Monday, July 30, 2007

Lemmings, Again

Braylon Edwards is officially in the image rehab business. I know this because the media lemmings who cover the Browns told me so. There was the story in the Plain Dealer by Mary Kay Cabot this Monday morning. Or the one by George Thomas in the Beacon Journal this Monday morning. Or the one by Steve Doershuk in the Canton Repository this Monday morning. Or this one from Steve Petrak of the Medina Gazette this Monday morning. Or this one from Jeff Walcoff on the Cleveland Browns official site this Monday morning.

Training camp is only one weekend old and already the “reporters” covering the Browns for most of the major print media outlets around town are already so bored and lack so little initiative that they end up writing the same story on the same subject on the same day. And if my guess is correct, as I’m sure it will be, at least two of the local television stations will run the same story today. Though technically not plagiarism, it has the same effect. Call it coincidence? I call it laziness.

It’s not as if Edwards made any news this weekend, such as shooting off his mouth again about the state of the offense or even the weather. These were just profile pieces, remarkably similar profile pieces. Each featured nearly identical quotes from both Edwards and head coach Romeo Crennel and each with the identical theme.

A composite of these profiles said thusly: Edwards has matured because he said he’s matured and that he is just, hey, an emotional guy. He’s more misunderstood than anything else and it’s frustrating to be young, rich and misunderstood. Lindsey Lohan has the same problem. He also knows that there are established veterans on this team who have been there, done that and should be the ones to talk for the team. Crennel agrees.

In other words, these were profiles that could have been written any time or never.

Edwards is, if nothing else, a compelling figure. But with Edwards the real test will come about three or four weeks into the season after another loss in which Edwards has caught two passes for 12 yards. The first person to ask him a question is likely to get an earful about the unnecessary complications in Rob Chudzinski’s offense, or the fact that Charlie Frye or Derek Anderson or whoever is behind center taking snaps needs to start looking off the first option or the fact that head coach Romeo Crennel is losing control of the locker room, or whatever.

If Edwards can pass that test, all season, then maybe it will be time to stop thinking of him as the selfish misanthrope he’s come off as the last few seasons and write a decent profile of him. But until then, let’s just say the jury is out.

As for the local media, however, that jury returned a verdict long ago. The fact that the profiles of Edwards all appeared the same day is not particularly unusual for this crowd, an observation I’ve offered previously. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time it happened this past weekend. If you think you read the same story about Kellen Winslow, Jr. in several different papers this reason, ostensibly written by different reporters, it’s because you did. Point your browser over to the SportsTime Ohio web site ( and, in particular, the “Morning Coffee” section. The folks behind The Cleveland Fan provide the wrap up of media coverage of all of the teams in this town each day. Pick a team. See a pattern? It will be repeated numerous times throughout the season. It’s really about the only thing you can count on.

What makes this all the more frustrating is the fact that camp just opened and until now there has been precious little to write about. The number of players on the Browns is at its maximum and there are new coaches and increased pressures on this Browns franchise, any or all of which make decent fodder for the local media. Despite this, the media covering the Browns travel in a pack and pursue exactly the same stories at the same time, demonstrating an utter lack of enterprise among any of them. Certainly Edwards is just one of those stories just as is Winslow, but since they are likely to be on the team when the season opens, one would think that there is something else to write about for the time being. Apparently one would be wrong to think that.

Adding even more to this frustration is the fact that Clevelanders are rabid sports fans and will gobble up any and everything that is written or spoken about their teams. But when they are fed the same tripe in the same way on the same day by every media outlet, it’s no wonder they stop paying attention. As newspaper circulation continues to dwindle (and it has, particularly in this market) maybe then the editors of these newspapers will start to look internally and understand why. If the sports pages are an accurate barometer, and they are because I read each of these newspapers every day and monitor their web sites, the folks in charge are either completely clueless or incompetent as to why they are failing. They can’t begin to solve their problems until they actually begin to solve their problems.

But solving the problems would take an energy that none in this group have yet demonstrated it possesses. Frankly, this has been going on so long that it’s beyond hope that anything will change with this group. As it stands, if you expect a diversity of opinions and perspectives about the subjects that interest you, don’t look for the local media to provide it. That’s because when it comes to sports the bar is lower. The “reporters” covering sports in this town demand little of themselves, the editors demand less and the readers demand the least of all. But it would be nice if just once, just once, a sports editor at the Plain Dealer or the Beacon Journal or the Canton Repository asked his or her reporter if there is any chance that one of the other papers will be printing a similar feature that same day. It hasn’t happened yet. It likely never will.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Making Moves

In baseball, it’s always best not to try and draw too many conclusions from any one game. But a series, particularly a four-game series, is a decent gauge of the state of a team. That being the case, there was much to draw from the Indians recently completed home series against the surging Boston Red Sox.

Because the series featured so little that was positive for the Indians, discussing what went right first seems appropriate, if only to get it out of the way. First, Franklin Gutierrez continues to show he belongs in the major leagues both with his glove and his bat. If that means less playing time for Trot Nixon, all the better. Second, the only other positive to be gleaned were the performances of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. Each proved that he can well handle the best the league can throw at him. Sabathia, in his 1-0 loss to Daisuke Matsuzaka, was as much a tough luck loser as Carmona, in his 1-0 victory over Josh Beckett, was a good luck winner. But the bigger picture was that when you throw four of the best pitchers in baseball on the field, the hitting is going to suffer on both sides. And it did. Offense was in scarce supply for two games that ended up being two of the most compelling games of the season anyway.

But when you push back from those two games, the series also showed that if the playoffs started tomorrow, they’d be over quickly. The Indians, as the wild card, would be matched against the Red Sox and the gap between the two seems significantly wider than, say, the one between the Indians and the Kansas City Royals.

That may have to do, in large part, to one of the biggest disappointments about the series, the performances of pitchers Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee. It’s become apparent to everyone, but particularly their teammates, that when either Westbrook or Lee pitches there is little chance of a victory. On Monday night, Westbrook’s first inning meltdown was eerily reminiscent of Lee’s performance against Texas a few nights earlier. The conventional wisdom is that if you’re going to give up runs, give them up early in order to give the offense a chance. But that wisdom is seriously being challenged in the case of both Westbrook and Lee as they are giving up runs early and often.

Thursday night, Lee was able to get through the first inning unscathed, but it proved to be only a tease. In the second inning, Manny Ramirez sent Lee’s first pitch of the inning to dead center field. When it finally landed about 20 minutes later it measured as the third longest home run in Jacobs Field history, which seems dubious because it disappeared behind the trees that sit well behind the center field wall and was probably hard to accurately measure. Put it this way, you’re more likely to see Britney Spears singing opera at the Met than to ever see a ball hit further than the one Ramirez hit against Lee.

And that was just the beginning. From that point, Lee couldn’t have been more ineffective if he was throwing batting practice, and often it looked like he was, except for the fact that most batting practice pitchers get the ball over the plate more often. If Red Sox hitters weren’t actually sending the ball screaming back up the middle, they were standing with the bat on their shoulders watching one ball after another land about a foot short of the plate before casually walking to first. Mercifully, Lee was finally gone after failing to record an out in the fifth.

