Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lingering Items--Credibility Edition

Well, we're not going to have ol' Russell Branyan to kick around anymore.

As mysteriously as he was signed, Branyan was just as mysteriously shipped to the Seattle Mariners on Saturday night. No need to go back and check the records. Your memory is correct. Branyan played for the Mariners last season and despite his middling success in the first half of that season the Mariners opted not to sign him in the off season, mainly because he developed back problems and essentially wasted bench space and, well, stood in the way of developing younger players.

The Indians, ever the mercenary good guys of the American League, did Seattle a favor by paying for Branyan's rehabilitation, not to mention nearly a million dollars in salary, to get Branyan right back to where his career stats say he should be: striking out with regularity, hitting home runs occasionally, and playing awful defense consistently.

But if you think all that makes Indians general manager Mark Shapiro look like a sap, you just aren't paying attention. For the Indians' trouble, Shapiro wrestled Seattle's 15th best prospect from their system along with a 21-year old switch hitting shortstop languishing in A ball. Never mind that the Mariners have one of the worst farm systems, depending on whether or not you believe the various rankings. The Indians still got their 15th best prospect, Ezequiel Carrera, who won the AA batting title just last season. That's something I guess.

The ignominious end to Branyan's second tour of duty in Cleveland, coming as it did seemingly in the middle of the night, doesn't befit one of the dumbest off-season moves of the Shapiro reign in Cleveland. What most anticipated is that Branyan would probably blow out his back again on one of his patented upper cut swings and slip quietly into oblivion courtesy of the 60-day disabled list.

Now it's likely that will be Branyan's fate as he returns to Seattle, presuming of course that his back doesn't stiff up on the plane ride over.

Now it's Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik's turn to explain what the heck a team with no chance of winning this season or next is possibly doing signing Branyan. I'll let him explain, courtesy of Geoff Baker's report in the Seattle Times, and if you close your eyes it sounds almost exactly like Shapiro explaining why he signed Branyan as well:

"If you look at our team, as we move forward, just about every player who is here now will be here again next year," Zduirencik said. "We're committed to the development of our players and that goal, that objective, has never changed for us. But part of that development process is also winning games. We want our players to be able to experience winning games this year. And we're trying to do what we can to give them what they need to get there."

As Baker noted, Seattle's pitching has been decent this season but they are hardly scoring any runs, kind of like the Indians except without the decent pitching thing. Reading between the lines, according to Baker, is that Zduriencik is trying to maintain some credibility between the front office and the team on the field.

Exactly how the signing of Branyan will accomplish that isn't any clearer in Seattle than it was here. By my count, Branyan helped the Indians win exactly one game this season. Admittedly when you've only won 26 games overall, perhaps the ratio of 1 in 26 doesn't look that bad. And by the way this isn't even debiting how his miserable defense has probably contributed directly to two or three losses this season. We'll just leave that part alone.
Maybe Branyan hits a key home run or two for the Mariners and instead of the 12 games below .500 and 14 games they're out of first place now they end up only 20 games below .500 and 22 games out of first by season's end. Who knows? But if Zduirencik actually thinks that brings credibility to his franchise, then the Seattle fans are being force fed the same delusional thoughts that Cleveland fans have been on the business end for the last several years.


This is the week that Cavaliers fans, along with virtually anyone with even a passing interest in the NBA, have been waiting for, the beginning of Amir Johnson's free agency tour.

Actually, this is the week that Cavaliers fans have been dreading in only the unique way that Cleveland sports fans in general can dread. So fearful are they that LeBron James will leave Cleveland for anywhere else, Cavs fans have pretty much resigned themselves that for now, of the town's three major professional teams it's the Browns that now offer the most promise.

Maybe that's all part of the grieving process. You see your loved one lying there knowing he or she is terminal and you just start resigning yourself to the outcome. That won't mean of course that the death won't hit you hard. It just means that you've mostly prepared yourself for the sting.

And Clevelanders, whether they admit it or not, are preparing for the sting of a James-less Cavaliers. By this point, and including these several paragraphs, the official count on words written about James and his free agency is approaching one for each dollar in his soon-to-be new contract. And while there isn't a whole lot more to say, there still is some.

For instance, all those daily rumors about James and where he'll land are pretty meaningless, even if entertaining. As these last few days wind down before the real circus begins, remember that James' stated goal is to win multiple championships and about the only thing that will give him any more insight into where that will happen for him than anyone else has is if he has a better crystal ball than anyone else. He doesn't.

Sure teams can clear cap space, but the reason they can do this is because they're mostly miserable and/or poorly run teams that have done a lousy job up to this point in making themselves competitive in the first place, kind of where the Cavaliers were before they got James and a whole new regime along with him.

James brings any franchise instant credibility and a likely playoff run, but he isn't a one-man show. Either was Michael Jordan.

Indeed, for as much as people always talk about how Jordan needed Scottie Pippen in order to start winning championships, the truth is that he needed even more than that. A team with cap space may be able to sign two high profile free agents but even that isn't going to guarantee multiple championships.

That's where the rest of the franchise's track record has to be considered and I keep going back to the same place I started—the track record that put those teams in a position to clear cap space in the first place.

James is an otherworldly talent that doesn't necessarily need another otherworldly talent along side of him to be successful. What he does need though is a complimentary group of players with whom he can always remain in sync.

James doesn't have a college track record for reference, but look at his high school teams. They were talented, certainly, but no one outside of James has played in the NBA. In fact, no one outside of James made much of an impact afterward. There were scholarships, but not to high profile programs.

But these players had an uncanny bond with James. It was a product of not only growing up together but of finding a way to fit in their unique contributions within his overall game.

To a certain extent you can project the same thing in the NBA. James' trajectory in the NBA, at least with the Cavaliers, has followed a similar path. As the complementary players improved, so did James and so did the team. The Cavs were able to eke out those most wins in the NBA for a couple of years now and James was similarly able to eke out the most valuable player award in the same time period because of those complementary players, the same ones he took with him to St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school to pick up the award.

