Are You In the Tribe? Part 2: ‘Ramble On’ & ‘Communication Breakdown’

On Tuesday, I talked a bit about how I tend to see only the positives in a rebuilding ball-club while too often overlooking the negatives.  I take such joy in the little things like prospects and statistical analysis and team valuation that I have a tendency to disregard the big picture: the Indians have been pretty bad for the last few years.  Forests and trees were troped about.

Even still, when people tell me that MLB is unfair, I usually brush it off—not because I don’t think it’s true.   In fact, it’s quite the opposite: MLB is so obviously and patently unfair that it hardly seems worth my time or energy to write about it.  What could be more useless than another article about big market teams pillaging the rest of the league for talent and leaving only scraps behind?  Those articles have been written and will continue to be written, probably with more aplomb than I could ever muster.  And regardless, I’m not a huge proponent of riling the masses; people have enough to be angry about without me throwing gasoline on their pyres.

But one thing that does tend to get my hackles up now and then is how the Indians’ front office goes about communicating with its fanbase.  I think they do a really crummy job of it.  But to get to why, we’ll have to backtrack for a second.  If you’ll remember from my piece on Tuesday, I haphazardly split the fanbase into two groups.  Broadly speaking, they look like this:

Group 1:  The majority of all baseball fans, who want to be treated with respect, who believe they deserve honest and forthright communication regarding the present and future of their team.  Those who, above all else, value a winning organization, and who, consequently, are frustrated as hell.  They often respond to this frustration the only way they know how: they stop buying tickets.  Stop supporting the team in the hope that they can send a message of their displeasure.  We’ll call this group “the base.”

Group 2:  A minority to be sure.  Those who go to the same number of games whether the team wins 100 games or only 60.  Those who would love (and have loved) a winning season, but gain a sufficient amount of pleasure from baseball regardless of outcomes.  Those who either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t believe that anything will be done about MLB’s inequalities.  We’ll call these people “the nuts.”

Part of what Tuesday’s post was about was coming to terms with the fact that I’m a “nut” and I spend too much energy trying to convince other people to be like me.  That’s a mistake, I think.  Everybody’s different and everybody cares about and watches baseball for different reasons.  (And these broad fanbase categories will no doubt unintentionally offend some people—sorry in advance for that.)

So if it’s not my job to convince people to become “nuts” what’s the point of all this?  Why bother with any of this exercise?  Shouldn’t I be spending my time on more important things, like figuring out why this (left) isn’t a pipe?

Well, the Indians front office has done a terrible job at communicating with the “base” and a really good job at communicating with the “nuts”.  And, to me, that’s a real problem, considering that all teams need to be concerned with developing a bigger fanbase—especially ones with the lowest attendance figures in baseball.

Think about it.  Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti have done a fine job with telling people like me about the necessity of all the trades, their incorporation of statistical analysis, their desire to manage contention cycles, etc.  They do long, extensive interviews with bloggers who are sympathetic to their plight, who will write and think about the team through good times and bad.  They speak to the “nuts” with such clarity and composure that it’s actually quite impressive.

But the Indians don’t really need the nuts.  The nuts are already going to as many games as they can afford.  They already believe in building the team through the draft and savvy trades.  Sure they can (and do!) ask some probing questions that we nuts care a lot about.  How do the Indians view fluctuations in batter-BABiP?  How does the organization approach fielding metrics? But the nuts already expect the down years and have come to terms with their consequences.  They’re already a guaranteed revenue- and support-source.  They’re all-in.

In other words, the Indians are preaching to their own choir, and the echo chamber can drive everyone else…well…nuts.

Let me give you an example.  My friend’s dad knows everything there is to know about the Indians.  He knows every player’s batting average.  He watches every game on TV, and has for the last 50 years.  He lived through Vic Wertz and Larry Doby and Rocky Colavito and Sam McDowell and Ten Cent Beer Night and Rick Manning and Joe Carter and Mike Hargrove and Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome and Grady Sizemore and Carlos Santana.  He watched all of it as closely as one could.  He is a founding member of the “base,” and a great example of why being in the base doesn’t mean you’re a “fairweather fan”.

And here is his simple, single complaint: this team is bad and they don’t seem to be getting better.

Here’s the organization’s response:

“We made the critical decision halfway through [2009] that we didn’t think the club [in 2010] was certain enough to contend […]. So what we’re doing is dealing with the reality of cycles. You try to govern against going into a long-term downside.  If you aggressively manage your cycles, you hope the talent you get back in those trades will get you back into contention much faster.  I know it hurts for the fans.  It’s not that I don’t go through moments where I’m not disappointed too. But I look at it from a business reality, with total focus on how do we get back as fast as humanly possible?”

I guess it’s an honest answer.  But it doesn’t make anyone feel any better.  The nuts already have their marching orders and the base isn’t even thrown a bone: when will the team win? All they get is business realities and aggressive management and long-term downside.  It sounds like a CFO convention, not a baseball team.

And even more, the organization won’t be straightforward with the base.  Rather than saying that, under the given circumstances, the Indians will only have a chance for three or four seasons out of every decade, they get the run-around.  They get “cycle-management”.  They get “back to contention A-SAP”.  They get the sort of speech that you’d expect from a customer service rep at Best Buy, and nobody likes those people very much.

So even if the answer is honest, it feels otherwise.

So I wonder, from the nuts and the base alike, what would you think if Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti were straightforward?  What if they told us that 60% to 70% of the time, their teams won’t have a chance to contend?  That in every decade, we’ll have a three- or four-year period wherein championships are possible (though, of course, not guaranteed), while the other years will be about development?  What if they said they wish it were otherwise, but without a salary cap, it’s the best that can be done, and they’re the best guys to do it?*

*This is an aside, and therefore not worth giving too much thought to, but isn’t this true in every sport, for almost every team?  It seems like you have three or four years out of a decade while you’re good, and the rest of the time you’re not.  There are exceptions, of course—the Yankees, and the Browns, and the Lakers, and the Washington Generals—but for the most part, you get your three or four years out of every ten, right?

I know it’s not a panacea.  It wouldn’t solve everything.  Maybe it wouldn’t even solve anything.  But even I, an admitted nut, am getting tired of the way the Indians organization communicates to its base.  Talk of “contention cycles” and “aggressive management” and “marginal gains” are not what a passionate group of fans wants to hear.  It’s group-speak.  It’s euphemizing.  It’s politically-correct nonsense, designed to inform no one and pacify everyone.

Speaking of politically-correct nonsense, election season is finally over!  In that vein, I’ll leave you with a passage from George Orwell who must have been told about contention cycles a bit too often.  In 1946, he wrote the following:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called “pacification“. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers“. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called “elimination of unreliable elements”. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Now, far be it from me to compare the atrocities that George wrote about to losing some silly baseball games or trading my favorite Venezuelan catcher (though it did feel like getting shot in the neck…).  But if anyone could come up with the phrase “elimination of unreliable elements” and “pacification of the masses”, it’s Mark Shapiro & Co, right?

Thanks for bearing with me through this weird series.  Even if it made no sense to you, it helped me reevaluate my fandom—a very important November task for all baseball fans.

  • Jack

    No, I am not in the tribe.

  • mgbode

    Jon, as a great example of the opposite style commuunication than what the Indians are doing with their base:

    Did you see SD’s GM go to their fanbase about Gonzo contract negotiations? He came out and said that he didn’t even bother to give him a contract offer because he knows that anything SD can afford will not be nearly enough for what he wants so he doesn’t want to insult him by offering it (like the Thome half-price discount offer we gave back in the day).

    Then, he continued on going that he hopes that Gonzo is on the team throughout next season because it means the Padres are in contention. And, that if for some reason they are not, he will make one heck of a July prize for a contending team.

    Such honesty and clarity. Now, let’s see if the SD fanbase reacts any better to it (good testcase as I don’t know if it will or not).

  • mgbode

    this link has most of it, but is missing my favorite quote from Hoyer about him being a heck of a July prize:

    http://mlb.fanhouse.com/2010/11/04/adrian-gonzalez-wont-get-long-term-deal-with-padres-gm-says/

  • NJ

    But how can they communicate it? What should they say?

    Can they really say, “We know we can’t win and, since we won’t/can’t/aren’t going to spend more money, we’re writing off ’09, ’10, and ’11. During that time, we’ll put a below-average product on the field and cross our fingers that our prospects develop so we can compete in ’12. But please, continue to support the team.”

  • Jamie

    I always wondered why I still enjoy Indians games and shelling out the $180 for the MLB package(displaced Clevelander)every year even though they never win. Turns out, I must be a nut. Great article!

  • Tommy

    Jon,

    You’ve done a really great job of outlining the situation the Tribe fanbase finds themselves in currently, and the problems the FO has communicating with us as fans. It really was very helpful to see this portrayed accurately in words.

    So, to expand on this further:

    You’ve done a great job assessing the challenges/issues, so what are you recommendations for the FO? Outside of your comments about being brutally honest about the realities of the sport’s structure, I couldn’t really tell what you think would work best.

    I’ve thought about this a lot before too. I want the Indians to win games and championships, and I believe that attendance is a factor in the formula to win a championship, therefore it is important and must be addressed. Winning is obviously also a factor in the formula for higher attendance. But let’s ignore the obvious argument there for a second (which comes first, winning or attendance), and take a look at some of the factors of attendance.

    Attendance = Winning games…false

    Attendance = Winning games + Star Players + Disposable Income of Fans + Availability of Substitutes for Entertainment + Price of Tickets/concessions + Promotions/Giveaways + Fan expectation/excitement

    This is definitely not a perfect model and I’m sure I’ve left stuff out… but the point is that a lot of the things that affect attendance are out of the Indians control. They cannot change the economic situation in Cle. nor can they affect the popularity (or existence) of the Cavs, Browns, or other entertainment substitutes. For a second, let’s accept the fact they are doing everything in their power to win games/championships as consistently as possible. We know they have explored a million different promotions, and have played with the prices a little. But I believe they have failed to either recognize or act on the other areas that they CAN help control – fan expectation/excitement, and star players.

    Certainly, they are limited in the star players category. It is almost a certainty that we will continue to have to trade away some of our best players (fan favorites) so that they don’t leave via FA. But when they traded Lee, CC, or especially Victor, I believe they completely dropped the ball with regard to the fans. The FO weighed these decisions very well from a baseball production standpoint. It made sense to make all the deals. Victor was/is a great offensive catcher who will be paid as such, but in reality, his production isn’t all that valuable when you consider half of it will be coming from 1st base, and his defense is pretty suspect to say the least from behind the plate.

    But trading those guys rips the heart out of a fan base and will affect the bottom line greatly. The PC speak did absolutely nothing to help. So, either they didn’t recognize the PR disaster… or they didn’t care… either way I think it was a huge mistake.

    At some point, I think the FO needs to factor some of these things into some of their advanced metrics and statistical models when making personnel decisions. Maybe at some point, it would be a good decision to hang onto a guy like Victor for an extra year or two, until it became more apparent to the fan base that it was time to move on. Sure you waste a couple million maybe on an extra year of a contract, but would you make it up at the gate by avoiding the PR disasters? Sure, Jayson Nix may be a great utility guy this year and brings some nice pop off the bench, but will his 1.5 expected WAR (just made that up) really affect our record at all over 0.5 WAR that Omar might bring in the same role? And what would an aging Omar do for the fanbase/ticket sales (not to mention development of Cabrera, Donald, Kipnis or whoever else brushes shoulders with him in the clubhouse).

    Then you move onto the fan expectations/excitement area. I sometimes think the difference the “base” and the “nuts” is just knowledge. The nuts understand the system the Indians operate in a lot better, and therefore, much less frequently, incorrectly place blame on the ownership/FO.

    So if that’s the case, the answer for the FO is to just EDUCATE the fans. Of course, many of the “base” either don’t have the time or desire to be educated, but I think enough of them do… they just already think they have everything figured out. This is as I’ve gotten with my ideas though… I really am not sure the best way for the Indians FO to go about attempting something like that. Maybe another week and 1,000 word comment and I’ll figure it out. Ha

    Anyways, article very well written. I’m very curious to hear more of your thoughts on how to get the situation changed though.

  • Tommy

    @mgbode

    I see a 2 problems with the SD example. If their GM really wanted to reach both segments of his “fanbase”, he would have to 1)write it in the sky with an airplane or something, so people on the beaches would see it. And to reach the other segment of his fans 2) speak in Spanish.

    I’m mostly joking, because I would be interested to see how any “test case” on the subject turns out. But still, I couldn’t resist a joke at the expense of the “diehards in SD”.

    Although maybe I shouldn’t be cracking on other fanbases when we sit at the bottom of attendance numbers.

  • mgbode

    @Tommy – I was in SD for Dave Winfield night back in the day (think it was 2001 or 2002). Let me tell you despite a wretched 2-1 game that was horribly played by both sides (they played the Mets), I found the SD natives to be surprisingly knowledgeable when it comes to baseball.

    (note: this game was moved from 4pm to 7pm due to DW-night and I didn’t know that and showed up at 3:30pm. The parking lot was packed to the gills at old Qualcomm with tons of tailgaters. SD will show up but you gotta make it worth their while since they have some options)

  • Max

    great article Jon!

    While reading it I was reminded of George Carlin riffing on how “shell shock” became “operational exhaustion” then “battle fatigue” and finally “post-traumatic stress disorder”. I believe he would have loved your examination of the Indians sofeting their language in reference to the necessary and unsurprising, yet not necessarily popular moves they had to make.

    I think one way to “aggressively manage” our “contention windows” would be to not blow draft picks by taking “sure thing” prospects with “lower ceilings” because they are more “likely to contribute at the major league level”. The success rate in the MLB draft overall has to be extremely low (how many rounds are there? 93?). The prevailing theory in the FO seems to be to try and mitigate that risk by taking guys who are more established, and more likely to sign rather than “high celing” guys who may take longer to develop, if at all. But why not take a shot every now and again. I’d rather take a one in 25 shot at an all star than a one in ten shot at just another guy. But this is also stymied by the fact that the FO chooses to use their limited funds on “mid level” free agents, rather than drafting high ceiling guys with higher price tags. Instead of giving a projected stud draft pick a large signing bonus (ahem Lincecum cough), the Indians would rather draft someone who will come cheaper, is almost guaranteed to sign at the Indians price, and has a lower ceiling.

    Then the Indians compund this erros with mid level free agent signings such as Jason Michaels/ Jason Johnson/ David Dellicci/ Takeru Kobayashi. Obviously theres some risk in any FA signing but the track record seems to be worse here than other cities. No matter what size market you are in, if your track record sucks, it sucks. There are no two ways about it.

    Maybe we just notice more because our margin for error is so thin. I’d rather spend this money on big ticket draft picks. How much worse could the return really be? If you hit on one draft pick that you can keep control of for 7 years, isn’t that going to mean more to a franchise in the Indians position than whatever any of those mid level free agents could even possibly dream to contribute?

    That being said, I have wanted Omar back since he left. I think that his value as a role model and fan favorite was and still is grossly undervalued by the FO. I went to the first game of the Giants series 2 yrs ago just to see Omar again, so I know his presence would get me there more often.

  • NJ

    @9 – No list of Tribe errors is complete without mentioning the Hafner deal.

    For the life of me, I cannot figure out what they were thinking on that. Even ignoring his age and assuming his production would good, why spend your limited resources on a DH?

  • Tommy

    @9

    Your draft analysis is pretty accurate, but maybe a little outdated. In the last couple of years the Indians seem to have changed their draft philosophy quite a bit towards the “high ceiling” guys. Particularly this year, where they were widely congratulated on signing all 3 of their top picks despite them all being deemed “hard to sign”. The indians took advantage of 1st round talent falling to them in the later rounds due to signability concerns, and then had the willingness to go above slot and make them a part of the organization.

    Banging on the Indians for not giving $1 mil+ to a 43 round pick is weak.

  • mgbode

    @Tommy – yes. it seems some organizations the past few years at the bottom rung of the MLB payscale finally figured out that it’s better to spend $10mil on draft picks every year rather than on 2 substandard IFs (Pitt and Houston are also taking this approach)

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    Awesome stuff, Jon. I’m a bit of a hybrid of the two, in my opinion. I go to the games, shell out the $8 per beer and then try to explain to my parents why they don’t know who any of the players are that they’re watching/paying to see every season.

    It’s a tough conversation that I probably wouldn’t have to have every summer if the team did do some of the things you outlined. This year more than any, I think they need to have this discussion to the season ticket holders; especially those that are on the fence about renewing.

  • OmegaKing

    What difference does it make if the FO is brutally honest or not?

    Roll a turd in sugar? It’s still a turd. No one, nuts or not, wants to eat that. Stop trying to feed me turds, and I’ll stay at the table.

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