Monday, August 8

Andy's Favorite Teams

Figgs got the ball rolling nicely for us with his list of his favorite sports team-seasons, and since I was involved in the bar discussion that sparked it, I thought I'd chime in as well. I started with a list of 19, so we'll give out some honorable mentions and get to the Top 10.

Just for Fun
'95 Steelers
'10 Steelers
Ha! I've never been so proud to be fake fans of the Packers and Cowboys. OK, enough fooling around, let's focus.

Nope, still making jokes
'10-'11 Miami Heat
HA! OK, OK, I'll stop. Whew, good times. Go Mavs!

Honorable Mention
'99-00 Penguins
'05 Alkaline Drives
'87 Indians
'10-11 Bucks B-ball
'01 Indians

I'll talk more about my relationship to the Penguins around the turn of the millennium and the role they played in my larger interest in sports, but this '99-'00 club opened up hockey to me and gave me a great playoff run. I went to my first of many games at the Mellon the previous year (I just now discovered the actual date of 2/9/99, thanks to the magic of the Interwebs), a fantastic 3-2 win over Les Habs where Jaromir Jagr netted the game-tying goal late in the 3rd and the Pens won in OT. The '99-'00 team entered as the 7 seed and promptly dumped the 2nd-seeded Capitals because the Pens always beat the Capitals, then stormed to a 2-1 lead over top-seeded Philly. They dropped Game 4 in a heartbreaking FIVE OT game, a contest during which my buddies and I drove to the arena after the second OT but were denied entry. After Keith Primeau finally ended the game at 2 am, I didn't know what I should do next, and the Pens never recovered either.

The '05 Alkaline Drives was my summer league softball team, the one that finally broke through and took the title. Despite almost never getting more than 9 players on the field for a game, we breezed to a 14-1 regular-season mark (our one loss was an absolute wake-up-call mercy rule pummeling by a mediocre team that I still don't understand) and won three straight to take the league title. We dispatched our two top rivals (Heinz School of Public Policy and Management and the dreaded Chemical Engineers) to claim the cup. All of my softball theories on where to hide weak defenders and how to construct a lineup worked out perfectly, and I played at an unbelievably high level, crushing home runs, dominating left field, and pretty much never making outs. Pretty fantastic season.

The '87 Indians were the first team I ever really, really was into, though I'd gotten into the major sports the year before via the Mets' World Series win. I went to my first game that year at Municipal Stadium, a pasting of the Indians courtesy of the juggernaut Athletics highlighted by a home run from Reggie Jackson, and I still have the souvenir towel. I watched the games, read the box scores, and loved the Tribe. They won: 61 games.

This past year's Buckeye Basketball squad was my favorite since the one that cracked the Top 10, maybe because they had a good mix of new cats and veteran leadership. I dunno, the Finals team from a few years ago seemed a bit mercenary, but I loved the way this club played. Their defeat in the NCAA's to Kentucky still stings a bit.

The 2001 Tribe was the last of our Star Destroyer clubs, the last time we really had the wherewithal to field a high-dollar team and bring in free agents like Juan Gonzalez (who OPS'd .960 and drove in 140) and Roberto Alomar (.336/.415/.956 and a Gold Glove). That team memorably battled the Twins all season, trailing by five games in July before storming to the division title by six games. That was the season that featured The Impossible Return, the comical 15-14 win over Seattle (who won 116 games that year) after trailing 14-2 earlier. While I'm here, that was just one week after the Pirates were trailing the Astros 8-2 in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs and nobody on base and still won. That's one of my favorite win probability graphs ever - Baseball Reference lists the Astros' win percentage after taking an 8-2 lead in the 9th as simply "100%." To me, that one might be the more amazing comeback, especially because that Pirate team was awful. The Indians nearly toppled the high-flying Mariners in the ALDS, taking a 1-0 series lead on a Bartolo Colon shutout and a 2-1 edge via a 17-2 clobbering of the M's before bowing out in 5.

Top 11
I know I said 10, but I didn't want to cut any of these clubs. You can have your money back if you'd like.

