Sunday, May 13, 2012

Living in the Now On a Lazy Sunday

On the day in which we all (hopefully) properly appreciate our Mothers and Wives, maybe it’s time to appreciate what’s happening with this Indians’ team and attempt to live in the “now” instead of overanalyzing the past (admittedly guilty here) or waiting impatiently for that other shoe to drop.  It is nearly mid-May and this Indians’ team is once again in 1st place and, while the end of 2011 (after an even hotter start) left…um, a little to be desired, as have the years since 2007, when did we all become so bitter and cynical that we can’t enjoy a 1st place team and are preoccupied by ancillary topics?

Maybe that bitterness and cynicism is ingrained in us as Cleveland fans, but has the collective misery grown to such a degree that instead of talking about a 1st place team in mid-May and what they ARE and COULD BE, we’re talking about and listing all the reasons that people are giving for not enjoying this or creating excuses to justify their extended misery to the point that a diversion from life – like baseball or sports – becomes a source of vitriol and unpleasantness?

For the past week, I’ve seen that dead horse on the ground over there – the Tribe’s attendance issue – get worked over…not that it means that there weren’t pieces that don’t deserve your eyes, with Let’s Go Tribe providing eye-opening hard analysis, Zach Meisel giving the pertinent quotes and story, and with Anthony Castrovince penning the takeaway that I’ve felt about this apparent new rite of Spring on the North Coast for long enough that I’m tired of forming an “opinion” on this attendance “issue” year after year.   Back in July of 2007, I wrote a piece wondering “Where is Everyone?” as the Indians ranked 25th in attendance, despite being 52-30 (!!!) and with the team about to run away with the AL Central, en route to the ALCS.  Much of what was written then still applies (though the names have changed) and I’m tired of pretending that this attendance “issue” is one that we’re just opening our doors to find staring us in the face.  This has been happening for nearly a decade now, through two complete tear-downs and rebuilds and anyone who feigns surprise or attempts to posit an individual reason (because there are many) for why this is the case isn’t being honest with themselves or wants to stand on some higher moral ground.

The attendance conversation is a conversation that takes place every year as it represents a lazy talking point for a local media that has grown increasingly lazy and uninterested in the team as a whole or in what transpires on the field, instead racing for page clicks by feeding the beast of pessimism and negativity that has pervaded this town.  Instead of reading or hearing thoughtful analysis about the team, the conversation turns to the hot-button issue (the attendance), and maybe some of that is a by-product of the times we live in and maybe some of it comes as a result of the Indians’ place in the pecking order (as I’m forced to watch TJ Ward tackle a Chris Farley impersonator in front of a car on a TV commercial over and over again), but what disappoints is that it (the attendance, or lack thereof) becomes SOLELY the focus of the Indians’ coverage, despite the Indians being in 1st place.

Now, if you want to have a discussion about whether Cleveland is still a 3-team town or if the soon-to-open casino is going to take people AWAY from coming to Tribe games –as Clevelanders can’t seem to get in line fast enough to continue to give Dan Gilbert their money (and the benefit of the doubt), despite his history – that’s an interesting conversation…even if it’s one that nobody really wants to have.  Regardless, the attendance issue has been here, is here, and is likely to be here and I’m tired of it detracting from my enjoyment of this team.  Because in case you haven’t noticed (and here is where I show restraint to not quote Harry Doyle), the Indians came out of the gates fast (again) and are atop the AL Central (again) as we approach the 40-game mark.

And while everyone is off thinking, kvetching, or attempting to justify the lack of attendance, they’re missing a young team that (again) has gotten off to a hot start and is making strides toward what could be an awfully fun summer.  While the attendance talk may be compelling at some level, the fact that Shapiro told Zach Meisel that the Indians are “not surprised and not worried” about the attendance means that the Indians aren’t in the same situation as the White Sox were last year and may not be all that relevant to the way that the ballclub operates or anticipates its revenue…so why should we even pay attention to it?

