Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Flipping the Script

As the MLB playoffs continue with former Indians dotting the post-season rosters, the amazement that 2007 was merely three years ago never ceases for most Tribe fans. The excitement, the promise, the feeling that this was just the beginning, the cautious optimism that the Indians had created a burgeoning juggernaut, unfazed by the Yankee mystique and built on their own young talent…remember all of that, just three years ago?

Unfortunately, as we all sit and watch the aces for each ALCS squad square off against each other (again) in a meaningful playoff series (again), the Indians find themselves at the bottom of another “cycle” and, if it wasn’t obvious from the attendance figures, the descent has taken its toll on an already abused fanbase.

To that end, I thought I would share an e-mail that I received from my buddy Mike last week that I’ve been unable to extract from my head, as Mike admitted to me that the past three years have given him serious pause about the investment involved in being and Indians’ fan. Lest anyone question the fanhood at hand, this is the guy who earned extra money in high school by ushering at Jacobs Field, that drove from Chicago to Cleveland for every playoff game in the 2007, and who was known to launch Rally Pies on unsuspecting victims on those magical Fall nights a mere three years ago.

Despite that level of, well…love, Mike’s feelings about the current Indians echo what I think most die-hard Indians’ fans are wrestling with. He wrote me that after 2007, “to see what happened next just destroyed me. A lot of it was due to bad luck, but quite a bit was due to baseball economics. Hafner/Westbrook injuries coupled with drop offs from some just destroyed us. After being as invested as I was, seeing that happen, and then seeing how ruthless the current MLB financial setup is with a team like us. How can I rationalize that kind of investment again?”

Realizing that the MLB landscape was not going to be changing any time soon, I asked him what would bring that passion back – if it was simply a matter of winning again. His response was jarring:
A rebirth of sorts would help, but remember, we all stayed engaged in the early to mid 2000’s partially because we were still ignoring the MLB financial elephant in the room and partially because the new young players were so exciting. Ultimately, I don’t know what will bring me back. I hate to say it’s just winning, but that’s not the only thin as I have no connection to this current roster. At the end of the day, maybe what really bothers me deep down is they’ve never addressed the organizational shortcomings. Clearly someone was failing miserably at their job for the past 5 years.

You want the PR nightmare?
There it is, die-hard fans unsure if they want to emotionally invest themselves in the continuation of this new “cycle”, certain that the economic realities of baseball will deep-six any possibility that the Indians can use the same group of players to mature and contend together for a period longer than three to four years and, more importantly, the horrifying descent of the last three years showing that the Indians’ organization was ill-equipped to sustain the success that they had built from 2003 to 2007. Seeing the same faces in the Front Office and the same message being preached from said Front Office as we embark on what we all hope is another trip up the standings, it feels like 2002 or 2003 all over again and, as Mike says, “how can I rationalize that kind of investment again” if we already know how this story ends, with the sucker punch landing in our guts?

That’s why the Indians are at a crossroads in terms of how they’re perceived by their fans. Sure the optimists will always see that half-full glass and the naysayers will always have their teeth to gnash, but the core of the fanbase is wavering by the dual existence of MLB’s uneven playing field (and Craig Calcaterra points out the real “power” of the Yankees here) and the fact that they’ve heard this sermon before from the same preacher and they aren’t quite sure if they’re ready to buy into the message again.

Despite this, the Indians are out there with the script that we’ve heard for far too long, one that was relayed from Mark Shapiro to B-Pro’s John Perrotto again recently as he outlined the issues (outside of trading CC and CP Lee in consecutive seasons) facing the Indians:
“One of them is demographics,” Shapiro said. “It’s a smaller city. A second is the economic troubles we’ve had as the city tries to re-shape itself. This has been a devastating period for the city. But there are two other factors. We need to win. We need to put a winner on the field and we need to improve the level of entertainment we offer within the ballpark."
“The trouble is, people are looking at this in the context of the mid-‘90s Indians,” he said. “That was obviously a very different market. We had top five payrolls. And we did not spend beyond our revenues in the mid-‘90s. We spent what we made. There’s probably only one team in baseball that spends significantly beyond their revenues. All the rest spend about what they make. The biggest markets make a ton of money, and don’t even spend their revenues. So the model you might emotionally ask for, an owner to use the team as a philanthropic endeavor and to continually fund huge deficits beyond revenues—you’re asking for something that doesn’t exist. There is no place where that exists. So changing an owner is not going to change that."

Just to finish the thought, Shapiro says in the piece that, “’we’re at the hump or just over it,’ as far when the Indians will attempt to field a winning team” and attempts to dispel what Perrotto calls “the perception among fans is that ownership lacks the money to bankroll a strong roster”.

