Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The One About a Pit Bull

When I got a text message nearly 5 years ago with a photo of a whispy haired pup with a simple caption: "Meet Freckles", I didn't realize it at the time that our lives were about to change.

Our lives changed thanks to a rescue group called Animal Friends in the Pittsburgh area. We had friends who were there, and they helped us adopt a red headed 1 year old puppy named Freckles. He has been a welcome addition to our lives. He keep us on our toes, and any trip we make to visit family, rest assured Freckles is right there with us. I have had a long time notion that the right pet comes into your life at the right time. When you find it, treasure it. 

Fast forward 5 years and here we are today. Freckles is such a huge part of our lives still, he is happy, sometimes a little fat, and he isn't a pet, he is our family. 

When Jenn left to go to the store with Audrey to get clothes for school and dog food for Freckles, we had no way of knowing how our lives were about to change. As Jenn pulled out of our neighborhood, she notices a dog down the street trying to tip over a garbage can. She moved cautiously onto the road when the dog, having gotten into the garbage can nearly ran in front of the car. Jenn stopped and she saw a brindle puppy, emaciated, and willing to come with her. She put him in the car, turned around and headed back to the house. 

A few months ago a friend of hers found a dog bound around the snout with duct tape in a cage in a warehouse. Her friend rescued it and found it a home. Ever since seeing what humans do to animals, Jenn couldn't just drive by. He was just a baby after all and with no collar, doesn't look like any one cared. 

When she got him home, I got some food for it, and was very annoyed that my wife found a dog and brought him home. This summer has been one of tight purse strings and a lot of stress. One thing I didn't want or need was just another mouth to feed; but this puppy was something different. He was a pit bull mix of some kind. We say pit bull mix because he COULD be mixed with a few different breeds, but he also could very well be a pure bred pit bull. We have no way of knowing. So as we fed him I wanted to make sure this dog wasn't being trained for something more sinister, like fighting. 

So as we fed him I put my hands near his mouth looking for aggression. I got a friendly lick of the hand and he kept eating. Since the food was in the grass I tried to pull him away from the food when he growled. This is normal behavior for a hungry dog, so I let him finish. 

They insisted to go into their room together
He was such a happy puppy. Happy to have food. Happy to have hands touching him. Happy to be out of a garbage can. I had no idea what to expect. I pulled Freckles out to see how social he was, and without missing a blink he was greeted by Freckles and immediately started to play. Finally Freckles had a dog he could play hard with. Someone to keep up with his boundless energy. Freckles instantly grew up a bit and was suddenly the wise old man. 

I pulled out the crate, made a few calls, and of course one of those calls was to our friends who volunteer with Animal Friends in Pittsburgh. I told Mrs. Papik what Jenn found and brought home. She had some advice of what to do next, and I told her I would love to keep him, but right now financially I couldn't swing a full vaccination, updates for Freckles, and neutering another pup. She said that there were rescues out there that might help and clinics that offer reduced prices. But first things first we had to figure out if he was someones pet, so that meant taking him to our vet for an ID chip scan. If he was someones chances are there would be an ID chip. Not surprising there was no ID chip so this new pup was officially orphaned. His stool sample had a orange balloon in it. There was no way I could drop him at a shelter.

He spent the night with us, and Audrey was so enamored with him. His constant tail wagging, quick kisses, and his eagerness to please were very endearing. We couldn't very well call him "puppy" so I thought of a name that was fitting of a pup found in a garbage can; Oscar. 

It didn't take long for my oldest to convince me that he needed to stay. With Jenn pushing me to accept it, Addison pushing me to accept it; it was a call from Mrs. Papik that solidified. She found us help to get him neutered. A long time ago I told her I would love a pit bull in my family. They are loyal and affectionate and I wanted one. She told me then, when I was ready she would help me get one. Well when she called me and I told her thank you, she said, "I told you we would help you get a pit bull, but I didn't say how we were going to help." 

With a small tear in my eye and a wet puppy nose on my leg, Oscar became a Gercak. Sometimes you find the perfect pet, and sometimes the perfect pet finds you. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

The One About How Much I Weigh

“Hey big guy.” Someone said in a grocery store a week or so ago. I heard him, but continued down the chips isle unaware he was talking to me.

He couldn’t have been talking to me, but when he huffed and puffed around my cart in a cramped isle, I realized it was me. When did I become the “big guy”? Surely he couldn’t have been talking to me.

