April 19, 2014

See, it is not just a Cleveland Problem!

tropicanainprogressThere are now less than two weeks remaining in baseball’s regular season. October is just around the corner. Other than the NL Central, the division races have all but been decided.  The move to the second Wild Card last year was met with skepticism by some and applause by others. Those who oppose it find it ridiculous that the two Wild Card teams have to play one, winner-take-all game to advance to the League Division series where they get one day of travel and start a best of five series with two games on the road. I stand on the other side of the fence. I think the one-game Wild Card places a premium on actually winning your division. Why should a team that didn’t win its own division be on par with a team that took care of its own inner-division business? Plus, with MLB still going with a five-game ALDS and home field advantage in baseball usually meaning the least in any of the four major sports in the playoffs, the Wild Card winner should have to fight more of an uphill battle.

The American League Wild Card race is as wide open as any since the advent of the original expanded format in 1994 (There were no playoffs that year due to the strike, but ’94 was the first year of the three divisions in each league). Six teams are separated by two and a half games. Two monster series between four of the teams started last night and will help shape the final two weeks.

The Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays – co-Wild Card leaders heading into last night, started a four-game series inside of Tropicana Field. The Rangers looked like a cinch to make the playoffs two weeks ago, yet they had lost six in a row, and nine of 10 to fall back to the pack. You would think that with so much at stake, the lovely folks in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area would come out in droves to support the Rays in full throat as they have a chance to take over the #1 Wild Card spot. Instead, the lack of fan support for the franchise continued to rear its ugly head as only 10,724 fans showed up to watch the Rays spanking of the Rangers.

I don’t know what the excuse can possibly be down south. Your team has been a fixture in the playoff races over the past six years with a team full of young studs, yet they can’t draw with 13 games left in the regular season with the Rangers in town. But it is an old story for this franchise and baseball in the state of Florida in general.  Tropicana Field is the worst stadium in baseball, possibly in pro sports. The Rays have executed the perfect blue print for small market success yet it hasn’t mattered to the people of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and the surrounding towns.

But again, we know about Tampa. What about Kansas City?

The Royals are having their best season in a decade. Last night, they welcomed your Cleveland Indians for what Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, a Cleveland native who cut his journalistic teeth in Kansas City, called “the most important baseball game in Kansas City in nearly a quarter-century” Both teams are fighting for their playoff lives. The Indians were a half game behind Tampa Bay and Texas, the Royals trailed by three and a half. But with a soft schedule remaining and a team in front of them coming into their home park, KC had a big shot to make their move. Their ace, James Shields, a guy the front office acquired to pitch in games of this magnitude, was taking the ball. Everything set up for a big crowd, except only 14,000 people attended. The Royals beat the Tribe 7-1 to move to within two and a half games of the Rangers.

The summer before my senior year in College at the University of Kansas, I worked as an intern for the Kansas City Fox affiliate in their sports department. My biggest job was covering the Royals at each home game. They were in the midst of another horrific season, fired manager Bob Boone and replaced him with Tony Muser. It didn’t matter, they were still the talk of the city. Kansas City is a great baseball town and deserves a team the city can be proud of.

After years and years of futility, they finally have that team. Billy Butler is a hitting machine. Alex Gordon is an All-Star. Eric Hosmer is having a breakout season with his sophomore slump behind him. Salvador Perez is one of the best young catchers in baseball and looks like Victor Martinez 2.0. Their bullpen has been tops in the AL this season behind lights out Closer Greg Holland and a bevy of hard-throwing set up men. Shields has been exactly what they have needed at the top of their rotation.

It is all there for the fine fans of Kansas City. Meaningful September baseball is finally being played. Yet 15,413 people came to Kaufmann Stadium last night? To me, that is deplorable.

So while everyone in Cleveland is wringing their hands over the attendance issues involving the Indians, it is not just our problem. Bud Selig, after years of bragging about the overall spike in MLB attendance, has been conspicuously quiet this season. He has a big issue on his hands and not just in a few markets.

Nobody is a bigger baseball fan/lover/supporter than me. It is my number one sport. I love the nuances of the game. No matter how good or bad the team is, I love spending either a summer evening or afternoon at the ballpark with my friends, my wife, my kids, whoever it may be. I especially enjoy taking my kids and teaching them about the beauty of the game, the little things. It is what my father did with me and my brother. But herein lays MLB’s problem.  I’m now 37 years old and baseball is still my father’s game. If he were alive, he’d be 71.

