Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Courting Optimism, Delivering Cynicism

To be a sports fan is often to live in the sometimes conflicting and complementary worlds of cynicism and denial. The more our teams disappoint us, the more cynical we become about their prospects. Yet we also deny the underlying reasons they disappoint, holding them to subjective standards they often aren’t capable of achieving.

In Cleveland, these attitudes coexist, running deep, wide and long. To be a Cleveland fan is to be a cynic based simply on the almost complete lack of success by any of its three major franchises. No coach gets hired, no trade gets made, no player gets transacted without it invoking some sort of cynicism.

Yet despite the cynicism they embrace and endure in Cleveland the fans remain hopeless romantics in deep denial over a what it would take to make them less cynical in the first place. Instead we expect success simply because there are players wearing the name “Cleveland” on their jerseys.

This brings us to the Cleveland Browns, poised as they are to start another season of wrongheaded hopes and all-too-familiar failures. If ever a team balanced cynicism with optimism, it's the Browns.

Listening to fans talk about the prospects of the Browns after the first two completely meaningless preseason games engendered just those wrongheaded hopes while the third preseason game, the supposed dress rehearsal for the regular season, drove home all the various reasons that despite our deepest wishes, this season likely will do nothing to eradicate our abiding sense of cynicism about the team, a new owner notwithstanding.

Let’s be unvarnished about last week for a moment. The turgid performance of the Browns against the Eagles was exactly what it was intended to be, a dress rehearsal for what the regular season will mostly look like.

What, you thought Brandon Weeden was Cam Newton because both were drafted in the first round? Suddenly the receiving corps became Al Toon, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and Ozzie Newsome in their prime? As near as my aging eyes can see, Weeden has looked like exactly what he is: a rookie with a good arm and an almost complete lack of understanding of how the pro game really operates. The receivers are mostly untested and issue-ridden and still trying to decide how to elude the kind of corners they rarely faced in college.

But yet since Weeden drops back to pass and has the title “quarterback,” we expect to see the kind of results that take at least a few years and that’s assuming the best of circumstances, which this hardly qualifies as. And because the Browns line up three wide with players labeled “receiver,” we unreasonably expect immediate proficiency at route running and ball catching. Heck, they haven't even learned how to get open on a consistent basis.

That’s why this all begs serving up still another in an endless series of reminders that this team isn’t very good and when it fails to achieve it’s not because head coach Pat Shurmur didn’t get the most out of them, even if that's part of it. It’s because they weren’t that good in the first place.

This is not to suggest that this team isn’t on the right track. You can see the progress in the players being developed. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that the roster is improving and that it is deeper then it was at any time in the last several seasons. But an improving roster doesn’t mean it’s good roster yet and certainly not a roster capable of going toe to toe with the better teams in the league week in and week out.

If you watched the offensive line, for example, get run over against the Eagles defensive line it was a sobering reminder that Weeden is just a blown assignment away from a concussion, sooner rather than later. Then if you listened, cynically, to the excuses offered up by the offensive line to explain said performance it just made you realize this will be another long season with earnest players trying hard to overcome their essential mediocrity.

I’m not a big fan of predicting a team’s record. It matters little, except in the drafting pecking order, whether the Browns finish 3-13, 4-12 or 5-11. Nothing about any of those records is particularly impressive and any of those are the likely outcomes based simply on this team’s over reliance on rookies and its still serious lack of depth at any position and consequent heightened vulnerability to the inevitable injuries.

What will make this season interesting and hence make me less cynical about the team's future depends on the smaller battles game by game. The questions this team needs to answer in terms of whether it’s really getting better (and, concurrently, whether it still makes any sense to put faith in the current regime) will depend on whether it can find ways to improve its production on both offense and defense.

Can the team improve its running game? Trent Richardson seems like a good edition, if healthy, but even he’ll have trouble running if the line plays like it did against the Eagles. If the run blocking doesn’t improve, quickly, there’s virtually no chance that the run game will improve and, by extension, no chance that the passing game will get better, even if Tom Heckert were to pull off a trade for Tom Brady. Weeden won’t have enough time to throw to the rookies charged with catching the ball and lacks the mobility needed on a consistent basis to slow down a pass rush that doesn’t fear the run.