But he was. My fitness has gone out the window. This past weekend I weighed myself and was shocked at the number staring back at me. 280 pounds. When did this happen? Honestly I knew I was gaining weight and did nothing about it. I had easy excuses to fall back on. I had excuses like kids, no time to eat right, no time to exercise; you see where I am going. These excuses were just that, excuses. They were reasons for my poor health. I felt my poor shape when I was out photographing “Hotter in Cleveland”. I couldn’t hustle like I used to, I didn’t have the stamina I used to. The fact I could barely lift my feet after the event was telling enough. I got a slap in the face last week when I tried to play volleyball with my daughter. I couldn’t play for more than a few minutes before I needed to rest my atrophied muscles and catch my breath.

I know I am not the only person out there with weight issues and I know I am not the only fire photographer around Cleveland that is “big”. Why am I a fire photographer? Is it because I’m too unfit to actually fight the fires? Is it because I’m lazy? I think the answers to those questions are no, I love fire departments and what they do for the community, but I got lazy, because there is not rigorous fitness testing to be a fire photographer. There isn’t someone looking over our shoulder as I ate my second burrito from Chipotle telling me it is a bad idea.

A firefighter does not have a sedentary life. They are up and active most days. Some departments have time set aside daily for weight lifting and overall health and wellness guidelines. I asked the question to myself, how am I going to be taken seriously on scene, in PPE, and be 280 pounds? Seriously, fire chiefs are going to laugh me off scene. There is no way I will be able to keep up for hours on end. I need to change something.

Some people have success with drastic changes in lifestyle. I am not one of those people. I needed something to get me off my duff and moving around more. So I did what you are supposed to do when there is any weight loss plan you want to start; I called my doctor. Truth be told, he sounded a little amused by my revelation. He had told me I needed to exercise more than 50 pounds ago. I told him my issues in the past with a drastic change in lifestyle. It goes well for a short time, but never a sustainable change. So he suggested something, the “Couch to 5K” program and making sure I drink 1 gallon of water daily. This program is designed to get you off the couch and running a 5K in 9 weeks. You run 3 days a week for 20 minutes. He suggested a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule allowing weekends to rehab before starting a new week. He also said on off days for me to stretch for about 5 minutes a day. The water was just to drop water weight and keep up with my daily intake of water.

It sounded easy enough, I found a cool app on my smartphone, and so about an hour after getting off the phone and hearing good testimonials from social media friends, I decided to put on my running shoes and go.

I just finished my third run on the program and I have learned some things. I know exactly how long 60 seconds feels and how short 90 seconds is. Watching the scale is not something I am really focused on. I am not chasing an arbitrary number on a scale; I am trying to make a sustainable change in my lifestyle, not hitting that number is disappointing and often leads me to quit doing what I am doing because what is the point of all the work if it isn’t paying off? Rather than do the work and the results will come, people want to stare at the scale and compare their progress with someone else and when they don’t see results, even small results, they quit. I just don’t care to compete with someone else; I am competing with myself. I am competing with my lazy side and my active side. I am doing to out of a sheer desire of wanting to feel better about myself; that feeling isn’t tied to a number on a scale.

I am not brave enough to share my photo I took in only undies before I started the program, but maybe one day I will have the courage.

Now before you start any weight loss or physical change plan, please consult your physician first. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

The One About Disappointment

Audrey at hose testing
I try and take my daughters on experiences you might not think would be a place for children. This past weekend was supposed to be one of excitement and learning for my oldest. I have been photographing fire training for a year now, and since my first one I have wanted to share this excitement with my family. Since my wife turns into a wimpy mess in the heat or cold and taking a 2 year old on-scene isn't the smartest move, that left my oldest daughter. She is just as fascinated with lights, sirens, and fire like I am; she wanted to go. She wanted to experience the rush of the call, the feeling of arriving on scene. She wanted to smell like fire when she was done. 

We had been talking about going out to a training since the winter. I promised her the next live burn she would get to go. We bought her snow boots that were also water proof so she could go. She went out to a hose line test with me because of sheer curiosity. That experience was cold, rainy, and for lack of a better word, boring; but she found a story and something to learn while we were there. A live fire exercise was going to be her reward for doing all the necessary work to lead up to a live fire. 