I hesitate to call Baseball a “dying sport,” but it is seriously ill. It is easily a distant third with today’s 18-39 demographic. There is still something to be said about the brand names of the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the St. Louis Cardinals. But that “cache” if you will, essentially stops right there.

The NFL is the undisputed king thanks to gambling and fantasy football. The NBA is a star driven league and its popularity among America’s youth dwarfs that of MLB’s. Kids can shoot hoops by themselves in their driveway if they want to. Nobody can play baseball by themselves. Gone are the days where we all meet up at the park with 15 or so other kids for a pickup baseball game. Those just don’t happen anymore. But playing one on one, two on two, or three on three Basketball is a lot easier.

MLB has shot themselves in the foot for years being behind the curve with the Internet and social media. Still to this day, the old coots running the league office refuse to allow old games or highlights to be shown on YouTube. Anything that gets posted immediately gets scrubbed off unless MLB.com has it on their site. Why? I teach my kids about the history of the game. But I am unable to find the iconic plays or games online.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to pull up highlights or games of say, the ’95 Tribe? What about Kirk Gibson’s iconic homer off of Dennis Eckersley in the ’89 World Series? Francisco Cabrera’s single scoring Sid Bream that sent the Atlanta Braves to the 1992 World Series? Unless you can unearth it on MLB.com, forget it. My three-year old knows how to use YouTube. People have short attention spans. Make it easy on us.

What about fantasy baseball? The original fantasy sport or “Rotisserie” as it was first called, was baseball. I still play fantasy baseball every year. I only have a handful of friends who join me. Yet literally 95% men that I cross paths with regularly own at least one fantasy football team. Heck, my six year old son is in a league. My 12-year old nephew is in his third year of it. I know of a bunch of All-Women fantasy football leagues as well. MLB had the jump on this franchise, but does little to nothing to embrace it the way the NFL has.

The same goes for some of the antiquated rules.  The refusal to go to expanded replay is also mind-boggling. It took MLB way too long to get on board with the absolute minimum of replay – home run calls fair or foul, or whether or not a ball hit above the yellow line at the top of the outfield fences.

MLB is losing a generation of fans by being stubborn for no apparent reason. Baseball has to find ways to recapture the 18-39 demo or else the long term ramifications could be scary.

In the meantime, the Indians will come home for a four-game series with Houston starting Thursday night. I really hope people come out to see them play, but I am not holding my breath. I know one person who will be inside of Progressive Field for at least two of the games. Me.

  • Harv 21

    school night

  • BenRM

    I wonder if there’s much fan baiting going on in these other markets?

  • WFNY_DP

    I just assume everyone in KC is out eating barbecue 24/7. That’s what I’d be doing if I lived there…

  • Jason Hurley

    This conversation is akin to master baiting.

  • Steve

    That seems to be an issue. KC topped 20k on Labor day and their last Fri and Sat home games.

    And for TD, MLB has released quite a bit of old footage.

    Here’s some:

    http://mlb.mlb.com/search/media.jsp?query=1995%20indians&c_id=mlb&start=0&hitsPerPage=12&hitsPerSite=10

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Firstly, agree wholeheartedly on the add’l wildcard. It was the first brilliant move by MLB in years: Add to the whole playoff chase aspect by adding another playoff spot, making so many more fanbases intrigued, yet ultimately favor the division winners who now get to face a team that has possibly used its ace and certainly is running off a high from that one game and possibly traveling extra.

    Second, MLB has otherwise shot itself in the foot for decades in so many ways, from games that are too long to competitive imbalance to the stuff you mentioned. Why would a kid be interested in becoming a fan, especially in a small market city? For the one in six years they actually have a chance of competing? The other sports teams move up and down faster (except the Browns, ugh) and therefore it’s consistently interesting and hopeful for a fan. In baseball? You don’t have stars to root for because they’ll leave, your team is only good once in six years, and it costs a fortune to take your family to a game. No thanks, MLB.

  • BenRM

    cha-ching!

  • Steve

    Also, I’m pretty sure the forecast for last night was ominous, as it is tonight. nj0, make sure that’s on the list.

