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.
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.