Sunday, May 20, 2012

Winning the Summer on A Lazy Sunday

Earlier this weekend, I was taking in my 5-year-old’s game of “soccer” when another one of the parents noticed my Tribe hat (this glorious beauty) and sidled up to me.  He nodded to my hat and asked me, “the Tribe still in 1st place”?

Noting his head-to-toe Browns’ gear and the tone/phrasing of the question (as if to express astonishment at the current standings while intimating in six words that it simply will not last), I answered as briefly and quickly as I could, coming back with the old “yep”, while feigning interest in the “action” on the field as the scrum of kids surrounding a soccer ball moved slowly back and forth.  He immediately fired back with a “won’t last”, prompting me to blurt out (against my better judgment) that it was about ¼ of the way into the season and that it was almost Memorial Day.

Sensing that I was actually an Indians’ fan, he pounced on me with the best sports-talk radio caller voice he could muster, looking me up and down and spitting out “doesn’t matter who’s in 1st place on Memorial Day…talk to me when they’re in 1st place in October”.

Still kicking myself for even engaging in this “discussion” and tasting the bile in my mouth while my ears turned warm, I decided to take the higher road on it, yelling to him as he walked away, “sounds good…we’ll talk then”.  As I soothed myself with the reality that this “fan” has a summer staring him in the face where he’s going to be poring over reports of how players threw a ball or caught a ball while wearing shorts and a helmet while I immerse myself in the glory of a baseball season, the tête-à-tête stuck with me.   Getting past the notion that this “discussion” generated such hostility in this Cleveland sports fan (who seemed to be anxious to prove to me that the Indians couldn’t keep winning) on a pleasant Saturday morning and how absurd that really is, I don’t think that the point of view that this “fan” had is all that unique to Clevelanders as they relate to the Tribe and their start this year.

They know the Indians are in 1st place and – whether it’s because that kid from Akron broke their collective hearts before taking his talents (and apparent shortcomings) to South Beach or because they are still upset about the CC or Lee trades (not that Sabathia and Clifton Phifer were universally adored while here as people constantly railed against CC’s weight and only really took to Lee late in his 2008 Cy Young campaign) or because they’re too busy convincing themselves that THIS is the NFL Draft where their beloved Browns actually got things right – they’re just waiting for the bottom to fall out of this Tribe team.  For whatever reason, they’re kind of hoping for it, so they can say “I told you so” in September or October if the Indians aren’t able to maintain their 1st place lead throughout the summer

And since I’m past the point of this point of view enraging me (it is sports after all and the current blissful state of my life precludes me from really getting THAT upset about this stuff), so I’m just saddened and confused by the whole segment of Clevelanders that can’t really enjoy success from one of their sports teams, even if that success turns out to be fleeting.  While I’m more and more of the opinion that this Tribe success isn’t going to be fleeting this year – with the offensive pieces starting to come together, a solid bullpen, and a rotation that could (yes, I said COULD) get into a groove that would make this team all that more competitive – to know that people are missing out on the maturation of a young, exciting team just makes me sad.

It makes me sad because as people wait for the other shoe to drop or wait to espouse their “told ya so” attitude on those of us that are enjoying this, they’re missing a pair of games like the ones that the Indians just completed against the Mariners.  After watching Carlos Santana race around 3rd base and fly into home like Superman, scoring from 2nd after one of the oddest plays you’ll ever see, then seeing the Indians come back (twice) on Thursday to beat The Atomic Wedgie and his Mariners (who are 1-4 against the Indians and…ahem…5-1 against the Tigers), you started to get the sense that something special might be building. 
But still people continue to be skeptical…

And that’s fine in the grand scheme of things as anyone can do or believe what they want to but earlier in the week, I heard Terry Pluto on the radio, discussing the lack of interest and support in the Indians to date, saying that the Indians are always going to struggle to draw to begin the year.  While I think that there is a good deal of validity to something that Pluto’s co-worker at the PD pointed out, Pluto’s rationale for the lukewarm interest to start every season centers on the idea that the Indians never “win the Winter”, which means that they don’t generate optimism or excitement in the off-season that carries into the beginning of the season.  He posited that some of that was due to not having something like the NFL Draft or the NBA Draft Lottery that creates built-in excitement that the team doesn’t even really have to work for as ANYONE that the Cavs or Browns (in particular) draft is going to generate more excitement than anything that the Indians could ever do or would ever do in the off-season. 
Some of that is the idea that hope springs eternal in Cleveland, except for the Indians.  

