Indians

Are You In the Tribe? Part 1: Different Strokes for Different Folks

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about the Indians, and it got me thinking.  Let me re-imagine it for you:

Friend: The Indians stink.

Me: Well actually, right now, they don’t.  It’s the off-season. Nobody stinks in November.  They’ll be tied with the Yankees for the next five months or so.

Friend: You’re a jerk.  You know what I mean.  Every time a player gets good, we trade him.

Me: Travis Hafner got good.  We didn’t trade him.

Friend: And how’d that work out?

Me: I’m just saying.

Friend: What about CC?  What about Cliff Lee?  What about Victor, for Chrissake? You know they’re eventually gonna trade Choo and Santana and anybody else who might pan out, and the cycle’s never going to end.  Even when we’re good, all it takes is one injury or a ‘down-year’ to muck everything up.  There’s no margin for error for a team like the Indians, and when you’re going up against teams with hundreds of millions of dollars in margins, baseball just looks stupid and unfair.  It’s hopeless to be an Indians’ fan, and your obstinacy won’t let you see it.  How can anybody REALLY be an Indians fan under circumstances like these? What is it you’re even rooting for?  Look at the system that fans like you help to support.

Me: Um…

Yeah.  Cycle of Contention. Margin of Error.  Unfairness.  Hopelessness.  It’s all there.  And it’s all part of being a fan and/or observer of the Cleveland Indians.  We see it every day.

And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is whether I should be defending the Indians against complaints like these anymore.  I’ve wasted a lot of breath and spilled a few gallons of e-ink over the last year trying to be optimistic.  Trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel that will bring the next good team.  It’s not that I’ve changed my outlook exactly—I’m as passionate as ever about the Indians and as hopeful as a guy could be toward what could happen here over the next several years.

No.  I’m tired of defending the Indians because most baseball fans aren’t like me.  Most Indians fans don’t care about the things I that I do.  So when I say that Carlos Carrasco has a chance to be front-end starter, they want to see wins.  And when I say that Carlos Santana is the most exciting hitter Cleveland has seen since Manny Ramirez, they want to make the playoffs.  While I can defend the moves of CC and Cliff and Victor as moves that probably had to be made, they want to know how Major League Baseball can look at itself in the mirror any more.  They want to know where their memories went.

And I think we’re probably both right.

They’re right because they have a strong understanding about what rooting in sports is all about.  You play to win the game.  You play to win championships.  Et cetera.  And when it feels like there is a conspiracy of capital designed to thwart their team’s ability to win, it turns them off.  They know that MLB is unfair, and they don’t want to hear about the “small market” San Francisco Giants who can afford to pay their #5 starter $126 million while leaving him off the post-season roster.  They don’t want to hear from the front office about “aggressively managing contention cycles” or how their favorite team is “one step away” or those dreaded words: “be patient with us”.  They know that being patient sucks, and only losers ask for it from their fans.

But I’m right too.  Organizations don’t become winners immediately, and if they could, I don’t know that I’d be able to root for them.  I write this without a hint of irony: I don’t understand how a Yankee fan can be happy anymore.  “Hey.  A bunch of players that we bought from other teams won the World Series!  Super-duper!”  I can’t imagine (and perhaps this is why I hate “shopping”) being happy by buying something that I’ve already bought several times over.  “Wow.  These pants are…really…gray…These are some gray, gray pants.  Just like my other pair.”  That’s right.  For the Yankees, World Series titles are gray pants.

So the teams that I root for must have modest means.  They must be underdogs.  They must (and this is what I really mean, I think) be built rather than assembled. And watching that building carries a certain amount of joy for me.  I enjoy watching things come together.  I enjoy the minutiae of the baseball world.  I like watching the sausage getting made, and hoping that the front office can identify bargains and inefficiencies in their moves.  I can enjoy these things in a vacuum, so much so that a season like 2010 becomes bearable for someone like me.

Even still, I understand that I am deranged.  Earlier this year, someone wrote in the comments section of one of my pieces that he didn’t see the point in getting excited about Carlos Santana.  But I think the commenter probably meant something slightly different.   It wasn’t that he didn’t see the point.  It was that it would just be too painful: someday he’d be gone—probably to a team that could pay him his market value.  It seemed to me to be a defense mechanism.*  I responded, as I’m wont to do, with a petty joke, wondering how anyone could ever adopt a puppy or buy a computer with an attitude like that—sooner or later they all die.

