Cleveland Indians 2012 Outlook: Time for Fans to Put Up or Shut Up?
"I get no respect. The way my luck is running, if I were a politician, I'd be honest."- Rodney Dangerfield
God love them, the Dolans finally caved to fan pressure and restructured Grady Sizemore, a move they almost certainly would have shunned when they purchased the team a decade earlier.
In a classic Hobson's choice, the Indians could either pay Sizemore one tenth of their payroll for services he all but certainly won't be able to render, or part fans with their most beloved player and in doing so, alienate the very supporters the club desperately needs to acquire new talent.
In order for the Indians to pull the trigger on acquisitions like the Ubaldo Jimenez deal last summer, fan support must re-assure ownership of future revenue. Nothing says "no future revenue," like a disenchanted fan base, thinking "just when things started looking good, they cut my favorite player." So, in a public relations move uncharacteristic of the typically crafty, dispassionate Dolans, Sizemore was retained, and promptly blew out his back.
That move demonstrates not only the Indians' ownership's commitment to their fans, but also their own personal motivation for owning the Indians: they love the team, and they're lifelong fans themselves.
Many Tribe fans come into the 2012 season with renewed perspective, having seen the tribulations of small market baseball in the newly-released film version of Michael Lewis' Moneyball: the Art of Winning at an Unfair Game. There's something undeniably romantic about the notion of fearlessly attacking an opponent with several times the resources.
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Now armed with some silver screen insight, Tribe fans can appreciate the intricacies and frustrations of balancing fan approval with financial sustainability.
Indians fans, and indeed all small market fans, always intuited that Major League Baseball grew increasingly fundamentally unfair, but now more than ever that unfairness has entrenched itself even within pop culture.
In a rare life lesson extended by professional sports, Tribe fans can plainly see that they reap what they sew with respect to the Indians: when games are well attended, the team springs for the Ubaldo Jimenezes, or the Kenny Loftons come August. If fans avoid the ballpark for years on end, the Tribe will take exponentially longer to rebuild — a reality enforced by the dysfunction of Major League Baseball, not the Indians organization's unwillingness to engage in irresponsible business practices- i.e., spend more than they take in.
Fans shrilly call for the Indians to go all out to match the Tigers' assertiveness. They offer the ultimatum that the Dolans raise the payroll, or leave town. But the reality is, the Dolans have reincarnated the Indians into playoff contenders twice, and almost did it a third time last season.
Whether the Dolans or Randy "deep-pockets-in-a-revenue-sharing-league" Lerner owned the team, the stubborn fact remains that more Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies, Cubs fans exist-yes, because they have a large market — but even in the early season they watch their teams more consistently than Indians fans.
Revenue for the big market teams would still exponentially exceed the Indians' and Lerner would have to unsustainably operate the team at a loss. When fans insist a franchise's ownership operate at a loss, they suggest a course which often leads to the kinds of situations Los Angeles Dodgers fans endured under Frank McCourt, who had big market support, or even worse: team relocation.
Though they throw stones at ownership and the league itself, Indians fans have slid a long way from their respectable die-hard status of the sellout crowd 1990's. The Indians were in first place for half of the 2011 season, and still finished 24th in overall attendance.
The same fans calling for heads to roll clearly aren't holding up their end of the bargain in a small market.
The St. Louis Cardinals, meanwhile provide a model of simultaneously committed management, as well as consistent fan support. The Cardinals failed to win a playoff game for four seasons from 2007-2010, missing the post season in three out of those four years.
But St. Louis, a small market franchise, never dropped out of the top ten in attendance. The Indians dropped out of the top ten in 2002, just one year after qualifying for the playoffs.
No surprise that while the Tribe has failed to get the job done, the Cards have collected two titles in the past decade in a small market. The question is, can a Cleveland fan base enthusiastic about conservative, smash mouth football, learn to appreciate conservative, well-managed baseball?
If we watch them, they will come.
The Indians have proven they can win in a small market. They've proven they can develop Cy Young, MVP type talent. In 2012 they will be poised to rise again. The question is, will the Wahoo faithful answer the call?
Will we buy the tickets, the requisite t-shirts, the weekend packages? Will the packed stadiums reassure management when the time comes to pursue that final piece with the unconditional support of a rabid, re-energized fan base behind them?
We've proven we can provide that support. We owned the record for consecutive sellouts not too long ago and if Tribe fans want a championship, to a significant degree their small market puts them in control their of own destiny.
In 2012, the time may come for us to say: ask not, what the Tribe can do for you, but what you can do for the Tribe.
You can follow Brian on Twitter @StepanekButton
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