What deserves our attention is THIS team and, despite the fact that we’re still getting to know these players (while subconsciously attempting to NOT get too attached to them because we know how MLB works), this Indians’ team has exciting, likable, and compelling players that are quickly becoming part of our sports enjoyment.  Now, the excitement may not be fully palpable as the fact that a lot of these players don’t have a long track record that guarantees any future success, meaning we’re all kind of (as my friend Tyler put it) “waiting for the Tigers to ignite” and take off in the division.  But that hasn’t happened and while there is concern in the rotation (as Ubaldo goes under the video “microscope” again) as well as dark spots in the lineup and front end of the bullpen, there are players and trends that are emerging on this team that have to excite even the most bitter and cynical Indians’ “fan”.

Perhaps my thinking on this is colored by watching many of the games thus far this season with my baseball-obsessed 5-year-old, who gets genuinely excited every time that Kipnis comes to the plate and jumps up when Kotchman (whom he quite innocently calls “Katie” before I correct him, leading to his embarrassment) makes a phenomenal play at 1B.  He gets worried when Sipp loads the bases and makes innocuous statements like, “you know Ubaldo isn’t really pitching that well Dad, because he keeps walking people”, but it doesn’t detract from the interest and building love that he has for baseball and for the Indians.  Maybe that’s setting him up for a lifetime of disappointment (and I often wonder this as a parent), but baseball is fun for him – fun to watch, fun to talk about, and fun to think about. 
Frankly, isn’t that why we spend our time following a sport like baseball and a team like the Indians…for the fun of it?

Certainly, what’s transpired since those halcyon days in October of 2007 have left many people wondering when the “fun” starts again, but the current Indians’ team does have a bit of that spark to them.  No…they’re not perfect and yes, this might not last, but let’s all acknowledge that the team has 5 players right now that are among the top 35 or 40 AL hitters in a number of categories and for a fanbase (present company included) that spent a good majority of the off-season complaining about being a “bat away”, check out where these players rank in some offensive categories among AL hitters:
.950 OPS (8th in AL)
168 OPS+ (6th in AL)
.410 wOBA (8th in AL)

.844 OPS (22nd in AL)
136 OPS+ (22nd in AL)
.373 wOBA (21st in AL)

.843 OPS (24th in AL)
138 OPS+ (18th in AL)
.364 wOBA (24th in AL)

.839 OPS (26th in AL)
138 OPS+ (20th in AL)
.367 wOBA (23rd in AL)

.803 OPS (36th in AL)
128 OPS+ (28th in AL)
.351 wOBA (33rd in AL)
Check out those lists (here and here) to fully grasp how other teams’ players rank in those categories and how that Indians’ quintet stacks up…right now, at least.

While that may not necessarily be sustainable for some of them (Hannahan is higher on each of these lists than BOTH Miggy and Prince), there are pieces and parts that are becoming more than just “pieces and parts” and it (surprisingly) may not include The BLC.  Certainly, the “return” of Choo would make this offense that much more potent (as I note that Brantley and Kotchman are at the bottom of most of those lists, even if they’re each improving and the 29-year-old Kotchman has a higher OPS in the month of May in MLB at .772 than the 27-year-old “He Who Shall Not Be Named” does in the month of May in AAA at .669), but the troika a Cabrera, Kipnis, and Santana form quite a triumvirate…and one that isn’t going away for a while.

Beyond the offense (which is still tops in the AL Central in runs scored per game), the bullpen boasts some strong arms and, even if the relievers are not universally dominant, to see the back-end of a bullpen emerge this early in a season is nearly unprecedented in these parts.  Throw in the personas of this crew (and I’m talking individually, not as a group) and the Indians’ bullpen is full of talented young players that are still rising and don’t figure to go away for a while.

So how about enjoying the “rise” of these players?
How about the organization touting THESE players to generate fan interest instead of relying on nostalgia – either real (like Lofton) or perceived (the Joe Carter bobblehead) – to draw the interest of the fanbase?  Sure, there may be some hesitation to promote individual players, knowing what we know about how these players eventually end up wearing uniforms that don’t say “CLEVELAND”, but this is an exciting group of players who is winning games in a compelling way, night in and night out.

Certainly, there are question marks and points of concern that may be distracting, but outside of that team from Arlington (that the Tribe took 2 of 3 from) that is lapping the field in the AL West, most MLB teams have question marks and concerns.

Rather than endlessly focusing on those deficiencies (and admittedly, I’m as guilty of this as anyone by revisiting past drafts and the failure of certain trades or picking a whipping boy(s) to wail away at), why not see players like Cabrera, Kipnis, Santana, Masterson, Pestano, Perez for what they are – a new “core” of a still-building, yet burgeoning, team?

Often, I think of that brilliant rethinking of the “What If” that Scott Bricker did at LGT last year (which, at the time, represented a sharp departure from what that ad campaign had been, with the Indians adopting something close to this after Brick put it together) and wonder why we can’t wonder what’s going to happen in the positive sense?

On what he can bring to the American League Central-leading Indians: 
“Hopefully I can teach these guys a few things, but this is a pretty good club with or without me. This team is pretty awesome. They have a chance to win now, but they’re also developing for the future and not too many teams can say that. That was very enticing to me to join this club, plus the fact they wanted me. Over the last couple years, I’ve been a mentor to teams, probably teaching them too much if you look at the Tigers and Tampa Bay. But that’s what I do. I want everyone to have a fair shake at this game and approach the way I approach it. Hopefully we’ll be very good here this year and these young kids will be great for the future.”
On joining a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series since 1948: 
“I know Cleveland needs something to grasp on to right now. I remember coming here from 1995-2000 and how crazy this place was and how the fans rallied behind the team. It was special and we feel this is a team that can do it, too. Hopefully it happens this year but I know in the years to come they think they can help revive the city.”

Certainly, Damon’s always been good for a solid quote (here’s a great piece from the New York Times on Damon and this Tribe team) and he may or may not actually believe this, but whether HE does or not, why can’t we?

Damon says that the Indians “have a chance to win now, but they’re also developing for the future and not too many teams can say that” and while you can take that with a grain of salt if you want to, it doesn’t change the fact that it is mid-May and the Indians are in 1st place…so, how about enjoying this?

So much time is spent analyzing the past to figure out how we got here or worrying about a future to wonder where we’re going, we forget to enjoy the present…the “now” that we’re seeing as this team is winning exciting games, with marketable, bankable young players that can’t really be boasted anywhere else on the Cleveland sports landscape, if you’re looking at actual production and not just projection.

Maybe you don’t want to hear (or believe) that “Cleveland needs something to grasp on to right now” with Damon remembering the never-going-to-happen-again electricity of the late-90’s as it invokes the attendance “discussion” once more, but this town needs something tangible to appreciate.  The Indians have, once again, come out of the gates fast as they attempt to capture the hearts of a town that so badly wants a winner with all of its heart while attempting to avoid the heartbreak that has caused our skepticism.

Whether or not they can capture those hearts or continue to capture those wins remains to be seen, but it sure will be fun finding out…


smaynor said...

I loved you opening and I hope this means you have turned a corner Paul. You have been quite the Negative Nelly lately. I get enough of that from the PD and radio. I always counted on you to bring a certain optimism that was grounded in reality.

GMAC said...

What do you think of the Tribe trading for Kevin Youkilis? Boston needs relievers, send someone over there and get him. He's an Ohio guy and could plug at first at get Kotchman the out of there. Sign him to a club friendly deal and DH him whn Hafner goes away. The alternative is bringing up Matola, which at this point may be our best option.

pilotui said...

Wow, finally some optimism from Paul. Good article and you espouse exactly what I've been telling my wife! I live in OK and faithfully DVR and watch every tribe game...only missed 1 so far this year. We really do have the pieces to win this year and yet I'm also looking towards the future. Kotchman has started hitting, Choo is hopefully turning the corner and Brantley is starting to hit his stride. What I cannot abide though is Damon. I'd rather see Cunningham/Duncan EVERYDAY and live with strikeouts and HR's than watch that horrible, unimaginable swing of Damons. It is almost grotesque and my 7 year old comments..."he's gonna pop it up" everytime he swings and misses all wristy and awkward. Anyway...GO TRIBE!