11) 1990-91 Bucks B-ball
This, and possibly its sequel, was the most exciting college basketball season I've ever followed, and that includes some of Ohio State's recent tournament runs and the remarkable past decade of Pittsburgh Panthers basketball. This team had a bona fide superstar in the person of Jimmy Jackson, plus a remarkably deep lineup of Treg Lee, Mark Baker, Perry Carter, and Chris Jent (Lawrence Funderburke arrived the following year). Side note: I don't remember Mark Baker being "LaMark." Are we sure about this? Randy Ayers' 1991-92 club was just a loaded squad, rolling to a 27-4 mark and the NCAA Regional Semis. What makes this team still resonate with me today were the battles they had with the Indiana Hoosiers, who were still a national power then. OSU won both from the archrival Hoosiers, who had joined Jordan and his Bulls as my favorite basketball villains. With apologies to the rivalry with the school up north, Indiana was a more significant hoops foe back then, at least until um started paying its players. That's the Buckeye team that really got me into college hoops, though I've since settled into a more casual fandom.

10) 08-09 Penguins
This team won the Stanley Cup.

That should be enough, but I think it's worth detailing their playoff run, one of the most impressive and satisying postseason runs I've ever seen in any sport. It was the hockey version of The Bride in Kill Bill making the Death List and just taking them out one by one. It's as if the Browns lost the Super Bowl to the Dallas Cowboys, then came back the following season and dispatched the Broncos, Ravens, and Steelers in the AFC Playoffs before avenging the prevous year with a Super Bowl win over the Pokes.

The Pens entered the playoffs as the #4 seed and as the defending East Champions, having lost to the big-money Detroit Red Wings in the Cup Finals the previous spring. First up, the Philadelphia Flyers, who any self-respecting Penguins fan despises. 4-2, Pens. Next came the overhyped Washington Capitals and the obnoxious Alex Ovechkin; 4-3 Pens. Granted, the Carolina Hurricanes aren't a big rival, so the Pens wisely swept them before claiming the franchise's third Stanley Cup by defeating the heavily-favored Wings, in seven games, on Detroit's home ice. Nice work.

9) '97 Indians
I'm trying not to allow the single most disappointing end to a sporting season of a team that I like in my lifetime get in the way of the fact that my Cleveland Indians not only reached the World Series, but came within three outs of claiming their third World Championship. I mean, this team wasn't a juggernaut like the few before it - after a 100-44 campaign in '95 and 99 wins in '96, this club won a shaky AL Central with an 86-75 mark. They won the Central by six games - maybe "shaky" was too charitable.

In the ALDS, the Indians rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to take down the hated New York Yankees, thanks in part to Sandy Alomar's 8th-inning game-tying home run off of Yankee closer Mariano Rivera. The Tribe then avenged the previous year's ousting at the hands of Baltimore by ousting the Orioles in 6. This set up the infamous '97 Series, about which I will only say was one crazy ride. Win or lose, I want to do that again.

8) 91-92 Cavs
The best Cavaliers team of the pre-#6 era, Lenny Wilkens' squad won 57 regular-season games, most in the first 37 years of the franchise, and reached the Conference Finals for just the second time in history (they've since been there twice more). More importantly for the purposes of this writing, this team featured some of my all-time favorite basketball players. I can still remember going to Richfield Coliseum and seeing these guys play, hearing "The Final Countdown" imploring them to one last fourth-quarter push. The names on the club are a who's-who of Cavalier basketball: Daugherty, Nance, Ehlo, Kerr, Ferry, Williams. (Former FCF contributor Doug once referred to this as "The Winston Bennett Era.") Oh, and an undersized point guard with deadly shooting accuracy from Georgia named Mark Price, still my all-time favorite basketball player. Damn was Price ever good. It's hard enough to shoot 90% on foul shots over a span of 10; try doing it in games, over 2362 attempts, after battling dudes way taller than you all game (btw, Price career playoffs: .944).

But this isn't a Mark Price article. This Cavs team breezed through the league with 57 wins, earning them the three seed (thanks to the NBA's dumb division seeding rules), including a 148-80 waxing of Miami that still stands as the biggest blowout in league history. (Suck it, Heat.) The Cavs easily dispatched the Nets 3-1 in the opening round before outlasting Boston in 7 to reach the East Finals. Am I the only one getting tired of ending these fond memories badly? As usual, the Bulls stood between the Cavs and a shot at the title, and as usual, that sucked.