That reasoning is actually sound in that Cleveland is struggling and the Indians are in a different place, in terms of revenues, than most other MLB teams…and a couple in particular. However, Indians’ fans are already acutely aware of this and realize that CC was going to go to the highest bidder and that CP Lee is going to go to the highest bidder, as well as the fact that the Indians were never going to be that highest bidder.

However, this rationale doesn’t make it any easier for anyone to stomach the “emotional investment” and the sucker-punch that lurks around the corner. Terry Pluto hit on this a couple of weeks ago, in that the Indians should change their message, embracing the role of the underdog, but it goes further than that. The Indians shouldn’t just be embracing the role of the underdog, they should be trumpeting the fact that the two aces in the ALCS are players who made their MLB debuts for Cleveland and that it isn’t a coincidence (and read this on Lee from Joe Pos) that the Indians had built a rotation around CC and Lee in the mid-2000’s.

They should point out that they DID identify the generational talents and put the plans in place to sustain that level of contention. However, they shouldn’t shy away from the fact that those best-laid plans were undermined by slow starts, injuries, regressions, and a failure to augment the parent club with a steady stream of young talent – the lifeblood of any successful franchise.

On that last topic, they’ve started to admit the mistakes as Shapiro had this to say on the draft failures to Stephanie Storm of the ABJ, “We admit it’s definitely the worst-performing component of our overall operation...we can’t afford to not excel in every facet of our operation.”

But again, the message should be stronger than that and the season that fans just endured – with Crowe and Huff…um, underwhelming and Sowers spending the entire year in AAA because no other team wanted the former First Round Pick – should compel them to admit that it’s simply “the worst-performing component” of the organization. Let it be known that people are on notice on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and that the mediocrity won’t be tolerated, much less rewarded, anymore.

If that doesn’t sound like the Indians’ public face…well, that’s part of the problem as the Indians shouldn’t be sending out letters to season-ticket holders (like this one that arrived in my mailbox this past weekend), gently selling the future of the team (which Corey Kluber is, apparently, a major part of) on the premise of hope.

Rather, they should be pointing out that they pulled this off once before and while the end result didn’t flesh out the way they thought it would, they’ll be damned if they’re not going to do it again. They should say that the economics of baseball aren’t going to dictate terms to them because they’ve learned from their mistakes and are creating that model franchise with a full pipeline of young players that was promised back in 2002.

Maybe it will come off as grand-standing and maybe it involves more chutzpah than we’ve seen from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario for a while, but the organization needs to get a little ballsy in terms of talking up what they’ve done, own where they’re at, and, most importantly, where they think they’re going.

By no means is this to suggest that the Indians need to become some polo-and-khaki version of the “The Kenny and Ozzie Show” that plays to packed houses (and some critical acclaim) on the South Side, nor does it mean that they have to go to the comic sans font or the extreme side of the ledger and guarantee a championship before the Yankees win another one…as some perspective is always necessary and appreciated.

Rather, the Indians need to find a new message to yell from the street corners.
Toady, we hear the same message that was preached in 2002 – that patience is a virtue and that brighter days are ahead – but here they sit, eight years later, right back to where they were before.

Yes, we all know that they’ve done this before and that they oversaw the rise from the ashes from 2003 to 2005 and were one game away from the 2007 World Series, but Indians’ fans are left with the reality that, even if the current players turn into the stars that some of them could be, they’re not Cleveland Indians for life and that the same Front Office that presided over the rapid descent, is still in place with no promise that the last chapter of this next book (2010-?) is going to be any different than the ultimately disappointing one (2003-2009) we just closed up.

Everyone remember when the Dolans said they would win “multiple championships” when they became owners or when Shapiro said that “this team will contend in 2005” back when they traded Colon in 2002?

Of course, both of those phrases were (or still are) fodder for anyone with a complaint about the Indians and their failures. Want to know something, though? As insane as those “multiple championships” sounded (or is it sound?) or as crazy as we all thought Shapiro was when he put a firm timeframe on the rebuild (and there’s no doubt he regretted providing a date as soon as he spoke it), that type of braggadocio is what is lacking from this organization in the past four years.

Maybe the time has come to pull a Don Draper and make a grand gesture (and by this I refer to his open letter in the New York Times, not his actions of the Season Finale), acknowledging that the perception on the street about you has become pervasive and accepted fact, looking at the brick wall in front of you, and changing the message to remind everyone who you are, what you have done, and (again, most importantly) who you know you will become.

As a quick aside here, if you don’t know who “Don Draper” is (and that’s a loaded question), stop what you’re doing, go add “Mad Men” to your Netflix queue (or however you handle your DVD viewing) and watch every available episode to catch up to that letter to the best show on TV right now.
No, seriously...I’ll wait.

Back to the matter at hand, this may be lunacy for Antonetti to preach a new message when he JUST became the GM, but injecting some urgency that doesn’t devolve into catch-phrases and cold, calculated seminars is imperative if the Indians are going to win back that cadre of fans that are having trouble wrapping their heads, hearts, and stomachs around the last three years…and the next three.

