Bracket Breakdown, Round THREE, Part 2
By Andrew Clayman & Jeff Ellis
So, who are the eight greatest players of the modern Cleveland sports era? You've only got a few more days to cast your votes. In the meantime, the 64 Since '64 Bracket Breakdown rolls on, as Jeff Ellis and I look at the last four matchups of Round 3 and gear up for the Elite 8. The finish line is finally on the horizon, but who will stay in the race? The jerk or the choir boy? The homerun king or the hall of famer? CC or Grady? It's about to be settled.
And now... to wrap up Round 3.
Round 3, Red & Blue Regional
#2 Albert Belle vs #3 Mark Price
Round 2: Belle def. Mack (64% of vote), Price def. Eckersley (92%)
ANDREW CLAYMAN: In all honesty, this is the one potential matchup I was more interested in than any other when the tournament began. Belle versus Price— like the personifications of the two sides of the Cleveland sports mindset. There’s the good-natured, soft spoken point guard— quick to get his teammates involved but fearless enough to stop on a dime and drain the big 3 when you need it. Then there’s the snarling left fielder— bitter and unapproachable, but undeniably admirable in his work ethic and drive to succeed. Mark Price was floored by a Rick Mahorn forearm. Albert Belle leveled Fernando Vina with his own. They’re polar opposites, but in the ‘90s, they were my two favorite Cleveland sports figures. As for who moves on, the votes have Price in a landslide, but many of those votes were likely scornful non-votes for Belle— the man who, like Art Modell a year earlier—stabbed his adoring fan base in the back by skipping town in 1996. As I’ve made clear in earlier rounds, my appreciation for what Belle did as an Indian has long since outweighed my beef with him. But to the general public, he seems destined to remain a villain. Meanwhile, everyone seems to have completely forgiven Mark Price for his coma inducing turn as a Cavs color commentator.
JEFF ELLIS: This is a very interesting contest, for sure. The contrasts are great— physically, personality wise, and stylistically. As Andy mentioned, Price looks like a walk to win easy, and I can understand why. Still, might as well see what the objective numbers have to say. Price played in Cleveland for 9 years, but 7 full seasons. Belle was in Cleveland for 8 years, and 6 full seasons. So they spent pretty close to the same amount of time in town. Mark’s gradual decline in play and the fact he was traded made his exit a lot more palatable to most Cleveland fans. In the time both players were here, though, it should be fairly obvious that it was Belle who was the better player. The hitter formerly known as Joey made 5 All Star Games to Price’s 4, and finished in the top ten in MVP voting on four different occasions (he would have won a couple if not for the media’s biases). Along with having tremendous power, Belle also walked as much as he struck out. In an era of huge strikeout numbers, Albert routinely whiffed under 100 times a year, and his 9 consecutive 100+ RBI seasons rank him among the elite run producers in the history of the game. Price, while a great player, was never quite in those historic sort of reaches. I love Mark Price-- he is one of the most underrated players of his era. But I had to vote for Belle. He was a rare type of talent who sadly seems destined to be reduced to a foot note for the mainstream and a traitor in Cleveland.
#1 Jim Thome vs #4 Paul Warfield
Round 2: Thome def. Dixon (59%), Warfield def. Colavito (60%)
JE: Speaking of supposed traitors... this has got to be the toughest call of any of the Round 3 games: a Hall of Famer versus a future enshrinee. The voting has been far closer than Belle vs. Price, but not surprisingly, the Benedict Arnolds are coming up short in both cases. Both Jim Thome and Paul Warfield spent the better part of a decade in Cleveland (Warfield's branched over two stints), and their respective achievments make for a pretty interesting comparison. Thome, a notorious slow starter, actually had more top ten MVP finishes than All Star Game appearances in his time in Cleveland. Warfield, on the other hand, went to 8 Pro Bowls and was a member of the 1970s All Decade team. Yes, Thome is the Indians' all time home run leader, but I had to vote for Warfield, nonetheless. The reasoning is the same I have used in every matchup. Thome was a great player, but he was never the league's best at his position (be it 3B or 1B). Meanwhile, Warfield, to me, was the best receiver in football when he was at his peak, which he was in Cleveland before his trade. So I had to take the player who stood out the most from his contemporaries.
AC: Jeff, the key flaw in your argument is presuming that Paul Warfield peaked in Cleveland, which the numbers don't exactly support. I’ve gone over this a bit in earlier rounds, but the fact is, Warfield made 5 of his 8 Pro Bowls as a Miami Dolphin, and this severely impacts how I judge him in this head-to-head with Thome. If we’re comparing full careers and all teams involved, Jeff’s logic probably holds true. But we’re talking Cleveland, and Thome’s impact on the Indians— and his association with that organization— easily eclipses Warfield’s with the Browns. Thome is the Tribe’s all-time homerun king and will surely don Chief Wahoo on his plaque in Cooperstown, while Warfield will best be remembered for his great years with that occasionally perfect Dolphins team. Despite this indisputable truth, it looks like Thome is in serious danger of getting bounced (the vote is extremly close), thus potentially suffering the same fate as the other former Tribe sluggers who followed the cash. Thome, Belle, Ramirez... none of these guys deserve a spot in the Elite 8???
Round 3, Scarlet & Gray Regional
#5 Gene Hickerson vs #1 Jim Brown
Round 2: Hickerson def. F. Ryan (71%), Brown def. Nance (96%)
JE: From the closest vote to the biggest blowout, Jim Brown continues to go unchallenged. I think a case could be made that this is the matchup of the best running back and the best guard of the 1960s. Both players made the ‘60s All Decade team, and more importantly, both are enshrined in Canton. What makes this interesting to me is that Jim Brown was clearly a better running back because he had Hickerson blocking for him, while Hickerson was a better blocker because of Brown’s ability to hit holes and break free. These were two players who helped each other reach their full potentials. In the end, my vote goes to Brown over the underrated Hickerson. It might be a “skill position” bias, but clearly, Brown remains one of the greatest to ever touch a pigskin.
AC: Even though the voting is somewhat pointless when you’re talking about Jim Brown (until the Finals perhaps), there is at least a little intrigue in this one. Brown has always been one of the most vocal advocates for Gene Hickerson getting into the Hall of Fame, which finally happened a few years ago. And there’s no doubt there was a symbiotic element to their success on the field during their eight seasons together. Still, Hickerson would likely have acknowledged that his role was mainly as a cog in the Jim Brown machine—one of five men responsible for giving #32 the room to do what he does; namely, gaining huge chunks of yards. This doesn’t diminish Hickerson’s accomplishments. It’s just damn difficult for anyone to realistically compare their feats to Brown's, especially when Jimmie has the benefit of statistics to showcase his greatness.
#6 CC Sabathia vs #7 Grady Sizemore
Round 2: Sabathia def. Tiant (70%), Sizemore def. Carr (56%)
AC: Fortunately, this isn’t an underwear modeling contest, so CC Sabathia and his XXL boxers still have a shot of advancing to the Elite 8. The trouble is, it’s hard to figure that Sabathia or Grady Sizemore are more worthy of being in the next round than Belle, Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, or some of the other Indians who’ve fallen under the axe already. But, given their success with a somewhat weaker draw, these two ex-teammates will indeed do battle for the right to move on. As the voting indicates, this is a very even matchup between two young players in their prime. Jeff and I have already argued plenty about Sabathia’s career track record and about Sizemore’s progression (I see declining numbers, he sees steady improvement). All told, it’s probably CC’s Manchurian Candidate-like transformation into a Yankee automaton that will be his undoing with voters, who notoriously vote with their hearts over their heads. Grady might be the one marketable commodity the rebuilding Tribe can still hang its hat on, but to me, he still seems a few years shy of being worthy of being called one of this city's all-time greats. Sabathia's consistency across his eight years in Cleveland (particularly impressive from a young arm rushed to the Bigs) earns him my vote.
JE: I actually think the voters are siding with Grady because he's the better player. If you compare their actual production, Sizemore has clearly been more valuable to the Indians' cause. Yes, CC did win a Cy Young award, but before that year he had never finished in the top 5 in voting. You can say he was consistent, but for most of his career, that consistency usually meant an ERA over 4.00. Sabathia’s Cy Young year was also the only time he ever appeared on an MVP ballot, as opposed to Grady, who’s received MVP votes in four different seasons. I stand by the fact that Sizemore’s overall production improved every year until this year, which was plagued by injuries. He remains one of the most dynamic, well-rounded players in the game—a rare combination of speed and power in the post-steroids era. In my mind, Cliff Lee was the superior pitcher to Sabathia during their time here, and despite CC’s excellent 2007 season, I still feel like Sizemore’s four straight superb years carry more weight. In some ways, I agree with Andy that neither guy should probably be in the Elite 8, but given the task, I go Grady.
When we return, it's down to the last 8 men standing, as we lead up to a year-end coronation of Cleveland sports' top player of the modern era.