In keeping with the safety theme, we prepped a checklist:

  1. Boots
  2. Loose fitting jeans
  3. Light colored shirt
  4. Long socks
  5. Camera 
  6. Memory Cards
  7. Charged batteries
  8. Snacks
  9. Lunch
  10. Folding Chairs
We went through the list daily making sure we knew what we needed to bring, what we needed to do. As the day grew closer our excitement grew. Fire Chiefs were excited to have Audrey, Audrey was excited to go, and I was excited to be able to be in a position to share this awesome experience with her. It was our time we were going to be together. It was a time free of hearing that her outfit doesn't match, clean her room, or even help with the dishes. This was going to be pure fun and learning.

About a week out, I tasked Audrey on the fire ground. Everyone there has a job. I was there to take pictures so I told Audrey, make sure the firefighters who are in rehab get water or Gatorade. If someone looks woozy, tell someone. This gave her a sense of purpose. She was going to do that job, and do it well. I knew she would embrace that job and become the water nazi and with the forecast showing to be 93 degrees, it was just as important as putting out fires. 

The day before the training burn, I told Audrey to pull out her computer and type out 10 things she wants to learn, and when we were done, she needed to assess what she did learn. Diligently she typed out her 10 things and I will share those later, but that task alone got her focused. She knew what she needed to do before going to bed. Lay out her clothes, get her boots ready, have her lunch packed, water bottle filled, and cooler packed. We were told we didn't need to be there until 10am (that's when the hose lines come out), but like I told the Chief, if you are there, then so are we. We don't photograph these things to only get the action shots. We are there to experience it all;the 1403 walk-through, starting the first fires, the water cans, and then all the excitement the comes with fire rolling over the heads of firemen. 

It was late Friday night when we got the news. Fire training was canceled due to a statewide ban on unnecessary fires. Fire weather conditions were just too dangerous to go out and burn. A stray ember can turn a dry field into an out of control wildfire. Just look at what is happening in Colorado; our State Fire Marshal's office did not want the same for Ohio. 

I fretted for an hour before I told her. I didn't know how to. We have been building excitement and for that bubble to deflate like it did was heartbreaking. I opted to tell her the only way I know how. With blunt honesty. I told her why there was a ban, why it was too dangerous, and why it is important to postpone the training. 

Being the father of all girls, I have grown accustomed to over the top reactions to seemingly innocuous things. Her reaction was calm. She understood. No tears, no cursing the State Fire Marshal. Our excitement moved to another day. Our checklist is still there, still waiting to get checked off. We are prepped and ready for the next one. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

The One About Being a Cleveland Sports Fan: Part 5

Part 5 and Final chapter in my brother Keith Gercak's Essay on being a Cleveland Sports Fan.

The King Gets His Ring

It looks like the experiment in Miami worked. LeBron won a championship in his second year with the Heat. Was I happy for LeBron? Absolutely not! But I will give credit where credit is due. He deserved that championship. He played brilliantly in the playoffs. He was the LeBron James from that 2007 NBA Finals run with the Cavs. I haven’t seen that LeBron until now. It was inevitable he was going to win a ring, especially when the deck had been stacked. And let’s be honest, that’s what they assembled in Miami, a shortcut. But I will be interested to see how he performs in the future. Is it about the glory of it all or merely the amount of jewelry you have? One is< never enough.

Cleveland Will Be Just Fine

My Chicago friends ask me, how would you react if LeBron comes back to the Cavs? I honestly didn’t know how to answer that question until right now. If he decides to come back, (I don’t believe he will) he will be accepted. LeBron was one of us. He restored basketball in Cleveland. He brought the franchise back from the dead. He is the reason we all cared so much in the first place. He made me fall in love with basketball again. And I thank him for that. However, I will say that he will have to prove his worthiness of regaining our respect and trust. And that is why I don’t believe it will ever happen. I mean, when was the last time you have seen a King grovel?

I think LeBron winning his ring is actually good for the city. It allows us to look forward to the new Cavaliers and our rising new star in 2012 Rookie of the Year, Kyrie Irving. LeBron didn’t want to be The Guy and that was made clear. That’s the beauty of Cleveland. We have a way of overcoming anything. Take our team away? We will fight for a new one, and kick your ass with it! We keep coming up short in the win column? Tomorrow is a new day! Cleveland isn’t where you want to be? Then get the hell out and prepare for a fight when you come back! Cleveland will win a championship. And when it happens, it will be remarkable. We will win it with players who want to be there and are committed to fight for it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The One About Being a Cleveland Sports Fan: Part 4

Part 4 of my brother Keith Gercak's essay on being a Cleveland Sports Fan.