Use the bully pulpit from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario again to move away from the talk that “this is a rebuilding year again” and say that young in-house talent are unequivocally the players that are going to lead the Indians to their next appearance in the playoffs. If the Front Office TRULY believes it, come out and declare that the assembled young talent at all levels will prevent the team from going into this valley again.

If that sounds bold…be bolder.
Put a timeframe on it – say that the team will win 90 games within the next three years and take it further that if 90 wins isn’t enough to win a division title by 2013, that ownership will make the necessary commitments to earn that AL Central flag within the next five years. If that doesn’t happen and the team finds itself in this “valley” again in five years, be self-aware enough to acknowledge that you’re probably not going to be drawing a paycheck from the Indians five years from now because it means that the current “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” didn’t gain traction.

The time has arrived for the organization to grow a pair, to believe in what they’ve done already and to sell what they plan to do. Watching the Indians act like Shelley Levene in the corner, begging for the benefit of the doubt, and not Ricky Roma screaming in the center of the room, has grown tired and the Indians need to find a way to regain the confidence that most have lost over the last three years and to convince people that they’re equipped to take the built-in disadvantages of the system out of the equation.

If the Indians want to re-capture those that have lost hope, they must project a confidence that is not off-putting, but one that acknowledges their mistakes while promising…no, guaranteeing that better days are ahead. Harken back to the idea that the Indians are out to create a model organization and that their mistakes have given them a better idea of what “The Indian Way” (remember that?) is really all about. Convince the fans that the period that many figured to emerge after the 2005 and 2007 seasons is not far off and that the last three years have given them back the laser focus that made them successful in the first place.

The time has come to convey to the fans that the organization moved away from what made them successful…and to remind them that what made them successful in the first place is on display on the mound in the ALCS. For the Indians, it is time to stop playing the role of “The Little Engine that Could” and assert themselves into the recurring role of “The Little Engine that Did…and Will Once Again”.


Halifax said...

People need to stop feeling sorry for themselves as fans and realize that the Indians aren't there just for their viewing pleasure and to make them feel good 100% of the time. The fans are just part of the equation, which also includes the fact that it is a business in which grown men make millions to play a game which is, unfortunately, based on ENTERTAINMENT VALUE for fans. Why this is unfortunate is because there is an extreme disconnect between teams like the Tribe and teams like the Yankees, because THOSE big teams are the ones that MLB cares about driving in the cash cows from the grazing fields to their bank vaults. As long as those teams remain strong nobody cares what becomes of the Indians and Pirates.

As a baseball fan, I am thrilled to have a team to root for, to care about...to be relevant to me. I'm glad I can get upset when they do something stupid and be thrilled when they make runs as they did i 2005 and 2007. It's fun to look at the minor league talent they have coming and dream of them maturing into fine players -- yes, fine players that will eventually be dealt to the big boy cash cows because A)The players love the game bit are in it for the money, and B) those big teams are the only ones that can afford CC & Lee money.

Get over it.

I have a team I can root for. Sorry if that team is not the Yankees. But when that team BEATS the Yankees, and they have and they will again, it makes it so much more sweet.

Enjoy the new crop of talent coming. The organization has addressed the fact that they have had poor drafts by getting a new director that seems to have a clue. People think it's the same old story, but when was the last time they drafted and traded for power arms like WHITE, POMERANZ, CARRASCO, KNAPP, PRICE, BRYSON and more?

They have changed their approach in hopes of better competing in the future. Unfortunately, for them, they cannot change the landscape of the game, so don't expect them to.

Cy Slapnicka said...

i don't think its people feeling sorry for themselves as fans, i think its people asking "whats the point?" my entertainment value is decreasing and further, i can expect long periods of low value and short periods of high value. i have many things in my life to entertain me, is it worth the investment in the long periods of low value for the period of high value for me as an indians fan? i don't have infinite resources from an attention span, time, or money perspective, so something has to give. even more so for a fan that is not in the home market and must spend additional resources seeking a knowingly low entertainment value.

i don't expect to root for a winner all the time, but its not entertaining watching that team implode and having a rebuild the only option. its not entertaining becoming attached to an entity and watching that entity destroyed. i root for the name on the front, but you cannot help becoming attached to the names on the back. its not entertaining watching crowe play. its not entertaining rooting for a bunch of pieces that have no future in this organization.

i'm pretty confident any cleveland sports fan does not expect a team to make them feel good 100% of the time. but when you rationalize how much time, money, and effort you spend following a team and rooting for them, it becomes harder and harder to justify given the current situation.

nobody expects the indians to change baseball economics or organization crippling guaranteed contracts. i'd prefer they just spit in the face of those obstacles and said, F it. we're going to win despite them.

