Last night’s debacle, the Indians 10th straight loss, has me seeing things differently. In fact, this moment of clarity came over my weekend trip to Detroit.
On Saturday night, I made the trek down to Comerica Park with my family. Upon arrival, it was a sea of Old English D caps, Tigers shirts and jerseys. The sell out crowd was nothing new in Detroit. They fill the park the majority of their games. In fact, the Tigers rank ninth out of 30 Major League franchises in attendance, with an average of over 37,400 fans. Not coincidentally, the Tigers have MLB’s fifth largest payroll at over $132 million.
Then I thought to myself, the city of Detroit is generally viewed as one of the most depressed big cities in America. Job loss is at an all time high. There are vacant buildings all over the downtown area. Businesses close. Downtown Detroit is far from vibrant. Remember the old Mike Polk Jr ” Hastily Made Cleveland Tourist Video from 2009? The tag line at the end was “We’re Not Detroit.”
That’s right, we’re not Detroit. Detroit has a deep pockets billionaire owner who uses the franchise as his toy. Mike Illitch, he of the Little Caesars Pizza empire, has unlimited funds. And he spends. And spends. And spends. Illitch wants another World Series title badly before he dies and it is clear he will stop at nothing to make sure that he gets one.
He is doing this in a dying, mid-market city and making it work. The Tigers again are near the top of the AL Central and right there for a Wild Card spot again.
So as I sat and watched a team with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera dominate the Tribe, all I could think about was the one thing that separates these two mid-western downtrodden baseball cities – ownership.
Over the last six, seven, eight years, the whispers of the Dolan ownership group’s “cheapness” became chatter. The chatter became yells, the yells became screams. All along the way, I have defended Larry and his son Paul. To me, it was their right to run the franchise the way they wanted to; their philosophy was to build a strong farm system, raise their own young talent, watch them grow into major league players, and “spend when the time is right.”
SIDE NOTE – that quote above is one that will go down in Cleveland Sports infamy with Art Modell’s “I had no choice,” and Bill Belichick’s “diminishing skills” explanation after he cut Bernie Kosar.
In 2005, they caught lightning in a bottle with a young core of players and won 93 games before collapsing the last week of the season. At the time, the 93 wins were the most for any American League in the Wild Card era to not make the playoffs. Two years later, that same core group, led by Grady Sizemore, CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez, and Jhonny Peralta, won the AL Central and were one game away from the World Series before they choked on a 3-1 ALCS lead.
Since then, the Indians have yet to finish over .500.
Again, throughout this time, I defended the Dolan philosophy. Every three to four years, a window of contention would open when their young core players would come into their own. They just had to take advantage of it, as they did in 2007. But the nostalgia quickly wore off for the casual fan, starting in 2008 when the first of many fire sale trades were made to restock the farm system. Their top trading chips Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez were shipped out for a bevy of prospects that were supposed to make up the next core group that would have the Indians contending again by 2012.
But as we have seen, the margin of error with the Dolan ownership is almost nil. Notice a change in that last sentence. I used to be a guy who would say “the margin of error in this market….” But no more. Detroit is the exact same kind of market as Cleveland. The cities share similar economic challenges. They are both proud, tough, blue collar towns that have become national punchlines at times and are viewed as key battleground areas politically.
The Dolan Family has every right to run this team they way they do. They paid (or should I say completely OVERPAID) for the right to do so. But with that said, in 2012, their model isn’t working. The Indians have become a farm team for the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Rangers, the Angels, the Dodgers, etc etc. They watch as their young players like Sabathia, Lee, and Martinez rise to stardom and then are traded as they approach free agency.
The latest player that will go down this road is Shin-Soo Choo. Everyone knows that Choo, a free agent after the 2013, will either be traded this winter or next season, or walk out the door to a big market team. Whatever he can command on the open market, the Dolan ownership would never even consider matching.
Then you had last season’s “window of contention” allegedly fly wide open. GM Chris Antonetti said the plan be dammed, he was going to go for it, and added Ubaldo Jimenez for their top two pitching prospects. This move screamed for the Indians to add payroll and charge full steam ahead in 2012. Instead, they failed to follow up that “all in” move with additional acquisitions that would bolster the team. The front office, knowing their hands are tied fiscally, refused to add a third year to a deal for LF Josh Willingham and watched him walk to the Twins for $21 million over three years, a deal that screams “club friendly,” unless you are under the Dolan umbrella.
Look, signing Willingham was not going to change anything with the way the majority of the pitching staff has performed this season. But the move just illustrates a disturbing pattern. Even when the Indians were in or near first place, they had a hard time drawing fans. While the Tigers and their $130 million payroll are fifth in the majors in attendance with an average of over 34,000 fans, the Indians are dead last at just over 20,000. That number is only going to go down with this recent 10-game losing skid.
It is not the product on the field that is responsible for keeping people away from Progressive Field. Talk to people around town. Listen to talk radio. Scroll through Twitter. The Dolan family ownership is despised in this town. Watching Randy Lerner sell the Browns to billionaire Jimmy Haslam certainly isn’t doing them any favors either. Even the most ardent Dolan supporters like I was for so long, have turned to the dark side. The market size can’t be used as a crutch. The Detroit model has debunked that theory. You get a deep pockets billionaire owner, pair him with a smart, shrewd veteran baseball man to run the team, and watch as your team competes for the playoffs from year to year.
Larry and Paul Dolan are nice people. But they are in completely over their heads owning a baseball team.
Check this tweet from the Detroit News Tiger beat writer Lynn Henning upon hearing the news yesterday that Antonetti told the media that Manny Acta’s job for 2013 was safe (and rightfully so may I add):
Larry Dolan presides over an owner-dictated gutting of a once-strong Indians team, and we’re talking about Manny Acta’s job? Insanity …
— Lynn G. Henning (@Lynn_Henning) August 7, 2012
Lynn is right. Even from the outside, the Dolan’s have a negative image.
The problem they face is that the Indians are their business, not their play thing. They are in this to make money first and win championships second, no matter what is said publicly. Again, they have every right not to deficit spend, but any sort of goodwill they had in this town is long gone. They have alienated this fan base to the point that they are dead last in attendance and the core of diehard Indians fans is shrinking by the year.
I am an Indians season ticket holder that organizes my group. Over the last two years, I have had to beg a couple of people to stay on and a few others to add more games just so I wouldn’t have to give up my seats. One of those people emailed me yesterday morning and said “Does anyone want my seats for Sunday, I’m done with them. Go Browns!” I know this winter I will for sure be losing people and will have to search high and low just to be able to keep my seats, which have been in my family for decades. My father, who would have turned 70 today, is probably spinning in his grave.
I’ve said this many times, I bleed Wahoo Red, White, and Blue. I grew up loving the Indians and going to games with my father and brother in the 80’s when nobody was there. I am old enough to remember the bad old days. Well, those days are coming back, if they aren’t here already. It is a direct reflection on the ownership. I’ve been slow to come around, but I am finally here.
It is time for the Dolan family to find themselves a Dan Gilbert or a Jimmy Haslam and get out.
Larry Dolan paid $323 million for the Indians in 2000. According Forbes Magazine’s MLB Valuations List published in March, the Indians were valued at $410 million. If the Dolan’s are so concerned with making a profit, here is their chance. Get Mark Cuban on the horn. Call Dan Gilbert and check his interest. The clock has struck midnight on this ownership group.
It is time to do right by the city they love so much. Sell the team to a billionaire.