When fans discuss star-crossed, championship-starved sports cities, they usually focus on places such as Cleveland, Buffalo and Seattle, northern climes with harsh winters whose last titles were won, respectively, in 1964 (the Browns), 1965 (the Bills) and 1979 (the SuperSonics). And yet it's a warm-weather American city -- the eighth-biggest by population –- that has gone longer without winning a title than those three hard-luck cities; longer, in fact, than any city with two or more major sports.
We're talking about San Diego, whose relative absence from title-drought discussions perhaps says as much about San Diego as it does about those aforementioned cities.
"We only have two major sports teams, so we don't have as many opportunities to lose, I suppose, as the other sports cities," says Steve Adler, 35, who runs Friarhood, a Padres blog, and also contributes to Bolts from the Blue, a Chargers fan site. "At the same time, we’re kind of known as the quiet, sleepy surf town."
That's part of the problem: San Diego isn't exactly a media epicenter. The epic curses seem to happen where a lot of writers are concentrated. America pretty much ignored Cleveland's curse until Boston's was over -- even though Cleveland's curse was (and is) far more heinous than Boston's.
Did you know San Diego has its own version of the Curse of the Bambino? Yep, it's true. Lance Alworth was traded from the Chargers to the Cowboys in 1970, and you see what each franchise has done since. (More recently, New Orleans even won a Super Bowl on the back of former San Diego icon Drew Brees.) Even the San Diego Conquistadors signed Wilt Chamberlain in 1973, only to have the Lakers sue to keep him from playing as well as coaching.
You probably had no idea about any of that. And part of the reason is because San Diego even loses in a drab way.
Other towns lose loud. Cleveland has catastrophic failures like The Drive (and losing to John Elway), The Fumble (when Earnest Byner coughed up the tying touchdown on the goal line late in the 1987 AFC Championship Game), and The Shot (when Michael Jordan floated over Craig Ehlo for a buzzer-beater and series-winner in the first round of the 1989 playoffs against the Cavaliers).
Buffalo has Scott Norwood -- wide right to lose the 1990 Super Bowl -- and of course, four straight Super Bowl losses overall.
Seattle can vent about losing A-Rod and Randy Johnson and how the refs supposedly handed Super Bowl XL to the Steelers.
But when it comes to San Diego and its inability to win a title -- the last was an AFL championship by the Chargers in 1963 -- it's the absence of an iconic failure -- the ball through Buckner's legs, Bartman grabbing the foul ball, all those uppercase Cleveland setbacks -- that allows San Diego to be overlooked as a title-starved city.
Nick Canepa, 65, is a lifelong San Diegan and has been a sportswriter for the San Diego Union-Tribune for nearly 40 years. He says the city's biggest gut-punch sports loss was the 2006 AFC Divisional Game against the Patriots, when the No. 1 seed Chargers (who'd been unbeaten at home during the regular season) lost to New England, 24-21 -- despite outgaining the Patriots in rushing yards and total yards and intercepting Tom Brady three times.
"That was the big stunner, because they were better than everybody that year," Canepa says.
If San Diego has its Buckner/Bartman moment (at least among its own diehard fans), Canepa says it's probably when Marlon McCree intercepted Brady on a fourth-down play with six minutes left in that 2006 divisional game. The Chargers were ahead 21-13 and the change of possession would have allowed San Diego to kill valuable time off the clock. But McCree was subsequently stripped of the ball by Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown, and the Patriots recovered. Four plays later they scored a touchdown and added a two-point conversion to tie it. After the Chargers went three and out, the Patriots pushed the ball down the field and scored the go-ahead points on a field goal with 1:10 left on the clock. The game ended when the Chargers' Nate Kaeding (below) missed a game-tying 54-yard field goal as time expired.
If the McCree play had happened in the Super Bowl or even the AFC Championship Game, casual fans might remember it better. But that's one of the reasons why San Diego is overlooked as a down-on-its-luck sports town: When its teams lose, they don't lose in iconic fashion. Moreover, when San Diego teams reach the biggest stages -- the Super Bowl and World Series -- they don't even make it interesting, in part because they've been matched up against all-time great teams. In their lone Super Bowl appearance after the 1994 season, the Chargers got waxed by San Francisco, 49-26.
"They could have played the Niners a thousand times and not beaten them once," Canepa says.
When the Padres reached their two World Series, they ran into two of the best baseball teams of the last half-century, the 1984 Detroit Tigers and the 1998 New York Yankees. Between the two Series, the Padres won one game.
