It is a topic that won’t go away. The Indians are currently in first place in the standings and last in attendance. What gives? Can Cleveland support three teams anymore? All these topics and then some have been top of mind ever since the NFL draft stopped flooding local talk radio phone banks and web servers alike. I haven’t really weighed in on it yet because frankly I find it wholly depressing all the way around. I am a bit embarrassed by it as a fan. I am indignant as well because I don’t think fans should be judged harshly on justifiable actions. Somewhere between these two competing emotions I find the whole topic of conversation completely exhausting, but I have the answer. The Dolans don’t need to spend more money. They need to at least look like they’re fighting the system that leaves them without the ability to spend just as much.
This time of year teams like Baltimore and Cleveland can occasionally thrive. Sometimes a team will maintain this level of quality all the way until the playoffs, but more often than not the quality provided by deeper pocketed ownership usually rises to the top over 162 games. That’s where being a baseball fan is so irrational. It is fun to laugh and point at big markets when they struggle, and then flip the switch to complaining about inequities when a high percentage of those big spenders qualify for the playoffs. It is predictable and I long for the year where I not only recognize that, but break the cycle. Yet, here I am.
The Dolans are only half to blame for the lackluster attendance at Indians games. When fans blame the Dolans for trading away C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and even Victor Martinez, it isn’t because they have no concept for market dynamics. I was on board with the C.C. Sabathia deal when the Indians did it. I talked myself into it because I knew the market realities and I was in favor of anything other than seeing another Manny Ramirez caliber player teasing the fans on the way out of town to make top dollar.
Over time I turned on moves like that, though. It wasn’t because Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta haven’t lived up to expectations. That’s the nature of making trades. Just because a trade doesn’t work out on the back end doesn’t mean it was a bad idea. If you were in favor of it at the start, you shouldn’t turn on it later because the risks didn’t pay off. What happened here is a confluence of things. The Indians traded away two Cy Young award winners and the heart and soul of the team, Victor Martinez, while simultaneously partaking in the only major American sport not to fight a labor battle against the players.
If Dan Gilbert owned the Cleveland Indians, he could have made all the same moves as the Dolans and had bigger results at the box office and in the stands. I don’t think Cleveland fans are delusional enough to think that just because Dan Gilbert can afford to do it that he should pay a Prince Fielder if he owned the team. The difference is that you could expect Dan Gilbert to fight the good fight to try and fix the sport. Gilbert was the one who wrote an email to the NBA over the Chris Paul trade. I’m projecting here a bit, but even if Dan Gilbert decided that deficit spending was unjustifiable in baseball, you’d have to think he would fight tooth and nail against the system.
This is actually probably why Dan Gilbert would never be allowed to purchase a Major League Baseball team, but that’s another topic of conversation. Notice that Mark Cuban hasn’t been successful in any of his various flirtations with baseball teams either? Mavericks need not apply. (Pun intended.)
That’s what makes the attendance conversation so difficult in Cleveland. It isn’t just that the Dolans traded away all the best players the team had over the last few years. A lot of us have been able to see through the pain and tears of seeing Victor Martinez go that it was better for the team considering the market and the league. Without the attempts to change the game, though, the Dolans miss out on a massive opportunity in the market they have available to them. It isn’t just about wins. It isn’t just about selling the game day experience. The Dolans are doing a decent job in those departments all things considered.
It’s the “all things considered” portion where they aren’t leading the information campaign against the league of which they are a member. People love Dan Gilbert’s Cavaliers even as they distrust David Stern and the large majority of NBA stars. Dan Gilbert bites the hand that feeds him and tells them that the food needs to get better. The Dolans are seemingly good little boys that take what’s given and do the best they can to spruce it up for the fans. It’s O.K. to serve Cleveland Indians baseball and expect people to show up, but don’t try to tell me that the playing field is fair.
The Indians need to stop mentioning the size of the Cleveland market and market dynamics so much and get a little indignant at the league that allows such payroll disparities. At least send out a letter saying that the state of the labor deal stinks and needs to move toward a salary cap. At least this would create an “us against the world” mentality instead of fans so closely associating the Dolans with all the ills of Major League Baseball as a whole. It’s so strange for a team that has been so good at sales and fan experience that they missed the boat on this part of the sales job. It’s like when Howard Stern spends months on end railing against his bosses and company that pays him. Even when he’s wrong his fans think he’s right. It becomes a rallying cry. It might just put more fans in the seats too.