August 2, 2014

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Dan Coughlin: Cleveland fans kow all about bad trades

A conversation developed with the chap sitting next to me at a high school basketball game. That’s the charm of high school basketball. You can actually hold a dialogue with a stranger, unlike a Cavs game, where the atmosphere simulates the day room of an insane asylum because of that lunatic with a microphone.
The subject the other night was the worst trade in Browns history, which demonstrates the pervading negative attitude around here. This town is a half-empty glass, not a half-full one.
Within a couple of minutes we identified the worst trades made by the Browns, Indians and Cavs, which is so easy a fifth-grader could do it.
The worst trade by the Browns was sending Bobby Mitchell to the Washington Redskins for the rights to 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, whom the Redskins had just picked first in the entire draft.
Mitchell went on to the Hall of Fame, but you won’t find Davis’ name listed on the Browns all-time roster. He never played a game for the Browns because he came down with leukemia and died two years later.
Bad luck made that a bad trade, although in retrospect it lacked logic. Browns coach Paul Brown envisioned a
two-pronged running attack with Davis joining Jim Brown in the backfield, giving the Browns two equally powerful and speedy ballcarriers.
Pro football, however, was approaching the era of the single feature back and the Browns already had the best in Jim Brown. With Washington, Mitchell became the best flanker in the game.
For pure stupidity, however, the worst deal the Browns ever made was in January 1970, when they traded Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield to Miami for the second pick in the draft in order to select Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps.
Head coach Blanton Collier argued against the deal, but owner Art Modell would not be talked out of it and his other advisers supported him.
A graceful and acrobatic pass receiver, Warfield also had a key block on the famed Browns sweep, which meant that the passing game and the running game suffered when he left. Teammates said that Warfield never missed his block. Phipps, meanwhile, never panned out. It was years before the Browns recovered from that single trade.
With those two deals the Browns gave up two Hall of Famers at the peaks of their careers and got very little in return. One trade was bad luck. The other was dumb.
The Indians’ infamously worst deal became the title of a Terry Pluto book, “The Curse of Rocky Colavito.”
Two days before opening day in 1961, the Indians traded Colavito, the American League home run king, to Detroit for the league batting champion, Harvey Kuenn.
It was a trade made for one reason, to satisfy the ego of Tribe general manager Frank Lane, a compulsive trader who loved to see his name in headlines. Colavito was the most popular Indian and there wasn’t room in the teepee for both him and Lane.
Gabe Paul, who inherited Lane’s mess, grumbled later that Kuenn was a singles hitter with no speed. Kuenn batted leadoff but he clogged up the bases. Colavito was even slower, but he was hitting 40 home runs a season. Nobody put a stop watch on his home run trot. In order to regain the fans’ support, Gabe Paul brought back Colavito four years later, but the price was high. The Indians traded pitcher Tommy John and outfielder Tommy Agee to the White Sox for him.
The Cavs’ worst deal also was orchestrated by the owner. Gordon Gund, suspicious of the people with whom Ron Harper associated outside of the game, ordered his general manager Wayne Embry to trade him, to make whatever deal was available. Gund could not be dissuaded. In exchange for Harper, the Cavs got Danny Ferry, who had a long and productive career with the Cavs and who is now their general manager.
In his book, Cavs coach Lenny Wilkins flat-out said that when Harper was sent packing, he knew they would never beat the Chicago Bulls because Harper was the only player he had who could defend Michael Jordon.
With all this bad karma, why do we overlook the good deals? Dick Shiner to the Pittsburgh Steelers for Bill Nelsen in a straight-up trade of backup quarterbacks. Felix Fermin to Seattle for Omar Vizquel. A second-round draft pick to the Dallas Mavericks in 1989 for Mark Price.
Particularly at this time of year, this season, let’s share the joy.
Dan Coughlin is a columnist for The Chronicle-Telegram and a sportscaster for Channel 8.