A loss on opening day isn't the end of the world or even the end of the season. It's not even the end of the series. In a season as long as major league baseball's one game can be pretty meaningless except when you miss a playoff spot by that same game.
But the Indians won't miss the playoffs by just one game anyway so Thursday's loss to the Toronto Blue Jays will just be one that ends up one one side or other of the .500 ledger that will define the season. Still, why is it that the Indians can't just lose a game and move on like most teams? Why do they have to do things in such a historic and miserable fashion? And, for that matter, why does every loss have to illustrate exactly why there aren't more wins?
Thursday's excruciatingly boring loss was actually the perfect metaphor for an excruciatingly boring spring training. There was very little to keep one's interest and most of the team and its coaches seemed to be going through the motions.
The team that took the field on Thursday was much like the variations of it that took the field throughout spring training. It featured players of various ill pedigrees trying to catch lightening in a bottle of careers that just don't seem to be panning out. Behind them is a front office fixated on mining stats for greater truth while the ownership accepts the reality of its financial fate without contemplating how to change the paradigm.
It's not as if there isn't some talent on the team. There is. But if that’s the glue, what exactly is it holding together? You didn't just need a program to identify all the new faces. You needed ready access to the internet and its various resources to figure out the lineage of the pieces and parts that general manager Chris Antonetti has cobbled together to supposedly make a run at the Detroit Tigers. That's not exactly the textbook way to build a championship team.
The good news in general and with respect to Thursday, which news stands out as much like a sore thumb as anything, was Justin Masterson. Eight very strong innings on opening day is not to be so easily dismissed. He could have and ahould have finished what he atarted Maybe he was tiring and had to be taken out of the game. And in retrospect the performance of most of the bullpen Thursday was such that it's really unfair to second guess manager Manny Acta's decision to turn the game over to that bullpen. It's just that you can't help but feel bad for Masterson, whose career here has been mostly of the hard luck variety and will continue as long as the bullpen is anchored by Chris Perez.
Perez made a mess of the game, yes, but in the larger sense it's hardly a surprise. Perez himself is an undisciplined mess and that stems not just from a truncated spring training spent mostly nursing an injury. It also stems from the fact that Perez seems to care little about his own conditioning or even his station in life. Perez is deliberately taking the anti-athlete approach to one of the more critical jobs in baseball and the Indians will suffer for it, just like they did Thursday. Is it any wonder that the injuries he does suffer are suspiciously similar to those of the weekend warriors who throw a ball around about once every six months?
I get the sense that Perez seems far more interested in courting an image as a character then actually going about preparing himself to pitch in the major leagues. He's out of shape and that doesn't seem to bother anyone associated with the Indians, including Perez. CC Sabathia wasn’t and still isn’t a picture of conditioning either so maybe that doesn’t much matter. Still would it kill Perez to visit a salad bar once in awhile instead of Five Guys?
Perez stood up after the game, bloated, unkempt and took the blame for the loss like a pro is supposed to do but yet he seemed so casual about it, the regret about his performance dripping from his mouth with ease like excess barbecue sauce from a pulled pork sandwich, it made me wonder whether his pitching really bothered him. I doubt it did.
A closer has to have a short memory because saves do get blown. So in that sense there's no problem with Perez immediately putting the game behind him. But the concern with Perez is that he doesn't seem to care about anything—his conditioning, his appearance, his performance, his teammates. Just cash the checks for as long as they roll in and then figure the rest out later.
As much of a problem as Perez appears to be, let's also not obscure the fact that with the Indians, Cleveland now has three professional sports teams that can't generate offense.
It's as if Antonetti rehired Eddie Murray to be the hitting coach when no one was looking. Given how low key the whole spring training regimen was, it's likely that's exactly what happened and we just didn't notice.
All the hallmarks of a Murray-coached offense were there Thursday and throughout spring training however: the lack of approach, the lack of patience, the inability to move runners.
The Indians played 16 innings on Thursday and scored in only one of them. Sadder still, they didn't put themselves in a position very often in any of those other innings to score. When they did, they couldn't get it done mainly because of a lack of discipline. In context there was no chance the Indians were going to score again during that game. It was just a matter as to when the Blue Jays would and put everyone out of their misery.