James' play in all star games and at the Olympics has revealed these same traits. He's always played his best with other players in complementary roles. On a team of all superstars, James still shines best when he's part of the overall team dynamic and not the complete center of attention.

Maybe it's part of his psychology that developed as part of a fractured childhoold. But James craves the team dynamic as much as he craves the potential for championships that comes with it.

I have no particular insight into what James is thinking at the moment, but his track record and his best moments suggest that he understands full well what makes him successful. Teams that have been poorly run for years and only now are at the forefront of the James' sweepstakes because of it are probably going to be also-rans in this competition as well because, frankly, there's no reason to think they'll suddenly get good at building teams. They won't.

For Cleveland fans, whether or not James puts the Cavaliers in that category or not will determine his fate here, not the cap space or lack thereof.

Although NBA free agency begins July 1st, it may be another week or 10 days before James' status is resolved. But it leads to this week's question to ponder: If Cleveland, with all the built in advantages it has to re-sign James nevertheless can't re-sign him, does any Cleveland team have any chance of ever again signing a high profile free agent in his prime?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When Perception Meets Reality

At the moment, the Cleveland Cavaliers management team is in flux and because of it the perception is that the team itself is a mess. After all, its head coach has been fired and their designated target replacement turned them down. There’s a new general manager in place but no one seems to know it.

Yet they just completed a season in which they again won the most games in the entire NBA. They fell short, spectacularly short, in the playoffs and their best player may be headed elsewhere, but that’s been the case since he signed his last contract. In other words, for the second straight season it’s been mostly the status quo.

Meanwhile, perched across the plaza from them are the Cleveland Indians, as stable of a management team that exists in baseball today. The perception is that a number of factors outside of their control, including a bizarre and unfair economic structure that baseball allows to exist, make it difficult for small-market teams like Cleveland to be successful and so it’s not a surprise that they aren’t.

Yet on the field the Indians are mess of a team. Whatever economic hardships that baseball inflicts on them, and they do, it is still a team with no unifying theme, populated with veteran has beens and young maybes that loses, spectacularly so, night after night after night after night.

But to hear fans in Cleveland talk, you’d think it was the Cavs, not the Indians, laboring under an elevated security code level.

The danger is when fans allow perception to become reality. It gets fed by writers like Bill Livingston claiming that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is an activist with too much ego to be successful in professional sports. You then have other writers, local and national, scratch their heads at the release of Danny Ferry as general manager. Finally you mix in the ongoing uncertainty of LeBron James and the notion that Tom Izzo turned down the head coaching gig and all of the sudden it’s easy to conclude that the Cavs are viewed as a franchise on the decline.

Hardly and the reason I know that is because of that franchise perched across the plaza from them. If you want to see a once glorious franchise careening down a 45 degree hill without any brakes, the Indians are your ticket.

Each day that goes by, the picture of the Cavs gets a bit clearer instead of more muddled, particularly with respect to the on-court product. The post-Cavs NBA playoffs made us all realize that Cleveland fans were mostly sold a bill of goods, starting with the acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal and continuing with the trade for Antwan Jamison, that all the parts were in place for the beginning of what might be a multi-year run at the NBA championship.

What we found out, when the hype was stripped away by a Boston team that was, at a minimum, better coached is that this Cavs team had flaws. O’Neal doesn’t exactly heal with the blood of a 23-year-old anymore and could never really get untracked for the playoffs after sitting out the latter part of the season with a thumb injury.

Jamison is a nice player but his best days, too, are long gone. He’s got some interesting moves around the basket and can find a way to score and once in awhile can get on a run but for the love of God the guy is awful from the free throw line and is slower on defense than the kid in your gym class with his pants hitched up to his navel and playing in street shoes. Mo Williams showed that the 2009 version we saw of him in the playoffs was no mirage. He’s a good 82-game player who can’t yet cope with the pace and intensity of the playoffs. Maybe he never can.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In a sober moment you really can see the problems in this team that the playoffs exposed. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good team. It just means it wasn’t good enough to win a championship.

Time will tell whether Gilbert was right in dumping Ferry and head coach Mike Brown, but at this juncture nothing about either move looks particularly crazy nor does it brand Gilbert as an impatient and impetuous owner whose ego outstrips his skill. In fact, Gilbert’s track record demonstrates that he reserves for himself the biggest of all decisions, as it should be, and then get mostly out of the way. The next time he storms the court to protest a referee’s call or takes to an internet blog to rage against the NBA machine will be the first time.

If Gilbert is an activist owner, what does that make Randy Lerner? He and his family have owned the franchise for more than a decade now and all he’s down is rebuild from the foundation up every few years as if on cue.

Maybe Gilbert’s tinkering this off-season is making fans nervous, but his moves pale in comparison to the many, many missteps of Lerner over the years. Are fans really looking the benign neglect of owners like the Dolans. It’s Lerner’s incompetence as a decision maker that has ruined the Browns for a generation of fans, not his intent. As for the Indians, it’s the Dolans sleepy existence as owners that is mostly responsible for recreating the glory days of the 1970s.

Let’s start with Lerner. He’s demonstrated, like Gilbert, a willingness to spend money. What he lacks, though, is a commitment to excellence. He says he wants a winner but then disappears for long stretches of time to pursue his other interests. Not a crime, certainly, but not the act of someone consumed with success. It shows in the results.

As for the Dolans, the best way to illustrate their tenure is to look at the bankrupt performance the Indians put on against the Pittsburgh Pirates this past weekend. In the course of three games, the Indians let the Pirates not only stop a 12-game losing streak but also start a two-game winning streak. In doing so the team played the kind of baseball that would embarrass most American Legion teams.

The errors and missed opportunities on the field this past Sunday defined both the team and its ownership as well as anything I’ve seen or heard in years. The core of the problem is that the Dolans and Shapiro have become so practiced at creating the perception that the team is financially handicapped that it has now become their reality.

As a result, the team no longer defines success by wins or losses on the field but by balance sheets and profit margins. It would seem like you can’t have one without the other but actually many do and Indians are on that track. The guaranteed money generated in baseball from media revenue, combined with even modest attendance, can make a team profitable if it’s payroll is small enough.