Can the run defense improve? Heading into the season this was a question mark before Phil Taylor got hurt. It’s just a bigger question mark and it doesn’t inspire confidence for the option to be rotating rookies who think that they’ll create havoc because they’ll have fresh legs. The run defense has been an embarrassment for years and has forced the secondary to play up to stop big runs (which it’s done with only modest success). When the secondary is up in the box, you know what comes next. And as we’ve seen, this secondary gives up a lot of long pass plays.

An improved running game and run defense may not translate into more victories, yet, but it will eventually as long as that course remains pursued. But if this turns into another season where the offense can't move the ball and the defense can't ever control the line of scrimmage, then the flood gates of cynicism will remain open for business.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Losing It

Managers or head coaches tend to get fired for a variety of sins, the most ubiquitous and least defined is when they’ve “lost” the team.  How does one actually lose a team?  Hard to say but like porn, you know it when you see it.

To look broadly for a moment, here’s an example.  Former Cleveland Indians catcher/journeyman Kelley Shoppach seems to be doing his level best to ensure that Bobby Valentine has a one-and-done season in Boston.  He sent text messages to upper management complaining about Valentine, which is the modern/coward way of registering dislike for your boss.

The point, though, is that Shoppach, when found out, had no problem fessin’ up.  That means that Shoppach is fearless or stupid or both.  I’m guessing both but leaning to fearless because there’s nothing easier for a general manager to do than to cut a journeyman catcher, particularly one who’s bitching about the manager.  But consider that if Shoppach isn’t the dumbest player in the majors and understands the relative lack of leverage his modest career provides he’s done the math and figures Valentine must be gone.  Who am I to argue the point?

But let’s localize the example.  The Indians have fallen off a fiscal cliff of their own due in no small part to imprudent management with an amazingly consistent ability to make bad decisions.  And while it wouldn’t surprise if the players all looked around and said to themselves “if the owners don’t care why should we?” why is it that Manny Acta can’t seem to channel Lou Brown, the manager of the fictional Indians in the movie “Major League” and rally the troops against the avarice of the owners?

Maybe because he’s lost the team.

I’ve seen 40+ years of Indians teams and in well too many of those years they have been lifeless blobs of protoplasm so it is worth remembering that when you try to contextualize this year’s model.  Still, the team that slept walked through a recent west coast trip in which it won one game, barely, but mostly embarrassed itself for nearly two weeks is in the running for its own special place on the bobby prize shelf.

Particularly dispiriting was the series against Seattle.  Up until the recent series was completed, these two teams were twin sons of different mothers.  In truth they still are.  But as the Indians barely registered a pulse in losing three straight, the Mariners ended up looking like a much better team.

Is that how this is going to go for the rest of this season?  Probably.  The better question though is can Acta survive it?  The answer depends on what Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti want out of Acta. 

Presumably Acta was hired to develop the young talent on the roster and get them to a place where they could compete.  Of course that was Acta’s charge in Washington and his teams then pretty much look like his teams now.

That’s not to lay all or even the lion’s share of the blame at Acta’s feet for how miserable the Nationals were under him or how miserable the Indians are under him now.  In both cases he was saddled by bad upper management that delivered to him an odd mix of young players with some potential and aging veterans that came cheaply.  In truth few managers around can make that mix work.

I suppose you could just focus on the young players on the Indians roster and ask yourself whether they are developing under Acta.  That’s where it gets difficult.  Asdrubal Cabrera has hit some sort of wall the second half of the season and has been mostly a non factor.  Jason Kipnis is finding his second year difficult.  Michael Brantley is developing but Carlos Santana is struggling.

This isn’t to lay all or even the lion’s share of the blame for this on Acta, either.  Young players develop unevenly and the additional pressure placed on them by the various veterans who are not even meeting modest expectations isn’t helpful to the process.

Still, since this is a bottom line business, the blame will fall somewhere.  It would be far more useful, probably, to fire the roster and keep the manager but I suspect Antonetti wears rose-colored glasses and thus will fall back on what is more easier and probably cheaper; fire the manager.

That said, if Acta does survive this season it will only be because it really doesn’t much matter anyway.  There are no miracle workers in sports, just other voices from other rooms.  The problems with the Indians run deeper than the manager but that doesn’t mean they don’t also run to the manager. 