So when people raise the issue of a curse on San Diego sports -- and yes, there's actually a Wikipedia page that lists all of the city’s sports misfortunes -- Canepa is quick to dismiss it.
"For the most part (San Diego teams) just haven't been good enough," he says.
In rabid sports towns like Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, mediocrity is not tolerated very well by fans. But in San Diego -- a town with a large population of non-natives, many of them employed by the U.S. Navy -- there's not the same obsession with winning.
"We have a lot of transplants," says Adler, a 35-year-old lifelong resident who also hosts a sports radio show on XTRA Sports 1360 in San Diego. "Yeah, they'll cheer for the Chargers, but they'll cheer for their old teams. We don't have a very large base of homegrown fans. And I think that hurts the passion sometimes, because we don't have as many rabid fans. A lot of fans are okay with their teams being good enough. The Aztecs (of San Diego State) made the Sweet 16 last year and people wanted to hold a parade."
Expectations, he admits, are different because the city hasn't experienced much sports success. The Chargers, more than the Padres, have established a pattern of consistency, with Philip Rivers and company winning five AFC West titles in the last seven years -- a successful yet ultimately disappointing stretch, as the team has reached only one AFC title game with Rivers -- and no Super Bowls. The Padres, meanwhile, are in last place in the National League West this season, one year after winning 90 games and finishing two games behind the World Series-winning Giants in the division. That near-miss that didn't keep the Padres from trading their best player, Adrian Gonzalez, to the Red Sox for prospects, a deal necessitated by the Padres' inability to meet the salary expectations of Gonzalez, who was a pending free agent.
"Most fans, the ones who follow the team close enough, we knew it was gonna happen," Adler says.
So while Cleveland got its hopes up about LeBron, San Diegans basically figured Gonzalez was gonzo.
But that doesn't make the long history of losing less bleak.
Nicole Vargas, a former sportswriter for the San Diego Union-Tribune and a journalism lecturer at San Diego State University, says the city's low profile among the championship-challenged reflects the area's overall attitude towards sports. Many people are very passionate about sports, but it's often those sports they play themselves.
"A lot of our passion for sport is participatory," she says. "We have a climate, a culture, that lends itself to competition. We almost, as San Diegans, consider ourselves as much of athletes as the athletes we watch. Surfers everywhere, runners everywhere, bikers everywhere. It's just part of our culture. It's ingrained in us, because we have sunshine to burn."
The culture of San Diego goes a long way toward explaining why it will never be grouped with Cleveland as a woe-is-me sports town, says Scott Raab, an Esquire writer and Cleveland native who was in the stadium as a 12-year-old when the Browns won the city's last sports title in 1964.
"I think a couple of important things differentiate Cleveland from (San Diego and Seattle). People generally accord those cities a cool factor -- and that the people who live there want to live there. Those aren't cities that people associate with rust belt decay and hopelessness and god if you live there you must be a (bleeping) loser. I think that's inseparable," says Raab, who in November is publishing a book called "The Whore of Akron: One’s Man Search for the Soul of LeBron James," a memoir of sorts about the city of Cleveland, its sports teams and the basketball player who couldn't deliver a championship before jilting the city and taking his talents to South Beach.
"It's one of the things that's devastating about LeBron leaving. For those seven seasons, increasingly as his career went along, there was a sense of hope and possibility (that he and the Cavaliers could deliver a championship)," Raab says. "The jobs aren't coming back, the weather's not going to get any better (in Cleveland). The cool factor, to the sense it even exists, is contrived or ironic. And the teams, to me at least, seem further away than ever at this point from getting it done."
Hard to argue with that, but the Indians were a first-place team for a while this year, and the Browns are coming together. Meanwhile the Pads are in rough shape and it's hard to tell if the Chargers are getting ready to win or getting ready to get old. Or maybe get out of town.
The Bolts, who led the NFL in offense and defense last season but missed the playoffs because of terrible play on special teams, have been trying to get a new stadium built for several years. But city officials have balked so far. Meanwhile Los Angeles, 120 miles to the north, has already financed and named a new football stadium, Farmers Field. Would the Chargers, who began life in 1960 in Los Angeles, move back to L.A.? It's happened before -- remember the San Diego Clippers?
"Everybody is on that (Chargers) bandwagon right now," Adler says. "This could be the one team that gives us a parade, and this could be their last season in San Diego, so people are going to be rooting really hard this year."
At the very least, maybe they'll lose memorably this time.