The Cleveland Indians’ failed deal to acquire Jonathan Lucroy is the latest in a long history of the world of sport just not breaking right for a Cleveland team. The city has had some blessings, sure, whether it was the glut of talent the mid-90’s saw at Jacob’s Field, a team that every year gets better and better as the mists of time grow denser, or the more obvious LeBron James coming to the Cavs, and then coming back.
But there’s always been a problem the Indians, in particular, seem to have -- they just can’t seem to get that final piece of the puzzle, whether through trade or free agency. For one reason or another, players find a way to not end up playing for the Indians. After a while, you start to wonder if there’s something wrong with the team that people on the outside just can’t seem to understand.
The lack of luck in free agency is pretty easy to figure out -- the Indians just don't have the money bomb ability to whitewash over a player's misgivings. Instead, they have to be creative with the resources they do have and focus more on growing the farm. Even so, when they’ve had a shot to go and pick up a big name, they are more often used as a piece in the negotiation rather than being frontrunners for anything.
Carlos Beltran actually told the Indians twice in one year he didn’t want to come to Cleveland back in 2011, so it’s a little funny to see them pursue him again. It’s becoming almost pathological for them. Even when they are able to pick up a big name, they’re more name than talent. It took Michael Bourn grossly overvaluing himself on the open market and eating crow before the Tribe got him. The Nick Swisher wooing, while successful, was something you’d more likely see when the richer teams are caught in a bidding war for superstars. It took a bad agent, luck and more effort than was warranted, and even with that they were some of the more disastrous deals in organization history For a team run as well as they are, it’s confusing why it’s so hard. Maybe they're just too modest, and players on the outside just don't know.
Now Lucroy’s refusal to waive his no-trade clause only throws the Tribe’s issues in sharper relief. Almost without fail, it seems the Indians are a fixture on every no-trade clause any player signs, along with the San Diego Padres, Minnesota Twins and, what, the Miami Marlins?
If you live in the 21st century, it makes no sense. Perhaps in 1975, when the river was setting on fire and the entire Great Lakes region was choked with pollution from the massive factories cranking out America’s industrial might, it made sense to not want to go to Cleveland. But not now. As we approach a global monoculture and, as long as you aren’t living in Nunavut, the world is at anyone’s fingertips, any reason to say no to Cleveland is just ill-informed. While it certainly isn’t the mecca of culture and beautiful people like New York or Los Angeles, for a professional athlete those problems cease to matter very quickly. There's a reason Kevin Durant actually had a hard choice in deciding whether or not to move from Oklahoma to the Bay Area, and Golden State only won because he wanted an easier job.
There’s no need to be near the bright lights anymore because the bright lights can be everywhere at the press of a button. Stepping into professional athlete tax bracket frees you from the bonds that normal life places on the majority of people. So even if Cleveland lacks something they can just go somewhere else on a whim t get it, and still play for a contending team. Since baseball players rarely even live in the city they play in in the offseason and travel for half the summer, any bad jokes about "Why would Lucroy want to go to Cleveland?" swiftly lose any semblance of humor they might have had before it was repeated 10,000 times. Joakim Noah might have had a point that nobody wants to vacation in Cleveland, but it’s sure a great place to spend a few summers playing baseball. And Ceder Point is just down the road.
Lucroy also wanted to have the Indians tear up the club option for next year, allowing him to become a free agent, which is foolish on its face. As FanGraphs’ August Fagerstrom pointed out, no matter what happens, Lucroy isn’t going to be on the market after this year. Either the Milwaukee Brewers will trade him to someone who isn’t on his nix list, and they would have no reason to just let him go free after three months, or the Brewers pick up the option and trade him next year. Maybe he just thought the Tribe front office was stupid. Which means he didn't do his homework because that is a brilliant brain trust to squeeze what they do out of so little. This lack of foresight makes it all seem even more knee-jerk.
What is it about Cleveland then? It can’t be pressure, the Indians are in first but are certainly not front-runners to win the championship. If anything it’s almost better to not be a favorite o win the title -- the baseball gods are fickle in October. The Tribe has a hard time getting mentioned in the national press anyway -- it takes incredible winning streaks, and even then LeBron James gets tied in somehow anyway.
Lucroy, and any player in the past that was supposed to be that final boost to autumn dominance, would get any attention they wanted just being on a first-place team, and again, the entire world is On-Demand at this point so it’s not as though you need to be in the media frenzy of New York to become a superstar. I’m not about to write a vacation guide to Cleveland, but it’s plainly a place that can truly embrace a winner, as we’ve seen Indians in the past and more recently with the Cavaliers. Or in the Browns case, they can embrace a loser just as well.
It feels like momentum at this point. Just an old bad reputation, like nobody knows the town drunk has been sober for a decade. Like Lucroy saw how others in the past have acted and didn’t bother to check that the team he had a chance to join has the best run differential in the AL and the best record in the league to go with it, and he would be able to hit every day even when it’s a rest day from catching for him. I know players want to play, but a half day once a week where you still get to do the most fun part of baseball has to be a blessing. Plus it extends careers and gives him a chance to learn a new league before he’s too old to make adjustments. I'm sure Lucroy has a grasp of where the Tribe stands, but it's as though he expects them to fail because until the Cavs that's what Cleveland did, like joining a dominant team and becoming a key piece for them would inevitably end in heartbreak.
And yet, he wants to join the Rangers. Did he not see how canonized the '04 Red Sox became? That is what would happen in Cleveland. If the Cavs could pull 1.4 million, I bet the Tribe could top two million at their parade.
I simply cannot wrap my head around not wanting to join the Tribe, especially right now. Unless that report that they couldn’t guarantee his being the starting catcher next year was true, he just decided to cut his own nose off to spite his face. If the Indians did say that, they may in fact be stupid because he’s one of the best at his job in the world. But years of savvy team management allows me to give the front office the benefit of the doubt.
There's a stigma to Cleveland, and at least when it comes to its baseball team that stigma is unfounded, harmful to the success of all involved and, as we are seeing now, leads to people making poor decisions. But moving does suck, so does starting a new job and having to make new friends and whatnot at that job, these creature comforts are things we don’t really consider for professional athletes. It just seems a poor tipping point if you really do want to play for a contender. If it actually takes a World Series run to convince players to want to play at Progressive Field 81 times a year, so be it. This is an injustice I'm sure any Indian fan would suffer. But this refrain of disdain laid upon the Cleveland Indians is absurd, and it's making great players waste away on fourth place teams.