Which leads to another disappointment about the series, the performance of the Indians bullpen. Tom Mastny’s entry into the game Thursday in the seventh inning was the microcosm. Jason Standford was hardly dominating after taking over for Lee and was spent after giving up singles to Jason Varitek and Coco Crisp in the seventh. Mastny came on and Willy Mo Pena, who was barely hitting .200 at the time (and was actually under .200 when the game started but got “healthy” feasting on Lee in the first few innings) sent the first pitch over the left field wall for a three-run home run. A good many in the crowd, meaning most of those who were not Red Sox fans, began the slow walk to the parking lot thereafter, eschewing the opportunity to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballpark” during a seventh inning stretch that seemed, at that point, still hours away.

There will be a tendency by the apologists among us to see some positive in the fact that the Indians did score nine runs Thursday night. But the fact is the Indians offense scores runs in the same way that Joe Carter used to collect RBI, often when they don’t matter.

For example, despite Lee’s intent to put the game as far out of reach as possible, the Indians were actually only one swing of the bat from tying the game in the fifth. When Ryan Garko came to bat with the bases loaded and four runs already in, a grand slam would have tied the game at nine. That’s a tall order, particularly for a team like this with an uncanny inability to get hits when they’d have the most impact, but it was doable. Unfortunately, Garko flied out to center field and the rally was over.

Ultimately, of course, the Indians did score nine runs, just not when it would have meant something. A Garko slam and the game played from that point forward would have been significantly different. For one, Stanford would never have started the seventh inning. Even if Mastny would have come in at that point, he’s much more effective starting an inning than coming in with runners on base. More likely, though, Rafael Bentancourt comes into the game and he would have stood a much better chance of shutting down Boston than anyone else in the bullpen at that point. But if there is anything else positive to be taken from all of this, it’s that the good arms in the bullpen should be well rested for the start of the Minnesota series.

What the series revealed is that right now anyway even if the Indians can hold on to their position and make the playoffs, they have significant holes to fill before they can be considered serious threats to win a World Series.

Going into the Minnesota series and unless GM Mark Shapiro moves either Lee or Westbrook, 40% of the rotation is reliable, 40% of it is unreliable, and the remaining 20%, in the form of Paul Byrd, is giving up nearly 4.5 runs per game. The question is what to do about the 40% that is unreliable. Barring a trade, manager Eric Wedge is going to have to consider moving either Lee or Westbrook to the bullpen. Of the two, Lee seems to be the more likely candidate, although a sinker ball pitcher like Westbrook, who gets a lot of ground ball outs, might be an interesting choice for just that reason.

The truth though, is that though Lee has more victories than Westbrook, he seems further away from returning to form. Frustration seemed to ooze from every pore on Lee Thursday night. He takes to the mound expecting bad things to happen and the prophecy is fulfilled more times than not these days. He may privately grouse about a shaky defense Thursday night that could have helped him out a bit more, the truth is that given the way he’s pitching it’s no wonder the players behind him are back on their heals. If Lee isn’t traded, it would be a mistake for him to take his next turn in the rotation.

The same is true, unfortunately, for Travis Hafner. Right now, he’s really hurting the team. As detailed earlier this week (see article here) Hafner’s overall batting average isn’t just down, so too is his situational average. He’s not hitting with the bases loaded and he’s not hitting with runners in scoring position and two outs. In fact, he’s not hitting with runners in scoring position, irrespective of the number of outs. His lack of production, given his position in the lineup, is the main reason that the Indians offense appears so anemic. Put it this way, as lost as Josh Barfield has looked at the plate all season, he’s got the same average as Hafner.

For Wedge, he has very limited options regarding Hafner but that shouldn’t stop him from making a move anyway. First, he can put Hafner on the shelf for three or four games in a row, perhaps more, and alternate Garko and Victor Martinez as the DH. This would require more playing time for Kelly Shoppach but in the near term it’s hard to see how this hurts the Indians either offensively or defensively. Alternatively or possibly in combination with, Wedge can move Hafner lower in the line-up. Switching him with Garko might be a good move near term. Either way, or maybe a third way, Hafner can’t keep hitting in the middle of the lineup while he struggles like this.

The trading deadline is looming and it appears as though the Indians are poised for Kenny Lofton’s third tour of duty. But that move is hardly an answer to what is currently hurting this team most. Even if a more significant move can be made it won’t be the complete answer anyway. Whatever else they do, it’s become increasingly clear that Wedge and/or Shapiro need to re-deploy some of the players they currently have in order get different and hopefully better results.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Storm Clouds

If ever there was a time to love the sport and not the players, now is that time. While it has probably happened any number of times in the past, it is difficult to remember a time when all three major league sports were operating under such serious clouds at the same time.

Baseball’s deliberate ignorance of its mushrooming steroids problem is coming home to roost for good in the next week or so when Barry Bonds finally surpasses Hank Aaron’s career home run record. The dark underbelly of those that are allowed to lace up the spikes every Sunday in the NFL is being revealed in the form of one of its most prominent players, Michael Vick, who now has been ordered not to report to training camp because of a multi-count indictment over dog fighting. Meanwhile, the NBA’s integrity hangs in the balance as the Tim Donaghy referee scandal is spreading like a wild fire. As a sports fan, if you don’t find all this just a bit dispiriting then you’ve either lost your capacity to be surprised or you just don’t care anymore.

Much has been written about each of these topics already and many more words are yet to be spilled. But it is the combined effect of all three that most serves to alienate the average sports fan at a time when none of these leagues are in a position to afford it, even if they don’t know it or don’t care about it.

The issue with Bonds, for example, has polarized the game in a way that Commission Bud Selig still can’t fully appreciate. He may fiddle over the decision as to whether to follow Bonds around in order to witness the historic event, but Selig’s overall strategy is to simply drag this issue out long enough in the hope that the fans simply lose interest. The Mitchell Committee, by all accounts, has made virtually no headway in its investigation of steroids. Selig seemingly strong-armed New York Yankees user Jason Giambi into talking to Mitchell but then reportedly let him off the hook by not even asking him about other players. What did they talk about, the weather?

Selig, as Commissioner now and as an owner when steroid use became rampant, is paralyzed by indecision and the only thing suffering in the process is the foundation of the game. What is all the more disgusting in this entire debate is the utter lack of courage by the players or their union to stand up for what is right—the good of the game. Each continues to play the “we don’t know all the facts” game as a way of avoiding the issue all together, fully failing to recognize that they all stand as unindicted co-conspirators as a result of their inaction.

The fact that Bonds is even being given the opportunity to play this year is perhaps the most reprehensible aspect of this whole matter. The grand jury testimony regarding Bonds may have been illegally leaked, but that fact doesn’t make what that testimony supposedly says about Bonds steroid use any less credible. Bonds can continue to act as if his continued abuse of the drugs was inadvertent, but he can’t hide behind the fact that he did use and baseball can’t hide behind the fact that he hasn’t been penalized for it. In fact, he’s been rewarded for it.

The fans in San Francisco are simply delusional about this issue, choosing to take the short-term feel good approach of one of their own rather than consider the long-term implications. The Giants managing general partner, Peter Magowan, who approved Bonds for the one year contract he’s playing under this season, is far more interested in the additional revenue that the circus that is Bonds will generate than in protecting the game at any level. And Selig, he just wrings his hands.