Which should cause some concern for Acta, considering how the bad facts are stacking up like dishes in a frat house sink. 

The Indians have had two losing streaks of at least 8 games this season.  If not for a good start to the season, the Indians would easily be on a pace to lose 100 games.  They are 4-21 in their last 25 games.  Every time you turn around the opposing team seems to have 7 or 8 runs on the board.  They fired their pitching coach in mid season.  They have a closer who is essentially out of control, which, in truth he always was but now that he’s failing to save games it’s become apparent again.

Anyone of those things would be a good marker for believing that the wheels have fallen off.  Collectively the wheels aren’t just off, the whole damn vehicle is stuck in 8 feet of mud somewhere off the coast of Lake Erie.  None of that speaks well for Acta.  Managers and head coaches have been fired for far less.

The case for Acta probably comes down to two main points.  He didn’t put this roster together and despite the shitstorm, he’s remained calm throughout.  Maturity shouldn’t be underrated.  It’s the lack thereof that will be Valentine’s downfall in Boston and forevermore.

Yet as calm as he’s been, it would be hard not to notice a certain “read between the lines” quality to Acta’s comments lately.  It’s not direct criticism of his bosses, certainly, but it’s not as if it couldn’t be taken that way.

That’s the kind of thing, too, that gets managers fired as well, unless they already know their fates.  Acta’s been down this road before.  I suspect he knows how this all turns out.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

All My Cleveland Teams

When I was a kid, my mother, a fan of soap operas generally, and the ABC brand in particular, would spend hours each day engrossed in the doings of Pine Valley, Port Charles and wherever else the ventures of Erica Kane, Vicki Lord Reilly Buchanan or Luke and Laura Baldwin Spencer took them.

Despite putting out 5 full hours of programming each day for 52 weeks out of the year, the plots of each moved with all the plodding speed of Bernie Kosar in his prime. That’s another way of saying that you could miss months of a show at a time and pick up nearly where you left off without having missed anything significant.

It took my recent trip abroad and my both forced and deliberate avoidance of the Cleveland sports scene (except to see if anything else had been sold or anyone had been fired) to realize that the numbing sameness of those soaps were no match for the present day Cleveland Indians or Browns.

It’s not that things don’t change with these teams. It’s that the changes are almost imperceptible. New characters get introduced; old ones are killed off, not literally just fired or cut. The merry-go-round of one season to the next does spin but tends to not make progress. The same tired story lines abound.

Consider the Indians. There may come a point where something dramatic will happen that makes the average fan actually start paying attention again but that day seems far off. Instead it’s just the gradual wear of what turns into another meaningless season that turns into an off season of excuses that turns into another new season of misplaced hope that turns into, well, you get the idea.

The Indians having suffered the inevitable swoon of a flawed roster are playing out the string of a season with 6 weeks still remaining. Nothing’s been accomplished and there’s nothing to be accomplished. It’s been a pointless season unless the point was to provide comfort in the familiar. We could say that it’s time to “let the kids play” but that too is is the same plot point each year.

Upon my return I did get a chance to peruse an interview someone locally did with Paul Dolan. It may have been Terry Pluto though that hardly matters. I was struck by Dolan’s chagrin at the Indians’ 11-game losing streak and how that took the team right out of contention. More accurately, I was struck by the fact that Dolan was chagrinned by the Indians’ 11-game losing streak.

No one can actually see an 11-game losing streak coming, I’ll give Dolan that. But as the season turned serious, which it always does after the All Star break, flaws get highlighted. There was always going to be a stretch where the team would embrace its pretender status by enduring a stretch of games where they’d go, say, 11-22. The fact that the Indians dug this 11-game hole in one fell swoop is a tribute to efficiency but not surprise and certainly not chagrin.

No, chagrin should be saved for the fans that never get the benefit of a better or at least more interesting story arc. But then again if you don’t change the producers of the show or bring in a fresh crop of writers with different ideas, why should anyone expect anything different?

I doubt that Manny Acta’s job is in jeopardy just as I doubt that Chris Antonetti’s or Mark Shapiro’s jobs are in jeopardy just as I doubt that the Dolans have any plan on selling the franchise. It’s not that any of them are particularly or unusually incompetent. It’s more that none of them bring anything particularly new or fresh to the mix anymore, assuming they ever did.