Decisions, Decisions…

The 2009 and 2010 seasons both ended badly and bitterly. The Cavs had been tossed aside easily by the Orlando Magic and then the Celtics. The two time MVP was noticeably absent when the team needed him the most. Had LeBron become disgruntled and checked out of the team? But he made a promise, remember? We were all in this together. Like Jordan with Chicago, like Magic Johnson in L.A., a champion does not concede! The LeBron critics over the years had made points of potential selfishness, narcissism, and poor play. Being a loyal fan and accepting LeBron as an extended family member, we defended him. Because that’s what passionate fans do. We accept you unconditionally (as long as you are not a felon). And we hope for the same in return.

The offseason of 2010 showed a huge crop of talented free agents becoming available, including LeBron. It also ushered head coach Mike Brown out the door, in the attempt to remove a squabble between coach and player. Cavs’ management sought LeBron’s input in seeking a new head coach that would help get the team back into the Finals for future championship runs. The answer was in new head coach and former player champion, Byron Scott. The next piece was getting LeBron to re-sign with the team. However, LeBron wanted to test the free agent market in an unorthodox manner. But that’s within his right to see what is out there. And if he indeed decides to leave, it would certainly be heart breaking. After all, we weren’t new to the idea of our best and favorite players leaving for bigger opportunities (Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, CC Sabathia, etc.). But he understands this already, and would at least give us fair warning right? Right?

We would watch teams travel to Cleveland to recruit LeBron to their franchise. This has now turned into a contest? I didn’t get it. But we were already winning, we just needed to get over that hump. We were on our way. Why isn’t this obvious to him? Jordan didn’t leave the Bulls after coming up short repeatedly. He got his team on board, and led his team to the promise land being rewarded with 6 titles. One by one, the free agents were getting signed. The Cavs remained committed to LeBron, passing on other potential superstars. Having been extremely active in free agency in previous seasons the Cavs didn’t have the cap space to sign LeBron and another big free agent. So they waited and waited, until finally only LeBron was left on the market.

The Miami Heat had already become big winners with their free agent signings. They retained Dwayne Wade as well as signing all star, Chris Bosh. Since the Miami Heat has not been competitive since their championship run in 2006, they dumped enough cap space to afford the signings of Wade, Bosh, and LeBron. But LeBron wouldn’t go join them would he? He was often compared to Jordan, and Jordan wouldn’t have left the Bulls to join Magic and Bird. He was competitive and hell bent on being the best and wanted to prove it. Finally LeBron was ready to announce his playing destination for the next half of his career. The forum would be a one hour televised special on
ESPN. Really?

A press conference is too subtle. This televised special announcement was designed to make a statement. For months we heard about how every other team was more appropriate for LeBron than Cleveland. The experts state how his market value would be elevated in a city like New York, follow in Jordan’s footsteps in Chicago, or have a better chance to win in Miami. Were you people insane? The Cavaliers were winning! They had the best record in the league for two straight seasons! The Cavaliers were committed to work to get over that playoff hump. The question that should have been asked was whether LeBron was committed to put in the work. I guess we just assumed. Remember that goal, the one about bringing a championship to Cleveland? Was there fine print that we failed to read? No of course not. This television special was designed to say to those doubters, “I’m a Cavalier and I’m committed. So Wade and Bosh get ready for a fight! Because you will have to get through me and my team first!”.

To be honest, any other outcome was unfathomable. If he chose anywhere else to play other than Cleveland using this forum, he would be ridiculed for years. He would appear as arrogant, self absorbed, narcissistic, and down-right mean if he chose any other team. And surely he is smart enough to see that. And if he isn’t, then surely his marketing team is. There is nothing worse than the tarnished image of an extremely marketable player. Besides that, he was one of us. He knows what we have been through in this city. We have done nothing but adore him unconditionally. If he were to leave Cleveland, he would do it with more respect. He would leave quietly, with grace and a heartfelt explanation. Not with national fanfare.

I have replayed his word selection over and over in my head. “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”. Wait… WHAT? “Wow, this is tough.”, he says. I can really tell by the grin on your face how distraught you are over this. Too many emotions and questions are running through my brain to dictate how I felt in that moment. It was summed up by my good friend who texted me after his infamous statement. “F**K YOU LEBRON!”. Our worst case scenario had just been played out on national television. The media was eager to capture Cleveland’s reaction. Of course they captured some fools burning jerseys and shirts, which became the national snap shot of Cleveland in that moment. We were the jealous, jilted lover of the situation.

