LAKE TWP. For writers, it is often difficult to write about others who write. Much the same can be said when sports fans hazard a conversation with those for whom professional sports commentary and criticism is a profession.
To his credit, award-winning sportswriter and author Terry Pluto made both seem as natural as friendly dinner table conversation Nov. 16, when he appeared at the Lake Community Branch of the Stark County Library to discuss the current state of the Northeast Ohio sports world and his latest book, The Comeback: Lebron, the Cavs, and Cleveland.
"I’m going to talk about something never thought I would be talking about, a title," Pluto said at the start of his presentation. "Way back a long time ago there was the ’64 Browns, but thanks to Art Modell, even that was blacked out. I was 9 years old and I listened to it on the radio in my friend’s basement. It was not on TV until the next day."
Over the next hour, Pluto invited the packed auditorium into his own unique, behind-the-scenes vantage point as a sportswriter and columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal and Cleveland Plain Dealer – a position from which he earned more than 50 state and local writing awards and been called "Perhaps the best writer of sports books," by the Chicago Tribune in 1997.
A large part of that is because Pluto himself - much like fellow local sports luminary, broadcaster and Pluto co-writer, Tom Hamilton - is a die-hard, yet brutally honest, voice for Cleveland sports.
"I love listening to guys like Joe Tait and Hammy when their teams start losing – they get grumpy and they don’t like the coffee, they don’t like the umps," Pluto said.
History making season
The Comeback chronicles the time between the dark days of Lebron James’ 2010 departure from Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat, to his dramatic 2014 return and pledge to bring home a championship. And while the apex of the book concentrates on the team’s triumphant 2016 season, Pluto said its origins go back much further, to a time when the post-Lebron Cavs front office found it nearly impossible to find anyone willing to play or coach in Cleveland.
"The moment I read the essay (on Lebron’s pending return to Cleveland, penned by Sports Illustrated writer, Lee Jenkins) I knew I knew I had to write a book about the return of Lebron James," Pluto writes in the opening of Comeback. "Most people told me ‘I read (the essay) and I cried.’ I’m talking about guys."
Pluto has long explored the synergy, both positive and negative, between Cleveland and its sports teams. Lebron James’ return to Cleveland, and the eventual national championship, was the stuff of Hollywood movies almost before it even happened.
Pluto revealed that the "fallout" leading James trip to Miami actually began as much as a year before. The situation was not made better by things like, in Pluto’s words, "(Team owner) Dan Gilbert’s goodbye e-mail; ‘salutations, hope you enjoy the beach’," leading to three years in the metaphorical wilderness.
"Does anyone remember Jamario ‘The Moon Man’ Moon?" Pluto asked, to which he got a single "woop" from the back of the auditorium. "See, that’s one more than he deserves."
In addition to the recent Cavs history, Pluto laid out a Northeast Ohio sports smorgasbord, revealing fascinating tidbits of on-and-off field and court machinations, to his personal tribulations as a writer.
In Comeback, Pluto writes that with the Cavs tied 2-2 with the Toronto Raptors in 2015 the Eastern Conference finals, he considered shelving what would eventually become Comeback.
"If they lost to Toronto, this book was in trouble – I thought, (Cavs general manager, David) Griffin is going to fire everybody," Pluto said.
Pluto’s 1990 book on the history of the American Basketball Association, was not even his own idea to write. He described at one point being stuck with "all this source material and no idea how I’m going to structure it."
When an audience member asked if he felt it was better to be a sports fan who wants to write, or a writer who likes sports, Pluto immediately chose the latter, pointing out that, for him, the research is the real work, with the writing itself the payoff.
"Someone once told me, ‘don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re an easy read.’ I want to be an easy read," Pluto said.
Though he was in town touting a book about basketball, by his own admission, Pluto has always been a baseball guy – a sport that shares time with basketball as his favorite; football coming in as "the show horse," in Pluto’s words.
Humorously noting his own lifetime .232 batting and slugging percentages at Cleveland Benedictine High School ("which, for you mathematicians out there, means they were all singles."), Pluto said the 2016 Indians, with nowhere near the marquee name recognition as the Cavs and seeming trying to maintain underdog status by injuring pitchers, made the run to Game 7 of the World Series one of the most memorable moments in his 30-plus year sportswriter career.
In one of the more touching personal observations, Pluto spoke of manager Terry Francona’s devotion to his players, and how Francona sees more of his own promising yet injury-shortened Major League career in "that guy sitting at the end of the bench" than he does in rising stars such as Tribe shortstop, Francisco Lindor.
"But he’ll be the first to tell you he loves Frankie Lindor – he’ll say, ‘that’s how I keep a job’," Pluto said.
Sports in its proper place
Pluto wrapped up his comments with a few out-on-a-limb predictions – including his assertion that the Browns will win one game this year, though he has already been wrong a few times about which one – and the impact people like his father and legendary Benedictine football coach, Augie Bossu, have had on his personal journey.
"Augie would always tell me, ‘hell’s bells Pluto, you’re better than that.’ He nailed you, but at the same time lifted you up," Pluto said.
Also a noted faith writer, perhaps the most poignant moments of Pluto’s talk had to do with his view on the role sports should play in our lives.
"Sports is a great diversion, but it is not life and death," he said. "How many of us have gotten that call at 2 in the morning, or the one from the doctor that says, ‘we can’t talk about it on the phone’ – I’ll bet those are going to be good results.
"When my dad had a stroke and he was paralyzed on the right side, he so looked forward to seeing those games on TV though. And I looked forward to them too. So does sports change the physical condition of a person? No. But it can help us deal with a lot of other things."