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HAZELWOOD: LeBron James, Corey Kluber are rare dual Cleveland legends

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Jun 8, 2018 at 8:48 PM

CLEVELAND — It’s become all too easy.

Getting caught in the moment is human nature. The opportunity in present tense to appreciate greatness is often taken for granted.

But the reality of what the average Cleveland professional sports fan has been fortunate enough to witness struck me last week. Two incredible players delivered legendary performances — yet we’ve watched it become so normal for both, it was hard to find anyone genuinely surprised.

On May 30, Indians ace Corey Kluber walked off the mound with 10 strikeouts after six scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox. It marked the 24th consecutive regular season start the two-time Cy Young award winner had allowed three runs or less.

That is the longest such streak — which as of this writing is at 25 straight — by a pitcher in the American League since at least 1908. At their peaks in the AL, Hall of Fame pitchers like Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Catfish Hunter, Nolan Ryan, Jack Morris, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry never did that. Same for Roger Clemens.

The next night following Kluber’s outing on May 31, Cavaliers superstar LeBron James finished with a playoff career-high 51 points, along with eight rebounds and eight assists in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Golden State.

It was yet another rare feat for James, as he became one of six players to score 50-plus points in the 72-year history of the NBA Finals. The last to do it was a certain Chicago Bulls player who first made the No. 23 iconic — and that was 25 years ago.

All of this brought me to a question I asked myself, along with countless family and friends in person and on social media: When was the last time the three major professional sports teams in Cleveland had two players perform at a championship level at the same time? More specifically, when was the last three-year stretch in Cleveland sports comparable for both players?

If we’re being honest, the magnitude of James alone probably sends us back five decades. Any die-hard Cleveland fan knows instantly where to go: Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who retired still at his peak in 1965 after nine seasons for the Browns.

There isn’t much I can tell anyone reading this about James. Nor is it necessary to jump into the endless list of stats and records. Simply put, whether you allow yourself to get sucked into the LeBron vs. Jordan arguments (I'll pass), few will argue James isn’t one of the best five or 10 players to ever play in the NBA.

It’s been 53 years since Jim Brown terrorized opponents, and most still put him in discussion as one of the top three running backs — if not players of any position — to ever play in the NFL.

That brings is to finding an equal match to Kluber. It’s pretty fair to say, even despite Gaylord Perry’s mid-70’s success that included a Cy Young, the Indians have not had a better starting pitcher than Kluber since at the least, Sam McDowell (1961-71) and Luis Tiant (1964-69).

Obviously James is going to be in the Naismith Hall of Fame for basketball. We cannot say Kluber is destined for Cooperstown. In fact, at this point it’s probably unlikely.

But that being said, there is no denying he is in the midst of a fourth ‘Hall of Fame’ season with the Tribe, and consider some facts.

There are only 19 pitchers to ever win multiple Cy Young awards in the 62-year history of the award, and Kluber is one of them. If he were to win a third — and at 9-2 with a 1.96 ERA ahead of his next start, he’s certainly in the discussion — there are less than 10 pitchers to win three Cy Young awards.

In the month of May, Kluber became the first pitcher ever in 110 years of such statistics being recorded to finish with four-plus wins, 40-plus strikeouts and no more than one walk in a calendar month.

In one calendar year since Kluber came off the disabled list to start on June 1, 2017, he is 24-4 with a 1.76 ERA — striking out 319 to just 33 walks in 258 innings.

Now, back to the debate. Ozzie Newsome (1978-90) had a Hall of Fame career with the Browns, but I’m not sure you can argue a peak performer for the Indians or Cavaliers — at least in comparison to Kluber’s growing accomplishments. Joe Carter, Bernie Kosar and Mark Price were All-Stars, but never the definitive best at their respective positions.

Back to the days of Jim Brown (1957-65), the Cavaliers weren’t around yet (1970). On the Indians, Bob Feller had just retired and Larry Doby’s prime days had passed, as he left Cleveland after 1958.

McDowell’s incredible peak years were from 1965-71 — after Jim Brown retired. Same for Tiant. If you wanted to go side-by-side for Brown’s first three years at running back (1957-59), the case can be made for the great Rocky Colavito.

Infamously traded to Detroit prior to 1960, Colavito from 1957-59 averaged a .270 batting average with 25 doubles, 36 home runs and 103 RBIs per season. Playing a 12-game schedule, Brown averaged 1,266 yards and 13 TDs over his first three seasons.

From a production and accomplishment standpoint, those two would be my choice. However, factor in Kluber’s amazing pitching run to help the Indians reach Game 7 of the 2016 World Series — and of course James ending the city’s championship drought five months earlier in the 2016 NBA Finals — one can argue to go back even further.

While the Browns played for the NFL championship (lost to Lions) and lost to the Giants in another playoff game during Jim Brown’s first three seasons, the Indians were around .500 in 1957-58 — and at 89 wins were five games short of the postseason in 1959 with Colavito.

Weighing in team success, I’m going to suggest we’ve not seen the caliber of James and Kluber over the past three years since the aforementioned Hall of Famer Larry Doby, and Browns HOF quarterback Otto Graham from 1953-55. Equally strong cases over Doby could be made for Tribe pitchers Early Wynn and Bob Lemon as well.

In those three seasons, Graham guided the Browns to an incredible 28-6-1 record while averaging 2,178 yards and 12 TDs per year with a 59.6 completion percentage. The Browns lost the NFL championship by a point in 1953, then won the championship in both 1954 and 1955.

Doby had a .275 batting average with 18 doubles, 29 home runs and 101 RBIs from 1953-55. He was a three-time All-Star and finished just 20 votes shy of the AL MVP to Yogi Berra in 1954. The Indians won 92, 111 and 93 games in each season, falling in the 1954 World Series to the New York Giants.

Regardless of where you or anyone stands on this fun little topic, one thing is for sure. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the likes of James and Kluber — so let’s enjoy it while we can.

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