We were angry and rightfully so. Fans everywhere had just had their hearts ripped out by one of our own. What about that statement he made years prior? “I will not rest until I bring a championship to Cleveland.”. We were all in together, remember? What happened? What changed? Did you expect us to just say thanks for the 7 years, I hope you get everything you wanted? We were just left at the altar in humiliating fashion. Would you be happy if your fiancĂ© told you, “I want to get married, but just not to you.”?

LeBron James was quitting on Cleveland. I was convinced. He hit that hump in the road and didn’t have the fortitude to push forward. Would he still have left had they breezed to the Finals and won a Championship? Would he have said “Mission accomplished, Cleveland! Please excuse me while I decorate the rest of my fingers.”? Did he need it to be easier? Was it the responsibility of the organization to fulfill his wishes? Was there no collaboration? I do believe that he owed it to Cleveland fans to at least address them directly and answer these questions, IN CLEVELAND. Be a man about it and tell us to our faces why Cleveland isn’t good enough for you.

This television special turned out to be a celebration of his greatness and that he cannot be held back. In the ensuing interviews that followed The Decision, I heard LeBron James refer to himself in the third person over a dozen times. Who does that? This was not the humble kid we knew from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, the young professional taking the NBA by storm, or the man who willingly carried the torch for our city. I didn’t recognize this guy. He was arrogant, cocky, and disingenuous. It was more about HIM winning a championship rather than his team winning a championship. He claimed to be tortured in his head about his decision. But this was to be short lived, since 16 hours later he is dancing and celebrating in his new Miami Heat jersey with his new teammates. Predicting the amount of rings he will win. Where is your class LeBron?

Was I being unfair to LeBron? After all, as a professional athlete you have every right to seek new opportunity elsewhere. But as a franchise player, you would never hurt or disrespect your fans. I don’t think I was being unfair. If he had any indication that he was not returning to Cleveland, he could have gone about his announcement differently. Was it LeBron’s intention to destroy our hopes and dreams? No. Do I think he is a terrible person? No. Let’s put this into perspective. Sports are entertainment, and we often live through the experiences of our superstars. And LeBron was our superstar. Any other city would have been equally as upset as Cleveland. What if Derrick Rose left his hometown Chicago Bulls to play for the Lakers, citing a better opportunity to win? You would see the same reaction in Chicago. I know this for a fact, because I now live in Chicago. Derrick Rose wouldn’t do that because he wants to win for his home. I think LeBron became a victim of his own ego. He mistook our unconditional support for unconditional understanding. Today, I truly believe he is sorry for how it all played out. Not sorry for his decision. He is sorry for how upset it made us. Perhaps he would have reviewed the manner in which he left. But the decision would have remained the same.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The One About Being a Cleveland Sports Fan: Part 3

Part 3 of my brother Keith Gercak's essay on being a Cleveland Sports Fan.

The Chosen One Indeed

In 1994 the Cavaliers debuted their new home, Gund Arena. Cleveland hoped it would exercise the demon that was the memory of Michael Jordan. Jordan had retired now, so it seemed that the Cavs had a chance to regain their glory. But the following years would mean despair for the franchise. In the next 10 years the Cavaliers would have only one playoff appearance. By the end of the 2002 season the Cavaliers were one of the worst teams in the NBA and the city of Cleveland was losing interest in professional basketball, including me. Amidst the aftermath of the NBA lockout and with the dynasty teams of the Lakers and Spurs winning year after year, the NBA was becoming boring and predictable. Even Jordan coming out of retirement for a second time couldn’t resurrect my interest in the game. The Cavaliers were in complete despair, and there were rumors floating around about a possible relocation of the city’s NBA team.

The big sports story in Ohio around that time did not belong to the Browns, Indians, or even Ohio State football. The biggest attention was being given to a little know high school basketball player at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School located in the nearby Akron, Ohio. His name is LeBron James, a fantastically gifted young athlete drawing national attention for his superstar-esque quality of playing the game. This kid was a freak, a phenom, already being compared to the great Michael Jordan, and wearing the #23 jersey. It seemed fitting. The NBA was desperate to find the next Michael Jordan. They had Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, but for many he didn’t fit the bill. Were we producing the next Jordan right in our own backyard? The state of Ohio has produced several great athletes over the years, so this was nothing new. But it was rare that one would have a chance to play for one of our teams.