7) 06 Bucks Football
Simply the most explosive offensive Buckeye team I've ever seen, the '06 Ohio State footballers steamrolled everyone they faced in the regular season, averaging a 36-10 victory each of the 12 times they took the field in a season that saw them face the #2 team in the land twice (once Texas, once michigan). Led by Heisman winner Troy Smith and speedster Ted Ginn Jr, there was just no way to get the Buckeye offense off the field that year.

Only one team had the notion to not even try that tactic, but instead to attempt to simply outscore Ohio State, that being the hated wolverines of michigan, who entered the season's final game every bit as unbeaten as the Buckeyes and yet far smellier. As you all know, OSU prevailed 42-39, in an epic game I was lucky enough to attend. The win earned the Buckeyes a shot at their second BCS Title Game, and then Ted Ginn scored a TD on the opening kick, and then hey, look, it's #5 on my list!

6) 02 Browns
Kind of amazing that only one Browns team cracked my entire list, but, well, we haven't been so great, and I was pretty young during the late '80's AFC Championship Game days, so those memories aren't as vivid. This was one fun, weird-ass year for the Brownies. You really couldn't make this stuff up. All of these things happened in 2002:

- Losing the season-opener 40-39 on Dwayne Rudd's infamous helmet toss.
- Rallying from 2 TDs down in the 4th to beat the Titans.
- Beating the Texans in my first-ever Browns game as a paying customer.
- Absorbing a lifeless, hideous 13-6 loss to the punchless Panthers.
- Suffering two annoying losses to Pittsburgh.
- Rallying from down 21-3 in New Jersey to the Jets, including Tim Couch's comical hook pass two-pointer.
- A hail-mary win (Quincy Morgan) against Jacksonville.
- A 90-yard TD drive in 1:30 with no timeouts against the then-vaunted Ravens defense in Baltimore to eke out a 14-13 win.
- "Run, William, Run" and the goal-line stand against the Falcons in the final game of the season.

Even with all those improbable wins, the Browns were lucky to squeak in at 9-7 (the Football Gods rectified that by denying the 10-win 2007 edition a postseason berth), and, well, I kinda wish they hadn't, 429 yards from Kelly Holcomb notwithstanding.

5) 06-07 Cavs
I find myself far more invested in teams that don't necessarily seem like they're among the elite, but nonetheless manage to punch above their weight in the postseason. You couldn't describe the 2006-07 Cavaliers any better. I'm still a little amazed at them reaching the NBA Finals that year, having lucked into the 4th seed with just 50 wins thanks a late-season Nets collapse against the hapless Bulls. I know we all hate LeBron now, and I'm no exception, but in retrospect, how the fuck did he get this team to the Finals? I think we were starting Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, #6, Drew Gooden, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a lineup that looks increasingly absurd.

The Cavs collected their customary win over the Washington Bullets with a 4-0 sweep over Antawn Jamison and whatever four guys he could find to pick up with that night before knocking out Jason Kidd and the Nets 4-2 in a series that really could have gone either way, setting up a rematch of the previous year's 7-game epic against the big, bad Detroit Pistons. The Cavs lost the first two in the Palace, each by a score of 79-76, before roaring back with a pair of home wins to even up the series. That set up LeBron's ridiculous Game 5 in Detroit, a 109-107 double-overtime instant classic that still ranks as easily the greatest individual performance I've ever seen in team sports. It's still kind of hard to believe that happened, #6 racking up 29 of Cleveland's final 30 points against the league's best defense. The Cavaliers blew the Pistons the hell out of the Q in Game 6, but not before the Pistons put on an all-time douchebag clinic. The ragtag Cavs eventually fell to an excellent Spur team in the Finals, but that was a thrilling spring of basketball.

4) 95 Indians
Can I interest you in another devastating postseason loss?

