Times are usually tough when you're a fan of the Cleveland Indians. This is nothing new. It's part of the northern Ohioan sport-fan condition: you're used to breaks tilting the other way.
For the Cleveland Indians however, the current downturn might be attributed to one man. As unfair as this charge may be, his gaffe may have changed his franchises' plight closer to the Pirates than even the Twins.
That man is current Akron Aeros skipper, and former interim Tribe skipper Joel Skinner. And if you're a Tribe fan, you probably remember the exact moment where a budding franchise changed course into a hard sell for, well, everything.
Kenny Lofton was brought back --for a third time-- to the franchise which he terrorized opposing batters with his highlight-reel robberies over the centerfield wall in what was Jacobs Field. Those days were obviously long gone, but there was one thing he had that he still had in abundance. The gift of speed.
Fast-forward to game six of the ALCS, 2007. Lofton at second. Tribe trailing by one. A base hit down the line that ricochets off the famous jutting corner behind the third base bag at Fenway Park. Lofton comes flying around second...
Only to be held at third by Third-base coach, Joel Skinner.
No one knows if Manny Ramirez would've added another dose of salt to the still-festering wound to the franchise that he left for the bottom dollar for, but Lofton needed to be sent. It was too big of a gamble not to.
You know the rest of the story.
Let's say Skinner sends Lofton. The Indians would've been an overwhelming favorite to defeat the Colorado Rockies. They could've ended a championship drought in a city that doesn't even know how it were to react if they were to (gasp!) put to end the visions of The Drive. Or The Fumble.
(It may finally come to an end with LeBron James lording over the entire region, but as anyone who has lived in northeastern Ohio knows, the other shoe has to drop eventually. And it's likely for the worse.)
The Indians haven't come close since. With a mass exodus of cornerstones shipped off over the course of two summers, the Indians are dangerously close to becoming the generational laughingstock that inhabited Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Entire sections empty. Fans regaling of tales of long ago; only that "long ago" was only a little more than a decade ago. This is what the city and fanbase has to face. There is a palpable level of distrust of Larry Dolan's willingness to do what is necessary to make it even look like they have a plan.
Well, they do, but the fanbase gave them one five-year wait. It doesn't seem fair to ask the fans to sit through another.
Had Joel Skinner sent Kenny Lofton, the Indians may have played in front of crowds that rivalled those of the famed 455-game sellout streak. They could've made a serious run at CC Sabathia instead of low-balling him and hinging on hope. Cliff Lee would still be there. Victor Martinez, the closest thing to a heart-and-soul guy the team has had since Omar Vizquel, would still be there. Keeping Grady Sizemore? At least they'd have a shot. The chance to remain relevant would still be there.
But by one man's erring on the side of caution, a franchise that used to have a packed house every night has crumbled to an afterthought with seemingly no way of changing the course.