In many of the same ways that Bonds and his co-horts has already threatened the integrity of baseball, so too does what is taking place in the NBA threaten the integrity of that game.

The reason gambling is, in many ways, worse for a sport than illegal drugs begins and ends with the simple fact that it is the tipping point between sport and theatre. You can always toss out a druggie or two from the game, but trying to rid the sport of a reputation that its outcomes are pre-ordained is a much more vexing and serious problem.

The story that is emerging about Tim Donaghy will not be easily swept under the rug by Commissioner David Stern, despite his attempt to minimize the damage by letting the story break during the death days of July. Stern’s performance, and it was a performance, during his press conference Tuesday morning showed him at his shakiest. Clearly traumatized by the issue, he nonetheless gave fans little comfort by essentially creating more questions than he answered.

Two things in particular stand out. First, Stern gave the fans no idea how long the investigation was going on or how it even came to light. Was the league watching Donaghy or was the league contacted by the FBI? It pushes the limits of his credibility for Stern to say, as he did, that this problem begins and ends with Donaghy. If Donaghy was indeed making phantom calls, how is it that none of his fellow referees noticed, and if they noticed, didn’t say anything? If that’s true, doesn’t make them at least partially complicit, even if they didn’t reap any benefits personally? Any referee in any sport can and will blow a call. But if a referee is doing enough of that in order to deliberately alter the outcome of a game, certainly someone in the league had to notice before it would have otherwise been brought to their attention.

And if they did notice, how could they not do something sooner? This is the second thing that stands out about the Stern press conference. He said that the league certainly would have liked to have terminated Donaghy sooner but was told that the investigation was best aided by not terminating him until he did. That may be true if the ultimate goal is criminal prosecution, but it seems like the ultimate goal for the NBA should have been protecting the game first and foremost and then let the criminal justice process have its hacks at him.

Here’s why. If Stern knew that Donaghy was affecting the outcome of games and did nothing about it in order to let the investigation run its course, how can we be sure that the games Donaghy affected didn’t impact the standings? And if they impacted the standings, it is likely that they impacted who qualified for the playoffs and who didn’t, the seeding of the teams in those playoffs and, ultimately, the pecking order in the NBA draft. By letting the investigation run its course, how can any franchise be certain that it hasn’t been negatively impacted for years to come? But it this way—if the difference is one or two additional ping pong balls in the lottery that ultimate gets you, say LeBron James and not Darko Milicic, wouldn’t that bother you as a fan?

The answer, of course, is that you can never be sure. And while that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to blow up the sport, it does mean that Stern has to do more, much more, than rail against Donaghy as some sort of rogue or that this was some sort of isolated incident. Even if that is possibly true, the effect of his actions is hardly isolated.

It may very well be that some fans don’t mind having their outcomes scripted. That’s why the WWE is so popular. But in any sport where the outcome isn’t supposed to be preordained, such as basketball, no issue threatens to bring it down more quickly than someone on the inside who’s been gaming the system. And whether Stern wants to admit it or not, putting in place a whole new set of procedures to safeguard the integrity and the transparency of his sport is what it will take to even begin scratching the surface of removing the whispers that will inevitably followed the next time LeBron James gets clobbered going to the basket and the whistle isn’t blown.

As for the NFL and its Michael Vick problem, it may not threaten the league in the same way that the Donaghy incident threatens the NBA, but it is a public relations nightmare of the first order that can’t be minimized, either.

Commission Roger Goodell has been rightfully applauded for drawing a line in the sand early on that bad behavior will not be tolerated. He, too, has rightfully held up Adam “Pacman” Jones as the poster child by suspending him a year. It wouldn’t be too much to ask, frankly, for him to consider suspending the entire Bengals team for a year or so given the institutional problems it has. But having taken himself so far out on that limb, Goodell finds himself hamstrung by the Vick incident in a way he never anticipated.

The indictment against Vick couldn’t be more damning and includes charges of interstate illegal gambling, dog fighting and animal cruelty. It is sufficiently well detailed and documented (read a copy of the indictment here) to make it reasonable to draw some conclusions about Vick, at least in the same way Goodell drew some conclusions about Pacman following his indictments.

It did Goodell no good to initially avoid the suspension of Vick by trying to distinguish his situation from the numerous run-ins that Pacman has found himself in the center of. What Goodell didn’t realize is how heinous Vick’s alleged conduct is viewed by the average person. Goodell also didn’t appreciate the ability of the internet as an organizing tool, which was on full display when PETA and others picketed outside of Goodell’s office in New York last week. When PETA showed up in Atlanta next that was enough for Goodell to at least take a mid-term approach and order Vick not to report for camp until the NFL’s investigation is complete.

If the NFL has any hopes of surviving this public relations disaster, one of two things need to happen. Either the indictment against Vick has to get dropped or the NFL has to keep Vick on the sidelines until the legal system runs its course. The first is unlikely and the second will undoubtedly be challenged by the union. But that is one case that Goodell should be more than willing to take on, for it’s far better to have an arbitrator force Goodell to let Vick back at work than it is for Goodell to appear as though he’s making an exception for Vick because of his status in the league.

While no one is predicting the ultimate demise of any of the leagues, what this does do is further cement in the minds of the fans that investing in them and particularly the people who play them doesn’t come without great risk. Unfortunately, it’s a message that isn’t likely to register all that much with any of these leagues. After all, right now, if you’re willing to part with $260, you can get an authentic Michael Vick jersey by ordering it through the NFL’s official web site.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Internal Improvement

The major league trading deadline is July 31 and most of the non-game stories you’re likely to read these days will focus on some variation of the same theme: what will the contenders do, what will the also-rans do?

Over the last several years, fans have become so conditioned to the trading deadline that the days leading up to it are some of the most anticipated of the season, no matter which side of the equation you’re on. Teams who thought they would be in better shape but aren’t (the Indians last season, Chicago this season) look to dump payroll. A team can lose just as easily with less expensive players than with those currently taking up space and getting the same results, so why not save a little salary in the waning months of the season?

Teams that find themselves contending, on the other hand, are in search of that elusive missing piece—the one or two players that might deliver them to the promised land. Though this is often more myth than reality, enough trade deadline deals have been cut and been relatively successful to cause teams and their fans to look outside for additional help.

To this point, the consensus seems to be that the Indians need to look externally. The middle relief has been shaky and an additional bat or two is always helpful, so the conventional wisdom has gone. Given the shaky nature of the middle relief, the consensus is well taken, particularly as Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook continue to struggle. But whether the Indians need an additional bat or two is a much more difficult question, far more difficult than whether additional pitching would be useful.

Friday night, the Indians squeaked by the Texas Rangers, 3-2. You could explore any number of storylines about that game, not the least of which was how the defense nearly blew the game by giving the Rangers extended opportunities in the bottom of the ninth to win that game. But surprisingly the one storyline that won’t get much thought, given that the Indians are second only to the Detroit Tigers in runs scored this year, is the fact that the Indians only scored three runs Friday night.

But the truth is that’s the storyline that most fans should be following because it unlocks the key to the question of whether or not offensive help is needed for the remainder of the season.