For example, there may come a time when Antonetti makes a better trade or hits on a bargain basement free agent, but there will not come a time when he takes a different approach to making trades or signing free agents. The confines of his jobs have been set by his bosses and they’ve shown no inclination to try and do anything differently. Likewise the extent of his abilities is well established. It’s not so much insanity in the sense of them doing the same things in the same way and expecting a different result. It’s more like doing the same things in the same way and assuming the same result, as if the point is existence and not competitiveness.

The long view of this all, like the long view of those soaps, is that things will change but ultimately they’ll stay the same.

The Browns are a different kind of soap opera but a soap opera nonetheless. Their willingness to replace leading characters has been bold if nothing else. But these changes, alas, have been in soap opera tradition, meaning that there has been some sort of disfiguring accident and when the bandages removed a new actor emerges playing essentially the same part.

Maybe you like Mike Holmgren or Tom Heckert better than, say, Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark, but fundamentally they’re playing the same parts in much the same way. And that has been the real disappointment of As the Browns Turn. You’d like to think that the new actors would bring a heretofore unseen dimension to the role but ultimately they fall into the same old traps reading the same old lines and getting the same old results.

But unlike their sister show, General Indians, there is every chance that the Browns will actually take a much different direction. The impending ownership change is noteworthy because it really is the opportunity to completely re-imagine the enterprise. If the new owner doesn’t do something bold then it will be an opportunity squandered.

I saw where Bud Shaw of the Plain Dealer made the point that nothing should be off the table when it comes to the Browns and I couldn’t agree more. Maybe you like some of the moves Heckert has made and maybe he is a keeper, but let’s not get sentimental over Brandon Weeden or Travis Richardson just yet. The team is still deeply flawed and a complete change of direction, which is to say a completely fresh approach from how the team buys pencils to how it conducts the draft and signs free agents, isn’t going to be much of a setback.

Stability is the hallmark of any good franchise so advocating for instability seems counterintuitive. But as the Indians have shown us, stability as a goal unto itself, can also be a veritable breeding ground of long-term mediocrity.

Besides, what’s so stable about the Browns anyway? The fans have shown a keen ability to be comforted by the thought of football without any promise of good football. Indeed, they seem more engaged by their consensus of rage against the miserable show that is the Browns. In short, they may hate the results but they certainly love to hate those results, don't they?

You have to wonder, though, will these teams go the way of the ABC soaps, which, after decades on the air, find themselves canceled? It's hard to imagine, but eventually any business model built on delivering the same bland results is bound to fold.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Vacation Time...

Here's the final installment from my Springsteen summer, a video from the historic Helsinki show that closed the European leg of his tour, "i Don't Want to Go Home."  Enjoy.  Be back soon:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Vacation Time...

Still gone and loving it.  Another video from Springsteen's historic Helsinki show, "Back in Your Arms".  Enjoy:

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Vacation Time.....

Gone to Europe to follow the Springsteen trail.  Here's another video from Helsinki, the opening number of the epic 4-hour show "Rockin' All Over the World.  Enjoy:

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Vacation Time

Time for some well deserved (at least in my opinion) vacation.  I'll be gone for a few weeks but in my absence I'll be releasing a series of videos of Bruce Springsteen's epic, precedent-setting European finale from Helsinki, Finland where he inched past the 4 hour mark for the first time.  That doesn't even include the 5-song acoustic set that took place about 2 hours prior to the real show.  Here's the first of those videos, "Blinded by the Light" acoustic. Enjoy:

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Low Cost, Low Risk, Low Effort

The only way a true Cleveland Indians fan could be surprised at the state of the team’s roster or the front office’s refusal to improve it at the trade deadline is if he fell asleep in a cave, woke up, and thought it was 1997.

This front office and this ownership group dangle the possibility of late season moves to a starving fan base to keep interest afloat but were never serious about really doing anything. That would involve risk and cost money and if there are two things that are anathema to this front office and ownership group it’s risk and cost.

