Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Anti Divine Comedy

It was only an inkling but now it’s confirmed. The worst thing that can happen to a major league pitcher wearing a Cleveland Indians uniform is to win the Cy Young award. Just hope that Victor Martinez doesn’t win the batting title.

In ground no other club would ever dare tread, the Indians once again sent a reigning Cy Young award winner, this time Cliff Lee, packing for a parcel of Philadelphia prospects, only two of which are pitchers and only one of which is in the high minor leagues.

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, apparently wilting under the potential pressure of having to trade a non Cy Young award winner next season decided instead to jump early, way early in dumping Lee on a salivating Phillies organization. In exchange for Lee, the Indians get a Triple A pitcher, a Single A pitcher (apparently the key to the deal, which is laughable if you allow yourself a moment of levity), a catcher and a shortstop. The Single A pitcher, Jason Knapp, is on the disabled list. When healthy, he can apparently throw really, really fast. Let me guess, he’s got swing and miss capability.

So much for Shapiro’s “pitching, pitching, pitching” mantra. It’s now been revised to “pitching, pitching, position player, position player” and that’s without getting into the finer points about whether or not the Indians needed still another catching prospect or even another shortstop prospect.

Shapiro, just because he felt like it, also gave the Phillies Ben Francisco. I wonder if the Phillies even realize it. If they don’t they will when Francisco shows up, bat in hand. The Indians have gone from a team with a bunch of young outfielders to a team with a really young bunch of outfielders.

At this point it really doesn’t matter what Shapiro has to say about any of these prospects. Cleveland fans have been through this drill so many times that they can conduct the press conferences themselves. The prospects are all great, the economy is tough, and the Indians didn’t think they’d be able to sign Lee to an extension. Any questions?

Of course, the Indians never did try to sign Lee to an extension. His agent tried to engage the Indians in those discussions before the start of this season but Shapiro wanted none of it, probably because Lee’s leverage was at its peak given his Cy Young season of 2008. But as Lee continued to pitch well for a truly awful team put together by Shapiro, it became apparent that the Lee’s price wasn’t going in Shapiro’s direction. Time to move on.

Trading Lee now also allows Shapiro to go avoid any serious questions about whether or not trading Lee next year would have brought more value. Shapiro will undoubtedly say that because Lee had another season left on his contract, the Phillies were willing to part with more than they would next season. The great thing for Shapiro is that there’s no way to prove or disprove that theory.

One theory that actually is getting disproven though is that it’s easier to fire the manager than the players. Shapiro isn’t just conducting a fire sale. He’s in full liquidation mode, sacrificing nearly any player with a decent pulse while saving his erstwhile blood brother, manager Eric Wedge from the apparent voice mail telling him to report to Shapiro’s office and bring the playbook.

And speaking of Wedge, if anyone stands to gain by Shapiro’s latest brand of nuttiness, it’s him. Shapiro has this unhealthy belief in Wedge’s ability to manage a young team, unhealthy because, speaking strictly factually, Wedge has done nothing to actually nurture and grow either a young player or a young team. Past being irrelevant, Shapiro will no longer be compelled to fire Wedge come season’s end. What would be the use in that? A young team begs for a patient steady hand and on that score, Shapiro believes Wedge has the hands of a surgeon.

Thus it’s now more likely than ever that Wedge will be guiding whatever faux major league lineup that emerges from spring training next year and suddenly that’s turned into the least of issues. The real point here is that there is no longer any point to this franchise. Right in front of our eyes, Shapiro has turned into John Nash, another brilliant Princeton alumnus who went eventually went paranoid. Nash eventually regained some semblance of footing. If it were up to the fans, Shapiro might never get that chance.

While it’s doubtful that the Dolans are exactly celebrating the fact that their franchise has once again been relegated to a national embarrassment after trading another Cy Young award winner they are probably secretly thrilled that Shapiro has literally taken a meat cleaver to the budget. Wins are nice and all, but when it’s your money on the line there are other priorities. On that level, Shapiro, like Wedge, is probably as safe as he’s ever been.

Don’t be confused. In a world inhabited by the rational, Shapiro would probably be fired for the kind of mess he’s made. In a world where the balance sheet is far more important than the standings, Shapiro is probably in line for a hefty raise. Indeed, Shapiro’s cutting payroll as if he’s got an incentive clause. All any of this means is that the regime is probably solid even if the franchise is not.

There’s no doubt in my mind that, starting with Shapiro but certainly not ending there, a whole bunch of Indians apologists will defend this trade like they have all the others--by focusing on the souvenirs the Indians received in the exchange. But extolling the virtues of this pine tree or that says little about the forest. The Indians are not a better team or franchise today than they were yesterday and yesterday they weren’t so hot to begin with.

The Indians are defying gravity and poetry by going in reverse order of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Having started in relative paradise, they are blasting through purgatory at warp speed on their way to the depths of Hell. This time, though, Dante and Virgil, in the form of Shapiro and Wedge, aren’t nearly as likely to escape.

The Indians long ago stopped giving fans a reason to invest in them for this season and now have jump started that process for next season In turn, less attendance means an even smaller payroll and on and on it will go.

At this point it’s more than fair to ask if there is a realistic path forward. The last time the team was in it this deep they at least had an injection of cash coming from the new stadium that would be opening. It literally changed their fortunes.

There is no such cash cow on the horizon this time. Right now the franchise is encircled by a boa constrictor with each subsequent movement only tightening the grip. Without a few years of serious deficit spending in order to actually rebuild this franchise with bona fide players that can yield a contending team, it will get more and more difficult to breathe. Once a franchise no longer has promise to sell, the end is near. Shapiro may not see bottom but the ticket-buying, television watching, product buying public is starting to see it in high definition.

But hey, look at the bright side. An “anonymous major league source” sounding an awful lot like the Indians’ Chris Antonetti, supposedly told the Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes that Knapp, the alleged key to the deal, has “a great pitcher’s body.” So there is that. Of course so did John Rocker.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Mere Footnote

If you blinked, you missed it.

The Cleveland Indians’ traded relief pitcher Rafael Betancourt to the Colorado Rockies at around the same time general manager Mark Shapiro was telling anyone who’d listen that any trades had to yield “pitching, pitching, pitching” in return.

He got pitching in the form of an unknown commodity buried in the minors via the Mid American Conference. Cue the eye roll. The Indians aren’t about acquiring pitching. If the question is, what did we learn from the Betancourt trade, the answer, stated in the form of a question is “What is the best way to manage a dwindling team budget?”

It’s easy now for Shapiro to say that the Indians were never going to pick up that option anyway so the trade was about getting something for Betancourt rather than let him walk away at the end of the season. Whether it’s true or not or whether it was just Shapiro’s way of rehearsing his speech on Cliff Lee which he’ll either pull out of the drawer later this week or 52 weeks from now is a whole other matter.

In simple economic terms, you can give Shapiro the benefit of the doubt, but just barely. By dumping Betancourt now, the Indians not only saved themselves about $1.5 million off of payroll for the rest of this year, they also “saved” $5 million by not having to pick up his $5 million option for next year. It’s not savings you can bank because Shapiro claims he wasn’t going to pick up the option anyway, but in Indians math it’s still real money.

