gilbert can dredge up. He's not going to be kicked out of the league. He won't get suspended. He probably would, at most, incur a fine.

As for the Heat? The most severe punishment the league could levy against the Heat for improper contact with LeBron would be revoked draft picks. The Cavs currently own two future Miami first-rounders as part of the sign-and-trade the two teams orchestrated to complete LeBron's defection.

Is using those picks in 2017 and 2019 a fair price to pay for having a conspiracy theory proved right?

To step back and look at Gilbert's behavior since LeBron's departure, it seems as if he's more focused on getting even with LeBron than tending to the sorry state of his team. It's still early, there hasn't been enough time for events to unfold, but it's a disturbing trend to keep an eye on.

At some point, the obsession with LeBron-hate will subside for even the most passionate of fans. And all that will be left is the reality that the Cavs are a league bottom-feeder facing a lengthy rebuild. Gilbert needs to admit that reality. There is a time for stubborn defiance, and a time to cool off and get rational.

Now that LeBron has come back to Cleveland and made his emphatic statement of dominance over his haters, now might be the time to let LeBron go and let nature run its course in South Beach, where it is far from guaranteed that three massive egos are going to be able to adapt enough to win a single title, let alone form the dynasty expected of them.

Now is definitely the time for Gilbert to assess where his team is, and where he is as an owner. Along with Rock Financial and Quicken Loans, the Cavs are another of Gilbert's ventures poised to hit the skids in a down economy. Gilbert needs to tend to the Cavs like he would any of his other businesses when they're hurting.

When Gilbert took over the Cavs, many in Cleveland worried that he'd become a meddlesome owner who would make ill-informed decisions on personnel and treat the Cavs like a personal toy. Instead, he proved himself as one of the best owners a Cleveland team has ever had, pumping money into the franchise infrastructure, building a new practice facility, making improvements to his team's arena, and signing off on extra payroll burden to try and win a title.

With LeBron gone, the Cavs need that smart-yet-aggressive owner to remain in the building more than ever.

If Gilbert keeps stalking LeBron while the Cavs continue to crumble, he's back to being the owner we feared we were getting when he bought the team in 2005.

LeBron's defection was motivated primarily by greed, and it set the Cavs back at least three to five years. That's LeBron's fault. If it leads to long-term losing or the ruination of Gilbert as an NBA owner, that's Gilbert's fault.

Hopefully Gilbert can stop throwing darts at his LeBron pictures long enough to realize that.