My early years of Tribe fandom finally paid some dividends in '95, just one year after the dumb-ass players strike cost the Wahoos a great shot at their first postseason slot of my lifetime (and the lifetimes of anyone fewer than 25 years my senior). Everything lined up that year, making that team probably the most dominant Cleveland squad in my fan career (yes, even the 66-win late '00's Cavaliers). The Tribe just beat the stuffing out of everyone, winning 100 games in a 144-game season and posting a run differential of...wait for it...233 runs. Do you know how many games they won the division by?


Not over the last-place team, mind you, over the second-place team. I'm serious, look it up. They narrowly edged the basement-dwelling Twins by FOURTY-FOUR games. They scored 5.83 runs a game (best in the AL), allowed 4.22 a game ( in the AL), and won roughly 84 games in their final at-bat. Every way you slice that team's numbers is fun. Belle, Thome, Ramirez, Murray, Sorrento, Lofton, Baerga - how could you even pitch to this team?

I normally eschew hyperbole, but you will never see another Indian Summer like '95 again. How Wayne Kirby managed 205 AB for this club is beyond me.

The good vibes continued into the postseason, as the Tribe swept the Red Socks (thanks to Tony Pena's 13th-inning game-winning HR in game 1) and beat the Mariners 4-2 in a crazy ALCS to reach their first World Series in 41 years. Then they lost. Game 6 (a 1-0 Series-deciding loss) was absolute torture. I hate this list.

3) 07 Indians
I don't know if I've ever followed a team as closely as this one, which is a bit ironic because I was living in upstate New York, deep in Yankee/Red Sock country. But I had my subscription to MLB Radio, and I used the hell out of it as the Indians surprised everyone and banged out a league-best 99 wins. Led by twin aces CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, an unstoppable Dual Rafael combination in the bullpen, a closer with no discernible pitching talent except for getting saves, and a lineup led by Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, and Grady Sizemore, this solidly-built, well-rounded club just refused to crack no matter what challenges it was presented.

Those challenges included an ALDS showdown with the mighty Yankees, a series the Indians promptly won 3-1 over the objections of the TBS broadcasting crew, the single most biased national announcing team you or I have ever seen. The Indians quickly went up 3-1 on the also-hated Boston Red Socks, but unfortunately this one was a seven-gamer, and the Tribe ran out of gas as my hatred for Boston's sporting organizations moved up another level.

2) '00-'01 Penguins
As I pointed out when we talked about this last weekend, if it's not for this team, Forest City Fanatics probably doesn't exist. I went through a down period in sports in 1997. The Indians had just lost a devastating world series (see #9), the Browns were on hiatus, the Cavaliers sucks, and I had other interests, having just arrived in college (in Pittsburgh, of all places, removing me from my Ohio sports base). I got back into real sports (as opposed to WWF, which I was way into from '98-'00) thanks almost entirely to this Pens team and the copious amounts of free time I had as a senior.

The Penguins started off OK, but the return of the legendary Mario Lemieux in December really kicked it up another gear. I don't think I missed a game from then on out. I bought a jersey, went to games, loved it. The success factor, the novelty of the game to me, the buzz around Lemieux's dominating comeback, the was a heady mix. The sixth-seeded Pens dispatched the Capitals (of course they did) in six games behind upstart goalie Johan "The Moose" Hedberg, including a 2-1 win where I asked Glover roughly 1000 times to check the score remotely because I went to a Fugazi show for part of it. They closed the series on an OT game-winner from Martin Straka that I watched with JHH in West Lafayette along with the zero other hockey fans in Indiana.

That was just an appetizer for the seven-game deathmatch with the Buffalo Hockey Buffaloes, a series where games 5, 6, and 7 all went to overtime. The Pens faced elimination in Game 6, down 3-2 in the series and trailing by a goal in the game with less than a minute to go, but Lemieux tied it and Straka closed it out in the extra period. Pittsburgh won a memorable Game 7 with an goal by unlikely hero defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, about whom a teammate remarked, "he doesn't make that shot in practice." The Pens eventually ran out of gas against a superior New Jersey club (very much like the Cavs finally outlasting the Pistons only to be outclassed by the Spurs), but wow, what a run.

1) '02 Bucks Football
Come on, who else was I going to pick?

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