Frankly, Shapiro’s rationale is just a tad convenient. At $5 million in 2010, Betancourt may not be cheap but it’s not like he would have been wildly overpaid either. That would be Travis Hafner. The average major league salary is around $3.2 million. On the Indians, Betancourt’s salary would be half that of both Jake Westbrook and Kerry Wood and about 42% of Hafner’s salary approximately $12 million salary.

The major case against Betancourt is that he had a career year in 2007 and hasn’t lived up to it since, or in Shapiro-talk, “we don’t see the value proposition in Betancourt tilting toward the Indians in the near term.” But it’s not like Betancourt’s regressed like, say, Jhonny Peralta, who had a career year in 2005 and hasn’t lived up to it since.

Betancourt at least has been a mostly reliable if not quite spectacular reliever for several seasons. He did have 2007, which will put him in the “interesting, we ought to take a chance on him” category for several more seasons. And though he isn’t close to that level right now, he’d easily be considered one of the most viable bullpen arms for next season, particularly when compared to what the Indians received in return.

When a team’s glaring weakness is its bullpen and you trade one of the few mostly reliable arms for a pitcher that’s years away from contributing, then just be straight with the fans. Don’t try to sell them Connor Graham. They can tell the difference between a bald claim of improving your won/loss record and an implied claim of improving your profit/loss margin.

It’s not exactly a revelation that the Indians are a budget first team. It’s not even an indictment. It’s the double-barreled reality of a poor economy and a fundamentally flawed economic structure in baseball. Even with the economic disparities between teams minimized the Betancourt trade might still get made, but the more likely scenario is that a better economic balance between major league teams makes moves like this a far different proposition.

If baseball ever had a commissioner with some wherewithal to actually effect fundamental change on the gaping economic disparities of its member teams, then perhaps teams like Cleveland can being places that players have to leave in order to seek their fame and fortune.

Right now playing for the Indians is like an actor working in summer stock. Think Tom Hanks working for the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland when he was younger. It’s done for the experience, not the money. But you can’t build a career here, in theater or in baseball. The Indians aren’t exactly the minor leagues but at this point to say that they play in the same league as some of the other teams, like the New Yorks and Boston, for example, is only technically true.

That is, perhaps, the fundamental difference between major league baseball and the NFL. In large measure, professional football is run like a game of Monopoly. The banker gives each team the same amount of funny money and success or failure is not just a matter of rolling the dice but a product of the cleverness of your decisions.

The NFL, with its hard salary cap and equitable revenue sharing, puts a premium on the ability to manage the cap. It doesn’t give, say, the Detroit Lions 50% less money than the New York Giants and then tell them to stop whining and go compete. In football, its playing field is actually level.

Baseball, on the other hand, sees no wisdom in such progressive thinking. It runs the league as if some teams have the divine rights of kings and others are perpetually relegated to serf status. From a business standpoint, baseball works about as well as feudalism did.

Still, it’s worth asking whether a salary cap in baseball would make any difference in the trade of Betancort. Probably not, but it certainly would in the case of Lee.

Even with a salary cap, the NFL off-season is like the Hartville flea market. Everyone just goes from one table to the next alternately selling their own crap and buying someone else’s. Football teams dump Betancourt equivalents all the time because their cap value exceeds their on-field contributions, usually for younger and cheaper players in the opposite category. But for teams that need a missing piece or two, a guy like Betancourt may just be the overpriced answer. The Browns signed Willie McGinest.

Still, it mostly works. Baseball does not. With better economic balance n football, it’s far easier to measure the effectiveness of both the front office and the head coach. One can tell, for example, what a dismal failure it was for Phil Savage to sign Donte Stallworth. It’s far harder to tell whether Shapiro’s signing of Mark DeRosa was a mistake.

Another key difference between the leagues is the absence of the late-season salary dump. In baseball, July 31, the trading deadline, becomes as important of a date if not more so than opening day. The yearly ritual of the also-rans dumping assets to offset the on-coming drop in attendance in August and September doesn’t exist in the NFL. Quick, or even not so quick, tell me the last memorable NFL trading deadline deal made? Ok, I’ll make it easier. Tell me the last NFL trading deadline deal you remember. Didn’t think so.

The reason this matters is that football teams can actually build some continuity from year to year. If the Indians turn over their roster by 50% each year, it’s because it has to for economic reasons. When that happens with the Browns it’s only because they made dumb decisions.

Shapiro already runs the team as if it is in a league with a salary cap, but that’s because he has no other choice. Constrained mightily by a budget that seems to shift on a daily basis, this can never take either eye off the bottom line. It may be cynical to say that the team seems focused first on economics and wins and losses second, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

A salary cap wouldn’t necessarily make the Indians a perennial contender, but they’d have a far better chance, mainly because the high-value players they actually developed would likely have remained with them during the prime of their careers. There would have been no need to dump CC Sabathia, for example, any more than there is a need, or at least a perceived need, to dump Lee or Victor Martinez for much the same reason—salary. This isn’t just wishful thinking, it’s how it would have played out absent some overanalyzing by Shapiro, which is always a possibility. And by the way, it would have obviated the need for anyone to ponder the merits of firing Eric Wedge because he wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. With the kind of talent that would have remained, no one in their right mind would have given the keys to a rookie manager.

Betancourt is going to fall into the deep recesses of most fans’ memories the way Jamie Easterly and Victor Cruz have. But when Shapiro takes to the podium to extol the virtues of the three or four bodies that he got for trading Lee, don’t act surprised. You’d have to be comatose not to see that speech coming.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lingering Items--Bumpy Road Edition

As Cleveland Indians’ general manager Eric Wedge continues to twist in the wind, seemingly indefinitely, many fans have turned their attention now to general manager Mark Shapiro. As Clark Griswold would say, “now you’re talking, Eddie.”

The sins of a general manager can sometimes be harder to pin down than those of the manager. And when it comes to Shapiro he can be the most difficult of all to pin down. Through careful calculation, he’s created an aura of being an accessible, regular guy on the cutting edge of the modern method for running a franchise. Yet he never really says much and, when he does, it’s more to confirm something that’s already happened than it is to tell you what might come next. As for all the technological whiz-bang analysis that Shapiro and his cadre of front office MBAs have undertaken, it still hasn’t yielded a consistent winner. But he is an earnest guy, making it easy to give him a pass most of the time.

But as it is with general managers, they are the top day-to-day executives of any franchise (except the Cleveland Browns, apparently) and control most everything that takes place on the field and behind the scenes. Thus they rightly deserve to be the focal point when fan unhappiness shifts from individual losses to institutional bungling.

Shapiro’s track record is whatever you want it to be. You can pick out any discreet period of time over his tenure to prove your point, whatever it might be. The larger picture, though, and the one for which Shapiro must be held most accountable is that the Indians are slipping back ever so gently into their “sleeping giant” status of the early 1980s. It’s a potentially devastating malady where fan interest remains high but attendance does not.

Larry and Paul Dolan know that they own a valuable asset, even if they overpaid to get it. What they are now wrestling with is how to actually keep it from being a financial millstone around their collective necks. They simply cannot countenance owning a mere sleeping giant. Yet the crossroads they face is one in which they stay the course with Shapiro or go in another direction and hope for the best.

It’s not an easy choice, especially when they just know that fans see past and current performance as indicative of the future and thus aren’t likely to embrace a stay the course approach.