As a result, the Indians continue to shrink the payroll knowing that they can still eke out success as they define it irrespective of the product. All it does, of course, is to create a death spiral to the fans that actually care about such trivial things as wins. Just ask Pirates fans who have now seen their team go more than a generation without a winning record.

That’s what dysfunction really looks like. What the Cavs and Gilbert are going through right now hardly approaches that level. They are simply experiencing the natural flow of any well run organization. It’s just that in Cleveland fans always have had difficulty distinguishing perception from reality.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

London Calling

A little sports break to bring you some footage from Bruce Springsteen as the release of his new DVD, London Calling: Live in Hyde Park, comes out next week

Bruce Springsteen London Calling Trailer from Columbia Records on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Stacking the Odds

When it comes to picking the new head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers, owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Chris Grant know that it’s mostly a crap shoot unless they’re choosing among very known commodities. That means that if Phil Jackson and a precious few others aren’t available, and they aren’t, then whether or not they get the choice right will mostly be a matter of luck.

It’s not a reflection on either Gilbert or Grant but a sobering assessment of the needle-in-a-haystack mysticism that is the finding of not just a coach who can win but of finding one that can take a team to the NBA title.

For the last several days, the Cavs have held vigil waiting for their target, Tom Izzo, to gather information and sort through the Tarot cards. What it came down to though was actually rather simple. Essentially, he said, without a guarantee that James would be back, the Cavs position was to much of a job to otherwise take on.

It was never certain that Izzo would have successfully made the transition to the NBA but I think Izzo made the right choice in staying in college. He’s too much of a coward for the NBA game.

Reading and listening to Izzo explain why he didn’t take the Cavs job, you get the sense that Izzo would only come to the NBA with the deck stacked in his favor. Maybe it’s where he’s at in his career and maybe that’s as it should be. It’s how I’d want it, too. But without the cards stacked in his favor he was far more willing to survive on just $3 million a year instead of Gilbert’s $6 million per package.

I suspect he’s right when he says that he’s at Michigan State for a lifetime. Owners and general managers across the league now understand that Izzo isn’t up for the challenge of what the NBA brings. He’s only interested in glory being mostly guaranteed.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Izzo, though. He’s 55 years old, a terrific college coach with a great track record at Michigan State. The college game is a grind, like any other job sometimes, but the ability to be around college aged kids, even ones with huge entitlement attitudes, can be far more invigorating for the soul than trying to deal with players like Delonte West all the time.

Still I am disappointed that Izzo, a good guy by all accounts, only wanted the Cavs job if there was a guarantee James would remain. That’s a little disappointing. But Cavs fans should be happy to know that now before Izzo was 18 months into the job.

What the Cavs need, what the fans need, is a coach who is all in under any circumstances. Even when you have the game’s best player on your roster, it isn’t all peaches and beans as Archie Bunker used to say. If you look at this past season with 20/20 hindsight, you realize that in leading the Cavs to the league’s best record former head coach Mike Brown had all manner of hassle to contend with in order to get them there.

There were all the problems with West, of course. But that was the tip of the iceberg. This team had to contend with its share of injuries. It also had to juggle some all-world egos both on the court and in the front office. Then, of course, was the endless loop of speculation and distraction that James’ pending free agency became.

The Cavs weren’t a team in turmoil this past season but neither were they a team sailing along blissfully either. The meltdown in the playoffs looks positively inevitable in retrospect.

I’m still not exactly sure what Brown did to get himself fired and I’m still not exactly sure why Danny Ferry decided to call it a career, though it’s easy to speculate and likely get most of it right. But all this did was further add to the confusion and yes, the stress, that a new head coach would inherit.

At 55, Izzo just decided he wasn’t up to the task and, again, Cavs fans should be thankful.

The speculation now, of course, is that Izzo’s decision doesn’t bode well for James remaining in Cleveland, not because James wanted Izzo but more because James wasn’t willing to help Izzo with his decision. Does that mean that Izzo secretly has some further insight about James’ future than he’s willing to share? Perhaps. Gilbert might as well. Even if neither does it’s not hard to imagine that they are reading all of the obvious signals James is sending at the moment about his future and none of those are good for the locals.

I can understand why James doesn’t want to get involved in the head coach search. That’s not a place where any player really wants to be. What I understand far less, though, is why James would let this franchise dangle like this unless he really doesn’t see himself re-signing. Check that, given all this franchise has done for him, I don’t understand why James would let this franchise dangle like this under any circumstances.

You could go all conspiracy theorist on this and say that James wants this franchise to look a mess in order to have outsiders shake their heads in acknowledgement when he tries to justify why he left for [fill in the blank]. He wouldn’t say that directly, certainly, but he’d do so by implication when explaining what an inviting and stable situation [fill in the blank] presents for James and his family.

You could also chalk all of this up to James just being an immature kid who, for all his worldliness, still doesn’t quite appreciate the implication of his actions or, more accurately, his inactions.

Whatever it is, though, I’m rapidly coming around to the notion that James won’t be with the Cavs next season. His lack of willingness to commit to Cleveland at this juncture is speaking volumes.

In a fashion, James really is like Izzo and had Izzo come to Cleveland he and James would have been a near perfect pair. They both see themselves having about another 8-10 years in their current roles and they both see themselves as having paid their dues. At this juncture, it’s less about scaling the entire mountain and more about having a huge head start on the race to the top.

Izzo didn’t see himself as wanting to grow up with a team and make a run a few years down the road and neither does James. If moves get made it will only be for titles and plenty of them.

I don’t begrudge either James or Izzo and I doubt whether I’d act any differently if I were in either of their shoes. You don’t get very many opportunities to legally rig the game in your favor and when those opportunities do come along you better jump on them quickly.

Izzo wasn’t sure that opportunity existed in Cleveland and I’m starting to think that James isn’t sure either. Where they diverge is the outcome. For Izzo, when the options in front of him were too risky, he opted to do nothing. For James, it’s the do-nothing option that looks like it might be the riskiest.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bottoms in the Seats

You can measure a professional sports team’s success any way you want, but if you want to understand its real health, just follow the money.