* Yes. I psychoanalyze the comments.  Deal with it.

But I think I missed the point.  As much as I want to think about the Indians rationally (“I’ll buy this product, only if it satisfies me…”) I can’t.  It’s not about buying a computer for me.  It’s about falling in love.  And no matter what your mind might say about it, the heart wants what the heart wants.

For me, it wants, above all else, to watch this thing get built.  To see it grow from the ground up, get torn down again, and get built up all over again.  Perhaps it’s some subconscious, masochistic tendency, but I really do have fun writing the things I write about what is patently a terrible baseball team.

For my friend and the commenter, their hearts just can’t take the losing anymore.  They’ve been beaten up too often.  They’ve been told to be rational, when, for them, fandom is necessarily irrational.  After all, what else is patience, but a rational decision to ignore one’s feelings?

I think we’re all entitled to feel the way we do, though I’ve probably wasted too much energy trying to make people feel the way I do.  Not everyone sees the game through the same lens, and I suppose I owe you readers an apology for my occasional tunnel vision.  On the other hand, I’d guess that the people who’ve read most of my work probably feel the same helpless draw that I do: Spring Training starts and the tractor beam pulls us right in again, often against our wishes.  Somewhere, a nerdy guy named Jon gets his spreadsheets out and starts cranking numbers.  Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, but with acronyms.

Anyway, there’s a part two to this piece, which is what I really wanted to set up today.  On Thursday, I’ll explore how the Indians have approached the notions discussed above—especially from a marketing standpoint.  And I promise: I won’t be defending them.

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  • C-Bus Kevin

    2007…the Tribe are one win away from the World Series.

    2010…the Tribe are in the basement.

    This is why baseball stinks, because if the Indians were the Yankees, they would have been looking at a possible dynasty with two Cy Young Award winners plus Carmona. They could have made several World Series over the next decade, and at the very least, made the playoffs every year.

    Just think about that. The real reason why fans are fleeing baseball stadiums everywhere is that they are tired of waiting around to see their team succeed every 15-years while the top spending teams are always in contention.

  • http://www.moonbattery.com modell2hell

    You’re an Indian fan because you were born an Indian fan; there’s no changing that for any of us. The problem is with MLB. They will continue to lose the next generation until built teams have more than a one season chance to compete with bought teams.

  • tribefan30

    Good article. I agree with you that building a team has more satisfaction than buying a team. I always tell my friends that there is no need for the yankess to have a minor league, the rest of the leauge is their minor league. In stead of calling up a good player from their minors, they buy good players from other teams. So when (yes when not if) the Indians finally win the whole thing it will be especially rewarding for us. Plus its always fun to watch when the billion dollar yankee payroll gets knocked out of the playoffs by a team with a smaller payroll.

  • PNR

    It’s impossible to defend the status quo with the current MLB. I agree with Jon re: the haves (is it really that fun to cheer for the Red Sox nowadays?) and the have-nots have to hope for lightning in a bottle.

    However, as desperate as I am to taste a championship – preferably with the Indians – during my lifetime, I really can’t wait to take my 17-month old son to his first baseball game – even if it’s to see a last-place team playing in front of 10,000 fans.

    I want him to be as addicted to the game as I am.

  • http://www.whitecollarredneck.com Narm

    I’m the same way. I’m the guy who buys the baseball game and simulates all the games because it is all about developing players and making trades.

    But if people want to cheer for a team when they are good – they have to cheer for them when they are bad. That is the meaning of being a fan. Otherwise we would all just pick a team come playoff time.

    Or worse…

    …be like LeBron.

  • Chris

    Building a team? Fantastic. Yes, better by far than buying one.

    Building a team only to have it blown up because you can’t afford the players anymore? That shouldn’t be allowed.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    Look, I was born an Indians fan too, and I will always root for the team, but some people need to open their eyes.

    “I agree with you that building a team has more satisfaction than buying a team.”

