By Paul Caputo and Jeffrey Carl
Plug Magazine (www.pluginc.com) was an early entrant into the Internet content space back when you had to call a website a magazine so that people knew what it was. It was… I’m not even sure I remember what it was. It wasn’t around very long, the domain is currently unused, and I can’t even find any cached copies on archive.org to remember what it looked like. So let’s just say that it was another predictably disappointing highway service plaza on the road to writing stardom for Paul Caputo and me.
It feels just like this: You’re driving down I-95 at a reasonable and prudent 116 miles per hour. Your cares melt away in the scenery as you reach to shift into fifth gear. You notice the scenery, you notice the girl in the car next to you, but you don’t notice that you accidentally miss fifth gear and slip it into reverse. Your car’s transmission leaps out of the hood and smashes through your windshield. In that final, crystal clear moment as you look at your engine sputtering happily in the passenger seat next to you, you wonder what could have possibly gone wrong. As your car spins in 70-mile-per hour circles and crashes into an 18-wheeler full of radioactive explosive poisonous snakes in the next lane, you can’t help but feel a little surprised and disappointed.
It is not hard to imagine that Cleveland’s long-time football fans felt more or less the same upon hearing that their beloved Browns are moving to Baltimore next season. It must have been a surreal, punch-in-the-gut, kick-in-the-pants, rub-your-eyes, shake-your-head, say-it-ain’t-so, pour-me-six-martinis feeling never before experienced by any sports fan.
Sure, Cleveland isn’t the first team to move. Baltimore Colts fans felt the sting of relocation in 1984, but even the Colts were not as intrinsically tied to their city as the Browns were before last week. Until the moment Browns owner Art Modell appeared on a street corner across from Camden Yards to announce that they had reached a deal to build a brand-new, 400,000-luxury-box (or something) football stadium in Baltimore, the idea of sports franchises moving had always been sort of a detached experience.
It is hard to imagine a die-hard Tampa Bay football fan (either of them) breaking down in tears on TV upon hearing that the Buccaneers might be moving to Orlando. Houston sports fans were probably rooting for the Astros and the Oilers to move to Northern Virginia and Nashville respectively, so that they could firebomb the Astrodome and convert it into a parking lot or the world’s largest Taco Bell or anything but the world’s ugliest domed, astroturfed stadium.
Fans in Los Angeles probably haven’t even noticed that the city lost both of its football teams last year. In fact, fans in Los Angeles probably never even knew that there were football teams there, unless someone just happened to steal a car and notice that there were cleats and helmets in it.
But Cleveland is a city whose fans are among the most loyal (“insane”), devoted (“really, really insane”), die-hard (“not real bright, either”) fans the NFL has ever known. It is a city whose people supported (“were actually willing to pay $40 for the ticket and $7 for a concession-stand hot dog for”) their team. It is a city that lived for Sunday afternoons.
Now, all Sunday afternoons mean is colored comics in the newspaper.
While it is wrong to blame Art Modell for the plight of all professional sports, it certainly is easy. He is an active part of the assault on the modern sports fan that started when the first big-time free agent left a city that loved him for a team with a bigger bank-roll. Basketball fans in Charlotte walk past an enormous mural of Alonzo Mourning painted on the side of a city building. Once the portrayal of a city’s sports hopes, the mural now stands as a tribute to athletes who will abandon a city and its dreams for the extra million dollars a year they must need to Super-Size their McHappy Meals when traveling from city to city.
Now, though, even the most supportive of cities must fear losing not only their superstars to the lure of big bucks, but their entire teams. After watching the Browns announce that they will leave Cleveland, how can any sports fan allow himself to give his heart to any team? If Cleveland’s fans – the sort of people who would go to a four hour football game in sub-zero temperatures wearing nothing but a dog mask, body paint and bikini briefs – can’t hold onto a team, who can?
Flash forward 20 years.
You sit down in your living room on a Sunday afternoon and turn on your television to watch the Nashville Elvises (formerly the Winnipeg Jets, an NHL franchise that moved to Nashville and started playing football instead of hockey in 2007 because the city said it would build them a stadium built entirely of crumpled hundred dollar bills, plus allow the team to keep all of the revenue from sales of overpriced “soft” pretzels) play against the Richmond Egg Shells (an NFL expansion team that unfortunately came into the league after all of the intimidating names had been taken).
At half time of the game, Egg Shells owner Bob “Bob” Ukrop IV announces that the franchise will be moving to Washington D.C. at the end of the third quarter because they city has promised to build them a stadium with solid-gold Gatorade coolers. Then, at the end of the game, they will be moving to Nome, Alaska, where city officials have promised them each “a bajillion dollars and the mayor’s daughter.”
“Hey,” Ukrop says. “It’s a business.”
That’s funny, we thought it was a game.