In a sign of two franchises going in vastly different directions Crain’s Cleveland Business had stories this week about both the Browns and the Indians and their various marketing efforts and yet didn’t seem to connect the dots. I’m glad to provide that service.

The first Crain’s story detailed how the Cleveland Indians have taken to essentially using reverse marketing to find an audience. Instead of focusing on its mish mash of a roster that’s as compelling as watching a PBS fund raiser, the Indians instead are selling access to players on other teams as a reason to head to Progressive Field.

Meanwhile, Crain’s also was reporting that the Browns season tickets renewals are in the 90% range, a mostly positive story that overlooks some key facts.

But the broader story here is that one team is relying on organic growth to fund its operations, the other on smoke and mirrors. It’s pretty easy to guess which is which.

The Indians drew their second biggest crowd of the season on Sunday when Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals made his second major league start. Strasburg is certainly a phenom with a growing legend, but we’ve seen his type before and we’ll see it again. That there would be an uptick in attention given the intrigue factor was expected.

Yet as good as the flush of cash that came through the door probably was to team management, it has to be a little sobering to realize that it’s not your team the fans are pining to see. It’s one thing to design partial season ticket packages around the league’s best teams, everyone does that. It’s quite another to erect billboards, as the Indians do, to spur single game sales because Strasburg or Derek Jeter is in town.

There was a time of course when the Indians didn’t have to stoop to that level, a time when the team was both competitive and well run. Sadly, that’s not where the Indians are for now or for as far as the eye can see. When you’re selling another team’s talent as more or less the only reason to spend your money, it’s an admission that the product you’re putting on the field simply isn’t good enough.

In fact, the Indians are now one of those throw-in teams when other clubs are trying to sell partial season ticket packages of their own. The Indians are just as lousy of a draw on the road as they are at home. If fans in, say, Chicago want to see the Boston Red Sox, they may have to take a game or two of the Indians as well.

If you want a measure of how far this franchise has fallen, that is it. And as much as general manager Mark Shapiro would like to think that Carlos Santana might be his team’s version of Strasburg, in truth Santana would have to throw out 200% of the base runners and hit a grand slam in every at bat for the next three weeks before the Indians are going to be able to convince anyone, at home or on the road, to pay money to see him.

With the Browns the story seems to be going much differently, at least if you believe their marketing department and don’t ask too many questions. The Browns held a pick-your-seat day on Saturday, which isn’t as disgusting as the name implies.

This was the opportunity for current season ticket holders to upgrade to a better location. And happily the Browns reported that it was a runaway success just as they are happily reporting that they have had a 90% renewal rate on season tickets.

What’s really happened, of course, is that 10 years of abject mismanagement eventually caught up with the Browns as well. While they were able to sell out in the early years just on the premise that it was good to have a NFL team back in town, keeping that season ticket subscriber base at high levels eventually and naturally became a challenge.

When a team holds a seat selection day (the politically correct term), it’s an acknowledgement that there are actually plenty of seats available. If there weren’t, what would be the point of having people come down to the Stadium in mid-June?

The other thing to keep in mind is that while a 90% renewal rate is impressive, it’s also an admission that there will be less season ticket holders next season than last. Where the Browns would like to be is a team with a waiting list, something they once had. Now not only is there not a waiting list but each year the season ticket base erodes further.

But what is likely comforting to Browns’ management, as it should be, is that the renewal rate does mean that erosion to that base has slowed considerably. Remember last year when the Browns and Indians were engaged in some cross-marketing as a way of trying to improve both of their sagging bottom lines? This year is different and now you get the sense that the Browns don’t see any compelling need at the moment to associate directly wit the Indians.

There’s no question that the average fan thinks the Browns, far more than the Indians, are heading in the right direction and they’re probably right. Their faith in new club president Mike Holmgren is now where it used to be for Shapiro.

Far more than individual wins, what really sells tickets is confidence. People willing to buy season tickets think of it more as an investment than an impulse spend. And people tend to make investments when they have a high enough degree of confidence that they won’t get burned. Getting burned when it comes to season tickets occurs when you realize you couldn’t give them away even if you agreed to wash the other person’s car.

The Browns obviously haven’t completely convinced their current season ticket holders that another year is worth the cost, but an increasingly higher number are becoming convinced and that’s the start. Crawl before you walk; walk before you run.

The Crain’s article didn’t really make much mention of the Cavs and that’s probably because it’s far too early to tell. If LeBron James is back every game next season will be a sell out just as it was this past season. If he’s not, attendance will fall. More importantly to the Cavs bottom line, attendance will take a hit in the priciest of seats, the ones that corporations and really well-heeled individuals can afford.

Without James, the Cavs will be a challenge to market in the near term. No matter who the next coach is, fans come to see players. And unless owner Dan Gilbert can find a reasonable replacement for James, he knows that until he does he’ll have to reverse market his team too, probably with the team that eventually signs James, along with teams like the Celtics and the Lakers because when it’s all said and done, professional sports is simply about getting bottoms in the seats.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lingering items--Rebuilding Edition

Everything is quiet these days with the Cleveland Indians. The team took 2 of 4 games (it should have been 3 of 4) from the Boston Red Sox but you could quicken the pulse of the average fan far more quickly by flashing a picture of Erin Andrews on the screen for 10 seconds.

It’s understandable. Indians management wrote off the season before it started so it follows that the fans would do likewise. As my oldest daughter said to me while she was attending Wednesday night’s game and glanced around to see all the empty seats, “it’s depressing.” At least she and her friends at E. 4th Street to look forward to after the game.

If general manager Mark Shapiro didn’t see any of this coming then he missed every possible sign along the road. Fans understand when a team is rebuilding. It’s part of the natural cycle of professional sports. What they can’t understand is how exactly the Indians were rebuilding. Only now is it starting to come into focus and you can thank dumb luck and Jamey Wright and Mark Grudzielanek for that.