    This is nothing against you personally TribeFan30, because many have expressed this sentiment, but it’s time to face facts. The tribe DID build a winner, and that team was a win away from the 2007 World Series. Then, they sold the team for scrap.

    MLB is a mess. From the monetary structure to the late start times for World Series games, to the inability to address PED issues, to making the All-Star game “meaningful”, they have botched so much over the last couple of decades. Now, they want to add teams to the playoffs, further reducing the meaning of the already too big regular season.

    Thanks for memories Bud Selig. It’s been grand.

    Wait…he’s not retiring? Crap…

  • C-Bus Kevin

    Oh, and I forgot Interleague Play. Let’s not forget what made the All-Star game meaningless in the first place.

    That was another great strategy to pursue short-term financial gains.

  • REEPJP

    I think you talked about this in one of your other articles, or maybe it was in the comments, but over the years the Yankees have had a few of their prospects/home-grown talent turn into stars with their team as opposed to being world beaters before they got there (Jeter, Rivera, Pettite the first time, Cano, Phil Hughes). The only difference between the Tribe and the Yankees is that once their prospects became stars, they were/are able to retain them.

    Don’t get me wrong, I hate the Yankees as much as anyone on this blog, but they have been able to semi-build their team over the years…..and they don’t hesitate to acquire the big name cake toppers to put them over the edge.

  • Turk

    Post #3 is dead on. Anyone who stops rooting for the Indians or blames the Dolans for not spending enough is a fair-weather moron, plain and simple. Be angry at MLB, question MLB. Don’t ever give up on your home team.

  • Roosevelt

    I DO follow the Indians. I follow them the way someone who lives in Toledo follows the Mudhens – you don’t care about championships; that’s not the point of minor league or small market baseball. You cheer for your players when they succeed at the next level. I LOVED the postseason this year. between CC and Cliff Lee and Ben Broussard, we were well represented.

  • Anthony

    Eventually baseball will drop so far in popularity that they will have to start making changes. That will be right around the time the Yankees have a payroll of $1 billion and the Indians are spending 525k on their team.

    This idea of expanding the playoffs is sort of like fixing a broken leg with a band-aid.

    It’s really a shame too because baseball is a great sport.

  • stin4u

    “There’s no margin for error for a team like the Indians, and when you’re going up against teams with hundreds of millions of dollars in margins, baseball just looks stupid and unfair.”

    THIS….THIS IN BUCKETS

  • stin4u

    @9 – Also, don’t forget that when those guys turn into stars they can go grab guys like Granderson, A.J. Burnett, CC, etc. to fill out the um. gaps?

    All teams can build x amount of players but the yankees and sawks will always have the funds to then replace their marginal players with above average talent. This is what bothers me the most.

  • Griff

    I enjoy watching things get built from a foundation. Doesn’t mean I want the Yankees or the Red Socks to come and stomp all over my sand castle every 2-3yrs. A few guys leaving over a long cycle of a team is fine, but that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world of entire rosters just disappearing. Personally I was fine with the state of things as a low budget team until Cliff Lee was traded. Followed by every night watching Sports Center (etc) and having to listen to the crack about trading away back to back Cy Young award winners over and over. That message stuck with me and since then I just read the box scores and articles. No more radio, no more TV; no more tickets to games; no more merchandise till something changes in MLB.

    I think you’ve hemmed in your opposition a bit too much in this article. You can love the Indians, and love baseball and still be totally disgusted with the state of things, while also not being some type of oblivious, championship team hopping, fair weather fan.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    Anthony…you’re right, except I feel like adding teams to the playoffs is like fixing a broken leg by breaking the other one.

    See! Now they both hurt equally…problem solved.

  • http://blog.clevelandsportstorture.com/ doug1121

    And the Yanks are already in contact w/ Lee’s agent…I love the Tribe but we’re doubly saddled by penny pinching, unambitious ownership and a broken MLB financial system. Makes it hard for me to care anymore, and if that makes me fair-weather, so be it.

  • NJ

    I think I’m the only remaining human (who is not an owner or a player) who actually loves the current MLB system.

  • stin4u

    @NJ – why so?

  • Mike

    Better comparisions are not to NYY/Bos, but rather to Minnesota or Atlanta. If Cle managed the club like NYY, most of these guys would not have matriculated to the bigs, rather used a trade bait. Why/how does MIN and ATL keep the success despite talent losses?

