CLEVELAND (AP) - Greetings from anti-Titletown USA - Loserland, Ohio.
OK, so that nickname might be a little harsh. But these are brutal, brutal times for Cleveland's three professional sports teams and their fans. Painfully, historically brutal.
The undisputed heavyweight championship city of sports despair, and a home to scarred generations of battered-but-loyal followers, Cleveland is suffering through dreary days. Think you're having a tough winter? Try rooting for one of these squads.
The LeBron James-less Cavaliers have lost 22 straight games, one shy of the NBA single-season record. The Indians have low expectations after losing 93 games last season. And the cherished-and-seemingly-cursed Browns, one of only four franchises never to play in the Super Bowl, went 5-11 for the second year in a row and just fired another coach.
"You could say the town's sports psyche is a little bruised right now," said former Indians manager Mike Hargrove, one of Northeast Ohio's adopted sons and longtime residents. "But it's nothing we haven't always had - and haven't been used to."
Losing, you see, is sadly a way of life along frozen Lake Erie, where fans have waited impatiently since 1964 to celebrate an elusive championship that has been irksomely close on a few occasions over the past 40-some years - but always out of reach.
Any kind of title now seems years away, and the last few months have tested even the most faithful, die-hard Cleveland backers.
The months of malaise started when LeBron James left in July, leaving a franchise he restored in near ruin. The Indians needed a late surge in an injury-riddled season to avoid 100 losses and played in front of the smallest home crowds in the majors. Mired in continuous chaos for most of the past decade, the Browns' have lost at least 10 games nine times since 1999.
The misery hasn't been limited to the field or arena, either. Bob Feller, the beloved Hall of Fame pitcher and connection to Cleveland's glorious past, died in December.
And then, there are the Cavaliers. The poor, poor pitiful Cavaliers haven't won since Dec. 18 and have dropped 32 of 33 - a slide that accelerated once James returned to town wearing a Miami Heat uniform. Indeed, that was a chilling sight that seemed to drain the team's collective soul.
Unless they can win in Memphis on Friday, the Cavaliers will match the league mark of consecutive incompetence shared by Vancouver (1995-96) and Denver (1997-98). That number is 23, the one James wore for seven seasons in the Cavaliers' wine-and-gold.
And if that wasn't enough, there's Sunday. Cleveland fans, who have never been closer to the Super Bowl than viewing it on television in the family room, will watch the dreaded rival Pittsburgh Steelers take a run at their seventh Lombardi Trophy against the Green Bay Packers.
No Terrible Towels around here, only ones for tears.
"This is as bad as it's ever been," said Mike Staehr, 27, who waited in line with hundreds of fans this week at a suburban mall to get autographs from Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and former Cleveland players like Len Barker and Joe Charbonneau. "Back in the `80s, the Browns had their run, and in the '90s, you had the Indians getting to two World Series, and more recently the Cavs were good. But now ... "
Staehr's friend, Joe Pavlick, chimed in.
"The good thing," Pavlick said, "is we can't get any lower."
Usually, one of the city's three pro teams is contending. Right now, they're barely competing. Maybe the good news is it's not a four-team town. Cleveland had four major franchises from 1976-78 when the NHL's Cleveland Barons went 47-87-26 before merging with the Minnesota North Stars.
The losing has affected Clevelanders, whose cabin fever has risen with every highlight of a dunk by the despised James, or a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger.
Bill Wills, a radio host on WTAM's "Wills & Snyder" talk show, can sense the pain with every phone call. Some mornings, the air waves are filled with disgruntled fans ripping the Cavaliers for firing coach Mike Brown; the Indians' ownership for not spending; and the Browns for not recognizing that Troy Polamalu would become the NFL's best defensive player.
"It's almost always negative," said Wills, who came to Cleveland 12 years ago from Cincinnati. "It's that sense of doom and gloom, woe is me. It just seems to keep piling on here. Every time the Cavs lose, we have to watch the national media saying, `When will they win again?' We had presents under the tree the last time they won.
"All that stuff piles on, and it gets very frustrating."
But hearty Clevelanders endure. They refuse to quit. They've been saying, `Wait `til next year' around here longer than anyone, anywhere. The dream - one of standing along Euclid Avenue covered to its curbs in confetti as a championship trophy is paraded into Public Square - is still there.
Give them credit. They still believe.
It's why they showed up in impressive numbers recently to rub elbows with Hargrove and a few Cleveland players as the Indians toured the area, hoping to reconnect with pained fans. Keep in mind, these supporters have watched star pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee traded, only to see them win elsewhere.
Staehr brought a 1997 World Series bat needing Hargrove's signature. Pavlick, wearing an Indians cap, had several pristine baseballs he wanted marked.
Hargrove understands their passion. He played for the Indians from 1979-85, when their best finish was sixth in the AL East. Back with the club as a consultant this season, Hargrove has always admired the way Cleveland has always fought back.
Nothing - not job losses, not factories closing, not the endless jokes, not LeBron - will stop Cleveland fans from pulling for their teams, however bad they may be.
"It says a lot about the resiliency of the people in this part of the country," said Hargrove, who managed the Indians to five AL Central titles and two pennants. "People used to ask, `Why do you choose to live here?' I could have gone back to Texas, but people here have the same resiliency and independent-minded spirit that the people I grew up with back in Texas did. That's what drew us here. You see it in how people take the punches here and push back a little bit, which I think is good."
As he waited in line with his parents, Jim and Mary Pat, little 10-year-old Joe Ezersky of Fairview Park was keeping the faith. He hasn't been around long enough to understand what it's truly like to be a Cleveland fan. Like many kids in this area, he got his first bitter taste of sports when James decided to bolt last July.
But like so many before him, he's bouncing back, he's staying loyal.
"People think that it could get better," he said. "They think, `Hey, if we stick around for a while, it will get better but the losing keeps happening year after year after year. We have good times and people are waiting for that to come back."
For emphasis, the kid pounded his hand into his glove.
"They're waiting," he said, "for all that goodness to come back."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)