Twice Indians' hitters came to the plate with a man on third and less than two outs and twice they failed miserably. Asdrubal Cabrera's weak grounder with the bases loaded was everything you needed to know about why. After Michael Brantley had walked on four straight pitches, Blue Jays manager John Ferrell decided to engage in a massive display of over-managing. Either that or he knew that Cabrera would never hit the ball out of the infield anyway so why not load it up with as many players as could fit?
Ferrell was right. Showing all the patience of a puppy, Cabrera didn't even wait to see if Blue Jays pitcher Luis Perez, who didn't sniff the strike zone with Brantley, could find his control. Instead Cabrera offered at the first pitch, which he could barely get a bat on, and grounded into an inning-ending double play. Honestly it was everything you needed to know about how poorly this team prepared for the regular season wrapped up in one nice little moment.
There's no telling how the Indians will finish this season. They got rocked on opening day last year and recovered pretty nicely. It is just one game. But yet when it comes to this team, why does it never seem to be just one game?
About that Gregg Williams tape...
Roger Goodell finally had a smoking gun and the real question now is whether professional football can survive. It's not an abstract question
Let's start with a more obvious point first, however. Gregg Williams will never coach in the NFL again. He probably won't be able to get an assistant defensive line coaching job in a Pop Warner league either. For vastly different reasons, Williams is every bit as untouchable as Jerry Sandusky.
There's also another obvious point as well. Goodell really had no choice but to do what he did to the New Orleans Saints, head coach Sean Payton and Williams. On tape and in the most specific way possible, Williams addressed his players on who to hurt and how. If that was the only evidence Goodell had it would still be enough. Even if there wasn't a boatload of lawsuits pending against the NFL, Goodell still had to do what he did.
Now here is where it gets tricky.
I'm not fond of the whole “everyone else does it defense” as a way of excusing what the Saints did but you just know it's true in this case. The broader question, the one that Goodell doesn't want to contemplate even as he has, is whether the attitude of Williams is so institutionalized in the sport that ridding it is a losing battle. If that is the case then football will eventually die because eventually the pool of people who want to be deliberately maimed for money will go dry.
The NFL has always had and will always have a certain element of miscreants within its midst. There are simply players that find it perversely satisfying to try and deliberately hurt their opponents. Oddly they aren't the problem so long as they represent the exception.
The problem is that football has too long glorified these exceptions in order to build brand cache. Pittsburgh Steelers' resident thug James Harrison deliberately courts an image as a tough guy and goes about his business on the field proving it with all manner of cheap shots intended to injure. He's been rewarded handsomely for it, his cheap shots shown repeatedly and not just as a cautionary tale but as an illustration of the state of the game.
It's not as if Harrison is the only one. Some of the more storied players in NFL history got that way precisely because their violent tendencies are the stuff of legend. Those legends aren't urban, either. They are an institutionalized part of the NFL experience, extolled by coaches, rewarded by owners and celebrated by the media that vote them into the Hall of Fame.
The question on the table now that all of the concussion-related lawsuits ultimately will attempt to really answer is whether football can survive in any other way. If you ask the majority of the players, they will say it cannot because any concession by a player about the violence of his sport is considered cowardly. But it is this mostly silent majority of players that need to speak up now and defend Goodell and what he's trying to accomplish instead of hiding behind the increasingly reprehensible DeMaurice Smith and his misguided attempt to always blame management for an issue his members mostly control.
It's sickening when Hines Ward defends Harrison each time he deliberately cheap shots an opponent. It's sickening when Drew Brees defends his head coach while abandoning the union brothers like Frank Gore who were deliberately targeted by his coach. It's ridiculous to extol Scott Fujita as one of the NFL good guys most concerned about player safety when he actively participated in the bounty pool.
Players of stature, like Brees, Fujita and Ward should instead have been the most vocal on calling out their teammates for their damaging behavior. Every word and deed in support just furthered the institutionalization of the problem and made it that much more difficult to stop.
The union and its members are on the wrong side of the problem when they openly mock Goodell, as many have, for trying to take a safer route for such a great game. It’s simply not true that football can’t survive without all the cheap shoting. It can and has. What football can no longer abide is a head in the sand approach to the life threatening nature of the way some players and coaches want to play it. If it has to abide that because Goodell has failed or because he has been undermined by the very players he’s trying to protect, then that is what will kill the game.
Still fixated as I am on the Indians at the moment, this week’s question to ponder: What is the Indians’ back up plan if Chris Perez’s Thursday is a trend and not an anomaly?