There is some validity to this I think, in that every winter we hear what the Indians AREN’T doing or HAVEN’T done and even when the moves that they’ve made work out early in the season (or whenever, really), the Indians are only partially extolled for their decisions.  The juxtaposition of the Marlins being in town – a team that unquestionably “won the Winter” – should not be overlooked here as the Indians’ offseason ran in stark contrast to what we saw down in Miami, with the Marlins’ Winter drawing headlines and capturing the imagination in a way that the Indians are likely never to replicate.  Yet, of all the off-season additions between the two teams, Derek Lowe has performed the best and while that may or may not last, it is worth noting that the Marlins’ big additions (Reyes, Bell, and Buehrle) have all failed to live up to expectations.

The Marlins’ season hasn’t come off the rails (already) like the Angels (the other team that “won the winter”) has as the Marlins are hanging around in the NL East and will likely stick in the NL East race as well as staying relevant in the NL Wild Card race.  But for all of their additions (Reyes, Bell, Buehrle, Kearns…just seeing if you were paying attention), the impact of those players hasn’t been as profound as what Derek Lowe has (good piece on perspective with Lowe) done so far.  Maybe that won’t continue with Lowe and maybe people will continue to harp away that they didn’t add Beltran (though they did make an offer that was “very close” to what the Cardinals offered) or Carlos Pena (despite that they reportedly offered $8M to him, or $750K more than he signed for to return to Tampa), even if neither of those players seem very interested in coming to the North Coast.

Maybe Willingham is the “one that got away” (and he has to be wondering why in the world the Twins signed him) even if it would have meant overpaying for him to net his services.  As I wrote after Willingham and Cuddyer signed, “the 3-year, $21M deal for the Twins feels like less of a ‘gamble’ than most and looked palatable for the Tribe, particularly with Hafner coming off of the books after this season” and Willingham’s early production has justified his contract for now.  It may be different when that 3rd year rolls around (and maybe the Twins dangle him at some point as they obviously need a talent infusion), but the Indians made the decision to pass on offering that 3rd guaranteed year.

While fools like me offered options like Gaby Sanchez (ahem, .562 OPS) and Marlon Byrd (um, .475 OPS) as potential trade targets because the thinness of the offense scared me, the Indians decided to rely on the contributions of the two players that they DID extend this Winter (how do the Santana and Asdrubal extensions look right now…talk about “winning the Winter”) as well as attempting to upgrade their roster with limited cost and risk.

Maybe that strategy ultimately catches up to them (and don’t take that to mean that I wouldn’t love a bat in LF or 1B…still), but the Indians are still in 1st place as we approach Memorial Day.  Additionally, given that the team did allegedly make a significant offer to Beltran (the link from Hoynes above tells me so) and that they offered Pena $8M, then settled for Kotchman at $3M, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this team makes additions as they deem them to be necessary going forward.  They showed the level of aggressiveness in acquiring Ubaldo last year that fans had always pined for and while the performance of Ubaldo has been…um, uneven…maybe improving, the Indians’ current Front Office has shown some chutzpah and willingness to assume risk that could continue.

Regardless of whether that comes to pass or not (and, again, it’s fun to be on the “Buy” side of the Trading Deadline, even if that is a solid two months away), if you look at thte moves that they’ve made recently, you get the idea that (with some notable exceptions) maybe this team knows what they’re doing and while every move that they’ve made isn’t going to be universally successful (and here is proof that this team makes a lot of sense in their utilization of players or at least is able to articulate it), but they’ve added Derek Lowe and Jack Hannahan (most notably) in the past two off-seasons without much given up and without high price tags attached to them.  Those under-the-radar additions have had an impact in augmenting the group of youngsters acquired via trades and the draft to the point that the Indians’ rebuild has taken less than 4 years. 
Ask the folks in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City if that’s impressive…

To see this team mature and to know it was built, with Choo, Cabrera, and Santana coming in trades for Broussard, Eduardo, and Blake and with young players (Kipnis, Gomez, nearly all of the relievers) arriving to MLB and thriving cannot help but inspire confidence and excitement.  Yet, people are still obsessing over what the Indians didn’t do or lamenting the recent past or the players that are no longer here instead of focusing on what they’re doing…you know, during the season, on the field.

Maybe people are still upset about the descent from 2007 to the depths of 2010, but the Joe Carter bobblehead giveaway is interesting to use as context as most people generally remember Carter for the Alomar/Baerga trade than anything he did as an Indian…and it is here that I note that he had a career .781 OPS as an Indian (3,493 PA), a little below the .787 OPS that Casey Blake posted in his time (3,358 PA) as an Indian.  Though his inclusion on the SI cover (with the White Knight) remains a seminal moment of my childhood and I can still picture a PD illustration after he won the RBI title in the 1986 season, Carter isn’t remembered by many for his contributions on the field, but rather what his contributions for the Tribe led to.  While my Joe Carter Starting Lineup figure now graces the bookshelf in my boys’ bedroom (next to my old Greg Swindell one), he is more commonly associated with the trade that brought the first couple of pieces of that 1990s run (Sandy and Carlos) to the North Coast.