Despite the number of runs scored, anyone closely following the Indians, particularly the last six weeks or so, has had to have the lingering, if unstated, feeling at various points that the offense hasn’t been that good. Admittedly, that’s a difficult conclusion to draw given both the record and the runs scored. But the Indians still trail the Tigers in the standing, the Seattle Mariners are coming on strong in the wild card race and the hottest rumor regarding trading deadline help has a creaky Kenny Lofton coming to Cleveland for that final push.

Lofton might be a good addition if the tradeoff is sending Trot Nixon and his bad back packing. But if the sole issue is whether Lofton or anyone else for that matter is needed for the final push, the answer is probably not. The answer, actually, lies in simply getting more production out of the players currently in the lineup.

That conversation starts with, but is hardly confined to, Travis Hafner. Though he has been starting to pick it up as of late, Hafner seems to have spent most of the season trying to prove that he can hit singles to the left side of the field. Maybe that will ultimately cause teams to stop using the “Hafner shift” nearly as often, but Hafner’s a natural dead-pull hitter and that has proven to be pretty successful to this point in his career. Even if it is just a matter of being out of sync, unless Hafner significantly picks up the pace, he will come up well short of the promise of last season. He has 16 doubles to date. Last year he hit 32. Though he hit is 16th home run against the Rangers on Friday, he looks to fall well short of the 42 he hit last year. With 64 RBI to this point, Hafner looks to fall well short of last year’s total of 116.

Though Victor Martinez is the better overall hitter and probably always will be, Hafner is the face of the Indians offense. And as he has struggled, it has made the Indians offense look inconsistent, if not ineffective. For example, with the bases loaded, Hafner is hitting only .182 this season. This is nearly 200 points under his career average in that category. With runners in scoring position, he is hitting .198, which is almost 100 points under his career average. With runners in scoring position and two outs, his average dips even further to .186, again well below his career average of .239 in that category. If Hafner can improve in those areas for the rest of this season and get close to his career averages, that is likely to provide much more of a spark than an aging Lofton could provide.

And while Hafner to this point is a big part of the problem, the issue is larger, demonstrating that while a team has to score runs to win games, that statistic is hardly the best way to measure a team’s offensive effectiveness.

For example, while the Indians may be second in the league in runs scored, they also are second in the league in runners left on base. In fact, they have left 77 more on base than the Tigers, which isn’t surprising since the Tigers team batting average is .287 compared to the Tribe’s .275 average. Thus, while the Tigers are barely ahead of the Indians in total runs scored, they clearly are getting more out of their scoring opportunities than the Tribe.

But where the real difference starts showing up is the simple act of putting the ball in play. If you have the sense that the Indians strike out a lot, it’s because they do. Only Tampa Bay and Texas have struck out more than the Tribe. The Tigers, on the other hand, have struck out 126 times less. While an out may be an out, some outs are much more effective than others. You can’t advance a runner unless you at least put the ball in play, something the Tigers do much more effectively than the Indians.

Digging deeper one can see why that lingering feeling about the offense is well justified. Not only is Hafner, for example, struggling with the bases loaded, so too is the rest of the team. Overall the Indians have had 104 at bats this season with the bases loaded and have just 24 hits for a .230 average. By contrast, the Tigers have only loaded the bases 86 times, but they have 37 hits, 13 more than the Indians overall, and an average of .430. Broken down further, as of Friday, the Indians have had five players who have come up with the bases loaded at least 10 times: Garko, Blake, Peralta, Barfield and Hafner. Hafner’s .182 average is the lowest of the five. The best is Garko, at .250. Blake and Peralta are at .200 and Barfield is at .188. The Tigers, on the other hand, have had three players come to bat with the bases loaded at least 10 times and every one of them is hitting over .400 in that situation.

If that doesn’t tell enough of the story, consider the averages with runners in scoring position. The Indians have had 879 at bats with runners in scoring position. They have 230 hits for an average of .261. That’s a full 14 points under the overall team average. The Tigers have had 883 at bats with runners in scoring position. They have 289 hits for a .327 average, which is full 40 points higher than the overall team average. The same trend holds true with runners in scoring position and two outs. The Indians have 421 at bats, 107 hits and a .254 average, 21 points under their overall average. The Tigers have 399 at bats, 123 hits for a .308 average, 27 points higher than their overall average.

Considering how much more effective the Tigers have been in their at bats than the Indians, it’s amazing that the Indians are just one game behind the Tigers in the standings. This is even more amazing when the pitching stats are thrown in. Though the Indians pitchers have been solid overall all season, the Tigers have been even better. Tiger pitchers have a better ERA, and opponents are hitting worse against them and have scored less runs than they have against the Indians. The Tigers even have more saves than the Indians.

There are still about 65 games left in the season, enough time for trends to turn. But simply pitching better, even in middle relief, isn’t likely going to be the key to overtaking the Tigers and winning the division. The key is offense. And while fans may want the Indians to make a move just to prove that they are in it to win it, with nine days remaining until the trading deadline, the answer really lies not externally but internally, unless the Indians decide to trade for the Tigers offense. The truth, while much more mundane, is that the Indians don’t necessarily need to make a move to get better. They have enough horses. They just have to get much better production out of them, particularly in clutch situations.

Monday, July 16, 2007


For anyone growing up watching the Cleveland Indians, the news that the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday became the first professional sports team to reach 10,000 losses had to come as a bit of a surprise. Surely, the Indians of our youth, so bad and underfunded that it makes the movie “Major League” look more like a documentary of the F. Steve O’Neill years, blew past 10,000 losses years ago.

But here’s the real surprise: the Indians aren’t that close to such an ignominious accomplishment, either. It’s difficult, actually, to comprehend just how many losses 10,000 really are. Sure, on the one hand it seems like just since the Browns returned in 1999 they’ve lost at least 10,000 games, but the truth is that a baseball team has to average 100 losses a year for 100 years to reach that dubious milestone. Forget completely about football. Even going 6-10 year and year out, it would take 1000 years to reach that milestone.

The Phillies road to 10,000 is instructive in understanding the enormity of this accomplishment. Mel Antonen’s column in the USA Today on Monday provides plenty of details, but a few are worth repeating here. For perspective, loss number 5,000 came for the Phillies all the way back in 1945, a full 62 years after they first entered the National League in 1883. They reached the next 5,000 in 10 less years.

Perhaps most fascinating aspect of the Phillies achievement is that the Chicago Cubs have actually been around longer, a full seven years longer, and yet they are some 575 losses behind the Phillies and thus won’t reach the 10,000 plateau for several more years. In other words, the Cubs get to enjoy the reputation of the most loveable of losers while the Phillies fans have actually had to endure the actual pain.

Sure, the Cubs are third in losses, trailing both the Phillies and the Braves, but the fact that they still have some serious losing in front of them before they eclipse the 10,000-loss mountain tells you how miserable the Phillies really have been over the years, even if their recent history isn’t nearly as awful.

See, that’s really the problem with sports fans in general. They lack historical perspective. Most can’t seem to remember what they had for dinner last night, let alone remember what happened years ago. If it didn’t happen in their lifetime and, preferably, in the last five years, there’s little chance it will be remembered at all.