LeBron James captured the nation’s interest. Players from the NBA were making the trip to Akron to come see this kid play. ESPN was televising his high school games! This was unprecedented, and the attention was turning into hype. LeBron had 2 years before being eligible for the NBA draft. The people of Cleveland fantasized about the prospect of him playing for the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. And when LeBron was eligible, he was sure to be the first overall player drafted. But the Cavs getting him still seemed unlikely. To receive the first overall selection in the draft, the Cavs would need luck if not fate on their side. The NBA draft selection order is based upon a lottery. The 13 worst teams in the league would all have a chance to be awarded the first overall selection. But the worst three teams would have the highest odds. With the Cavaliers consistently being a lottery team since 1999, they had a chance.

The Cavaliers finished the 2002-03 season in the bottom of the league, yet again. And they were only given a 22.5% probability of receiving the first overall selection. But we wouldn’t be lucky enough to get LeBron would we? It would make a great story having LeBron play for his hometown team. But was it probable? Given Cleveland’s luck in the realm of sports in the past, it just may be out of reach. But through a stroke of luck, fate, planets alignment, and the favor of the sports gods, Cleveland was awarded the #1 overall selection in the 2003 NBA Draft. LeBron James is going to be a Cleveland Cavalier! We were already proud of the fact that he was representing our Ohio region spectacularly, but now he would continue to do it while staying in our beloved city.

LeBron was one of us, he was homegrown. Who could understand the plight of Cleveland sports better than one of our own? And he understood that and accepted the challenge of bringing a Championship to our great city and fans. He was the best player in the world and he played for our team!

LeBron James was one of our own he was already a champion in our minds, it was just a matter of time before it was validated with a league Championship. LeBron went on to win a well deserved Rookie of the Year award. The following years consisted of not just building a team, but an organization around LeBron. The Cavaliers were inching closer and closer every year. We kept stubbing our toe when the playoffs would approach. But we were ecstatic with the progress. Finally the 2007 season presented us with pure magic.

The Cavaliers have reached the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons. The city was on cloud nine. The Cavaliers were back! For me, LeBron’s play reignited my passion for the NBA, and it was perfect that he was playing for my city. I was a proud Cleveland Cavaliers fan and found the fan excitement to be intoxicating. Sports mean so much more to Cleveland than anywhere else. Our city has had a laughable reputation for years and our teams’ plight reflected that. But this series validated LeBron James’ climb into NBA folklore, much like Jordan had done before him. His overtime performance in Game 5 had exceeded our expectations. He simply took over, scoring every point in overtime as the Cavs went on to beat the Pistons on their way to an NBA Finals appearance.

LeBron and the Cavs would eventually be swept by the Spurs in the Finals. But we had turned a corner. We were Championship contenders every year thereafter. The people of Cleveland were all in, the organization was all in, and LeBron and team were all in. LeBron even addressed his loyal fans and made a promise. “I got a goal, it’s a huge goal. And that’s to bring an NBA Championship here to Cleveland, and I won’t stop till I get it.”. That was it, we were all committed! Let’s go do this.

The Cavaliers would reach the Conference Finals with the best NBA record for 2 of the 3 next seasons. LeBron would go on to win 2 back to back league MVP awards. But something seemed to be missing when playing against Boston, Orlando, and Boston again. The team wasn’t clicking. LeBron seemed to be lacking the passionate play he showed in the 2007 run to the Finals. There was talk that LeBron was clashing with head coach Mike Brown. Whatever the problem was, it was fixable. There was no indication that the Cavaliers franchise would not do everything within their power to deliver on a championship. With LeBron’s impending free agency approaching, it seemed the organization was put on a deadline to deliver a title to LeBron, rather than achieve one together.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The One About Being a Cleveland Sports Fan: Part 2

Part 2 of my brother Keith Gercak's essay on Cleveland Sports.

Cleveland’s Albatross

Being a Cleveland sports fan was serious business, but for me it was a way of life. That way of life unfortunately was a long history of heart break. The stories of “We were this close…”, that our recent greatness only included dashed hopes. They became two word memories, “The Catch”, “The Drive”, “The Fumble”, “The Shot”, and honorable mention “Red Right-88”. Cleveland’s M.O. was getting to that big game and coming painfully short of a championship. The city of Cleveland has not had a professional sports championship since the Browns won the 1964 NFL Championship, before the Super Bowl existed. That is 48 years and counting for a city of people who are unconditionally devoted to their sports teams.