When Wright and Grudzielanek, two of Shapiro’s spare parts that he signed for no apparent reason in the offseason, were summarily cast adrift in the land of free agency recently, the purpose, intentional or not, was to make further room for younger players with more of a future. If only Shapiro would continue the paring by parting with Russell Branyan.

The strange thing about Branyan still being on the roster while Wright and Grudzielanek are not is that their presence always made more sense than Branyan’s, even if their actual signings did not. Utility infielders will always have a spot in baseball and with the Indians having suspect and mostly young infielders, at least a case could be made.

There is no case for Branyan. He was signed, bizarrely enough, to start which meant he’d be taking time away from one developing player or another. And it’s not as if the Indians didn’t have candidates to fill that slot. Right now and very predictably Matt LaPorta is back in Columbus because he couldn’t get enough at bats to get the kind of consistency necessary to really assess his long-term value.

The Indians could have jettisoned Branyan instead of LaPorta, just as they did with Wright and Grudzielanek, and then all of this maneuvering with one of the game’s most mediocre players ever, might have made some sense.

Instead it looks like we’ll be treated to Branyan at least through the end of the season and LaPorta, he’ll just have to take a back seat. But on the other hand, if he can’t even beat out Branyan, what does that say about LaPorta anyway? Bueller?


On the positive side, at least Branyan’s presence was good for one victory this season. Given his history, he's right on track for maybe being responsible for 3 victories all season.

It’s not clear though whether Mark Shapiro really thought there would be much of a return on his investment in Branyan anyway so maybe it’s unfair to measure Branyan’s contributions by such conventional metrics.

Actually, it’s never been clear exactly why Shapiro signed Branyan in the first place so perhaps Branyan really shouldn’t be the target of any criticism. You can’t blame a guy for taking the easy money.

The real point here is that the Indians have another 100 or so games before this season comes to a merciful close and we’re not closer to figuring out what they’re trying to accomplish now than we were in spring training.

It's kind of like facing a 198 yard shot over water to a green. If you're going to lay up, then make sure you actually lay up. If you're going for it, then give yourself enough club. That's the state of the Indians at the moment, facing that 198 yard shot to the green and completely indecisive about what they should do.

The signing of Branyan is meant to be akin to grabbing enough club to make the shot. In actuality, using him is like hitting a 4-iron and then acting shocked when the shot lands in the water. They'd be no worse off and a better chance of making par if they actually just laid up continued to develop their prospects and explained to the fans why it makes more sense to just lay up.

The ideal, I think, is to have young talent coalesce at roughly the same time, meaning when they are still at least two years away from being free agents. But talent doesn’t develop evenly or as expected and thus the ideal is always a pipe dream. You either accept that fact and be honest about it or you try to fool yourself and your fans. To this point, the Indians have mostly been about trying to fool themselves and their fans.


If you are ever the optimist, though, then at least you can get excited about the Indians promoting Carlos Santana from Triple A Columbus on Friday, though it came at the expense of another propsect, Lou Marson.

The Indians essentially traded one prospect for another at the moment, though it wasn't much of a trade given how Marson has struggled offensively. Still, while most people may be asking why it took so long to get Santana to Cleveland, it also may be that Santana's promotion was a little Strasburg envy.

With the Indians playing the Washington Nationals this weekend and pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg getting all the attention, it seemed a natural for the Indians to bring up Santana. In many ways, he was nearly as dominant in the minor leagues as Strasburg. With the Indians mired in mediocrity like the Nationals,a jolt of young and perhaps special talent isn't just a gimmick but a necessity. It sells tickets.

But even more than that (though selling more tickets for either team is something that shouldn't be minimized) the real thing that the promotion of Santana does at the moment is divert the attention away from the really pedestrian job Shapiro has done in acquiring propsects. Strasburg makes the whole Nationals organization look good. Shapiro is obviously hoping for the same bump with Santana.


I have no idea whether Tom Izzo will take the Cavs head coaching job, but if he does then he is doing so knowing that he's taking on a bit of a rebuilding job himself.

The basketball conspiracy theorists have all said that they don't think that Izzo will sign unless he has the tacit understanding from LeBron James that he'll be back. I don't buy that theory.

If Izzo is that shallow, he has no business taking the job in the first place. If the only thing that would bring him to Cleveland is the chance to coach James, then he's well advised to stay in East Lansing. Coaching James is a perk. It may not seem this way at the moment but the game really is bigger than James and I think Izzo understands that.

If Izzo comes it will be because he's intrigued by whatever challenges the new job presents. He comes because he sees the NBA as the next step in his career. He comes because it will pay him more money than BP has at the moment. But a man at his level of accomplishment doesn't come if it's just about James.

With or without James, the Cavs heading coach job is a good gig and will remain so as long as Dan Gilbert remains owner. It's just that Izzo needs to be convinced of that. In college, he more or less controls his own fate. In the NBA, he'll have to accept a little loss of control and a huge helping of faith that those surrounding him will work just as hard as he's used to working to be as successful as he's used to being. If he gives the Cavs a thumbs up, then he's navigated the breach. If he doesn't, then my guess is that he'll never coach in the NBA.


The Browns have concluded mini camp and laughably head coach Eric Mangini says he doesn't have a starting quarterback. In fact, in more or less a replay of last season, Mangini said that he'll head into training camp with the idea that both Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme will work with the first team and that they'll get a similar amount of reps.

Don't believe it. It's not credible for Manigni to suggest to anyone that Wallace is on par with Delhomme at the moment. In fact, if you're Delhomme, it's probably a little offensive, actually. But Delhomme's a veteran and he knows the book on Mangini and likely has concluded, as even the casual fan has by now, that this is simply about Mangini trying to act as the master motivator so that no player feels comfortable with his status.

But consider for a moment if Mangini is telling the truth. That can only mean one of two things: he's trying to curry favor with Mike Holmgren who also seems high on Wallace or it means he's on a collision course with himself by repeating the mistakes of last season's training camp when he completely bungled both Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. If either is the case, the outcome won't be good for anyone, particularly Mangini. Even he has to know that.