If quizzed most Cleveland fans would guess that the Indians, overall, have a much worse winning percentage than Philadelphia, probably significantly worse and that the only reason Philadelphia got to 10,000 losses first is that they’ve been around longer. Good guess. Way off.

The Phillies (also briefly known as the Quakers and the Blue Jays) have a .468 winning percentage as a franchise, which is why they got to 10,000 losses so quickly, relatively speaking. The Indians are significantly better, at .511. (The Cubs, too, are much better. In fact, their franchise winning percentage is even slightly higher than Cleveland’s at .513) Translated to actual games and assuming the Indians continue the same winning percentage, after an equivalent number of games as the Phillies took to get to 10,000 losses, the Indians will only have 9612 losses, meaning the Phillies would have gotten to 10,000 losses at least four years sooner than it will have taken Cleveland. Thus, while Cleveland fans have much to complain about, to paraphrase noted Cleveland booster Sam Wyche, what do you think this is, Philadelphia?

But of course it’s hard to appreciate how much less successful the Phillies have been than the Indians because, again, most fans lack any sort of historical perspective. Consider, for example, that Philadelphia holds the record for the number of 100-loss seasons overall at 13. The Indians have only had five. But Philadelphia’s only had one such season in the last 63 years. Four of Cleveland’s five have come since 1971, three of them since 1985.

Though the Phillies have had losing seasons in 72 of their 124-year existence, the real serious losing was mostly confined to the first half of the 20th century. Contrast that with the Indians. The real bulk of their losing has taken place during a more media intensive time period of 1960-1994. Whereas the Phillies had losing records in half of the seasons during that 35-year stretch, the Indians had losing seasons 28 times in that same period.

Disregarding the strike year of 1994, the best record the Indians could muster throughout the entire time period was in 1965 under Birdie Tibbetts. The Indians went 87-75. Though a decent record, it’s hardly that memorable considering that the Indians finished fifth in the American League that season, behind Minnesota, which was first with a record of 102-60; the White Sox at 95-67, Baltimore at 94-68 and Detroit at 89-73.

Needless to say, but we’ll say it anyway, the Indians didn’t sniff a pennant, let alone a World Series appearance during that stretch. The Phillies, on the other hand, won 87 or more games nine separate times, including 1976 and 1977 when they won 101 games each year. They also had seven division championships and won a World Series title during that same period.

The contrast between the Phillies and the Indians is really, then, a contrast between perception and reality. While the driving force of this may be that 35-year stretch from 1960-1994, the truth is that it is at least as much colored by the fact that the Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. It’s the same reason, too, that the Cubs are viewed as such perpetual losers, certainly in comparison with Philadelphia, despite the vastly different historical records.

This illustrates the point, perhaps, that it’s not the sustained losing that wears on the fans so much as it is the fact that it is the lack of ultimate success. In many, many ways, losing is much easier to take when it is at least peppered with major accomplishments. The Indians unfortunately seem to be perpetually stuck in neutral, never the worst, never the best. That’s why this season is so crucial. Winning cures everything. If you don’t think so, consider this: the White Sox have been in the league the same amount of time as the Indians. Whose franchise record is worse? The White Sox, by 75 losses.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Market Forces

If the comments floating about regarding the signing of Indians DH Travis Hafner are any indication, baseball fans seem rather non-plused about the size of contracts that players are signing these days.

The general consensus is that signing Hafner was critical to the long-term (by baseball standards) future of the Indians. With that point, it’s easy to agree. Hafner is a fan favorite who does what most fans like best—mash. He is the kind of player that can be counted on to hit 30+ home runs and 100+ RBIs year in and year out. He also has a great batting eye, coaxes his fair share of walks by consistently putting together good at-bats and is a .292 career hitter.
But the fact that he will be paid more money in one year of his new contract than nearly every fan is likely to see in a lifetime hardly registers much of a blip on the radar screen these days. If anything, many consider the four-year $57 million contract a relative bargain and in the screwy economics that guide sports, it probably is.

Consider, for example, that the Seattle Mariners are on the verge of signing Ichiro Suzuki for a reported $18 million per year over five years. Suzuki is nearly four years older than Hafner and will be 39 when his new contract would expire. Ichiro is certainly a different kind of player than Hafner, to be sure, but is he $3.5 million a year better than Hafner? Maybe, but the kind of dollars Ichiro is signing for make it appear as though Hafner actually gave the Dolans a hometown discount.

Another consideration to this mix is New York Yankees lightning rod, Alex Rodriguez. Currently, the Yankees, with a fair amount of help from the Texas Rangers, are paying A-Rod on average $25 million a year over 10 years. However, A-Rod has the ability to opt out of the remaining three years of his contract at the end of this year, something that is appearing more and more likely. A-Rod certainly wouldn’t do that in order to make less elsewhere. According to his agent, Scott Boras, A-Rod will easily surpass $30 million per year going forward, if only because escalator provisions in his current contract essentially guarantee it. Thus, if he opts out, it will be with a fair amount of certainty that someone somewhere will pay him more. Again, A-Rod is a much different kind of player than Hafner. But is he twice the player Hafner is? Hard to believe, but that’s certainly a fair conclusion to draw when looking at the two contracts.
The point is not to just be another naysayer out there complaining about ever spiraling contracts. Presumably the owners only pay what they can afford. Or do they? The comments of Florida Marlins president David Samson on the Dan LeBatard radio show who called the imminent Ichiro signing “the end of the world as we know it” seem to suggest otherwise. That may have just been hyperbole by Samson, but only to make his point as he also called the contract a “joke” and “inexcusable.”

Of course, those same comments were made when the Rangers first signed A-Rod to such an unprecedented contract and while it’s still unprecedented, the Yankees essentially equaled it, if only for one year, by signing Roger Clemens this past season. In fact, those same comments are made by someone nearly every time a big-named free agent is signed and always have been.

What this really says is that baseball owners, left to their own devices, simply can’t control themselves. It’s why both the NBA and the NFL eventually went to a salary cap. It wasn’t too many years ago that Peter Ueberroth, as the commissioner of baseball, actually got the owners to work in concert to hold down salaries. The problem, of course, is that this was illegal and the owners had to make amends to the players because of this collusion. But at least he tried. Since then, the baseball owners have repeatedly caved at the bargaining table every time they’ve tried to convince the players to adopt a salary cap.

So the beat goes on, the salaries rise exponentially and the gross disparities in revenues and payrolls between ball clubs continues to stretch toward its breaking point, threatening the very foundation of the league itself. To bring this back around to Hafner’s contract, irrespective of whether or not the contract is a bargain by baseball standards, the fact remains that it represents a huge financial commitment by the Dolans who, to be charitable, haven’t exactly been known for their huge financial commitments to payroll. But give them their due in this case. They stepped up long before they had to and, as a result, the Indians will have the services of one of their foundational pieces for the next several years.

The real question comes whether or not they will have the stomach to do this all over again in the off-season for C.C. Sabathia. Like Hafner, Sabathia can be a free agent after next season. As noted previously, the White Sox recent signing of Mark Buerhle to a contract extension of $14 million a year is a good gauge of what Sabathia can expect to make. The two are near statistical twins. If anything, Buerhle has the edge. But the conventional wisdom among the locals anyway is that Sabathia is in for some kind of precedent-setting deal himself. Given the contracts of Clemens and A-Rod, that’s hard to imagine.

