Let me begin with an apology to Cleveland sports fans. No, this column isn’t about you, at least not directly, but I do have to bring up a few unsavory memories to provide the proper context.
Until 2016, when LeBron James essentially and single-handedly willed the Cavaliers to their first-ever world championship, wiping out a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in National Basketball Association Finals history against a Golden State team that had set the league record for regular season wins, the Rock & Roll Capital of the World was known more for its years of sports futility, if not for getting rocked and rolled by a lifetime’s worth of soul-crushing near misses.
In January of 1987, the Browns suffered through The Drive, followed the next season by The Fumble; there was The Shot, which eliminated the Cavs in 1989 and was sandwiched around two other playoff debacles (’88 and ’93) courtesy of one Michael Jordan; and finally, there was Jose Mesa’s blown save in ’97 and Ben Zobrist’s double in ’16 that denied the oh-so-close Indians a pair of potential World Series triumphs.
But here’s the good news: thanks to the Cavaliers’ title, your city no longer holds the distinction of Most Miserable Sports City in America. It’s not even close anymore. There’s one city in this great country that is twice your size — four times if one discounts your suburbs — but has yet to celebrate a single world championship in any of the four major professional sports, even though it has had teams in three of them since the Sixties.
It can’t even keep the ones it has had; only its baseball team has stuck around. It has lost three professional basketball franchises, its National Football League team recently skipped back to the city from whence it arrived 60 years ago, and the National Hockey League hasn’t given it more than a cursory glance, even though similar warm-weather sites such as Phoenix, Dallas and Miami have been allowed a footprint.
Greetings from sunny San Diego, California. Wish you were here?
Don’t get me wrong. I know several people who live in San Diego and many more who have visited it. It bills itself as “America’s Finest City,” and there’s more than enough to do there to make you realize that nickname isn’t hyperbolic. There’s the Midway Museum, Sea World, the nation’s top-ranked zoo, sunset sailing, kayaking, spelunking; and that’s just scratching the surface.
The city also has a rich history when it comes to minor-league and so-called “non-traditional” sports. Why, if you’re a San Diego sports fan, by next year you’ll be choosing whether to spend your ticket money on the Gulls (minor league hockey), the Loyal (minor league soccer), the Sockers (indoor soccer), the Aviators (team tennis), the Seals (lacrosse), the Legion (rugby), the Strike Force (indoor football), or the Wave (women’s soccer).
Why, then, does the 8th largest media market in the United States fail so miserably when it comes to purchasing, luring, or otherwise keeping franchises in the four major professional sports leagues (five, if you count Major League Soccer)? For that matter, why do the teams the city does have at that level always come up frustratingly short, time after time?
It’s enough to make Clevelanders sympathetic.
Let’s start with hockey. The closest San Diegans have come to having a franchise in the National Hockey League was in 1977, when the league was in the middle of short-lived negotiations to bring all 12 franchises from the fledgling World Hockey Association into the fold.
The WHA, which began play in 1971, had long been a thorn in the older league’s side, raiding its rosters for its biggest stars (Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe), and signing some of the sport’s brightest young talent (Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier). Subsequently, salaries skyrocketed, and owners from both organizations were feeling the financial pinch.
A pair of NHL owners, Ed Snider in Philadelphia and Bill Jennings of New York’s Rangers, latched onto the merger idea, which would have allowed the WHA teams to buy their way into the NHL for $2 million each.
The proposal was a godsend for San Diego’s franchise, the Mariners. At that point, it was in its fourth incarnation, having been known previously as the New York Raiders, the New York Golden Blades, and the Jersey Knights. It was no understatement to say that it was barely hanging on, drawing less than 5,000 fans a game, far fewer than the Gulls had been before the team’s arrival. One could imagine the team’s owner, McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, gleefully preparing to write a check for the singular opportunity to legitimize his investment.
Alas, the deal fell through, and the Mariners didn’t survive past the 1976-77 season. When a merger finally did happen in 1979, only six WHA franchises remained, with the NHL opening its doors for Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, the New England (soon-to-be Hartford) Whalers, the Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets.