  • nj0

    The Rays issues mostly stem from Tropicana being a hole situated in St. Petersburg which is a long drive in heavy traffic for people from Tampa.

  • nj0

    re: highlights on MLB.com… I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to that site to watch a highlight just to have the video not work. Of course, there never is a problem with the commercials that precedes these highlights…

    I also hate what NFL.com has done with their website. I’m not even sure how to find player stats now so I just go to Pro Football Reference. Bonus since it doesn’t have auto-play videos and other bells/whistles that slow down the load time on my browser.

  • nj0

    Yeah, it’s nice that winning the division means something now.

    As for your other point: MLB has continually produce a more diverse field of teams playing and winning the championship. And that’s with a smaller playoffs.

  • nj0

    The Rays attendance issues have been well documented and discussed for a long time now. They’re somewhat unique though being a much younger franchise. As for the Royals, they’ve been so bad for so much longer than us. The fact that we get lumped in with those two franchises (and Miami as well) is not a compliment about Cleveland fandom.

  • nj0

    Ominous… got it…

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Stack up wins the last 6-7 years. Basically there are about 12 teams vying for 5 spots each year (the rich spots), and 18 vying for the other 3. Yes, that seems to be diverse, but realistically only certain teams have a regular shot while the others have a tiny one.

  • nj0

    I did a statistical breakdown of this once a few years back looking at all the leagues. I don’t remember exactly what the numbers were, but they basically showed – once you factor in the number of teams making the playoffs – that MLB has produced a wider field of champions with about a comparable number of playoff teams.

    I think the NFL (for whatever reason) has done a good job promoting their league as being one where teams can turn things around quickly. People see this as a good thing even though it also means that teams can fail pretty quickly too after a good year.

    In my opinion, it’s more a matter of perception than anything. But perception becomes reality. I mean, the Browns have been terrible forever yet I bet most Cleveland fans would say that it’s easier to turn things around in the NFL than in MLB.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    It is easier in NFL than MLB, though it doesn’t translate to playoffs/championships as much for a couple reasons, the most important being that if you have a top QB and especially if he’s cheap, you are in great shape.

    I did the analysis last year of all of MLB by wins over the previous few years. Yes, your analysis is correct when you view who wins it all vs. playoff teams, but in terms of getting there it’s heavily scaled to dollars spent. Basically the more you spend the higher your chances of making the playoffs, just once you’re in it’s a crapshoot. (See Billy Beane’s commentary on that one…)

  • nj0

    It’s also worth noting that MLB has done something about this. More than just adding the second wild cards, the new CBA has some rules that seem to have limited spending on big market teams and helped small markets sign FAs (while also getting compensation for departing stars). It’s not perfect, but I think it’s better than most people realize.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Agreed, though it’s baby steps when they need an overhaul. Also, the cynic in me says they do this WC thing so small market teams can make the playoffs then get eliminated fast so they can focus on their big market teams. :)

  • SteveKnicks

    Baseball is for young children and old people. Not much else to say.

  • mgbode
  • mgbode

    i’m not sure on the CBA ramifications working out in favor of small market teams long-term. it certainly helps out the teams who finish in the bottom-10 to sign FA’s (and we were one of the lucky recipients last year). however, there is nothing stopping teams with high payrolls being one of those recipients and really using that leverage.

    Both Chicago teams, Mets, Angels, SF all have the possibility of being a bottom-10 team and taking that advantage.

    ————————————————–

    as for the rest, I agree that the higher dollar teams have a better chance at getting to the postseason with the actual winner being more random in baseball.

    as such, I think it devalues your cynic side. once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen. nothing is guaranteeing the WC slots go to small or big markets.

  • nj0

    But big market terms aren’t (and really never have) dominated like people to seem to think they have. The Yanks run was a long, long time ago. Oakland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St.Louis are all playoff bound.

    I’m also of the belief that any overhaul would destroy the league and sport. Baseball is not football for a variety of reason. I wish people would accept it for what it is rather than try to make MLB an NFL-lite.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Well, not quite. I agree once you’re in the divisional round anything can happen, but it’s the most wins that gets you there more easily, and it’s the most dollars that correlate to the most wins.