That has to scare the bejeezus out of the Dolans. When 2009 rolls into 2010, they will see that their goose of a franchise isn’t going to be laying any golden eggs for a good long time; that is unless something relatively dramatic happens.

That’s where Shapiro re-enters the picture. The question for the fans as proxy for the Dolans is whether or not Shapiro can work some of the black magic that has allowed him to retain his job into a reason why they would even bother to buy tickets for next season and beyond. For too many, Shapiro seems to be out of tricks. The trade of CC Sabathia last season still hasn’t yielded anything tangible and causes many to wonder how Shapiro can make something tangible happen out of the inevitable trade of Cliff Lee, either later this season or next.

If the Dolans are thinking bigger than certainly one thing that can dramatically alter the landscape is to take the risk on the alluring but mystical alternate path. A change of direction is always good for a temporary bump in fan interest and spending. It also takes the immediate heat off the team. Whether it ends up in the same destination is hard to say but it very well could.

There are certain core facts about this franchise that aren’t going to change no matter who is in charge. The economy in this region is deeply troubled and won’t recover any time soon. Even in boom times, Cleveland is a mid-market town with mid-market upside. Whoever sits in the general manager seat next is still going to have to rely on undervalued and underpriced talent, be it young players or flawed veterans, to make it work. To be more successful than Shapiro, they’ll just need to do a better job executing those fundamentals.

This is hardly to suggest that Shapiro should hold on to his job simply because it’s hard to predict whether the next guy will do any better. He is the devil we know and, frankly, the devil we don’t can hardly drag the franchise any further down the hole.

The reality though is that the path of this franchise isn’t going to change. The only thing that can make the journey better is someone more adept at navigation. Shapiro hasn’t been a complete disaster, certainly, but he’s sure finding far more pot holes these days than smooth road and it may very well be time for the Dolans to trust a new driver.

Both Sheldon Ocker at the Beacon Journal and Paul Hoynes at the Plain Dealer carried the item on Wednesday that former Indians outfielder David Dellucci is miffed that he was the subject of so much abuse at the hands of Indians fans. Hoynes added, somewhat gratuitously and somewhat pejoratively, that “bloggers” also made sport of Dellucci. Well, at least Hoynes is reading.

Dellucci’s point is that he tried his best and, gosh gee, can’t a guy get a break? He has a point, but only slightly. All a player can do is give it his best effort and if it isn’t good enough then so be it. But Dellucci wasn’t pilloried because of a lack of effort. In fact, it wasn’t even personal.

Dellucci served as a symbol of the Shapiro/Wedge regime, a limping, light hitting, average fielding, good in the clubhouse veteran presence keep your head down and don’t make waves symbol of why this team’s stock is dropping faster than General Motors. It wasn’t even so much that Dellucci was a bad acquisition on a purely statistical level. It’s just that Shapiro threw stupid money at him that ultimately greatly influenced how fans viewed him.

That’s not to blame Dellucci for Shapiro’s irrational exuberance. But on a mid-market team with a mid-market budget, a player making what Dellucci made is going to be saddled with higher expectations. He’s also going to have to play every day, his mediocre performance notwithstanding. At the same time, players further down on the development curve but with potentially higher upsides have to be content with less playing time. Can you say, Franklin Gutierrez?

The fact that Dellucci is miffed with Cleveland fans is typical of the view players get from the dugout. The view from the cheap seats, though, is a whole other matter. Indians fans in particular are tired of dealing with a frustrating boom and bust cycle in which players like Dellucci come in and out of their lives with maddening regularity. They are sold to fans as missing pieces but they turn out to be cheap and ill-fitting copies. The fact is that Dellucci was way overpaid and consequently way oversold to the fans. All he really was and will ever be is a higher priced Jamey Carroll.


It may be an age thing, but I’ll probably never get used to how comfortable this generation is with revealing the most intimate details about themselves so publicly. In an article that appeared in ESPN the Magazine this week, Kellen Winslow had no qualms talking about how doctors were draining fluid and all manner of bad goo from his junk sack.

It was well entrenched in the category of way too much information.

Actually, what was interesting about the story is how indifferent Winslow’s teammates were toward him. Winslow was and still is a loud-mouth braggart whose wants still far exceed his accomplishments. He felt, and apparently still feels, that he’s the best tight end in the league and wanted the respect and glory that goes along with that status. That’s probably a generational thing, too.

But the story Winslow related about how he spoke up at a team meeting concerning the problems with staph and none of the players jumped to his defense speaks volumes as does that part of the story where his teammates apparently felt uncomfortable around him because of, among other things, his overly active interest in porn.

He doesn’t see his inability to fit in as anything other than a problem for others but not himself. Introspection is not one of his strong suits. This is where, for once, Braylon Edwards could have been a help. Edwards, as complex a personality as the team has ever had, at least has a modicum of introspection about him. The problem is that, like Winslow, he has an overly active ego relative to his record.

All this is too bad, by the way. Winslow, for all his personality flaws, is everything that players typically like in other players. He works hard. He plays hurt. He has skills. But he’s probably doomed in Tampa. Too many injuries, too much baggage, and just plain too weird.


Watching a few of the Indians’ games this week always yields the inevitable dugout view of Wedge and his ever changing battle with facial hair. It also leads to this week’s question to ponder: Why is Carl Willis always sitting so uncomfortably close to Eric Wedge in the dugout?

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Same Old Same Old

You don’t necessarily have to be out of the country for a few weeks and basically cut off from the local sports scene to really appreciate the numbing sameness that is the Cleveland Indians, but it helps.

For the last few weeks I’ve been in Italy enjoying the views from Rome, Florence and Venice and enjoying the lack of substantive updates on Project Shapiro V. 2009. Back in the country for mere hours though and it’s quickly apparent that this version is more bug-ridden and faulty than Windows Vista. And all Sheldon Ocker can tell us is that manager Eric Wedge isn’t at fault.

Maybe none of this is Wedge’s fault and maybe none of it ever will be, but it is interesting how a flawed team brings out his flaws as well. But this isn’t about trying once again to bury Wedge. By this point the arguments and counterarguments have been hashed and rehashed. You’re either glass half full or, in the classic words of George W., half glass empty.

The one thing you can’t be, however, is delusional. You can blame injuries, bad luck and bad decision making to explain away a season that looks far more inevitable than anomalous, but what you can’t take away from any of this is that this organization is any closer to figuring any of its problems out than it ever was.

This team is stuck in the mud and the front office seems to be standing slack-jawed at the wreckage as if this outcome never even appeared on the numerous computer runs the interns made of the team back in February. At the moment, this is a team more than 20 games under .500 and heading for 30 and you don’t have to look any further than one Andy Marte to understand why. So paralyzed have they become that they can’t even decide whether to give Marte another chance, despite the impressive season he’s having in Columbus.

It’s not that Marte, personally, would have made a bit of difference to this season’s outcome. He wouldn’t have. It’s what he stands for. Wedge and Shapiro shuffle pitchers in and out of Columbus with all the forethought of someone driving down the freeway at 100 mph while sending a text. But with Marte they wring their hands as if this very well could be the most important decision in the history of professional baseball. It isn’t even the most important decision they’ll make in the next hour.

It’s true enough that Marte has had his opportunities and it’s true enough that he’s squandered them. But that only matters if you view player development in a straight-lined fashion instead of the amazingly jagged line that it really is.

According to a story by Paul Hoynes in Sunday’s Plain Dealer, Marte’s seemingly breakout season in Columbus has drawn the organization’s attention but they remain reluctant to take another chance on him at the moment.

There are probably a number of reasons that Marte is still in Columbus but you get the feeling that when you sort through the organizational doublespeak, it boils down to one thing: Wedge. Marte just doesn’t seem to be Wedge’s kind of player. Either was Brandon Phillips. Now do you understand why the team seems to keep inserting new CDs into the player but the same song keeps playing? Marte would have had to have hit .271 at some point in his career and been “good in the clubhouse” for him to get on the right side of whatever ledger Wedge keeps.

You can almost hear the pain in his voice when he told Hoynes that “[Marte] doesn't seem to be the same guy who was here the last couple of years. We have to see if it translates up here at sometime.” Yes, sometime. What’s the hurry? It’s only late July in a season that was effectively over months ago. Don’t rush.

The issue, though, really isn’t Marte. It’s the organization. Marte is having a good season in AAA and the front office treats is like a mysterious rash on its arm. Beyond just the Wedge factor, which can’t be underestimated or overstated, you had to almost smile at the Lewis Carroll meets Joseph Heller rationale offered by assistant general manager Chris Antonetti, when he explained, presumably straight-faced, that Marte remains in Columbus for the time being because he is out of options and thus he couldn’t automatically be sent to the minors if he flames out again.

Let’s stop and pause on that for a moment. The Indians were so dismayed with Marte that they sent him outright to Columbus earlier this year even though he was out of options. In doing that, they sent the message that they were completely indifferent to whether or not he remained in the organization at all. In fact, the only reason he’s in Columbus is because no other team in the league claimed him, which is saying plenty. Factor in that the reason Marte’s playing time increased only because of an injury to Wes Hodges and you can understand where he sat on the team’s depth chart. If this was the Browns and Marte was a tight end, he’d be behind Martin Rucker.

But like a 12th alternate just lucky to get into the tournament, Marte has made the most of what is surely his absolute final chance and that seems to be the worst news the front office has heard since the Princeton men’s tennis team finished 6th in the Ivy League this past season.

Now that Marte’s playing well, for the first time, the Indians are suddenly managing around the potential of losing him. The question is, why? In the worst case scenario, Marte comes back up to the big leagues and fails, for the fourth time. If that happens, Shapiro can outright him again, just as he did a few months ago. Marte either gets claimed or he doesn’t but either way his career is over in the Indians’ organization anyway. In other words, what downside?

It may very well be that Marte is the second coming of Karl Pagel. Every team has had its share of players over the years that can’t take that final step. But with the kind of year Jhonny Peralta is having you would have thought that Marte would have been in Cleveland the moment he hit his second home run, if only to light about the 83rd fire under Peralta this year.

As I said, Marte isn’t really the issue, it’s the organization. In context, the fact that it is even fretting over him is more a marker for everything that’s wrong than it is a sign that everything is going as planned. Every day Wedge continues to pound the square peg that Peralta has become into the round hole that is the lineup is another day lost to actually trying to build a team for the future.

The Indians right now are a team without much of a plan. They can’t decide if they have enough money to keep Cliff Lee and/or Victor Martinez and they can’t decide if they will have any pitching and hitting if they don’t. They refuse to commit to Asdrubal Cabrera but seem oddly fascinated with the car wreck that’s become Peralta’s career. The next player that Wedge develops will be his first all the while he and the front office continue to pin their hopes on an eventual return to form by players like Travis Hafner and Jake Westbrook.

This team, this organization is far more coulda than shoulda at the moment and the only ones that seem to notice are just about everyone who doesn’t rely on the team for a paycheck.

Yes, it’s late July, the season’s lost but there is one saving grace. The Indians season is like a Spike Lee movie. You can leave for 20 minutes in the middle to get some popcorn and talk to a friend inSa the lobby and when you get back you will not have missed anything and it will make just as much sense as it did when you left.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Welcome to the Dark Side, Wolverines

[Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on December 20, 2007. I'd call it a best of, or a classic, but it's really more like foreshadowing. What it is, actually, is a way for the author to take a much deserved vacation. We'll see you in a few weeks. For now, either enjoy these "best ofs" or not. Your choice. ]

There is a Chinese proverb that says in desperation, a dog will leap over a wall. Over the many decades of its existence, the University of Michigan has attempted to build a certain wall of elitism around its school, effectively telling everyone in the world that it is a different and better place, academically and otherwise, than say the Ohio States of the world.

Well, that wall not only just got jumped it got torn down and all it took was Michigan selling its soul with the hiring of a coach who couldn’t close the deal in a game he needed to win in order to gain a berth in the National Championship game on the line. Rich Rodriguez meet Lloyd Carr.

It’s hard to know, of course, how the Michigan’s hiring of the former West Virginia Moutaineers coach ultimately will play out, though its fun to speculate, given Rodriguez’s continued inability to actually win really big games. What isn’t so hard to know, of course, is that Michigan fans better get used to two things: their school is no longer an above-it-all institution of higher learning and their football program is now being led by a coach with one eye always firmly trained on the next opportunity of a lifetime.

Former Louisville and Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino has been getting a tremendous amount of abuse from conveniently high-minded types like former players and ESPN talking heads for supposedly running out on a hapless Atlanta Falcons team and franchise but Rodriguez’s similar move in West Virginia has been met with mostly a shrug. Hard to figure, particularly as the facts continue to trickle out about Rodriguez.

Make no mistake about it, Rodriguez is running out on his team in much the same way Petrino ran out on Atlanta. Keep in mind first that the ink on the contract Rodriguez had signed just this past August with West Virginia is barely dry. Second, West Virginia’s season isn’t over. They have a little matter of a Fiesta Bowl game on January 2nd against Oklahoma before the season is over. Arguably, that game is far more meaningful to West Virginia and its program than the three remaining games that were on the Atlanta Falcons schedule when Petrino abruptly quit.

Maybe Petrino should have stuck around the hopelessness that is Atlanta these days, but no one has yet come up with a plausible reason why Rodriguez shouldn’t be similarly criticized or chastised. If Michigan truly wanted Rodriguez, which is somewhat questionable since he was, after all, their third choice, why couldn’t they wait until after the Fiesta Bowl?

Actually, there is an answer to that question. It’s tied up in the engine that really drives the college football machine these days: recruiting. Rodriguez met with Michigan representatives last Friday in Toledo. By Saturday morning, according to published reports, Rodriguez had made his decision. How do we know that? Well, it appears that one of the first persons told about the decision was not his team, maybe not even his wife. It was Pittsburgh Jeanette high school player, Terrelle Pryor, who just happens to be one of the most highly sought recruits in the nation.

According to a story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Rodriguez called Pryor Saturday morning, just hours actually after the Toledo meeting, to tell Pryor he was headed to Michigan. Pryor’s immediate reaction was to take West Virginia off his list of schools under consideration and to add Michigan to it instead.