Cincinnati’s team, the Stingers, didn’t make the cut, nor did Birmingham’s Aeros.
Since then, San Diego has been consistently and quickly dismissed as an expansion or relocation site. On the surface, this seems inexplicable, but ironically, the success of the Gulls often works against it. League executives tend to view the city only as a minor-league hotbed, and city officials appear loathe at times to ruin the vibe by snuffing out the Gulls’ loyal cult following and inviting big-league headaches like having to build a state-of-the-art arena.
The reason that’s always given, however, is that any team in San Diego would immediately find itself in competition with the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, both of which lie just 100 miles up I-5. Having three franchises in such proximity, especially in Southern California, where people have a plethora of spending choices even during the winter, makes little financial sense.
But San Diego’s hockey history, mostly a series of missed opportunities, looks positively grand next to its miserable attempts to maintain a basketball franchise.
The first team to skip town and head for greener pastures were the Rockets, who began play in the National Basketball Association in 1967 but nonetheless abandoned the Pacific coast four years later and headed for Houston.
The Rockets’ tenure was nondescript, even for an expansion team. They set a new league record for losses in their first year, parlayed that year’s top draft pick (future Hall of Fame inductee Elvin Hayes) into a playoff berth in year two, but then regressed and failed to make the postseason again.
The team drew 6,774 fans per game in its final season, an above-average figure at the time, but the bonds it had sold to build the San Diego Sports Arena with public funds were coming due, and with the U.S. inflation rate doubling in the intervening years, the Rockets’ owner, Robert Breitbard, had no choice but to sell.
The city tried again the very next season, this time as part of the rival American Basketball Association, but it was again undone by its own arena. The facility’s new lease owner, upset that he had been passed over when bidding for his own franchise, decided to take it out on the city’s new team, the Conquistadors, by locking them out. So, instead of playing in a state-of-the-art 14,400-seat venue, the “Q’s” and their rabid fan base were forced to fit instead into a dilapidated gym on the San Diego State University campus, one that could accommodate only 3,200 fans.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. The team signed an aging Wilt Chamberlain, but even that backfired, as did its attempts to rebrand itself as the Sails for the league’s final season in 1975-76. When it became obvious the franchise wasn’t going to be included in the upcoming NBA-ABA merger, it abruptly folded after playing only 11 games.
San Diego’s final attempt at making basketball work was the short stint of the NBA’s Clippers from 1978 to 1984, who made it little more than a pit stop in between their original home in Buffalo (where they played eight years as the Braves) and their current one in Los Angeles.
In fact, the franchise was more noteworthy by what it did in the courts than what it accomplished on it, after owner Donald Sterling filed an anti-trust suit against the league, asserting his right to relocate without its permission. So, after six losing seasons, in which the team’s only real splash was the signing of Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton in between his peak years in Portland (1974-78) and his Boston renaissance (1985-87), the Clippers headed north and have been there ever since.
At least the Padres are still there.
This season will be the Swinging Friars’ 54th, the team having been launched in 1969, along with the Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, and Seattle Pilots. Considering that two of those franchises have switched cities since then — the Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005 and the Pilots played only one season before moving to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers — San Diego has proved itself a viable home for Major League Baseball.
Attendance figures have been solid through the years, if unspectacular, usually hovering 15% or so below the league average. The franchise’s only real relocation scare happened prior to 1974, when it was nearly sold to an investor who had announced his intention to move it to Washington and to rename it the “Stars.” New uniforms were commissioned, and the Topps company even printed two separate sets of baseball cards that year, one with San Diego and Padres banners and one that read, Washington and “Nat’l Lea” instead.
This “variation set” of 15 cards can still be had, in fact, for around $125 a pop.
But just when hope appeared lost, Kroc swooped in and, unlike his failed attempt to save the city’s major league hockey team, he bought the struggling Padres organization for $12 million, pledging to keep it in San Diego.
Unfortunately, stability hasn’t equaled success. In 50+ years, the team has made MLB’s postseason only six times. It has fought its way to a pair of appearances in the World Series, but both times, it had the misfortunate of running into one of the sport’s all-time great teams.