At such a young age I had already been subjected to life’s cruel and unfair wrath. I witnessed our city overcome the ugliness of the 1994 baseball strike, with the sudden success of the Cleveland Indians. Only to be overshadowed by Art Modell moving our treasured Browns to Baltimore for reasons I still cannot explain. This was unfair! How can you take our team away from us? These players are our extended family! How can this happen? But the Indian’s picked us back up by appearing in the World Series the following year. When a door closes a window is opened, right? Well, sort of. The Indians lost the series to the Braves in heartbreaking fashion. But damn it, we were still proud as hell.

Throughout the mid 90’s our devotion to the Indians rewarded us with some of the greatest baseball teams in history. When we made another appearance in the 1997 World Series we had an intimidating roster featuring Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel, Richie Sexson, David Justice, Matt Williams, Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser, and Jose Mesa. We were going to win the World Series right? Nope! In probably the most traumatic sports memory in my life, the Indians lost in the 11th inning of a very dramatic game 7. The Indians went on to dominate the American League until 2001, but never appeared in another World Series again. How did we have these lineups of self produced All Stars, and still not cash in on a championship? Bad luck I guess.

We did get to see our beloved football team move to Baltimore and cash in on a Super Bowl. I will never forgive Art Modell for that. He stole that from us. That Super Bowl belonged to us. That was our team playing in ugly purple outfits! That would have been us! NFL fans everywhere be advised, if it can happen to us it can happen to you.

The Cleveland Browns did return to the NFL in the form of an expansion team in 1999. We had football back in Cleveland. It was painful watching the Browns rebuild over and over again, but I was just happy to have my team back. Even the new team became baptized with Cleveland’s misery. With new anomalies such as “Bottle Gate”, “The Helmet Throw”, and the 2002 Wild Card Playoff collapse.

Getting beaten by the Superstar

I have mentioned that Cleveland has become the victim of the clutch superstar. This isn’t anything new. Throughout sports many teams have fallen to the stellar performance of a perennial Hall of Famer. But Cleveland is certainly unique by comparison. It has become routine for Cleveland to rise to a high level, only to be knocked out by another team’s superstar performance. Every single major franchise in
Cleveland has experienced this…


“The Catch” – The 1954 World Series vs. the New York Giants was especially forgettable for the Indians had it not been for this play. The series was a sweep for the Giants, beating the Indians in four straight games and outscoring the Indians 21-9. But this play happened in game 1 when the center field legend, Willie Mays made one of the most spectacular over the shoulder catches in history. This play became the snap shot of that series and the crown jewel of Willie Mays’ career.

“The Hit”- Game 7 of the 1997 World Series was a low scoring pitcher’s duel, but the Indians managed a one run lead going into the bottom of the ninth. We had the best closer in baseball at the time coming in to preserve the win for us, or so we thought. Jose Mesa blew the save by giving up the tying run. Heading into the 11th inning Charles Nagy came on to pitch in an unaccustomed relief role. After an error with two outs put a runner in scoring position, Edgar Renteria makes a name for himself by slapping a series winning single for the Florida Marlins.

”Pedro” – It was Game 5 of the 1999 American League Division Series. This one is special to me, since my mother and I were sitting in the left field bleachers of Jacob’s Field to witness what was going to happen. It was a game fit for post season history making. It was an early dog fight when Jim Thome tied Babe Ruth’s record for post season home runs, after launching two in the game. But this game will be remembered for what Pedro Martinez accomplished by coming in to pitch in relief. Pedro shut down the potent offense of the Indians by pitching 6 innings of no-hit baseball. Troy O’Leary subsequently put the game out of reach with his second homerun of the game, after his first being a grand slam in the third inning. But what stung just little more, was the fact that Pedro was accomplishing something great at our expense. This will forever be etched in time to relive over and over since ESPN Classics will play the game for many years. In the game, a TV camera captured my mother and me in the bleachers attempting to rally our team late in the game. We were the ones with our caps turned backwards and inside out, while waving a giant Cleveland Indians flag. But it was to no relief. The Tribe was eliminated and Pedro went on to win another Cy Young award.


“The Drive”- Look this one hurts too much to rehash every detail. So here are the basics. 1986 AFC Championship, Browns up by a touchdown, ensuing kickoff is downed on Denver’s 2 yard line. The Browns are 5 minutes from going to the Super Bowl. Until, John Elway… JOHN FREAKIN’ ELWAY! The game became instant NFL folklore.

“The Fumble” – This still hurts a lot too. The 1987 AFC Championship was a rematch from the previous year. The Broncos weren’t going to do it to us again. The game became a slobber-knocker shootout. The game was winding down to under one minute. The Browns had the ball on the 8 yard line getting ready to score on the legs of Ernest Byner who had run all over Denver’s defense. There was no doubt he was going to score. The Browns needed a touchdown to tie the game and send it into overtime. The play called for a draw on the left side. Byner had a clear lane to the end zone and he hit it. However, wide receiver Webster Slaughter didn’t pick up his block on the safety, and Byner was hit and stripped of the ball on the 1 yard line and recovered by Denver. It happened again! Even though John Elway wasn’t the direct reason for the Browns losing that game, it added to his growing reputation and legend.

“The Move” – This isn’t necessarily the story of a superstar killing the hopes and dreams of Browns’ fans and Clevelanders everywhere. No this is the story of the Browns’ very owner destroying his own fans in his own city. In some kind of spat with the city over getting a new stadium, Art Modell chose to move the beloved franchise to Baltimore, Maryland. This action didn’t seem to make sense to anybody. Sports franchises have relocated countless times over the years, but that was in response to lack of fan interest, attendance, or commitment by the city. Cleveland had none of those. Modell wanted a new stadium to replace the relic that was Cleveland Municipal Stadium, and he was right to want one. But the city had just built the Indians and Cavaliers new stadiums the previous year. Cleveland promised Modell a new football stadium, but didn’t want to saddle the taxpayers with more debt. A new stadium would come, but it would take a few years. This answer was unacceptable to Art Modell, and being heavily in debt himself, he secretly shopped our team to the highest bidder. Through some kind of NFL owner’s loophole, he announced he was moving the team to Baltimore following the 1995 season. This was announced toward the end of that same season in November. We only had two more months with our team. What did the fans of Cleveland do to deserve this? The Browns were always the most popular team in Cleveland. We were rabid for our Browns football! And we proved it by lobbying the NFL to allow the city of Cleveland to keep the name, colors, and franchise history of the Browns. That belonged to us! We’d be damned if Modell would take EVERYTHING from us. So he renamed our team the Baltimore Ravens, drafted well over the next few seasons and won a Super Bowl in 2000. Art Modell will ALWAYS be public enemy #1 in Cleveland, ALWAYS.


“The Shot” – The late 80’s gave Cleveland a winning football team and surprisingly enough a winning basketball team, The Cavaliers. In 1989 the Cavs regular season record was the 3rd best in the Eastern Conference. The first round of the playoffs pitted the Cavs against the Chicago Bulls, the 6th best team. The Cavaliers were heavily favored to win the best of five series, as the Cavs had won every contest against the Bulls in the regular season. However the Bulls had managed to split the first 4 games, forcing the series deciding game 5. The Cavs were ahead 100-99 with 3 seconds left after a Craig Ehlo layup. The Bulls had just one last opportunity to pull off an unlikely win. The ball is inbounded to a well guarded Michael Jordan, who had on the Bulls’ previous possession, hit a go ahead jumper. Jordan quickly dribbles to the foul line and goes up for a jumper. With Ehlo in his face, Jordan sinks the jumper at the buzzer clinching the victory for the Bulls after a very dramatic series. We all now know the greatness of Michael Jordan, but at this time he had not yet won any championships. The Bulls winning this game was seen as a huge up-set. An up-set that would haunt the Cavaliers for many years to come.

“Michael Jordan” – I concede that I was a huge Michael Jordan fan as I had previously mentioned. I credit him for introducing me to the NBA and pro-basketball in general. So I won’t pretend to be crushed by the exploits of Michael Jordan in Cleveland because I was simply in awe of his game. However, I am speaking of the countless of Cleveland Cavaliers fans that were inconsolable over Jordan’s success over the Cavs, just as I was with John Elway’s over the Browns. Michael Jordan and the Bulls became the preverbal wall that the Cavs would hit every postseason. The Browns fell repeatedly to the Broncos and the Cavs fell repeatedly to the Bulls. The Cavs would enter the playoffs over the course of 6 times in 7 seasons. Of those 6 times they would face the Chicago Bulls 5 times. Each of those match ups would only end at the hands of Michael Jordan. The road to Michael Jordan’s first championships would go through Cleveland. The superstar made a career out of defeating the Cavs in crucial match ups. Cavaliers fans would loathe Michael Jordan for this.