  • NJ

    Public perception aside, it actually allows most teams to compete on a semi-regular basis. In the last five years, there’s been five different champs with nine different teams playing in WSs. 22 teams out of 30 made the playoffs in those five years. Don’t know how other sports compare, but that’s pretty good imo. (That variety remains over the last 20+ years too. I’m not playing sampling size games or anything.)

    I also like that teams get to keep their young talent for a pretty long time. I like that the Tribe can (not will) have Santana around for another five or six years (or however long we’ve got his rights). If a team is smart, they can constantly be developing talent which they’ll have for years.

    I also love capitalism and MLB has a system that most mirrors a free market. Sure, that means that there are rich teams with advantages that poor teams don’t have, but that’s life, right? And baseball is life.

    Maybe I’m just an overly optimistic guy?

  • stin4u

    NJ – you make a good point about MLB being an open market. But the question is that what fans want to see? As a fan of a team that is consistently out of the running by June every year my reply is no. I see that the past five years you have 5 different winners but that can be expected in baseball. Baseball is a momentum game…with teams gaining and losing it at opportune/inopportune times. For that reason you can’t expect the same team to win every single year (aka 2010 yankees).

    My major gripe is that maybe money can’t buy you a championship EVERY year but it CAN buy you sustained consistency. While teams like the Indians,Rays,Pirates,Royals, etc. are left on a cyclical system of development with little to no room for mistakes. When mistakes are made those teams are blown up and the cycle starts again. The current system allows implied advantages to being in a larger market and sports is supposed to be about a “level playing field” which MLB clearly isn’t. Sure the league is a business and open markets are GREAT for businesses but fans don’t generally care about the business side of the club as much as they care about the product presented and the results come october.

  • http://serandez.blogspot.com Ezzie

    I always thought baseball was killing its market with kids (and still do), with the horrible financial structure and major-market dominance, not to mention the late starts, but I’ve actually started wondering if that’s true. In baseball, you figure that the good fans care always, the rest care when their team is contending. From a league standpoint, would you rather have that split equally among major and other markets, or would you want the major markets to always feel absorbed by their winning team, and figure the diehards elsewhere will still follow and who cares about the other few thousand fans a game you’re missing? Plus, figure that the major markets are also the most urban markets – the kids are less naturally inclined toward baseball (less fields) and having a good team draws them in, while other markets the kids may watch/be into baseball anyway.

  • Matt S

    JonJon,

    Was that 2 Dumb and Dumber references in one paragraph?

  • stin4u

    @Ezzie – That’s actually a good question. If the Yankees weren’t good every year would their fan base contract enough it would out weigh the small market fan base growth? Interesting.

  • NJ

    @22 – I agree to a point.

    What matters to me: can Indiains team compete year in, year out over a sustained period, say ten years? Probably not, but that’s true of the Browns and any NFL team too. Can the Indians (assuming good ownership, quality decisions) compete regularly over a decade? Yes.

    The MLB system is far from perfect. (I actually get more annoyed by chronic losers like the Pirates who never try to compete and just pocket the welfare from the Yankees.) It just annoys me when people act like every year it’s same four teams in the ALCS/NLCS when the exact opposite is true.

  • mgbode

    @all – I love the passion in the comments here. Shows that people still care about MLB and the Indians. That is good to see.

    @Jon – anyone that doesn’t fall in fan-love watching Santana play baseball is too gone to save.

    @Jon (again) – to help make you feel more rational about the Indians. this year for Halloween both of my sons went as Indians players. shoes/knee-high socks/pants/jerseys/hats/gloves (well, the gloves were generic).

    did I mention that I live in Texas and Halloween was during game5 of the WS where the Texas Rangers were involved (made for quite a few jokes of “Indian fans don’t need to worry about missing games to trick-or-treat” et cetera)

  • Tommy

    @NJ

    I’ve struggled with the whole “capitalism” and “free market” thing too, because like you I am a huge fan of those things, and generally hate all forms of regulation and redistribution. However, one of the main reasons I love those ideas in life is because I believe in the “American Dream”… the “rags to riches” story. And I believe that it doesn’t matter what you are born into, or what your current financial condition is, you can always rise to the top through hard work and good decisions. You can’t blame anyone or anything else for your condition, and in general, there really are no limitations to how high you can go. Sure, not everyone starts on a level playing field, but I believe that your success in life is a result of your own effort and decisions you’ve made.