In 1984, after becoming the first team in baseball history to rally from a two-game deficit to win a best-of-five League Championship Series, San Diego faced the Tigers, a team that still boasts the best 40-game start in baseball history (35-5). Detroit dispatched the Padres in five games seemingly without breaking a sweat. The 1998 Yankees made it look even easier, sweeping San Diego in the World Series to notch their 125th win of the season (playoffs included), which is still a Major League record.
Lousy timing, huh?
However, there’s no franchise that more perfectly summed up the angst of the San Diego faithful quite like the Chargers did.
To be fair, the franchise was responsible for the city’s only major professional sports championship, a 51-10 victory over the Boston Patriots in the 1963 title game of the old American Football League, the forerunner of one of the NFL’s two modern conferences.
But, in fitting San Diego fashion, that was three years prior to the creation of the Super Bowl and five before the AFL was seen by most fans as nothing more than a second-class, rinky-dink operation. After falling short in the next two league championship contests, the Chargers would fall into irrelevance until 1978, when they hired head coach Don Coryell, the man behind the “Air Coryell” offense, a scheme designed around the vertical passing game. He had recently been fired by the St. Louis Cardinals, despite leading that team to division titles in ’74 and ’75, its first playoff appearances in more than 25 years. Ironically, that move would sentence the Cardinals to another 30 years in the NFL wilderness, in which they made only the playoffs only twice.
Their loss was San Diego’s gain. The Chargers’ strong-armed young quarterback, Dan Fouts, flourished in Coryell’s system, and the team soon added running back Chuck Muncie and receiver Wes Chandler from New Orleans, veteran wideout Charlie Joiner from Cincinnati, and had drafted dynamic pass-catchers John Jefferson in ’78 and Kellen Winslow in ’79.
San Diego now boasted the most feared offense in the league. Fouts became only the second quarterback in football history to amass 4,000 passing yards in a season — a feat that is rather mundane today, I realize — and then proceeded to do it the next two years, as well.
In 1979, the Chargers compiled the most wins in the league, including a 35-7 shellacking of the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. However, in the divisional playoff round, Fouts threw five interceptions and San Diego lost to the wildcard Houston Oilers, who were playing without their starting quarterback and the league’s Most Valuable Player, running back Earl Campbell.
What was the team’s undoing? Well, according to a story in Sports Illustrated, Houston’s defensive coaching staff successfully deciphered the Chargers’ sideline hand gestures, and with the help of these stolen signals, knew exactly what was coming and thus pulled off the 17-14 upset. Pittsburgh went on to win another Super Bowl.
The next season, San Diego again held the playoff’s #1 seed but again lost to the AFC’s wildcard team, this time in the conference championship game and this time to its hated rival, the Raiders, 34-27. Oakland would defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Big Game two weeks later.
Finally, in 1981, the Chargers once more reached the AFC title game, but wind chills in Cincinnati reached 59 degrees below zero, in a game that would forever become known as “The Freezer Bowl.”
The weather, by itself, would have made a formidable enough challenge to San Diego’s passing attack, but Cincinnati cleverly decided to play with the wind at its backs to open the game, and the doors on the north end of Riverfront Stadium, the ones that led to the ambulance ramp and through which the heavy winds were gusting, were conspicuously left open. Then, when the teams switched sides for the second quarter, the doors were closed.
Coryell protested at halftime, and the doors were left closed for the rest of the game, but by then, the Bengals had built an insurmountable lead and went on to post a 27-7 victory.
To this day, a list of “Best Teams Never to Make the Super Bowl” will include the 1979-81 San Diego Chargers, and a similar ranking of “Best Modern-Day Quarterbacks to Have Never Played” in it will have Fouts, Warren Moon and Phillip Rivers (another long-time Charger) sitting atop it, in some order.
San Diego did make it to a Super Bowl after the 1994 season, but that edition was thoroughly outclassed by Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers.
Now, the only thing that would make the agony worse for the city’s long-suffering fan base is if the franchise finally broke through and won it all while representing the city of Los Angeles.
San Diegans are likely not betting against it.