But if Sabathia and his agent see Buerhle’s contract as only the starting point in their negotiations, it will get sticky before it gets sweet because no matter what the Dolans might be willing to spend, Sabathia is likely to get more elsewhere. That’s just the way it is. The Dolans might be willing to deficit spend a bit in a given year but the chances of them being willing to deficit spend for several years is about as likely as Barry Bonds being able to fit into one of the caps he wore while with Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately, there really are no good answers to the rock and a hard place that Cleveland fans find themselves between. If the Indians had an idiot owner like Tom Hicks, they’d probably overpay for one or two players and leave themselves with an inability to field a credible team, kind of like the Rangers actually. On the other hand, with the Dolans, the Indians are always going to have owners that are justthisshy of having enough money to get the payroll to at least the middle of the pack, if not the average of the league. Consequently, there will always be a fair amount of hand wringing, whether it’s over someone like Sabathia or some other player who looks like a lead pipe cinch to bolt for the big money elsewhere.

Actually, there are good answers, it’s just that baseball owners, in general, lack the requisite courage to make them a reality. Baseball is in desperate need of a salary cap. The luxury tax, like the luxury tax in basketball, is only an impediment to folks like the Dolans. The big spenders will remain big spenders and the luxury tax just remains another annoying cost of doing business to them.

A salary cap, of course, isn’t the holy grail, but it levels the playing field. What it really does is make the job of managing the business of the club the difference between champions and also-rans. The reason the New England Patriots seem to defy football’s unending quest for parity is that Bill Belichick can manage the cap better than anyone else. His real talent lies in his ability to consistently properly value players relative to the amount of salary cap space they occupy, which isn’t an easy trick with such a large roster. Basketball is easier, of course, because of the limited amount of players but if not managed properly it can have disastrous consequences. Just ask any New York Knicks fan who continues to suffer under the massive mismanagement of Isiah Thomas.

But don’t hold your breath for that to happen anytime soon in baseball. The union is simply is too strong and the owners are too weak. They wouldn’t take the lengthy strike such an issue would engender because of the fear by the players that a cap is too much of a drag on salary growth. In the end, the owners will continue to placate themselves that they’ve somehow gotten to the same point with still another version of a luxury tap. And in places like Cleveland, they’ll remain clubs from which established players generally leave not stay.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An All Star Mess

Be honest. Did any of you actually ssee Victor Martinez’s home run live last night in the All Star game? Didn’t think so, which only proves the point that major league baseball’s self-described “midsummer classic” is not only boring, it’s inconvenient. (By the way, giving yourself a nickname is the ultimate act of desperation, like Michael Jackson referring to himself as the “King of Pop.”) Throw in the fact the game is also irrelevant and you have the Holy Trinity of reasons why the game has long since outlived whatever usefulness it once had.

Baseball’s All Star game was invented in 1933 by a Chicago sportswriter with way too much time on his hands. Since then it has served, ostensibly, to showcase the best talent in baseball in an annual clash between the leagues. One could argue that when there wasn’t interleague play as there is today, the All Star game was a bit more compelling because, outside the World Series, it was the only other time that the two leagues ever got together. Compare that to the NBA and NFL all star games. Because the two conferences in each sport always have played against each other during the regular season, there is no real novelty, for example, in seeing LeBron James play against Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning going against Brian Urlacher.

But whatever appeal the novelty factor may have once had has long since left baseball’s All Star game. Now it represents that three or four day break during the regular season when most baseball fans find something else to do, like complain about their own team on sports talk shows or cut the lawn.

To most Clevelanders, the All Star memory most etched in their minds was Pete Rose barreling into Ray Fosse in the 1970 game, an injury from which Fosse was never the same thereafter. But all this really did was cement the fact that Rose was a jerk and Cleveland was cursed. It hardly heightened interest in the game overall. In fact, if anything, it gave the participants another reason to want to avoid playing the game altogether.

If you watch the game or any of the festivities around it, the most prevalent emotion among the players seems to be indifference. For most, all it really represents is an opportunity to achieve an incentive bonus in their contracts. To the actual all stars, having to play the game, even if just for the perfunctory inning or two, is more of an injury risk than anything else and deprives them of the three or four day break that most of their other teammates get to enjoy. That’s why so many players actually beg off playing each year with a variety of mystery ailments, like ingrown fingernails and the miseries. It’s like calling off work with a fake cold in order to go golfing.

There was a time when baseball’s All Star game was more popular. Heck, from 1960-1962, two all star games were played each year. But whatever appeal it may have once had has long since left the building.

No question the nadir was reached when the worst commissioner of any professional sport ever, Bud Selig, ended the 2002 game by declaring a tie after 11 innings when both teams ran out of pitchers. Of course, when that kind of thing happens during the regular season, which it does occasionally, managers are forced to use a position player on the mound. But apparently the thought of such a thing happening in an All Star game was too much for Selig to contemplate and so he ended a game in a way in which, by rule, no baseball game can ever end—in a tie. Of course, Selig need not have broken that rule. He could have, for example, allowed the managers to reuse a pitcher, a violation of the rules as well but less of an offense in an All Star game then simply ending it as if it had never taken place. As Selig noted then “this will never happen again.” It shouldn’t have happened at all.

But getting all discombobulated about the 2002 game is hardly worth the effort it took to write this sentence. The truth of the matter is that if Selig simply declared that future games were being cancelled due to lack of interest, the only folks who would get all weepy-eyed would be a handful of sportswriters who’d miss out on what amounts to a vacation at their employer’s expense.

If you think that assessment is harsh, consider that the ratings for the game continue to dwindle. In 1967, for example, a full 50% of the households with televisions were tuned into the All Star game. Last year, that number was 16%, which was actually 2% more than the year before when the All Star game hit its lowest ratings ever. It is certainly true that in 1967, a television viewer had basically three choices: ABC, NBC and CBS. These days, there are dozens and dozens of cable and satellite channels, not to mention the various on-demand channels, from which to choose. But it also is true that if given a choice, most do not choose to watch the All Star game. (The same thing is true as well with regard to the NBA’s all star game and the NFL’s Pro Bowl. In fact, both events suffer from such abysmally low ratings, it’s reasonable to assume that outside of hard core fans, most folks probably don’t realize that each sport does, in fact, have an all star game.)

Given the lack of fan interest, the real question is why does Major League Baseball (or the NBA or the NFL, for that matter) continue to put on this exhibition? Selig would have everyone believe that by putting home field advantage in the World Series as the prize for winning the All Star game, he has restored the luster to the game. That might be true if the only participants were those from teams leading their divisions at the break. But why, exactly, would Tampa Bay’s representative in any given year actually care about ensuring an American League victory in order to gain an advantage in the World Series? Certainly, if the ratings are any indication, and they are, the fans could care less.

One could do a google search and find about a million and one columns offering suggestions on how to improve the All Star game. To that I say, why bother? Improving the All Star game is like buying a buying a fat guy a new suit, as if that will make all the difference.

Rather than spend any more time trying to fix this mess, why not work on something worth working on, like reassessing the continued worth of interleague play and the unbalanced schedule. How about Selig using his “good of the game” powers as commissioner to either force the American League to drop the DH or the National League to adopt it? How about figuring out a way of making sure that playoff and World Series games don’t end at 12:30 a.m. in the eastern time zone? In other words, there are any number of more worthy things to fix about baseball.

