Bad games and bad weeks happen in baseball. They are far more easily absorbed then in football. So if your team is otherwise fundamentally strong and soundly built then a bad week simply represents the usual bumps and bruises along a very long 162-game season.
The Cleveland Indians certainly had a series of bad games culminating in a very bad week. After an emotional, perhaps too emotional, 3-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers, the Indians laid 3 colossal eggs in Chicago, undoing pretty much all that was done against the Tigers. It didn’t get much better against the usual punching bad, Kansas City, thereafter and they fell out of first place.
It’s not the losses that are troubling, occasioned as they were bad some lousy pitching. It’s the injuries and what they reveal about this team. It’s not deep, intentionally.
The Indians by design are mostly held together by players without a great deal of experience. It’s cheaper to do it that way. But when the front line players are barely experienced, what does it say about the replacements behind them? You’ve seen the results, you make the call.
It’s also troubling that once again Travis Hafner is hurt. Perhaps the least versatile player in the major leagues, if not major league history, Hafner probably doesn’t even own a glove at this point. All he needs to do is keep himself relatively in shape, step into a batting cage occasionally while his teammates are in the field, and come to the plate 4 times a game.
If you ask the average person off the street to do that task, he might not get the same results at the plate as Hafner but he’d at least be available for the entire season. The Indians require very little physically of Hafner and he still can’t stay healthy enough to play a full season. He’s out for the next 4 to 6 weeks (!) after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
You can’t really blame a player for getting injured, but you can stop rewarding him. Grady Sizemore is collecting millions for doing exactly what everyone outside of Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro thought he’d be doing, spending time on the disabled list. Hafner will collect millions this season for doing exactly what everyone outside of Antonetti and Shapiro thought he’d be doing, muddling through the final year of his contract with indifferent results while occasionally spending time on the disabled list. There isn’t any chance whatsoever that either player could come close to performing at their contract’s worth and that was a given before the season started.
In the case of Hafner, you can argue that the Indians didn’t have much of a choice. He’s in the last year of a contract and even if he had been cut the Indians would still be on the hook for his salary. True, but the other side of that coin is that a deeper, better financed team would simply have cut its losses with Hafner and let him instead spend some time on some other team’s DL while the Indians developed a better alternative.
As it is, the Indians have not developed a better alternative and now have no real plan in place for how to cover the loss of Hafner, except the usual “by committee” approach that teams with a lack of depth tend to employ. The committee approach is understandable when a team’s closer goes down. It’s rather ludicrous when it’s a designated hitter.
The Indians’ offense was already an iffy proposition and that was with a supposedly healthy Hafner who was having a decent but not great year anyway. It begs the question though of how much better off if at all the Indians would have been had they made alternate plans instead of continuing to rely on Hafner solely because of his millstone of a contract forces their hand.
It’s just this kind of thing that tends to reveal the fissures in a team that needs absolutely everything to go right if it’s going to compete. For the initial part of the season that seemed to be happening. The injuries, always the fear on a team this loosely constructed, have started and the holes they create underscore why the skeptics out there looking for reasons to not believe in this team have their Exhibit A.
Not to continue to beat the dead horse over attendance too much more, there is an additional point that rarely gets mentioned in the debate as to why the Indians don’t draw better. Virtually every game is on television.
There’s always been an argument over how game attendance is impacted by the fact that the games are otherwise televised. There’s no good way to do that study mainly because it relies on the opinions that may be earnest but inaccurate.
To most, attending a game is an event. The cost is certainly a factor, but there is a certain hassle factor involved. And one thing I’ve come to appreciate the older I’ve gotten is how much the hassle factor really does figure into whether or not I attend any particular event.
When you’re younger, the thrill of an event tends to outweigh any hassle factor. You don’t mind parking far away from the venue because you’re young and can walk. The late night isn’t that much of a problem because what’s a few lost hours of sleep anyway?
But as you get older, the hassle factor takes on a bigger role to the point where you weigh the thrill against the hassle. And the older you get, the more the hassle factor dominates.
Indeed, that’s one of the reasons every game is broadcast in Cleveland and elsewhere. Owners understand that the vast majority of the people can’t attend on a regular basis. So they make their product available in another way—through a cable package that they control. The Dolans own Sportstime Ohio, for example. They get the revenue it generates through the sale of its programming to cable operators. They also get a piece of the advertising revenue those games generate.
In other words, in the larger sense when you consider attendance you can’t just focus on butts in the seats at Progressive Field. You have to take into account the eyeballs on the screens in all the households and bars in the greater Cleveland area. If those ratings are down as well, then the Indians do have an attendance problem.
I’ve not seen ratings yet for this season, but last season the Indians were 7th in the major leagues in local ratings, up 105% from the previous year. That’s impressive not just in theory but in practicality. That gives the Dolans’ cable operations the ability to charge more for carriage of Sportstime Ohio when it comes up for renewal and also makes the available advertising minutes more valuable.
The point though is that the Indians are still a popular draw locally when you take into account more than just those who watch from Progressive Field. Certainly the team would be more profitable with higher attendance, but let’s not completely bemoan the lack of support, mainly because it just isn’t true.
There’s little doubt that the Miami Heat are headed back to the NBA Finals and when that happens Cavs fans can recharge anew their angst meters. The thought of LeBron James hoisting a championship trophy and wearing a championship ring is a unifying measure of anger for most of the locals.
Sooner or later, though, this is just something that we’ll all have to face. James will win a championship at some point in his career and it won’t be with Cleveland. And whenever it occurs it will be before the Cavs make it back. Those are pretty well givens at this point.
Still it’s hard to see at the moment the Heat actually winning the championship this season. Both Oklahoma and San Antonio look deeper and better coached, assuming the Heat get past Boston. James may be the star that shines more brightly but it’s not like Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant are dim bulbs. They have better supporting casts, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh notwithstanding. (Indeed, Bosh is proving that he always was about the 93rd best player in the NBA anyway. He’s been gone now for several days and no one has much noticed.)
If this doesn’t end up being the Heat’s year, then look for the kind of off-season in Miami that Cavs fans used to know. James and his confederates will work to get Erik Spoelstra a new title, “ex-coach.” Then there will be the usual positioning of grabbing other players that fit more with James’ vision of how the team should be constructed.
The only saving grace for Miami is that Pat Riley is a far stronger figure at the head of the franchise then Cleveland has ever had. Having one several championships, Riley has a good working knowledge of difficult personalities and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be able to control the lunacy just enough to actually build the Heat into the kind of team that James really needs to win a championship.
I suspect that Riley will get it right eventually and James will win his championship. If Cavs fans have any aspirations in this regard, it should be that the Heat doesn’t go on an extended run once they do get that first one under their belts. The longer they wait, the less likely it will happen.
As Indians’ closer Chris Perez becomes a more vocal and hence more controversial figure, this week’s question to ponder: At what point will Perez’s act start to wear thin? (hint: it’s directly related to how many saves he blows).