Pryor is so highly sought, including by Ohio State, because he runs the spread offense, which just happens to be Rodriguez’s specialty and is the current rage in offensive schemes. In fact, while Ohio State is one of Pryor’s top choices, along with Oregon, Penn State and Florida, Pryor has openly mused that Ohio State’s offensive philosophy may not be the right fit for him.

But now that Rodriguez has taken his act to Michigan, Pryor now has three Big Ten schools on his list. Given how quickly Rodriguez called Pryor with the news, it is fair to ask (though no one seemingly has) what role the potential to land Pryor in Michigan played in Michigan’s decision to offer Rodriguez the job. In fact, if Pryor does end up at Michigan, those questions shouldn’t just be asked on the internet, the NCAA should actually investigate.

It’s doubtful that anyone officially associated with Michigan would actually admit that the chance to lure Pryor to the Wolverines in order to resurrect a program in sore need of resurrection played any role whatsoever. But if anyone officially associated with Michigan denies that Pryor’s name ever came up, then the last piece of Michigan’s so-called mystique—credibility—will have been forever compromised. Welcome, Wolverines, to the dark side.

Another aspect about Rodriguez’s hiring, which not only reflects poorly on Michigan but also tells you a great deal about Rodriguez’s ethics, is the little matter of the pesky $4 million buyout in that flimsy contract he signed last August. According to a story in the Charleston Daily Mail, it sure seems like Rodriguez is trying to avoid paying the penalty he voluntarily accepted without so much as a gun to his head just eight months ago if he ever quit and went to another school.

No one actually expected Rodriguez to pay the penalty personally. These things are usually handled by a combination of the school and its boosters that lured him away. But $4 million is actually one of the bigger penalty clauses that you’ll see in a contract and neither the University of Michigan nor its boosters seem all that keen on paying an extra $4 million just to buy their third choice.

Attempting to escape the obligation, Rodriguez has done a couple of things, on the advice undoubtedly of his attorneys. First, he’s actually intimated that he’s not leaving because of the great opportunity that Michigan supposedly presents but more so because West Virginia wasn’t meeting its contractual commitments to him regarding the completion of an academic center and an upgrade to the locker room. In this battle, he’s enlisted some alums to spread the word while remaining oh so distant from it personally. Coward.

Apparently, the Mountaineers academic center was completed, just a little later than planned. The locker room upgrade is supposedly on schedule. If this all seems more than a little trivial, just remember the two great adages of most major college coaches these days: Greed know no bounds and no amount of money is too small to quibble over when it’s mine. Remember, too, that all this is really just an attempt to insert leverage into a discussion on how to reduce the $4 million to, perhaps a more manageable number. In that regard, it’s also instructive to remember that this is the same tactic that Michigan and John Beilein used just last year when Beilein, too, bolted the Mountaineers for the sunny shores of Ann Arbor and sought to reduce his $2.5 million buyout penalty. It worked. He paid only $1.5 million. Cheapskate.

Second, the effective date of Rodriguez’s resignation letter is January 3rd. The point here is to try and encourage West Virginia to actually fire Rodriguez before that date, which, too, would avoid Rodriguez having to pay the penalty.

If all this seems just a little underhanded or a little sordid, remember that Michigan could make this all go away by simply paying the penalty in the first place. Of course, they didn’t do that in the case of Beilein when the stakes were less, so why would anyone expect anything different here? You may rightly surmise that this is the least that this supposedly stand-up institution could do, but you’d be wrong. Doing the right thing always has its price and, in this case, we now know that at Michigan, it’s less than $4 million.

Eventually, you do reap what you sow and all this will someday come back to revisit Rodriguez and Michigan, and probably at the least opportune time. In the short-term, though, Michigan and its fans can go off and celebrate this hiring and all that it will supposedly bring to the program. But as they’re drinking themselves giddy, no amount of alcohol can hide the fact that as of now, the only differences between themselves and Arkansas are geography and conference affiliation. And when their heads eventually clear, maybe then they’ll awake to the reality of the permanent damage they’ve done to the school and its reputation.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Follow the Money

[Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on February 28, 2008. I'd call it a best of, or a classic, but it's really more like foreshadowing. What it is, actually, is a way for the author to take a much deserved vacation. We'll see you in a few weeks. For now, either enjoy these "best ofs" or not. Your choice. ]

On the surface, the two stories wouldn’t seem to have much in common. Chicago Cubs owner Sam Zell said earlier this week that he would definitely consider selling the naming rights to Wrigley Field. At roughly the same time, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was heard saying, again, that he believes NFL owners will vote to opt out of the current labor agreement.

Two different sports, two completely unrelated issues. Hardly. Like everything else in sports these days, the two stories share a common parent: money. In particular, the root is the ever spiraling cost of owning and running a professional sports franchise and what to do about it.

There was a time not all that long ago when old white men bought sports teams for the pure ego and hobby of it. That era was characterized mostly by the alarming lack of business acumen these owners brought to their hobby. Whatever rigor they applied to their “real” businesses, the ones that made them all the dough, was thrown out the window when they dabbled in sports.

But this didn’t necessarily cause them any great concern because the value of their teams continued to climb ever higher, seemingly defying all the laws of economics. Owning a sports team became the ultimate boom enterprise. But the downside, at least from a fan’s perspective, is that the economic health of their sports eventually grew worse. Most owners, more interested in stroking their egos than making good business decisions with their teams, wouldn’t hesitate to sign the next great superstar to an even more outrageous contract then the last great superstar. Ticket prices rose.

But eventually a different breed of owner started making their way into pro sports. Buying at ever increasing prices and taking on the kind of crushing debt that made the old white guys shake their heads, this breed grew up on budgets and business plans and didn’t see any reason not to translate that into their sports properties. Indeed, it was a necessity. This breed has no less of a desire to win than their forbearers; it’s just that given what they paid for their team, they aren’t as comfortable dipping into their personal fortunes any further in order to meet their debt payments, let alone such trivial matters as player acquisition expenses.

Zell and Jones are two such owners. Zell is a somewhat reluctant owner of the Cubs, having acquired them when he purchased the Tribune Co., the Cubs’ previous owner, last April for more than $8 billion. Zell’s interest seemed, at least at the time, much more focused on the media properties under the Tribune banner and not, necessarily the Cubs.

Most expect Zell to sell the Cubs sooner rather than later if only to retire some of the massive debt he took on to buy the Tribune Co. in the first place. But Zell is letting it be known now that he will sell the Cubs when he’s good and ready and, by the way, he plans to maximize his recovery by selling the Cubs and Wrigley Field separately.

There is good reason for Zell to wait and to sell separately. According to Forbes, the value of the Cubs franchise has been increasing at an average annual rate of 14% and increased a whopping 32% just between 2005 and 2006, not atypical figures whatsoever in either baseball or football. Needing money is one thing, but given these returns it compels Zell to wait a little longer to sell. In the meantime, why not create a tidy little revenue stream by selling the naming rights to one of the most famous stadiums in the world? For an owner more interested in money than history, it makes perfect sense.

For the baseball purist out there, Zell’s plans may be sacrilege but don’t blame Zell. Baseball’s ownership fraternity has never been all that keen on sharing revenue among themselves and thus it’s not a surprise that left to their own devices things like this would happen. With baseball having created an economic mess of itself for the last several years with no appreciable end in sight, now is hardly the time to begrudge even Sam Zell from making a little more money on the backs of fans. There are much bigger issues to solve in that sport first.