Halifax said...

I'm pretty sure they would like to do that, but what exactly is the plan, Cy? Those obstacles are precisely why they struggle. Is the fix in free agency? Signing guys like Lee and CC long term? Better drafting? They can't do much in the first two and they're trying to address the third.

It doesn't cost a lot of money to follow the team. We go to 2-3 games a year, and don't even get STO, I still follow the team. It's not costing much or helping them sign more players, but it's fun.

fritz said...

I loved this article and also agree with both Halifax and Cy. One has to deal with the losses in their own way. It's difficult to watch them lose all the time so you just have to look away sometimes. But it's great to have a team to watch and we root for them to win no matter what the real economics in play are. But Paul's point that they ought to be more up front about where things went wrong is also correct. Clearly, to me, it' been the wasted draft years that are to blame. Young talent is absolutely essential to this franchise - literally the life blood - and they clearly screwed that up year after year after year. The slow starts are possibly blamed on chemistry or human frailties or the manager, and key injuries are sometimes simply bad luck. These things haunt every franchise in every sport. But this franchise cannot tolerate those wasted draft years. They have perhaps managed to correct the problem somewhat with all of the trades the last 2 years and hiring a new draft director, but it seems to me to be the main reason we are at the bottom of this cycle once again. Hopefully this time the front office can sustain the growth and somehow I feel certain, Cy, Halifax, Paul and I will all be watching it happen.

fritz said...

How about that Paul. I finally got this bloody thing to work!!

Halifax said...

I totally agree with Fritz. Everyone has a bit different take on how they follow the team. At least this is an intelligent conversation. Go read these boneheads griping about the Lee and Sabathia deals at the PD.


The fact is, those deals still cannot be weighed upon yet due to the development process. What they got for CC was good return, just not any pitching, which they tried to correct with the Lee and Martinez deals. Why do fans seem to think the Tribe got fleeced on Lee when they have two MLB position guys (albeit, likely backups) and a power righty that is young and looks to have a hi-end rotation ceiling? Check out what the Phillies got for him in their trade, not nearly the same return. The market is tight for dealing young talent.

The team that made out was the Tigers receiving Austin Jackson in the Curtis Granderson deal. Jackson is going to be exceptional (already is).

Cy Slapnicka said...

well, i never claimed to have the answer. i realized i was stumped in my exchange with paul, which too be honest, was a little surprising to me. i don't know what will light the fire again, and as i said, its not just winning. i, like many of us, am not a front runner. the reward of a season like 2007 is greater when the investment is long term. when many of the miles on my car are spent driving to cleveland and when i went to the ballpark for the 2005 final weekend collapse, even showing up hungover on Sunday for the final nail in the coffin before driving home...wondering if my losing record for games attended was partially to blame.

however, i'm now the guy that did not replace my wind tattered tribe flag this year even though i have a dormant $50 MLB.com gift card in a drawer at home. i'm no patriot, but i flew an american flag all summer instead. and i went out and bought said flag with cash. i didn't do it as an f you to the tribe, i just didn't think about it.

the the cost to follow them is not too much, its the effort. i still go to games, albeit, less frequently. went to one game at the cell this year and none at the jake. i'd listen to hammy call the game on drives into cleveland (1100 comes in around south bend), but i chose to spend my time in cleveland visiting with family and friends as opposed to games at the jake. for the first time in a long time, i didn't sign up for the mlb audio package. passed on the baseball tv package as well. didn't even tune in and mute the hawk during chicago broadcasts. and no, i didn't recently have a child.

watching this "team" stopped being fun. 2007 hurt, but i figured, who cares...we're on the verge of a juggernaut. then 2008 happened...and then 2009.

i sat and watched the team be decimated and saw no accountability. who was responsible for starting the season with an injured closer in 2008? who was responsible for our complete failure to acquire and develop young talent? luis isaac?!?!

i know there was a lot of bad luck, player regression, and baseball economics in there, but the big problem that was well within the team's control crippled us. it wasn't addressed and by the time it was, it was too little, too late.

perhaps it is b/c as a fan, the organization wants us to make a big investment in this team. when we do, we expect a certain return. and when we see we've been investing and haven't been receiving our expected return, we want answers and accountability. i don't need a new manager or GM as a gesture that something is being done, but something needs to happen (specifically as it relates to the things the team can control) and it needs to be communicated very effectively.

i guess thats why i like a lot of what paul wrote here. give me a reason to care, b/c blind faith and the same tired message i've been sold for 8 years isn't enough anymore.

Halifax said...

Makes sense to me Cy. I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing the presence of an actual baseball guy (maybe he's not, either) in former Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes in the upper organization. This bunch needs an injection of baseball smarts to go with its investment portfolio.

Halifax said...

Paul mentioned that one a couple weeks ago -- have you heard anything else on that Paul?