Of the three major sports franchises in Cleveland, the Cleveland Indians unequivocally provide the fan with the greatest return on their emotional and financial investment.
In first place during the month of May for the third time in as many years, the 2013 version of the Tribe consists of more bricks and mortar than smoke and mirrors. Casual (sometimes I wonder if there's any other kind, more on that later...) Tribe fans will point to the offseason of 2012-13 and the opening of the Dolan family's wallets as the clear turning point. However, the 2012-13 Cleveland Indians offseason was half a decade in the making.
Two types of franchises exist in Major League Baseball: those who can afford to sit $100 million on their bench and still hold first place and those who can't. Until the northeast Ohio area experiences an inversion of its consistent population decline over the last half-century, the Indians will belong to the latter group.
Even before the heartbreak of the 2007 ALCS loss to Boston and in the midst of a disappointing 2008 campaign, reality confronted the Cleveland Indians front office: They could no longer afford to sustain success without a profitable stream of television revenue.
But they didn't simply tank, as NBA and NFL franchises struggling to contend are wont to do. The Indians retained popular stars Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore far beyond their expiration dates, retarding the team's path in hopes of avoiding what proved to be an inevitable fan alienation. What good are the hometown heroes fans belligerently demand when they're on the DL for entire seasons at a time?
Could they match the cash churned out by the YES Network or NESN? No, but the Indians could close the gap through sound financial management and maximizing the value of Sport Time Ohio (as well as their trade-able roster), which the Dolan family (If you know anything about the Dolans, they're pretty crafty when it comes to the cable television business.) sold in December, 2012.
The impending sale of Sport Time Ohio liberated the popular and charismatic Terry Francona, along with encouragingly competent GM Chris Antonetti to recruit quality bricks and mortar to expand on the Tribe's small but well-built foundation.
Bricks like Mark Reynolds, the slugger who found a home in the heart of the Tribe lineup and who, like other bricks Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, can provide quality service at multiple positions in the field. Mortar like Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn, the latter of whom blasted his way to AL Player of the Week honors working as a utility man. Drew Stubbs, another new acquisition, can play all three outfield positions and requires the smallest of opportunities to exploit on the basepaths.
These new additions complement the core of Manny Acta's plucky Tribe teams of the previous two summers: Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Justin Masterson, Chris Perez and the "Bullpen Mafia," helped keep their young teams in contention through the All-Star break. But smoke and mirrors inevitably clear and shatter over a 162-game season, especially when those illusions take the mound every five games or enter the batter's box with regularity.
Starting pitching appeared suspect during the Indians' 5-10 stumble from the starting line, then Tribe pitching absolutely tyrannized their opponents in the subsequent month. Justin Masterson projects as an early Cy Young candidate while Ubaldo Jimenez appears to have re-gained command over his delivery: the former Cy Young runner-up surrendered precisely five runs in the last month.
At 25 years old and with a 2.65 ERA in eight starts, Zach McAllister looks like one of the best returns on a "player to be named later" in recent memory: the Tribe acquired the former Yankee third-round pick in exchange for Austin Kearns—the same Austin Kearns who found himself designated for assignment when out-competed by the likes of Travis Buck, Trevor Crowe and Shelley Duncan for a utility spot in 2011.
Absent the cornerstone, charismatic new manager Terry Francona, such a renaissance in the confines of the Jake—err, Progressive Field—would have been quite unlikely. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway has garnered universal praise for his work with the staff while the Tribe lineup continues to earn a reputation as one of baseball's most complete and deadly.
Given the relative free-market nature of baseball's revenue system, Indians fans continue to fail to sufficiently appreciate their franchise's leadership: when the Tribe front office recognized in 2006 that they had a payroll problem, they didn't write a comic-sans letter. Nor did they run off to tend to their English soccer team. You can't prove the future, but I have a hard time imagining a Dolan on the cover of the Plain Dealer with the words "FBI" in the headline.
Ownership stuck to what they knew, they hung tough and now, five years later, the Cleveland Indians baseball team continues to punch far above the weight of their fanbase. Sticking to what they know, hanging tough and perseverance until success...sound like the ethic of any particular Midwestern city we all know?
After the sale of SportsTime Ohio and a over a decade of utterly thankless stewardship of the Indians, the time to sell the team would be now. Should the team make the World Series run of which the national baseball media increasingly believes them to be capable, selling would be a no-brainer. Given their thoroughly-demonstrated fickleness, fans ought to pray the buyer hails from Cleveland, lest one of the numerous lucrative markets for relocation beckon with promises of a new stadium the team could fill.
As the Indians have climbed from baseball's cellar to a realm of respectability, if not yet serious contention, their faithful rank dead last in attendance. The first place Cleveland Indians managed to draw fewer fans in the first quarter of the 2013 campaign than the Miami Marlins, whose owner sold off half the team.
Kansas City, in a market nearly identical to Cleveland in population and without a winning season to their name in the last decade, has drawn an average of 5,000 more fans more than the Indians during their 20-20 start to the 2013 campaign. Last place Milwaukee draws twice as many fans as the average night on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
If you were born the night the Pittsburgh Pirates last played a playoff game, this fall you can legally enjoy a Rolling Rock. In the midst of a 21-year postseason drought, the Pittsburgh Pirates are outdrawing the Indians by 6,000 a night.
Admittedly terrible analogy: We Tribe fans resemble a spoiled, unfaithful spouse on a cable TV reality show. Unless we shape up and appreciate our diligent, earnest partner, they will be completely thrilled to take their cut and leave us with the house once the kids graduate (read: make the playoffs), and with half the starting lineup due to wrap up their rookie contract terms this season, who could blame them?
While the Indians admirably worked their way out of tough circumstances, we're off philandering with the Browns every year, flaunting our 70,000+ crowds regardless of the weather, school schedule or quality of product.
I concede, Cleveland remains and will remain a football town. A Cleveland Browns Super Bowl invariably tops native Clevelanders' bucket list of unlikely miracles. However, in a city plagued by unrequited hero worship, relocation nightmares and disparate payrolls, the Cleveland Indians represent an opportunity to silence the demons of the last half-century. Let's hope the fans take note before the All-Star break.
By the time we dust off our Thome jerseys for an October run so infrequently enjoyed by small market teams, it may prove too late. The Indians deserve more than our mere attention. They deserve our loyalty. The Cleveland Browns will always own our hearts, but even the slightest utilization of our heads would turn Cleveland into a Tribe Town.
You can follow me on Twitter: @StepanekButton
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