At first blush, it seems that’s what Jones and at least 23 other of his fellow owners are trying to do by opting out of the labor contract early, solving the big problems. Under its terms, the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is supposed to expire after the 2012 season. But either the owners or the union can opt out of the final two years by giving notice by November 8th of this year. If that occurs, 2010 becomes the final year of the contract and it would be sans a salary cap.

But lest anyone think that this tactic has anything to do with eradicating the sport of a salary cap, think again. Though the owners once fought the concept, the presence of a salary cap does, from their perspective, achieve the desired result by acting as a sort of lifeline or net to those among them who would otherwise try to scale a mountain they have no business climbing in the first place.

What Jones and his brethren really want is a re-working of the cap. It’s no secret that the owners feel that the current collective bargaining agreement, which was actually an extension of the previous contract, was rammed down their throats by then commissioner Paul Tagliabue after several months of hard bargaining with the union. In fact, it’s not a coincidence that Tagliabue’s retirement announcement came just days after the contract was signed. He knew he had lost the support of many of the owners.

It’s not hard to see why. Putting aside the contract’s complexity just know that in 2010, assuming the contract were to stay in place, the players share of projected total revenues (itself an incredibly complex calculation) rises to 58%. That’s a pretty long arm into the owners’ rather deep pockets. Keep in mind, too, that the definition of total revenues was further expanded so that virtually any income that the owners generate gets included in the calculation.

Ever since Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989, he’s been trying to find ways to increase his own bottom line. When he tried striking his own marketing deals built off the Cowboys brand, he got cut off at the pass. Since then he’s been working from inside with an ever-changing fraternity that used to see him as a no-nothing maverick. Now he has the ears of a majority of owners who see the players getting an ever bigger piece of what they consider to be their pie. And the bigger the piece that goes to the players, the less that goes to the owners, many of whom are juggling huge debt.

None of this makes Jones or any of the other owners bad guys, but it does set football up for the kind of labor disharmony that is at the root of some of baseball’s biggest problems, including the lack of a legitimate, wide-ranging drug testing program. Upshaw has vowed that if the cap comes off, it will never return, a big promise that he probably can’t keep. Football owners aren’t quite the patsies that permeate baseball’s ownership ranks.

Whether Zell ultimately sells the naming rights to Wrigley Field and whether there is a period of labor unrest in football ultimately are just the visible and transient outcomes of a larger unspoken issue. But all you need to remember when trying to connect the seemingly unrelated dots in such matters is what the “Deep Throat” character kept telling Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward character in All the President’s Men: follow the money.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Another Lost Weekend---Almost

[Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on April 6, 2008. I'd call it a best of, or a classic, but it's really more like foreshadowing. What it is, actually, is a way for the author to take a much deserved vacation. We'll see you in a few weeks. For now, either enjoy these "best ofs" or not. Your choice. ]

Well, at least they avoided the sweep. But no one outside of Cleveland Indians announcer Matt Underwood actually believes, as Underwood said after the final out Sunday, that all is once again well with the Indians. Rather, had the Indians found a way to once again lose to the Oakland As, more than a few flat screens around northeast Ohio would have been in need of the Best Buy Geek Squad.

Until the Tribe found a way to squeak out Sunday’s 2-1 win, the highlight was the fact that only two of the three games found their way on local television. Sitting through two of them was more than enough to bring back a whole host of last season memories of what this team looks like when it doesn’t hit. It isn’t pretty in the same way that a head-on car crash isn’t pretty.

If there was a bright spot, and geez that would be hard to find, it had to be Cliff Lee, who pitched twice as well as the rest of the team played. For most of the game, it looked like it was Lee’s turn in the “hard luck loser” box pitching for a team that was treating Oakland’s Joe Blanton like he was Josh Beckett.

Sticking with the Cliff Lee theme for a minute, in a weekend that was discouraging on several levels Lee looked nothing like the pretender who was up there last year nibbling at the corners, treating every hitter as if he was David Ortiz and otherwise getting his brains beat in every five days until he took up permanent residence in Buffalo. In his first start of this season, Lee looked mostly confident and mostly willing to challenge the awfully young As lineup. If that seems like faint praise, it’s really not considering that the rest of the Indians lineup was much less willing to take on that challenge for most of the three game series.

A microcosm of the weekend’s offensive futility was the 7th inning of Sunday’s game. After Jason Michaels grounded out, Andy Marte and Kelly Shoppach singled. The As then walked Grady Sizemore, the only Indians player putting together decent at bats these days. Asdrubal Cabrera was up next and hit a perfect double play ball to As first baseman Daric Barton. Barton bobbled it long enough to keep the Indians out of the double play, although Barton was able to get Cabrera at first. The Indians, however, tied the game at 1-1. Give Cabrera the gift RBI.

With first base open, the As decided to intentionally walk Travis Hafner, which made some sense historically but not if you have access to the hitting charts of Hafner’s last 140 or so games, bringing up Ryan Garko, who traditionally hits Blanton well. After falling behind in the count, Garko walked on a 3-2 pitch to bring home the Indians second run. That brought on Santiago Casilla who proceeded to strike out Jhonny Peralta.

If you’re on optimist, you’d say at least the Indians took the lead. If you’re a realist, you know that this was the Indians best opportunity to break out of the offensive slump that’s gripped them over the last four games. Instead, they ended up with two runs as the result of an error (though it won’t appear in the box score as such) and a walk. The Indians didn’t come any closer to scoring the rest of the game and were left to protect what was a tenuous lead at best.

But the reason the Indians avoided the sweep is the reason they have a chance to be special—good pitching. When Lee was done after 6 2/3 innings, the pitching triumvirate that was so strong last season, Rafael Perez, Rafael Bentancort and Joe Borowski kept the As off the board. In truth, they were hardly challenged.

Indians Manager Eric Wedge, never one to register much of a pulse publicly, nonetheless hit the nail on the head, the best hit of the weekend actually, when he said that that the main problem with the offense is the lack of quality at bats. In each of Friday’s and Saturday’s losses, the Indians struck out 10 times. Not every strike out occurred while the Indians batter had his bat on his shoulder, it only seemed like it. And it wasn’t as if they were facing the Red Sox. Justin Duchscherer, which is at least as hard to spell as it is to say, baffled the Indians on Friday and teammate Dana Eveland, another pitcher unknown outside of the most hardcore of fantasy league players, did likewise on Saturday.

On Sunday, all Blanton did was what he normally does, give up hits. The only problem is that other than the aforementioned 7th inning, the Indians couldn’t string them together. In fact, as a measure of the lost weekend that the Tribe offense had, only twice in three games did it have two consecutive hits in an inning, the 7th on Sunday and the 6th inning on Friday. In fact, Friday’s 6th inning was a whole lot like Sunday’s 7th. Shoppach led off the inning with a single. Sizemore followed with another. Cabrera walked to load the bases, bringing up Peralta who hit into a double play, brining home a run. Hafner was up next and struck out looking, naturally.