  • mgbode

    also, for the WC, Cleveland and Tampa are on even footing with Texas. KC on even footing with NYY and Baltimore. smaller market teams abound.

    not 100% sure on the overall numbers though. it would make an interesting study to take away the “names” and just order the teams #1 payroll through #30 payroll and see the odds of making the playoffs in the WC era (as teams like the Braves/Indians were near the top some years but not that often).

  • Ezzie Goldish

    That’s exactly what I’m saying I did. Basically (and I’m too lazy to re-do it) if you spent money you had about 50% odds of making the playoffs. If you didn’t, you had about 17%.

  • mgbode

    well, allright then. now, where were the lines of spending, what were the years? genuinely curious (and you probably posted here last year, but I don’t remember the details).

  • http://www.clevelandfrowns.com/ Cleveland Frowns

    Space to play baseball is another big issue. I used to play home run derby all the time with just two or three people (and stickball is another option), but we lived in the country and had a big yard to play in. It’s harder for kids to find the space for even a proper home run derby or stickball game. And yes, baseball requires a more sustained attention span than the other two major sports, for various (good) reasons, and sustained attention spans are in increasingly short supply these days, for various (bad) reasons. With all the damn homework kids have these days, too, who even has time to shoot hoops?

  • http://www.clevelandfrowns.com/ Cleveland Frowns

    Seconded on Tampa traffic, but the Trop is located within walking distance of some pretty great old neighborhoods in St. Pete.

  • Harv 21

    Well, the NFL is kinda popular and you need some space for football too. Unless we say the essence of the sport is just violence, and it takes barely any room or time or attention span to coil up and concuss somebody.

    You know what sport I see kids across the socio-economic spectrum obsessed with today? Skateboarding. And they’re giving as much attention span to that as we did tossing a ball.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    It was not on WFNY, and how do I post a table?

    So as not to mess it all up too much, here’s total Ws and $ (in millions) from 2006-2013:

    (EDIT – that does not work…)

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I know that’s not so clear, but basically we see the failures of the Sox/Cubs/Mets, vs. the success of the A’s (seriously, wow), while everyone else pretty much slots close to their spend.

  • nj0

    You really don’t need much space for football. I use to play it in the middle of the street growing up. Sure, you couldn’t tackle, but the spirit of the game was the same. Couldn’t get away with that with baseball without breaking some windows.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    The white house here was the pre-eminent homerun derby (whiffle ball) venue in a multi-block radius.

    So the big huge yard theory isn’t completely locked down.

    [If memory serves, there was an additional perk for hitting the second deck.]

  • nj0

    True, but anybody in TB who wants to go has to take the bridges which, from what I heard, are traffic nightmares. Not a good idea to separate over half your market like that.

  • nj0

    Interesting.

  • http://www.clevelandfrowns.com/ Cleveland Frowns

    Yes, traffic down there is miserable, and the whole place is so sprawly. I suppose downtown Tampa would have been better, but I wonder how much better.

  • mgbode

    that’s good data and an interesting overall point for particular teams. it also shows that there is a diminishing returns of spending where it no longer really helps you much (over that timeframe ~$120/year).

    not sure if my idea would show much different or not. it was to slot each season individually and see how many wins you tended to get from overall rank (so, if you were the #3 team in payroll, did you end up 3rd in overall wins? if not, how much higher or lower). the reason I thought of it that way was that some teams drastically increase spending as they get better (Nats) and it could help define if the spending slots accounted for the wins.

    your way works as well especially if we go back further (and somehow normalize the dollars based on spending in each year).

    either way, I like the research.

