Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Price of Success

One of the most overused phrases these days, when referencing someone or something you disagree with is to say “he/she/it just doesn’t get it.” It’s a trite phrase, shorthand for a much longer explanation as to why he she or it isn’t doing what you think he she or it should be doing.

And despite my dislike for all things overused and trite, for the life of me I can’t think of a better way to describe both the Cleveland Indians in general and their new general manager, Chris Antonetti, in particular.

The Indians, in the midst of the kind of start that Eric Wedge used to dream about, are starting to build a little bit of buzz. Progressive Field isn’t in danger of selling out any time soon, but for now at least people are starting to take a little more notice then probably anyone anticipated.

In the throes of all this comes Antonetti to reinforce exactly why Indians fans always feel as those who run the organization are less concerned with winning then in meeting budget. In Cleveland, the two goals apparently cannot coexist.

Antonetti accompanied the Indians on their road trip to Kansas City and thus has made himself visible to the media in the same way his mentor, Mark Shapiro used to do. Stop by the television booth to chat with Rick Manning and Matt Underwood for an inning or two. “Good talking to you, Chris. Can you stick around for another half inning?” Then it’s up to the radio booth a bit later to see how Tom Hamilton is holding up. Conduct a little back and forth with the beat writers before the game and then back to the Mother Ship.

As reported by Paul Hoynes in Thursday’s Plain Dealer, it was during just that little back and forth that Antonetti was asked if ownership and the front office was prepared to add to the club if the team was still in contention by midseason.

That might be getting way ahead of ourselves, but on the other hand, it’s a nice little question. Now before we get to Antonetti’s spirit-sucking answer, let’s just pause for a moment on the premise of the question.

Underlying it is still the inherent disbelief from the media that the Indians have the horsepower to really sustain their quick start. That’s certainly understandable. You only have to recognize that people are fretting because Mitch Talbot is on the disabled list to understand why it’s hard to imagine the Indians remaining this competitive for the entire season.

Talbot was off to a nice start, but this is someone with just 31 major league starts under his belt. To say that his career is not yet fully established is just the kind of gloss that someone like Shapiro would put on it. In truth, with a 10-13 record last year and a 4.41 ERA, Talbot at this point in his career is only a middle of the rotation pitcher for the Indians because their rotation is so thin to begin with. And since he’s already 27 years of age, no one is going to confuse him with a phenom.

Yet, Talbot and his 1-0 record are now on the disabled list and it is actual cause for concern. In his place is Jeanmar Gomez and his 12 major league starts. Who knows if that would actually constitute a drop off since the two pitchers are so similar in so many ways (though Gomez is four years younger) and Talbot was only two starts into his season. But at the very least it suggests that whoever asked Antonetti the question was justified in doing so.

Now to get back to Antonetti’s answer, it actually had two component parts. First were the usual disclaimers. He said, “if the team is playing well, we’d have to see where we were at that point, what our needs are and what’s available.”

Time for another pause. Not to parse his words too carefully, but the operative word in that initial response seems to be “if.” It suggests that Antonetti, too, sees the question as surprising mainly because he probably never imagined the Indians being in the thick of a pennant race come mid season.

But other then revealing his own disbelief, which we all share with him, there is nothing particularly offensive about that part of his answer. What else could he say?

Because Antonetti is a Shapiro protégé, which means that nothing sounds nearly as good to him as his own voice, Antonetti kept going and that is where he decided, perhaps unwittingly perhaps not, to make sure no one gets too excited.

Thus he added “then we’d have to see what the acquisition cost would be in terms of players and dollars.” That’s Shapiro-speak for “we aren’t parting with any younger, lower salaried players to rent a pitcher or other necessary part to make a run this season, or any season for that matter. No chance. You hear me? No chance. Got it? No chance.”

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of support that Indians fans have learned to live with these last several years. This team has a budget, an ever shrinking budget at that, and nothing is ever going to cause them to deviate from it. Not on the field success, not the availability of a key player or two to make a run at a title, not pressure from the fans. Nothing.

It’s a dispiriting reminder that in a game with shrinking attendance and fundamental economic problems, the Indians’ owners are not going to get caught up in the heady frenzy of fleeting success if it means cutting into its slim margins.

I actually don’t blame Antonetti for coming up with that answer . The “woe is us” operating mantra has been drilled into his head by Shapiro and his bosses, Larry and Paul Dolan. If anyone thought that Antonetti would have a refreshing take or an original thought on this subject or at least one that wasn’t tethered directly to Shapiro, then they haven’t been paying attention. Antonetti wasn’t promoted because he has some other-worldly baseball acumen. He was promoted because of his ability to toe the party line.

The Indians franchise is inherently pessimistic by nature and acts as if success, as measured by wins and not by budget surpluses, presents a rather disconcerting set of problems to the mix with which they’d rather not deal.

What Antonetti’s rather revealing answer underscores is that the last thing this franchise wants to even contemplate at the moment is a level of wins that would raise fan expectations to the point that potentially risky moves might have to get made, moves that could blow the budget.

This is ultimately the trouble with the team, or more particularly, the people owning and running this team. The fans are singular and united in their interest; they want a winning team. The front office and the owners say they want the same thing but in truth what’s far more appealing to them is a team that doesn’t lose any money.

Their vision of this team is so short-sighted and narrow minded that it never seems to occur to them that actually demonstrating that they share the same goals as the fans, instead of just mouthing the words, could actually have some long-term financial payoff.

As it stands, we’re too early into the season to get angry about moves that will never get made. But we’re never too early into the season to re-learn the lessons that this franchise is really trying to drill into its fans’ skulls: ownership and management doesn’t have anyone’s back but their own.

No comments: