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  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.