That's why it's best to simply disregard anything Mangini says on the topic at the moment. Come the first game of the season, Delhomme will be the starter and even Mangini knows that, too.


Given Mangini's seemingly high opinion of Wallace at the moment, this week's question to ponder: Absent an injury to the starter, would Wallace every be named the starting quarterback of any NFL team?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Creeping Stability

The Cleveland Browns are finishing up their organized team activities, which aren’t mandatory, so that they can start their mini-camp, which is mandatory. In the meantime the steadying hand of team president Mike Holmgren is ever present and what a difference it’s made.

To say that head coach Eric Mangini got off to a slow start in his new job would be an understatement on the level of the Cavs are having merely an interesting off season. Mangini came in with a huge chip on his shoulder and an uber confidence that belied his modest accomplishments to that point. He couldn’t have picked a worse strategic plan if he had merely thrown a dart on a board instead.

When he wasn’t alienating established veterans, he was pissing off rookies and their agents by having them volunteer for a 10-hour bus ride to help out at his youth camp in Connecticut in the same way that Rich Rodriguez has his players volunteer for extra practice in the summer.

Then came perhaps the worst run training camp in the history of organized football that provided a springboard for a season that made Bill Belichick’s tenure in Cleveland seem like a Tony Robbins seminar by comparison. In between there were firings, trades, a fan revolt and a near mutiny from within.

Maybe it was all just part of a vaunted process and the natural outgrowth of a change agent meeting resistance from enemies of progress, but when the dust settled owner Randy Lerner was frustrated to the point of declaring that he needed a credible person in charge of his organization, a tacit acknowledgement that neither he nor Mangini qualified for that spot.

In rode Holgrem and suddenly it’s the Browns that look positively functional while the Cavs are solidly out of sorts. The Indians, hopeless.

The biggest controversy at the moment for the Browns has to do with the relatively high number of restricted free agents who won’t sign the one-year contracts tendered to them. If this had been a year ago, this would have been chalked up to another misstep by Mangini, as if a team that is 4-12 can’t get by without D’Qwell Jackson, Jerome Harrison, Matt Roth, Abe Elam and Lawrence Vickers.

Instead, under the new regime this is general manager Tom Heckert’s problem and virtually no one is raising much of an issue over it. That’s the kind of implied confidence the average fan has in both Holmgren and Heckert that it will get resolved quietly and professionally. No drama, no tears, just mature human beings confronting the daily grind of problems in their business.

Beyond this little free agent issue everything else is perfectly sanguine. That’s what makes me nervous.

In the last 10 years the Browns really haven’t had a season in which there wasn’t any controversy. Under the ownership of first Al Lerner and now his son Randy, the Browns have been a the Old Faithfuls of dysfunction. You could set a watch by the eruptions, they were that predictable.

Even as the losses piled up like autumn leaves in the backyard, this team has never lacked for another story to tell. Whether it was Chris Palmer and his runaway train, Butch Davis and another lecture about guts or Romeo Crennel and his magic coin flip to pick a starting quarterback, the Browns have been more entertaining off the field than on.

But now the Browns are making the sound of one hand clapping. It’s really the sound of a creeping stability, the sense that maybe Lerner finally got something right.

The Browns still don’t have enough quality players to make a serious run at the playoffs. Right now the fans would be satisfied with a serious run at 8-8. But the barge, seemingly pointed permanently in the direction of a black hole, has actually begun the slow turn toward respectability.

It’s not one thing really but a series of small things that provide the clues. There’s little if any grousing by anyone inside or outside of Berea. Draft picks showed up and are working out. Even the restricted free agents are trickling in and those that aren’t are fairly quiet.

This is what it really means to have a serious, credible leader in charge. It’s one thing to push around a guy like Mangini, he really hasn’t accomplished anything in the NFL. Holmgren’s resume is far more impressive. He’s either seen it or done it and that’s something he has on everyone else in the organization at the moment.

It helps, too, that Holmgren speaks his mind and when he does he speaks plainly. He keeps spin to a bare minimum and the rest of the organization as begun to takes its cues from him that the quickest exit out of panic mode is to actually stop panicking.

Mangini is the biggest beneficiary. Right now no one’s giving him a hard time even as his natural tendencies creep in from time to time. There was little bit of “there he goes again” when Mangini hinted a few times over the last few weeks that he sees using Seneca Wallace at quarterback along with Jake Delhomme.

Is this Mangini trying to play mind games with his quarterbacks? Probably. He operates from the management school which motivates through infliction of insecurity and some habits die hard. He’s also probably trying to keep the competition guessing as to his plans, as if they’re even paying attention at the moment. Other habits die hard as well.

But beyond these kinds of quirks and tics, Mangini is mostly acting far less like the paranoid control freak he came across as last year. He still doesn’t answer questions directly and probably never will for fear that he may give away some sort of state secret, but he’s also far more relaxed about how he goes about it.

He also seems far more welcoming to his players as if he’s come to some sort of realization that being a prick isn’t generally the best approach to managing the troops.

All of this means, of course, that there is likely going to be far less opportunities to kick around Mangini this season. And that’s a good thing. When the team’s lousy, a ready punching bag is all that can keep a fan’s interest. It’s kind of fun I suppose to write about things like Phil Savage telling a fan via email to essentially “step off,” just as it’s kind of fun to write about players getting suspended for talking to the media about staph infections. But in truth it’s most fun to write about what most fans want to focus on, the games themselves.

Unfortunately, in Cleveland there’s been precious little to write about when it comes to games that doesn’t begin with “another day, another loss.” and that isn’t confined to just the Browns. But, as implausible as it seemed just a few short months ago, it looks like it will be the Browns, under Holmgren, that will be the first Cleveland team to put the focus back where it belongs. I wonder, for once, if the Cavs are paying attention.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Biggest Gamble of All

Maybe once a gambler, always a gambler.

When Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was pushing hard last fall to get casino gambling legalized in Ohio, opponents tried to sully his reputation by bringing up a decades old arrest he had for running an illegal bookmaking operation while in college at Michigan State in 1981. That Gilbert had a gambling streak in him was hardly a revelation given the arc of his career. That Gilbert has now doubled down on the future of his franchise, however, is.

Entering into a summer where stability and direction would seem to have been paramount, Gilbert instead has deliberately created enough turbulence that the future of his franchise now hangs in the balance. If he's successful, then this will serve as an object lesson in how sometimes the only way to win big is to gamble big. If he fails, the franchise and the city he's so heavily invested in are headed for some strong headwinds.

Either way, it's funny what a lousy game or two at the wrong moment can do to change the course of history.

Heading into this season's NBA playoffs, the Cavs were the prohibitive favorite to win it all. The trio of Gilbert, Danny Ferry and Mike Brown (with help from a boatload of able assistants) had seemingly put every piece in place and had them all pointed in the same championship direction.

But another playoff failure, the first one directly attributable to some rather puzzling and indifferent play from LeBron James, suddenly has the franchise looking as if the ghost of Ted Stepien is now in charge.

The first casualty of the shake-up was Mike Brown. Gilbert has owned up to making the decision himself after some healthy internal debate. Exactly why he made that decision hasn't ever been made completely clear but suffice it to say that Gilbert became convinced that if Brown couldn't get a team with James to the promised land he certainly couldn't accomplish that task without him, should that come to pass.

Fair enough.

Now comes the departure of general manager Danny Ferry, his resignation an almost certain by-product of the decision to dump Brown. That's a bit more puzzling.

There were times a few seasons ago when Ferry seemed unable to make a decision on how to improve this roster. There were also times when Ferry came out of that funk when his changes, particularly those made late in the season, were almost too bold to be absorbed quickly. But give Ferry his due. He worked hard to surround James with championship-caliber talent and nearly succeeded.

The Cavs didn't necessarily lack the talent to be NBA champs but they certainly lacked that je ne sais quoi to push them over the top. That's what appeared to eat away at Gilbert as he pondered the future of his investment over that agonizing two weeks following the Cavs' meltdown against the Boston Celtics.

As bold moves go in Cleveland sports, this is among the boldest. This isn't Randy Lerner bringing in yet another regime to try their luck with the Browns. And this certainly isn't the Dolans allowing Mark Shapiro to fire Eric Wedge so that he could eventually bring in Manny Acta to re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

To put this in historical perspective this is far closer to Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, remaking his franchise by letting Jimmy Johnson go despite winning two Super Bowls. At the time Jones looked like a prototypical egotistical owner who felt he wasn't getting enough credit for what Johnson accomplished. Jones became convinced of his own greatness and thus decided to part ways with the architect of the Cowboys' resurgence.

It worked, but for only a few years. Barry Switzer did win a Super Bowl with most of Johnson's players but after that Switzer was soon gone and the Cowboys are still trying to get back to where they once were, It's been 15 years and they're still trying.

Gilbert isn't really another Jones but the fact that the two are now part of the same conversation isn't particularly flattering to Gilbert. At the moment he looks like just another meddlesome owner who lacks the patience necessary to truly be a champ.

The question that will always nag at all of this, particularly if James does leave, is whether Gilbert looked too deep for answers that already were floating to the top. It's possible, for example, that the Cavs failures had little if anything to do with Brown and Ferry and were actually the result of a distracted James succumbing to pressure like he never had before.

James purposely put himself on a path where this would be the summer of James no matter the outcome of the NBA Finals. James is the face of the league and every step he takes, every move he makes someone is watching him. Winning it all and then becoming the most important free agent of all time was the scenario he laid out for himself. Maybe it was just the enormity of this self-inflicted journey that got to James at exactly the wrong time and not Brown's puzzling playoff rotations.

From the sounds of James these days it doesn't seem like he's done much soul-searching for his playoff failures as he focuses instead on summits and sneakers and changing the face of the NBA by treating himself and his fellow free agents like chess pieces on one giant board. The soul-searching instead has been reserved for Gilbert and he's certainly gone all in on this one.

Taking gambles like this are always a matter of timing. It's one thing to dump a coach and a general manager but a wholly other thing to dump them just as you're trying to convince someone like James or even a free agent in the tier below that this is the place to play.

None of us have ever been in a position like James, Dwayne Wade or Chris Bosh and never will be so to truly understand what it takes to keep or get players like that within the tent is always going to be a guessing game. But anyone whose stated goal is merely to win multiple championships is going to recognize that a key to that is stability.

Maybe Gilbert looks like a hero to them, someone willing to make the boldest of moves in order to get where he needs to do and thus the team's instability at the moment is understandable. Maybe though Gilbert looks a little unstable himself and richest crop of free agents in NBA history will take notice of that instead and take their skills elsewhere.

Gambles are risk and in terms of sports, this is about as big as it gets for a franchise. If Gilbert is worried, he isn't showing it, which is a good quality to have if you're gambling at that level. That doesn't mean, though, that a whole bunch of other folks, from mere fans to businesses that depend heavily on a Cavs crowd 50 some nights a year in Cleveland, aren't. Gilbert is playing with their chips as well.

Gilbert said last fall that he really doesn't gamble in the traditional sense much anymore but when he does it's usually at craps. That seems appropriate. He certainly has the dice in his hands and is betting that he's about to roll a 7 or an 11. But in Cleveland, where the dice never seem to stay hot, we're used to that roll coming up snake eyes and it's those odds that Gilbert ultimately will have to overcome if the fans are to remain convinced that he's really the person who should be making these decisions in the first place.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Lingering Items--Judgment Edition

Armando Galarraga was denied perfection Wednesday evening and in the process may have helped to save baseball. Or not.

When Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers entered the ninth inning Wednesday night against the Indians, a perfect game was just three outs away. Moments later it was two and then one. But somewhere along the path he took from the pitchers mound to cover first base on a grounder hit by Jason Donald to the gap between first and second base, Galarraga lost his chance of history due to one of the great choke jobs in baseball history.