    In MLB, a free market does not lead to a situation where success is a result of your own effort and decisions. I am fine with teams being in the tank for decades at a time…. as long as it is the result of their own poor management/performance, not because they are stuck in a market with less than 1/10th (and sometimes smaller) the population of their competitors.

    Citing numbers of WS winners, or ALCS/NLCS participants as a sign of competitive balance really doesn’t hold much weight for me. The World Series winner is rarely ever the true “best team” in the game. I’m not complaining about this, only saying that in reality, its not very good justification for the system.

    What we have is a system where the Indians can go 704-754 over the last 8 seasons, with one division title and one playoff appearance and the whole front office receives promotions. And to make matters worse, I actually am completely ok with it. And in one of your points, you used “made the playoffs within the last 5 years” as a measurement for competitive balance. The Indians certainly fall within that, so why shouldn’t the front office have been rewarded?

    If there is one area that I think management has completely dropped the ball, it might be marketing. The failure to recognize and account for public perception, and its affect on the future bottom line/flexibility of the organization, I believe may have crippled the franchise even further, by sending it deeper into the low attendance/low payroll spiral. It sounds like we’ll be getting into this area with Jon’s part 2.

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  • brownsfan019

    MLB is great – if you are in NY or Boston.

    MLB in CLE is terrible and boring. With no shot to play with the big boys, we are simply a farm team at the ‘professional’ level.

    We keep the guys that didn’t work out, bring in old guys no one wants and drop the the guys going into their prime. The system of MLB is broke and kills the majority of teams.

  • Hagesfeld

    OK, I am a long and loud complainer about the system in place in MLB. The “free market” argument doesn’t hold, because there are inherent advantages to being in large market (NOBODY can have a YES/NESN-type contract outside of the big cities) that can’t be overcome. And I have felt that the “See how many teams have made it?” argument is well over-blown because, yes, you CAN make a small, limited-time splash from a small market if your pieces all come together at the same time (see:CC and Fausto), but your window is very limited. THAT’S the thing – the reason the post-season spots have been rotating is because the alternative spots are taken. How many years of the last 15 have at least one of the Red Sox or Yankess NOT been in the post-season? Money doesn’t guarantee success (see: Mets) but it sure doesn’t hurt.

    However, to play devil’s advocate here, if our problem is that we build a team and then lose it, isn’t the alternative (as personified by the NFL) the same, just you lose your best players to any one of the league’s teams? If you put together an excellent team in baseball, you theoretically have the possibility of signing your players and keeping them (as the twins are trying to do). In football, if you had a Morneau/Mauer combo, you wouldn’t possibly be able to keep them for salary cap reasons (ask Cardinals fans). Is this really better?

    And one last note, @11: “I LOVED the postseason this year. between CC and Cliff Lee and Ben Broussard, we were well represented.” If THIS is the best Clevelanders have to hope for, “this guy we used to have got to play in a Series,” then MLB is doomed.

    @11 I LOVED the postseason this year. between CC and Cliff Lee and Ben Broussard, we were well represented.

  • http://serandez.blogspot.com Ezzie

    @Stin4u – Thanks. I’d love someone with more talent/time than me actually figure that one out. I’m wondering if someone who works for MLB already did.

  • mgbode

    i’ll make sure to add this onto more current Indian posts when they are available, but I really want to see the Indians pursue one player this offseason more than any other:

    Zack Greinke

    need to trade with the Royals for him but the marketing dept would have a good sell that he’ll never be a Yankee (no trade clause to NYC/Boston/LA/Chicago) and he’s a heck of a good pitcher too.

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  • http://www.whitecollarredneck.com Narm

    Capitalism is great in business – not in sports. In business you don’t NEED your competitors. In sports, there has to be a reasonable chance that you could lose, or no one would watch. That is what makes it a ‘sport’.

    If sports were business, the Yankees would just buy out the Indians and other small market teams and there would only be 4-5 teams in all of MLB.

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