The obvious counterpoint to all of this is that the season’s just six games old. There always are going to be stretches where it seems like every opposing pitcher is throwing softballs and stretches where it seems like they’re throwing BBs. The sheer length of the season is often underappreciated leading to drive-by analysis that lacks context. But on the other hand this is a team that is largely a carryover from last season and its weekend offensive struggles seem much more like a continuation of a pattern firmly established than a typical seasonal blip. If Tribe General Manager Mark Shapiro were more like Browns General Manager Phil Savage, he already would have seen enough, either David Dellucci or Jason Michaels or both would be on their way to Seattle and Ben Francisco would be on his way from Buffalo.

But the one thing that you can’t ever look like you’re doing in baseball is panicking. And that’s exactly what it would look like if Shapiro were to acknowledge what everyone can see is true—that without more offensive production from their outfield, the Indians are going to have a lot of hard luck losing pitchers this season.

It’s true that the Indians best hitter, Victor Martinez, sat out his fourth straight game, but his presence isn’t going to solve everything or even most things. Offensively, this is a flawed Indians line-up and will remain so as long as guys like Michaels, Dellucci and Andy Marte get significant playing time. Throw in the disturbing tendencies of Peralta to take weeks off at a time, Casey Blake being Casey Blake, and Hafner still unable to return to the form he had before he got married and you can see why the Indians scored six runs all weekend against a very average Oakland team.

But baseball, like golf, always offers a chance for immediate redemption. For the Indians, they’ll have to find it in Anaheim against a team far better than the one they faced this weekend. And if all goes as it usually does in baseball, then the Indians will end up averaging 10 runs a game against the Angels. But if things don’t turn around then, don’t look for it for awhile for after the Indians board that charter plane following Wednesday’s afternoon getaway game, they’re headed back to Cleveland to face, again, that dynamic one-two punch of Eveland and Duchscherer and the mighty,

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lemmings, Again

[Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on July 13, 2007. I'd call it a best of, or a classic, but it's really more like foreshadowing. What it is, actually, is a way for the author to take a much deserved vacation. We'll see you in a few weeks. For now, either enjoy these "best ofs" or not. Your choice. ]

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.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Shapiro, Interrupted

[Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on December 14, 2006. I'd call it a best of, or a classic, but it's really more like foreshadowing. What it is, actually, is a way for the author to take a much deserved vacation. We'll see you in a few weeks. For now, either enjoy these "best ofs" or not. Your choice. ]

It’s always been apparent that Indians GM Mark Shapiro rubs some people the wrong way. Some find him arrogant and others find him to be just so much the spin master. In that regard, such folks equate Shapiro with former Browns president and part-owner, Carmen Policy. That seems unfair.

Policy, in his short time here, went from beloved to bemoaned. When the Browns first came back to the league, a guy like Policy almost seemed necessary because, like Kevin Bacon’s character in the movie “Animal House”, we needed to be told to remain calm and that all was well while the train was careening unabated off the tracks. But after the sheen of the Browns return began to wear off through one colossal personnel screw-up after another by the Policy-led Browns, most grew tired of his act. In short, he lacked credibility. But Policy at least had the moxy and insight to know that he was wearing out his welcome and thus jumped shipped before he was pushed.

Shapiro, on the other hand, is a much more substantive guy. He may come across like Policy at times, but Shapiro at least knows from where he speaks. He can talk in depth about the 38th best prospect in the Indians farm system, for example. And while he tries to put the best face on most things, you often can tell between the lines that he’s really doing the best he can with the cards being dealt by the Dolans.

The radio “interview” WTAM sports troll Mike Trivisonno “conducted” with Shapiro earlier this week was classic Shapiro. (When referencing any on-air exchange between the buffoonish Trivisonno and a team official, it is difficult to use the words “interview” and “conducted” unless it is well understood by all that such activities consist alternatively of offering up fawning praise and softball questions.) It was in-depth and substantive in a way no other team official would dare allow and yet so full of spin as to make one question, upon reflection, whether he said anything at all.

Not to continue to beat a dead horse, but the exchange regarding traded closer Bob Wickman was particularly frustrating. It satisfied our urge for more information about this failed trade in the way that cotton candy satisfies a person’s hunger for food. Shapiro said, as he has said previously, that even with Wickman the Indians would only have won 5-7 more games. The tone is dismissive in the sense that a mere 5-7 more victories this last season would hardly have mattered. While a few more wins would not have gotten the Indians into the playoffs by a long shot, it may have given the fans a bit more optimism about this season, particularly if someone with the track record of Wickman was still closing games.

But the bigger problem with Shapiro’s dismissal of this fiasco is that it only tells part of the story. The truth of the matter is that this past year’s Indians team gave the closer shockingly few closing opportunities. If anyone was underutilized it was Wickman. The Tribe was either getting blown out or blowing someone out and save opportunities were generally few and far between. We tend to think of last year in that regard as an anomaly. In a more typical year, the closer would have been called on much more often. Consider, for example, that Wickman was traded with a little over a third left in the season and yet appeared in only one less game with Atlanta than he had with Cleveland. The point is that each time Shapiro tries to massage the facts to minimize Wickman’s impact, the facts get in the way. Wickman created a hole that is just not being plugged with lesser talents.

But the more entertaining portion of the “interview” was reserved for Shapiro’s plan undertaken in 2002 to make the Indians a long-term competitive team capable of winning 88-90 games a year. According to Shapiro, what he didn’t fully factor into the equation was how good the Central Division would be and how good the American League as a whole would be. It’s as if he is shocked that the rest of the Division and the League didn’t just lay down for the next four or five years and let the Indians play catch-up.

But, as we said, this is where you have to read between the lines with Shapiro. A sharp guy like Shapiro obviously knows that every other team is trying to get better. Likewise he knows that many other teams, like Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota, were spending more money than the Tribe to get and remain competitive. He can read the same statistics that we do and probably has them broken down in more ways than anyone in their right mind should. So what Shapiro is really saying is that he’s doing the best he can with the budget dollars available. And as has been well chronicled, the Indians continue to fall well short on that scale.

In the end, Shapiro basically confirmed what even the casual fan can observe: the Tribe is never likely to be that perennial competitor capable of winning 90 games every year. Because the budget dollars will always be less than optimal, the team will be in constant flux. Holes filled one year will re-open the next, only to be filled with second and third tier free agents with spotty track records and likely health problems. In other words, given how he is forced to operate, it’s almost inevitable that a year like 2005 will be followed up with a year like 2006.But to channel our best Shapiro, to all of that we’d say that while this modus operandi may play havoc on the mental and physical health of the fans, at least it gives us all something to complain about.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Lingering Items--Cover Up Edition

For all of the shortcomings that former Cleveland Browns’ general manager Phil Savage had, one thing he seemed to understand was the special bond between the fans and the players, particularly Browns fans. To that end, he went about trying to bring in players with a local connection; players who understood exactly what the Browns-Steelers rivalry meant.

One of those was certainly Joe Jurevicius, an unabashed Browns fan well before he ever became a pro football player himself. A local product through and through, except for that unfortunate stint at Penn State, Jurevicius represented everything Cleveland fans like in their players. He was loyal, hardworking, and not afraid to get his jersey dirty. He took on the unglamorous assignments that are so critical to moving the ball down field and has the body scars to prove it. When he made one clutch third-down catch after another, every fan celebrated with him as he thrust his arm forward as if he was the referee signaling for a first down. More than anything else, he was a winner.

Jurevicius, as fans well know by now, went under the knife for relatively routine arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after the 2007 season. But complications, mostly stemming from a staph infection he contracted, put him out of service for the entire 2008 season. He was released after the season and whether he’ll ever play again is questionable.

Though no longer on the team, Jurevicius still has the chance to help the Browns through the lawsuit he filed last week against his old team, the Cleveland Clinic and team physicians. It’s unlikely that the Browns and their lawyers see it that way, but by bringing the lawsuit Jurevicius hopes to, in part, expose what he no doubt believes is a cover-up by the Browns’ organization over the last few years with regard to staph infections suffered by the players. If he’s successful, it can only help the Browns in the long run. Sometimes the only way to help is with a sledgehammer.

In the suit, Jurevicius alleges that the Browns, despite representations to the contrary, did not properly maintain, disinfect or clean their therapy devices making it likely that he and, by proxy other players,would get a staph infection.

The particulars of Jurevicius’ lawsuit aren’t nearly as interesting as what is likely to come next. Since much of the lawsuit is premised on Browns officials, including Savage and former head coach Romeo Creennel allegedly misleading Jurevicius about the precautions the team had taken to rid its facility of staph, those same officials are going to find themselves on the hot seat having to answer difficult questions about what they knew and when they knew it.

Savage, in particular, undoubtedly will be the focus of some particularly grueling questioning by Jurevicius’ lawyers as topic one for them is going to be Savage’s bungling last year of Kellen Winslow’s medical situation, an incident that as much as anything led to Savage’s firing. Savage supposedly did everything he could to keep Winslow from revealing that he, too, was suffering another staph infection and then punished him for essentially going public with his concerns. Though not stated directly in the pleadings, this is the heart of the lawsuit. Savage claimed he was just trying to protect Winslow from, I guess, the media vipers. In actuality, Savage was just trying to protect Savage.

The Winslow incident, which Savage clearly tried to bury, was the first real shot across the bow of the team for their allegedly perfunctory efforts in keeping their players healthy. The Jurevicius lawsuit is the second. With a new regime in place, it will be easy for them to dismiss this lawsuit as old business. That would be a mistake.

While the old business is the Winslow incident, in a vacuum, the larger issue for Jurevicius and other players is how it plays into why, exactly, Jurevicius got staph. Did the Browns really take all the precautions they could to combat staph? Whether or not the relatively large number of staph infections by Browns’ players over the last year or two is a pattern or a coincidence will be a key to whether or not Jurevicius prevails in his lawsuit and whether or not there are other similar lawsuits in the team’s future.

But even if the lawsuit doesn’t result in any recovery for Jurevicius, it more than succeeds anyway if it brings a new-found focus on this problem Everyone involved, from the players, to the coaches to team officials are tired of dealing with this issue. But for all that weariness, it’s time for an actual solution to this problem to be found so that no more relatively minor injuries suddenly and unexpectedly transform into career-threatening injuries.


And the fall from grace continues.

Roger Clemens proving as inept at covering up his steroid use as he was proficient at throwing drug-induced fastballs, has taken still another whack to his flagging reputation. After being outed as a steroids user by his former trainer, Brian McNamee, during George Mitchell’s investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, Clemens loudly took the legal route to clear his name. It didn’t work.

In February, the judge hearing the lawsuit summarily dismissed it. The gist of the ruling was that McNamee, himself a target of the investigation, enjoyed immunity from such a lawsuit by virtue of his talking with governmental investigators from the Department of Justice and Mitchell. That McNamee would enjoy such immunity is Law School 101 and Clemens’ lawyers knew it. If cooperating witnesses in a governmental investigation can be sued for defamation for telling what they know, pretty soon there will be no such thing as a cooperating witness.

Not knowing when to say when, Clemens’ lawyers, no doubt at Clemens’ urging, asked the judge to reconsider the ruling. He did and slammed Clemens even harder than before, telling him sarcastically to sue the government if he really feels they overstepped theri boundaries in undertaking the investigation. He won’t.

The judge, helpfully.did tell Clemens that he could recast his defamation lawsuit by pointing not to what McNamee told the government but what he told Andy Pettitte directly. Of course, the judge said that knowing that this would require Clemens to bring Pettitte into the lawsuit, something Clemens can ill-afford. Pettitte, by truthfully coming forward, albeit after getting caught, retains his credibility and will have to again say under oath that Clemens was a drug user.

At some point Clemens may very well learn to leave well enough alone but for now it’s too late. His lawsuit may have been nothing more than an expensive exercise is public and private denial but it also served as a sharp stick in the eye to McNamee, who now plans on filing his own lawsuit. This one will be harder to dismiss.

Clemens doesn’t enjoy the immunity that McNamee had because Clemens’ statements about McNamee weren’t in the course of a governmental investigation. The only issue for the jury will be whether Clemens’ statements were defamatory. It’s a close call, given the extent of McNamee’s own wrongdoing.

But the real fireworks, just like the Jurevicius lawsuit, will be in the run up to the potential trial. Clemens will again be under oath and forced to either stick with his story thereby subjecting himself to perjury or moderate his stance into more of a Barry Bonds “I didn’t knowingly take any performance-enhancing drugs” non-denial denial.

Just don’t look for those fireworks anytime soon. Up until being replaced by South Carolina Mark Stanford, Clemens served as the textbook example of how not to handle a crisis. Eventually, though, he’ll learn his lesson and you’ll know it via the two or three line press release indicating that the parties have resolved their differences amicably.

Hopefully, then, we will have heard the last of Clemens.


Lost in all the mind-numbing sameness of this year’s version of the Cleveland Indians’ was general manager Mark Shapiro’s off-handed statement the other day that he hopes to right this ship in the next three years. Three years? Is there anyone alive out there?

It’s a testament to the job security that Shapiro must feel to be that blunt about his team’s prospects in the near term. The question is why isn’t anyone holding him more accountable? If Eric Mangini or George Kokinis had said that about the Browns there would have been a near riot on Mall C.

Maybe it was because Shapiro said it to a national writer that his three-year projection didn’t get much play locally. But it’s a stunning revelation nonetheless for a team that, more than many others, needs butts in the seats. Left unsaid, though, is exactly why Shapiro needs another three years or how, exactly, it will all come together in that amount of time.

My guess is that Shapiro is essentially admitting that serious organizational deficiencies in the acquisition of talent, both through free agency and in the draft, coupled with players on the current roster under long-term contracts that they can’t possibly live up to, are the culprits for his rather dismal prediction.

If the Indians were a publicly-traded company, the shareholders would revolt en masse. From a team that was relatively close to the World Series just a few years ago to have suddenly turned into baseball’s version of Delta Airlines smacks of management incompetence on a level not experienced since, well, the Browns returned to the NFL, but that’s another story.

But after learning some hard lessons after covering up Victor Martinez’s injury last season, Shapiro has embraced some level of transparency in his operations. Of course, that kind of transparency is always easier when nobody’s paying attention anyway. And if the fans’ indifference to the Indians’ latest free fall is teaching us anything, it’s that nobody really much cares anymore.


With Jhonny Peralta sleepwalking through another season, this week’s question to ponder: Is Peralta the least motivated player to wear a Cleveland uniform since Keith Hernandez?