When umpire Jim Joyce signaled safe on a bang-bang play at first it was the embodiment of both the beauty and consternation of sports and their frustrating lack of precision. Pick up a copy of the baseball rule book and you’ll have trouble finding a page where the phrase “in the judgment of the umpire” isn’t used. That’s the bargain anyone who’s ever played the game signed on for.

It was the ill-considered judgment of Joyce that came at the precise flashpoint where speed, nerves and history coalesced at the most critical moment that cost Galarraga his place in history. And yet, the alternative for Joyce or any of his fellow umps that night wasn’t much better. Had Donald, for example, actually beaten the throw only to have been called out in order to preserve a perfect game, Galarraga’s achievement would have always been tarnished.

In other words, Joyce found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time with only one exit route: get the call right. Whatever instinct made Joyce think Donald was safe when he was clearly out will now haunt him for the rest of his career every bit as much as Galarraga’s probably only real shot at perfection will haunt him.

Now, of course, will come the usual scream and cries for instant replay. And perhaps if major league baseball were run by almost anyone other than Bud Selig, I’d say that Joyce’s handiwork might actually be the springboard for baseball fully embracing technology.

But this is Selig we’re talking about and thus the chance of him doing anything more than dithering until the latest ground swell dies out is nearly non-existent. Sure, he’s talking about considering expanding instant replay. But Bud thinks a lot. That’s never been his problem. Action, on the other hand, is as foreign to him as good taste is to Lady Gaga.

To Joyce’s credit he quickly acknowledged his colossal mistake and apologized to Galarraga. The question though is why does this type of scene have to play out at all? Why can’t baseball be proactive and find a way to make technology work for them instead of treating it as if it’s just another passing fad?

Some of that is wrapped up in the traditions of the sport. Baseball purists, which represents far less of the sport’s fans than they would ever admit, tend to think of baseball as it was played by Babe Ruth in the 1920s. Any change from that construct induces panic. They still get hives knowing that uniforms are no longer made out of 100% wool. To them the designated hitter is still an abomination on the game.

The rest of baseball fans, however, mostly don’t give a crap either way. If pushed they’d probably venture an opinion but if better technology were thrust upon them they’d accept and move on to more pressing needs, like cutting the grass before it rains again.

It usually takes the considered judgment of decision makers to act on a glaring problem illuminated by the ill-considered judgment of another. If baseball can find a positive path forward out of this mess it will be of little solace to either Joyce or Galarraga but it will be of great solace to the sport itself.


Speaking of judgment, it looks like Ben Roethlisberger is taking a deep dive of his own into the incredibly poor and reckless conduct he’s engaged in over the last few years.

Attending the Steelers’ “voluntary” off-season training activities, Roethlisberger finally took a few questions from reporters. While the questions to that point were softballs, the Steelers’ public relations rep cut off any further questions, probably for fear that Roethlisberger would be asked directly about the night the lights went out for him in Georgia.

Roethlisberger mostly said the right things about evaluating his own life, taking stock of his abject stupidity and making some positive changes. He also bracketed it in the context of the hard line laid down on him by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

It would have been nice if Roethlisberger had made a more direct reference to the fact that he’s essentially a twice-accused sex offender or to the fact that most of his problems seem to stem from an inability to hold his liquor. Had that occurred Roethlisberger might have given the fans of the Steelers some comfort that he has a good grasp on his growing list of personal flaws. Instead, by bracketing everything in the context of doing what it takes to reduce a 6-game suspension to 4, Roethlisberger came across mostly like a guy pleading his case to a parole board and was just as convincing.

Whether he wants to admit it or not, Roethlisberger is at a professional and personal crossroads. To this point his professional accomplishments have been sufficient for his employers to overlook the embarrassments he’s created for them off the field. But that isn’t always going to be the case.

Owners of professional sports teams have a large capacity for forgiveness when the player in question is still likely to enhance their bottom line. That capacity gets depleted quickly, however, when that equation changes. And for Roethlisberger, just like every other person who’s ever played professionally, that equation will change. It’s just a matter of when.

In the meantime he can continue to delude himself into thinking that mouthing a few trite words about change actually constitutes change or he can go about doing the hard work of changing. But if past be prologue, and it certainly is with professional athletes, then it’s going to take more than a few drunken nights before Roethlisberger faces reality.


It was fun to read Paul Hoynes’ “Indians Insider” on Thursday in the Plain Dealer in which he discussed with Indians general manager Mark Shapiro the team’s horrid start to the season, assuming you're in the camp where 50+ games constitutes merely a start.

Shapiro indicated that this isn’t what he envisioned certainly but that the season’s natural cycle hasn’t yet dictated that he sell off what’s left of this disastrous roster.

Admitting anything differently, of course, would have been tantamount to Shapiro admitting, shall we say, certain lapses of judgment when it came to putting together Indians v.2010.

Assuming that Shapiro is going to continue to be patient with the plethora of “prospects” currently on the roster, the only currency he really has left anyway are players like Jhonny Peralta, Austin Kearns, Mark Gudzielanek, Russell Branyan, Mike Redmond, Jamey Wright, Jake Westbrook and Kerry Wood, so it's not as if he has much choice but to stay this miserable course. If this were fantasy baseball you couldn’t find a trading partner for any of these players, except perhaps Wood and Westbrook and even then the yield would be some other team’s rough equivalent. Why would it be any different in real baseball?

What this really demonstrates is that 2010 is already a lost season and not one of growth. Short of simply cutting some of those players in order to make a little more room on the roster for some minor leaguers, what you see now is what you’ll see for the rest of the season and nothing like what you'll see next season. That may be change but that isn't necessarily progress.

Meanwhile, if Shapiro thinks the attendance is languishing now, and it is, just wait. No amount of goofy promotions are going to distract the fans from exercising their considered judgment to not throw any more good money after bad. And until something dramatic changes in the organization, that isn’t going to change. Just ask the Cleveland Browns.

Given the inglorious end to the Cavaliers' season and the inglorious existence of the Indians, today's question to ponder is whether six months ago you actually thought you'd be looking forward to the upcoming Browns season?