The only plus side to this inaction is that by doing nothing they also did nothing dumb. The hottest of rumors involved a possible trade of Shin-Soo Choo because he’ll be a free agent at the end of NEXT SEASON and because he has in his employ Scott Boras. See, the Indians front office hates Scott Boras. Just the mention of his names causes them to wet themselves. Boras doesn’t think much of creative, hometown discount type deals. He’s as sentimental as a jellyfish and twice as slippery. In the 2012 offseason he’ll market and sell Choo to the highest bidder and there is no chance that it will be the Indians.

So, as is the custom here in Cleveland, the angst rolls, the chat rooms explode and the talk shows crackle over the possibility of getting “nothing” for Choo as he leaves for New York or California or Detroit.

Since we do know how this movie plays out in theory it makes sense to try and get something for Choo, in theory. But ask yourself whether you trust Chris Antonetti to get good value for Choo? Antonetti has nothing yet on his resume that suggests he’s got enough gravitas or savvy to convince a team to part with legitimate prospects in exchange for Choo. Stated differently, there's nothing to inform the fan that Antonetti could have ever been on the other side of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade.

Thus the calculus is whether or not Choo’s value to the team is higher as a player here for another season and a half or as a commodity to be bartered clumsily for a couple of players who we ultimately hope will get good enough to be traded down the road for other prospects.

Until Antonetti proves his meddle as a general manager the best, safest course is inaction. Better to actually watch Choo in Cleveland for another 200 games or so then to watch Choo play those 200 games for a contending team while grousing over the prospects his trade would garner as they toil in Eastlake or Akron.

Meanwhile, back where it matters, fan interest, at least as measured by attendance and television ratings, is ebbing. It's not that they can't figure out what the Indians are doing, it's that they can. The code, such as it was, has been cracked and the Indians are listing as a franchise as if this were 1989.

No question that the front office and the owners have noticed, but at the moment no one's quite sure what they plan on doing about it. For the time being they're trying to paper over the problem with promotions. But they can't have a fireworks display every night. Eventually they'll have to find an answer to the abiding question of how exactly it plans on having a team with enough heft to contend for an entire season.

It’s been a nice, pleasant surprise the last few seasons that the team stayed within spitting distance of contention until the Browns’ preseason started. But while the team generated some raised eyebrows for the first half of last and this season, few fans if any believed that the team was really built to contend. Even that, though, isn't the crux of the sin. It's more that there doesn't seem to be any intention to take the bold steps that contention actually requires.

The slightly broader context of this season begins with last season, extends to last off season and culminates, most probably, with the current disastrous road trip.

Last year’s team was achingly similar to this year’s model and therein lies the problem for the fans. There’s been no progress. Everyone could see the holes in the roster last year that caused the team to fade just as the season got interesting. That would seem to have begged an approach to fill those holes in a meaningful way.

Yet there was nothing bold done in the offseason to give the fans even a sliver of hope that this season would be anything different. It hasn’t been and so the fans, jaded by this vicious cycle of inaction, are losing interest.

Building a team the way the Indians are trying to do was never going to be an easy task. It relies on so many things going right and is so dependent on almost nothing going wrong. The front office has done a lousy job in the draft for the last several years and its impact is being felt through the lack of impact players in the minors. The front office keeps kicking the tires on retreads and it shows. Derek Lowe and Johnny Damon have very little left in their tanks. Next year's retreads aren't going to offer anything different. And the few risks it does take are always head scratchers. Grady Sizemore anyone?

We’re long past debating the frugal way in which this franchise operates. It won’t change and railing about it isn’t going to change anything either. But we’re not past debating the point as to whether Antonetti or Mark Shapiro can implement the strategy.

The early results on the Antonetti reign aren’t very promising as the wave of empty seats and lower broadcast ratings readily attest. All that's really occurred is a continuation of the Shapiro reign where a previous season's ability to contend was ignored in favor of a murky longer view involving progressively cheaper players and wounded warriors and a vague promise to do something when the time is right.

Well, guess what?, the time never seems to be right and that's ultimately what has the fan base miserable. You can't keep selling the same bottle of snake oil and not have the public eventually catch on. They have. The fans may be hopelessly hopeful but they aren't stupid. They may give the front office and the owners the benefit of another off season, but when that begets next year's Derek Lowe or Johnny Damon, they'll find other ways to spend their money. That means that Dan Gilbert and his casino, situated comfortably next door to Progressive Field, are likely going to stay healthy for another year while the Indians take on still more water.