In this regard, Scott Boras, the super agent, sent Selig a letter outlining ways to improve the World Series, which itself is suffering from a lack of interest. Boras would have the series expanded to nine games with two being at a neutral site, with cities bidding for the right to hold those two games similar to the Super Bowl. He’d also use that opening weekend at the neutral site as a forum for announcing all of the major award winners, such as Cy Young and rookie of the year, as well as announcing the new Hall of Famers.

Whatever one thinks of Boras’ suggestions or the hutzpah it took for him to make them, know this: he’s at least trying to actually bring some pizzazz back to the game. The same can hardly be said for Selig. In fact, the extent of Selig’s taste for innovation came and left with his decision of award home field advantage to the league winning the All Star game.

Thus for now and probably forevermore, or at least until Selig steps down, not much will change. The game will be played, no one will care, and columns like this will continue to be written. But if things continue as they are, soon it will be worth asking: If they throw an All Star game and no one bothers to show, will that mean it was never played?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Chasing Their Tales

Happy now?

To those who proclaim allegiance to the Cleveland Indians but continue to find reasons not to support them, the 1-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, which dropped the Indians into second place at the All Start break, had to be a welcome relief. All that time the Tribe spent in first place during the first half of the season was starting to become a real impediment in these fans persistent refusal to buy into the remarkable turnaround from last season’s debacle.

This is, of course, typical of the Cleveland mentality. To most fans it seems that the two worst things in life are not getting what you want (a winner) and getting what you want (a winner). Now that the Indians are “mired” in second place, there is something legitimate to scream about, like the inability of Grady Sizemore to execute a sacrifice bunt or Jhonny Peralta to get a clutch hit when he was up 3-0 in the count with the bases loaded in the ninth inning.

No question that the Indians seem to be out of gas heading into their four-day break. They’ve lost two straight series while the Tigers, who beat the Tribe two out of three earlier in the week, pulled off a sweep of the Boston Red Sox and now seem to just starting to flex their muscles. But it’s also true that there are two and a half months left in the season and whether or not the Indians wind up in first place or as an also ran is more likely to be determined by what happens in the next 74 games than what happened this past week and, more specifically, by what moves the Dolans allow GM Mark Shapiro to make with the trade deadline looming in a few weeks.

I wrote a column earlier in the week discussing the relative lack of support the Indians have received thus far from their fan base. I received a fair amount of feedback on the subject with many suggesting a variety of theories, including the notion that the smoking ban at Jacobs Field was at least partially responsible. All decent thoughts. But the most common reason cited was fan bitterness toward the Dolans. I had mentioned this in my column as well but as the lack of support subject continues to be debated, it is becoming more apparent to me at least that this backlash is playing a greater role than most realize, particularly the Dolans.

Dozens of articles and columns have been written about the paltry payroll of the Indians. I’ve certainly written my share. With Art Modell now a distant memory, Larry Dolan is officially the cheapest person in Cleveland. But thinking back on Modell, it wasn’t so much that he was cheap as it was that he was undercapitalized. Modell’s best business move was scraping together a syndicate to buy the Browns in the first place. But when you have to scrape and scrounge to gain entry to the club, maybe you never belonged in the first place. That ultimately played itself out in Baltimore when Modell squandered the financial largesse of the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore and was forced to sell to Steve Bisciotti.

The Dolans, on the other hand, are undercapitalized, too, but for vastly different reasons. They overpaid to get into the club and have been finding ways ever since to make their purchase work. Too often, though, it’s been at the expense of a sufficient payroll to achieve what Larry Dolan promised in the first place: a team that would perennially contend. That’s what every owner wants, presumably, and while a high payroll certainly doesn’t guarantee success, a low payroll is an even much more difficult formula. It’s this rub that the fans constantly deal with and appears to be at the heart of a serious undercurrent of discontent that is taking its toll where the Dolans can least afford it: the box office.

You have to make money to spend money just as surely as you have to spend money to make money. Too often, though, the Indians appear to their fans to be the cat that is constantly chasing its tail. They have a very solid minor league base which comes in handy because of their inability to find and sign big-time free agents, their own or otherwise. As one reader noted to me, the best thing the Indians could do at this point is sign Travis Hafner and C.C. Sabathia. True. Very true.

According to reports, the Indians have made some headway in their negotiations with Hafner and it wouldn’t come as a complete shock if they get a deal done during the All Star break. That would be nice. But the conventional wisdom is that Sabathia will be the more difficult signing which was essentially confirmed when talks broke down during spring training and aren’t set to resume until after the season.

But now that the Chicago White Sox have signed Mark Buehrle to a contract extension, the Dolans and Shapiro are running short of excuses if they can’t find a way to get the Sabathia contract done soon.

Buehrle is probably the most comparable pitcher to Sabathia in either league. He is only one year older but is otherwise the statistical equal to Sabathia and has been for years. They are both in their seventh full season with their respective teams. Buerhle is 99-69 in that time while Sabathia is 93-59. Buehrle has a 3.77 ERA while Sabathia’s is 3.97. Buehrle is even more of a workhorse than Sabathia, having pitched in almost 200 more innings and 30 more games than Sabathia.

If anything, Buehrle has the edge over Sabathia and thus his four year $56 million contract sets a high water mark. Of course, Buehrle was in his free agent year and Sabathia still has a year to go, which requires a bit of guess work on the part of both sides. But either way, it is unlikely that Sabathia’s contract will be much different.

The question then is whether the Dolans have the stomach to absorb that kind of salary and, if so, how soon? Right now, Sabathia already is scheduled to make $9 million next season thus if his contract is re-worked to add $5 million more to it, one would think that wouldn’t be much of problem given the fact that the Indians have one of the smallest payrolls in the entire major leagues.

But adding $5 million next year isn’t the issue because a new contract for Sabathia will be an extension not a re-working. To the Dolans that is the equivalent of adding $14 million more to payroll than is currently projected for each of the four years thereafter since Sabathia isn’t signed after next year. That is a much larger chunk to take on when you need to keep your payroll low and you have young arms in the minors like Adam Miller. Moreover, it’s a four year contract, which is starting to push the outer limits of an acceptable length for a pitcher’s contract, at least according to most general managers.

In the end, these kinds of decisions are either as complicated or as simple as you’d like to make them. And given how the Indians have operated under the current ownership, there is no question that the decision whether to sign Sabathia, in light of the Buehrle signing, will have them tied up in their collective shorts for weeks, if not months, trying to answer all these questions.

This is really the reason, I think, that the Indians, despite their record, continue to frustrate their fan base. It’s one thing not to sign a hitter to an outrageous contract. It’s a whole other matter to turn your back on pitching. The White Sox, struggling every bit as much this year as the Indians did last year, look to be dumping payroll soon. Some even felt that Buerhle would be available. But ultimately White Sox ownership decided that it needed to do something to send a message to their fans that they understand how championship teams are built. Let’s hope the Indians, who find themselves in the odd position of fielding a top tier team with an alienated fan base, can find a way to tell their fans the same thing.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle

As mysteries go, it’s hardly the most compelling. But with major league baseball at the halfway point, it’s a question worth both asking and answering: why are the first-place Cleveland Indians one of the best kept secrets in Cleveland?