What people often fail to remember is that the Indians didn’t reach the 80-win mark in ANY of the first 4 years (1990 season through 1993 season) that Sandy and Baerga were on the Indians.  The 1994 season is when the team (obviously) took off in the strike-shortened season, with Sandy (whose poster hung in my brother’s bedroom, before the Indians were actually good) and Carlos in their fifth full seasons in MLB.  Those dark days early in the duo’s career were followed by the brightest times we’ve ever experienced as a franchise and Carter is remembered for playing a role in that, even if it took over 5 years (the trade happened in 1989) for that to materialize.

But that’s all that people remember now – the winning – and the role that Sandy and Carlos played in it with a constant nod to Carter for…well, for being the player that was traded that started (eventually) those halcyon days and those winning ways at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Maybe winning is really the balm for it all and the Indians not “winning” in 2007 and not “winning” Winter after Winter has taken it’s toll on a fanbase that looks increasingly disinterested and embarrasses a town that has always prided itself on alleged sports passion.  Regardless of what’s coming, there is little debate that after not “winning the Winter”, the Indians have unquestionably “won” the Spring. 

Whether they’re able to continue their “winning” ways into the Summer and the Fall, only time will tell…


Unknown said...

Another great post! So much ink has been spilled on attendance, and sorting out and/or debunking the poor excuses people give for not going to the games, but I think there are three things that stand out in this post as well as your comments last week.

1) This is baseball, it's a game, the entire point is to enjoy it. Instead there seems to be a cancer of enjoying suffering instead: people seem to revel in the "i told you so" when the team finally does not win everything. Well, I'll go ahead and stipulate that the Indians probably won't win the World Series. So? How does that lessen my enjoyment of the 162 games this season? How does that take away from the amazing plays I get to see, the times I get to leave work behind for three hours and sit in a beautiful ballpark?

2) Knowing the game has become replaced with spouting whatever is being said on talk radio. Baseball is a game we think about, contemplate, analyze, remember. After I came home from Thursday's win over Seattle, I read back the play by play to my girlfriend from my scorecard - knowing full well she knew the outcome. I don't think people know how to watch baseball like they used to, but hearing you talk about your baseball-obsessed son's view of the game, and hearing you examine, analyse, and contemplate it, give me hope!

3) This is not unique to Cleveland, but we can uniquely change it. After our win over Seattle, Jeff Sullivan posted a piece on his Mariner's blog about how he's developed a "deep-seated hatred of the Cleveland Indians". But his writing vented his anger, but quickly put it in perspective: it's a game, there are other things going on, etc. The comments of Seattle fans that followed were not much different than what we hear in Cleveland: incredibly negative, blaming, spouting bile and anger.

The fact is, it's much easier to dislike than to like. It takes no effort to say "I hate this player, these owners, this team". When I say I like Hannahan at third, I have to know why and be willing to tell people. It's easier to just condemn everything instead of actually getting interested and invested in the game.

And that is what we can change. Keep up the good writing, I hope it helps others understand baseball better, get more out of watching the game, and enjoy the summer!

Jason said...

Something that occurs to me is that in Cleveland it appears that you can only be considered a good baseball player if you play for someone besides the Indians. Santana and Cabrera are among the elite players at their positions, but all folks can focus on are the free agents that the Tribe couldn't sign. While I don't think Santana will ever put up Belle numbers, Cabrera is already having years comparable to Baerga's best.

This is an exciting young team. I wish that folks could enjoy it rather than wondering about whether or not the Browns can trade McCoy.

garb said...

I couldn't agree anymore. You know what's funny, my wife quickly learned that I loved the Indians much more than I loved the Browns. But that confused her because she also knew that I liked football probably a little more than baseball. So she asked me why I didn't mind missing Browns games but also was checkin on the Indians?

YOu know why. Because the Browns always lose....they lose every week. Every year but 2 (over the 13) the Browns win 4 games lose 8. Why do I want to watch that? At 31 yrs, I've seen tons of good Indians teams, 2 WS runs...even last season they were competing until that 3 game set with Det in mid August (got swept).

The browns are never in it near the end of the season. They always get crushed by Pittsburgh. They rarely beat Baltimore and are inconsistent against freakin Cinncinnati. Heck, they weren't even all that good before they left.

So that's why I love the Indians. Trust me, I don't care who's quarterbacking the Browns, they ain't winning more than 4 games. They stink people. But the TRIBE???? They've got enough talent to make me a believer.