  • mgbode

    yeah, I live on a cul de sac in a development. we play whiffle ball in the circle all the time. you do need at least 6 to make things interesting, but, again, in a development it’s not usually an issue.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    oh and fun fact: the Bellisari’s lived in that house when i was there and yessir, they are/were like first cousins to Steve Bellisari the OSU QB.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    Ten years living in the Tampa/St. Pete area has made the reason(s) for the Rays attendance struggles quite obvious: it’s an expansion team of recent vintage in a place that no one is from. What I mean is this area, like much of Florida at large, is a popular destination for folks relocating from other places. I don’t think I’m breaking any news with that observation, but I also think it gets overlooked far too often in this sort of discussion (a discussion that happens regularly down here, at least in the past 5-6 years). This area of the state is an odd combination of the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada. These new arrivals came from places with long-established baseball franchises like the Yankees, Phillies, Cubs, and Red Sox. When they had kids, they understandably raised those kids as fans of these teams, even after the Devil Rays came into being. MLB saw a region with a growing population and a love of the game (the original spring training locale) and thought an expansion team made sense. And, given another 20, 30, 40+ years, maybe the Rays will have an established base of die-hardship to draw from, assuming the team lasts that long here. But for now, the common situation is that most baseball fans here adopt the Rays as their second team, while remaining loyal to their “home” teams. They may follow the local squad, especially as good as the team has been in recent years, but they aren’t invested the way they might be in the team they and their parents and grandparents root for. Add in the fact that the Trop is, well, a dump (but at least the AC works!) located in St. Pete (not the nicest part of town, and certainly a drive from Tampa proper–though that excuse is overused locally), and Rays games simply aren’t a must-attend event, even in a playoff race. There are a dedicated number of core fans, of course, and if the team lasts here those numbers should increase, but it was an uphill battle from the start for the Rays. Obviously the reason for attendance struggles here, for this team, differs from what affects Tribe attendance (where the population move was out of the city, a city struggling to find a 21st century identity), which may differ from KC’s issues. Saying that a city isn’t a baseball town or a team lacks real fans is far too simplistic. I’d love to live in downtown Cleve or any one of the many great surrounding neighborhoods and get season tickets, or even to move back to my hometown of Medina and make my way downtown for multiple games throughout the season. But the area couldn’t provide the job in my career field, so I was forced to go elsewhere. Now I do my best to get back for a game or two at the Jake, and I always head to the Trop when the Tribe is in town, but I cannot be expected to be in the bleachers every night, banging a drum. Does that mean I’m not a good fan of the team? Point is, I think we make this issue far more black and white than it really ought to be: there’s more to it than just good or bad fans.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    It’s a lazy and borderline irresponsible comparison, but that doesn’t stop the media from going back to it time and again. Unfortunately, the public at large won’t bother to examine the issue to any real depth.

  • Okolish

    TD – I had the pleasure of meeting both you and your children at a day game this summer. I am not a season ticket holder any longer, but I still pay and attend 20-30 games a year. I recently visited PNC park in Pittsburgh, PA. and I now know why the attendance in my beloved “CLE” is so embarrassing. There is no show. Sure, we have fireworks.. but between the national anthem and last pitch these other stadiums have us beat! Who is slider anyways!? Lets get a mascot that means something to the fans, someone who can get the crowd pumped! I’m sorry, but after stepping out of my comfort zone to see a Bucs game – I get it. The Tribe needs more energy at Progressive Field. The games are fun for me, an avid and lifelong fan; but for a busy professional it is just too easy to stay home and catch it on STO. Whats the difference!? Really, you miss very little sitting at home and eating/drinking your own food. Lets pump this place up! Sell more cheap seats for the casual fans, and give us a reason to go. Fill the stands for a few games, feel the energy, and then see what happens. Make it a “hotspot” once again, and people will go.. trust me.

  • KWorld

    Stickball has been alive for well over a century in most major cities in the USA and the spirit of the game is the same as baseball. As a kid, we always found a place to play some form of baseball from sun up until sun down! I haven’t seen a ballfield even half full of kids playing a pickup game of baseball in over 25 years. The only youth baseball you see today is organized and supervised by adults for adult entertainment purposes! Very unfortunate!

  • Harv 21

    yeah, Kanick, this baseball minimal-space theory is for young-uns who played primarily in adult-organized settings. I periodically visit my youth’s “baseball diamonds” and remember which obstacles served as bases. The neighborhood kids were forced to master how to replace a window pane by my friend’s father. We broke his windows all the time because he had the temerity to buy a house that served both as our back stop and end zone. And if it was summer and there were only 3 of us, we played against a brick wall with a spray painted strike zone and ground rules, or even a game called running bases. Until the 1970s baseball was played in congested urban settings everywhere. That’s where many stars came from. Baseball is less popular because it’s less popular, not because there’s less space.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Maybe the Royals can move to Brooklyn instead! ;-)

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    OH YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEA!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    PNC Park is my favorite.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    They could build a baseball stadium right next to Ray J and it’s still only going to exceed 20,000 when the Yanks, Sox, or Cubs come to town.