Over the weekend, the Indians finally surpassed one million fans for the season, the last division leader to do so. There was a time, of course, when the Indians front office handed out key chains in gratitude for having a million fans for the entire season and there were many seasons in which the Indians didn’t come close to drawing a million fans at all, so everything is relative. But the thought then was that if the team is ever a winner, the fans will show.

That was certainly true in the ‘90s. Now, not so much. The team is a winning and the fans aren’t showing, at least as much as a first place team deserves. And it’s not as if they aren’t a good home team. As of July 3rd, they have, at 31-12, the best home record in the entire major leagues. And it’s not as if they lack for promotions. The Indians front office runs so many fan promotions to this point the only things left are a cow-milking contest and bring your dog to the park night.

There are all sorts of theories as to why the Indians aren’t drawing. Some have suggested that the bad taste of last year’s disaster, particularly given the promise of the previous season, is mostly responsible. There’s probably something to that.

There is no question that generally many fans feel let down by the Dolans. The team has one of the lowest payrolls in the league still and despite owner Larry Dolan’s often-quoted promise to spend when the team was competitive it’s a promise that still remains mostly unfulfilled. The fans felt betrayed by the decision not to spend going into last season when the Indians seemed on the precipice of greatness and felt further betrayed when the Indians dumped salary last year. Those feelings were hardly assuaged by the lackluster free agents signed going into this season.

But whatever the ramifications of such fan mistreatment, the point remains that right now the Indians are 50-31 and only one team, the Angels, have a better record, and only then by one-half game.

Another popular theory is that the yearly roster turnover has created a team without an identity, making it more difficult for fans to embrace. There’s probably something to that theory as well.

Given the way the Dolans choose to fund this team, every off-season involves a fairly healthy amount of turnover. GM Mark Shapiro spends nearly every moment of his life with a cell phone glued to his ear for a reason. There are always 5-7 roster spots that he needs to fill. And it’s not as if those roster spots are being filled by identifiable, marquee-type players. Jason Michaels? David Dellucci? Joe Borowski? If anyone has their baseball cards, it’s by accident.

But on the other hand, the Indians have their share of stars. C.C. Sabathia, Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore. These are guys that could and would start for any team in either league. They’re all young with incredibly promising careers.

Which leads to a corollary of the “lack of identity” theory: even if they have identifiable players, the Indians won’t re-sign them when their contracts come due, thus investing the time now is mostly time and money poorly wasted.

There is something to this, too. Despite the Indians record, one of the most popular topics among fans is whether or not the Indians will re-sign Sabathia and Hafner. Though neither is a free agent at the end of this season, there is an abject fear, rightfully obtained, that the Dolans will not spend to sign either player. It’s difficult to know exactly how much this fear plays in the overall calculus of fan disinterest, but it would be foolish for either the Dolans or Shapiro to ignore it completely.

While each one of these theories likely plays some role in the number of empty seats at Jacobs Field each night, there is also a more obvious reason you don’t hear much about: the 2007 Major League baseball season simply isn’t very interesting.

Consider the American League East. Right now, exactly one team is over .500, the Boston Red Sox. Whatever your feelings may be about the New York Yankees, they are a flagship franchise and when they struggle there is a ripple effect throughout the league. In the AL West, the Angels remain a top-tier team and while Seattle is playing well and Oakland is a few games over .500, none of those teams capture the imagination, at least here in Cleveland. Unlike the Yankees, the quintessential team that fans love to hate, every team in the AL West garners, at best, a shrug.

In the AL Central, the White Sox this year are like the Indians last year, a major disappointment. But other than that, the division is playing out pretty much as expected, meaning that there is no compelling story to capture the imagination.

The National League is every bit as uninteresting. Whereas every division leader in the American League has at least 50 wins, the closest in the National League is Milwaukee with 48. Milwaukee! Most fans couldn’t name more than two players on the Brewers. The National League East, on July 2nd, had the dubious distinction of going 0-5. That pretty much captures what that division is all about. As for the NL West, it is highly competitive, but given its geographical distance and the fact that most of its games start at about the time most people go to bed around here, it remains an afterthought.

Contrast all of this with just last season. At this point last year, the AL East was the strength of the league, with Boston, New York and Toronto all at least 10 games over .500. In the AL Central, the Tigers had re-emerged after a lengthy slumber and were dominating the division, which makes for a very interesting storyline for Cleveland fans given how many times the teams play each other. Moreover, three teams in the division were at least 10 games over .500 with the Tigers having won 56 games by this point. The National League was still a mess, but the Mets were dominating their division and even the Reds were fighting it out for first place in the NL Central.

Moving beyond the league in general and to the Indians in particular, despite their record there is the lingering feeling that this team really isn’t all that interesting or all that good. That may be true if your benchmark is the 1920 Yankees or even the 1995 Indians, but in context to the rest of the league it’s untrue.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this team revolves around how it is that it finds itself with 50 wins already. At times, it seems held together by paper and paste. The defense is average, they aren’t hitting as well as anticipated and the middle relief remains a source of frustration.

But yet they are one of the best teams in the league. It’s this paradox that begs for further analysis not indifference. For example, the starting pitching has been nearly as good as advertised. In fact, with the emergence of Fausto Carmona, in some ways it’s better. That’s a story worth following, in and of itself. If that isn’t good enough, consider that Borowski has 24 saves despite the fact that nearly everyone of them was a struggle and is probably the team’s MVP to this point.

If that still isn’t good enough, look at some of the others. Sabathia is easily having the best season of his career and is well on track for a 20-win season. For anyone watching closely, this is the season that Sabathia has officially gone from a potential number one starter to an actual number one starter. When he takes the mound, good things generally follow.

It would be hard for any player, let alone a catcher, to play any better than Victor Martinez is playing to this point. His offense, always solid anyway, has been spectacular. Defensively, his improvement has been dramatic. Currently, he is ninth in the major leagues (third in the American League) in the percentage of would-be base stealers thrown out. For comparisons sake, consider that Ivan Rodriguez is 14th overall. His selection to the All Star team was every bit the no-brainer that was Sabathia’s selection.

Sizemore may not be a superstar yet, but he continues to play like a superstar in the making. Offensively, only Torii Hunter of the Twins is enjoying a better year than Sizemore among American League center fielders. Defensively, there are few better right now. Casey Blake has been, perhaps, the biggest surprise, particularly defensively. He is playing so well at third base, it will be tough, barring an injury, for Andy Marte to get back to Cleveland before September 1.

But rather than see these positives, too many fans seem to waiting for the other shoe to drop and are doing that waiting anywhere but at Jacobs Field, which is a shame.

It may be that the Dolans, once again, fail the fans by not investing in what it might take come trading deadline. It may very well be that Joe Borowski may wake up and realize that he is Joe Borowski or, maybe even more likely, that Casey Blake wakes up and realizes he is Casey Blake. Travis Hafner may stay in a slump all season. But for right now and for half the season already, that isn’t the reality.

Considering how few winners this town has known in any sport, one would think that whatever its warts, this is current Indians team should be embraced, not ignored.