One of my favorite pieces I’ve written for this site was a two-part essay about the Indians’ seeming inability to connect with their fanbase, and what I thought they should be doing about it. I wrote this back in the off-season following the smoldering failure of the 2010 season—a year in which our entire team combined to account for one more win above replacement (11.2) than Mike Trout did in five months last season (10.0).
I think the reason I liked the piece so much is that I was finally able to put into words my biggest criticism with the front office—a bunch, it should be noted, with whom I typically agree. What I came up with was that while I agreed with the front office’s decision to initiate a rebuild in 2008 and I felt necessarily bad for the amount of flak they were going to have to endure for that decision (due to financial constraints beyond their ability to control), their incessant need to explain it all over and over again in painful detail and repetition became, at least to me, a problem for them from a PR standpoint. I concluded that they needed to stop selling the rebuild altogether. People like me—baseball nuts who will give them my entertainment dollars regardless of the situation—didn’t really need the convincing; we were down with it and we would be going to games anyway. And the more casual fan—the ones who pine for the stars and excitement of the 1990s and who find it hard to engage with a team that consistently struggles to reach .500—well they weren’t going to care about Shapiro’s sob story about financial inequities, no matter how eloquently he phrased it. They had to deal with reality as it was, and move forward as honestly as they were able, without beating a dead horse.
In the end, I asked the front office to come up with a new way to communicate to the common fans. Here was how I put it back then:
[...] 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 when 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? [emphasis added]
Well, I think we got the answer to that, didn’t we?
Last week, in an interview with Les Levine that has since gone viral, Shapiro said the following, in response to a question posed to him about why a particular fan should renew his season tickets, given the team’s ostensible inability to compete:
If you base your decision to come to the game on whether we win or lose, don’t come. You’re missing out. You’re missing out on what baseball is all about, and I’m fine with that.
So, he’s gonna try that honesty thing out full-bore, huh? I should have made it clear in those earlier pieces—perhaps in a footnote—that I….uh….I don’t work in PR. So…there’s that. Sorry Mark.
Look. I probably wouldn’t have worded it that way. But what he said ain’t exactly wrong, either. Baseball is a sport where even the best teams lose 60 games each season. If going to the ball game were all about seeing a win and tearing your hair out when they lose, NO ONE IN HER RIGHT MIND WOULD BUY SEASON TICKETS. It’s a guaranteed way to want to die, at least 60 times per year.
Shapiro’s point, and again, it’s one I largely agree with, is that we don’t go to baseball games strictly to see wins and lament losses. We go because going to ballpark is fun. And because baseball is awesome. And because of green grass and huge flags and cold beers and hot prospects and scorecards and mascots and a thousand other things that are fun about baseball. We hope they win. We wish the system was different. We believe, like almost every team except for a few, that if everything goes just right, we’ll have a chance to win our division.
So I actually don’t think what Shapiro said was so bad. I think he’d be wise, given his position, not to tell anyone to stay away from the ballpark, but the gist of his comment is fine. Baseball is more than wins and losses. I think Dan Gilbert says the same thing to his fan base. I think Jimmy Haslem will tell you the same thing about the Browns. Buy our tickets. We’re working on building a winner, but in the meantime, come. It’ll be fun.
I think if we’re all honest about this, the bigger issue here isn’t what was said, but who said it. There is an understandable and overflowing sense of frustration with Mark Shapiro in this town. He has now torn down two lovable teams and is well on his way to tearing down a decidedly less lovable one this winter. Cities don’t take kindly to watching their heroes shipped out of town—no matter the reasoning for it.
But even more than that, there is a sense that Shapiro—while smart enough and savvy enough to be fine baseball executive—doesn’t deserve another chance to rebuild this team. That’s just not how professional sports work: if you’re lucky, you get to guide a team through one rebuild (though as someone like Eric Mangini can attest, only if you’re lucky). You almost never get to do it more than once, and certainly not if one of your rebuilds looks as much like a failure as this current Indians one does.
It’s why, even though I can’t really think of who I’d want to run this team instead of Shapiro and Antonetti, that I still thought that after last season’s debacle it was time to move on from their stewardship. Not because they aren’t capable, but because they no longer offer a credible voice to most fans. No matter what they do (short of getting the Dolans to invest a loss in the franchise the way Illitch does in Detroit) they’ll be seen as trying to con fans into seeing a team that doesn’t deserve to be watched. No matter that most teams don’t compete for championships every year. No matter that baseball is inherently unfair economically. No matter that they proved themselves capable and competent more often than not. There is a sense among the fanbase that these guys have had their shot, and that they hoodwinked the city.
And because I didn’t see how the current front office could maintain a credible voice going forward, I was a bit shocked when the team seemed to double down on them this off-season. Terry Francona was brought aboard, with an out-clause in his contract tied to Shapiro and Antonetti’s continued employment. If they’re lucky, they’ll have to defend trading Chris Perez, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera to a city that will be wielding flaming pitchforks like you’ve never seen. And that’s if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky, they are unable to get sufficient value for those guys and they end up with no influx of talent as their two best players and charismatic closer walk in free agency over the next two years.
Were any of that to happen under new leadership, I don’t think most of us would bat an eye. After all, new leaders are typically given a grace period to reshape rosters and philosophies, to draft new talent and take their best hacks. But the fact that the same faces are going to be giving the same tired explanations that we’ve been hearing for 15 years now? That our organizational strategy is built around hoping to screw someone on a trade, get lucky in the draft, and compete for a few years on borrowed time?
I should be clear: that strategy outlined above is the right one to take. It’s the way that small market teams have to compete, and I think Shapiro is probably better at it than most. But listening to him stumble over himself trying to be honest about it is not helping anyone. He comes off as out-of-touch and insensitive. He comes off as antagonistic towards his fan base. He comes off as a prick, even when what he’s saying is mostly true.
So I’m pretty sure that this time around I have no more advice to offer the front office on their communication strategies. It’s pretty clear that, healthy or not, this has become about the messenger. People are mad at Shapiro and his front office. They don’t trust him. They find his continued employment objectionable—a sinecure for his willingness to walk the Dolan Company Line. He can bring them a World Series winning manager on a platter—a hire that only Shapiro could’ve made and one with whom no one could possibly take issue—and we’ll find a way to be pissed off about it. He can tell us a truth so obvious and mundane that it’s painful to deconstruct, but we’ll start flamewars over it.
He can look us in the eye and tell us that going to baseball games is fun. And we’ll disagree with him.
That’s a problem. And one I won’t pretend to be able to fix.