If there’s one thing Paul Dolan knows how to do, it’s getting the fans to pay attention. He just does it in very ... strange ways.
You’d think that the owner of a team would try to keep the people who buy his tickets and support his big shiny toy happy, or at least at least try to keep a low profile and not antagonize anyone, but that’s not the Dolan Way evidently.
Last year we got the wonderful line of telling us to enjoy Francisco Lindor while he was in Cleveland, during probably the dumbest press conference in sports ownership history. That was bad enough going into a season where it felt like the window was already closing. Now, in a winter rife with rumors of Lindor departing via trade to some actual contender or other, it comes down that the Indians might actually cut payroll again. Which is great news, exactly what you want to hear if you’re a big fan of frugality and salary management. Truly, this is the Indians ownership demonstrating a masterclass in tempering expectations.
Besides basic greed, what could be the motivation behind this constant need to make Tribe fans feel worse about the chances of their team, this active drive to push attention away? Especially now, when once again the Browns are floundering in their own Browns-y way and the Cavs are in the depths of a rebuild and actively shopping the good and recognizable veterans still on the team?
For the second time in less than a decade the Indians have a chance, a platform to actually gather the fanbase of a city together like they haven’t since the ‘90s and actually put butts in seats. They aren’t about to be waylayed again by the return of LeBron, and the Browns continue to be owned by a fraudster and cycle through fry cooks or egomanicacs at head coach. This is a real time to re-make Cleveland as a baseball city again, or at least expand the niche they’ve fallen into in the Northern Ohio sports landscape. If greed (or the less onerous sounding “making more money on a business”, if you’d prefer) really is the motivation, don’t they want more customers? For decades we’ve seen corporations cut costs in an effort to improve the bottom line. Ultimately that leads to a worse product, a worse company, and eventually a shuttered door.
You wouldn’t think the Dolans want to do to the Indians what Radio Shack did to itself, but here we are.
You have to wonder about the thought process in the Indians front office from day to day. They’re certainly savvy, smart people, putting together a relatively dominant team the last few years through trade and development and spending just a smidgen of money, mostly on Edwin Encarnacion. Put yourself in Chris Antonetti’s shoes though. He’s done this amazing thing, and has been part of what’s considered a premiere organization for much of his career. While Billy Beane or Andrew Friedman pre-Dodgers have gotten more media love, Antonetti, and Mark Shapiro before him, have been just as good at squeezing blood out of stones in search of wins. Yet you haven’t heard even a peep over a more well-heeled team in need of a new direction and smart leadership coming and knocking on the Indians door with a Godfather offer. Why is that? Is there something we’re missing?
Antonetti has to deal with a mostly artificial limitation of a multimillionaire not wanting to spend money to keep great players they develop or get other ones to bolster a strong core. It almost feels like sadism, like he enjoys this Sisyphean challenge and doesn’t want something silly like a bottomless pocketbook to make his life easier. It’s noble, in an insane kind of way. Cleveland is blessed to have him. That said, he should really burn some of the good will he’s surely earned by saving the Dolans a ton of money in demanding they expand the payroll, not acquiesce shrink the damn thing and let the best shot in a generation fall to dust.
Teams always have some brand or organizational philosophy, a set of guiding principles that they can lean on. Some stick to them better than others, whether the Astros and their naked push for success no matter the cost, the Yankees and their businesslike approach to everything and the Pinstripes before all, or whatever the Cardinal Way is. The more you think about it, it almost feels like the Indians engineer themselves into an underdog position even more so than they already are.
Like, I liked the Bauer deal. Yasiel Puig was a lot of fun to watch, even if his actual offensive output was below average. And Franmil Reyes can hit a ball through a brick wall. He just hasn’t really ever been much more than a potential-ridden question-mark so far, and like Puig was a smidge below average as a hitter once he came to Cleveland. You could handwave that away by saying he was adjusting to a new league and environment — I even wrote that at one point — but the results are what matter. We hope for him to flourish next year, but we have to wait and see. For that, the Indians gave up a guy a year removed from a Cy Young caliber campaign, and while Bauer wasn’t quite there this year, he was still a solid piece whose absence had to be filled by untested rookies without nearly the talent of Bauer.
All this for hope, for the idea that this extra control over a 24-year-old slugger will turn into the excellent player that Bauer already proved to be. The chance that Reyes turns into David Ortiz 2.0 in the next couple years is enticing, but not assured, and even if it does happen they’ll probably trade him off before his control is finished anyway. This is the process of consistent contention. It just feels a little tiresome after a while. Especially when a proven talent was the price.
Hope is a powerful thing. It drives a lot of people even when all else is gone. It’s why the NFL Draft gets better ratings than the World Series or NBA Finals. The Indians, and seemingly most teams these days, have tapped into this in some perverse way as a method to sell the future rather than the now. That’s how the Astros got through the lean years, pushing what could be, and now they’re on top. The Indians are a step below that peak — with no shot to make the leap up without a blockbusting move — but they never really approached the depths the Astros delved either. Hope is still their best tool for pushing the team though.
They traded on hope when they dumped Sabathia and Lee and whoever else and ultimately put together the core we have today, and used prospects like Lindor as a tool to drive that hope a few years more. There comes a time, though, when you can’t be trading on that hope for the future.
Getting rid of Francisco Lindor is more than just a savvy move to bolster what I was told was a good farm system, it’s an admission that you don’t actually care about today, just the idea of a brighter tomorrow. That’s not hope though. That’s some kind of empty-brained lunacy, a hairbrained idea that it’ll all work out, that this trade will turn one MVP candidate into two or three, and won’t cost nearly as much! That last part is supposed to matter to us, because we all know the Indians are poor, right? Saving money and increasing control is important, or something. The Indians evidently expect their fanbase to accept this. Meanwhile they steadily bleed support as the old guard ages, baseball fades in relevance in the greater entertainment sphere, and nothing is done to draw new people into the fold.
They were at the precipice in 2016, and have been slowly churning back toward mediocrity ever since. They’re not an accidentally good team, they never have been. Every move they have made to get to what we see on the field was smart and purposeful and led to the second most regular season wins in baseball since Terry Francona showed up. It’s also created a well-placed expectation of a trophy at the end of one of these seasons. You can’t win this much and not expect something to show for it. The Indians as an organization have just decided that’s coming “soon”, rather than giving us a real date. It’s a carrot we as fans get to chase every year, always just barely out of reach. Whether right or wrong, a constant pursuit of the unnamed future is certainly a creative way to keep the fanbase engaged. You just have to wonder how much longer this modified life support, this bridging an already increasingly disinterested and shrinking group of supporters into the possibility of a brilliant shiny new era, could do to the team’s long-term health.
Nothing is forever, not the core the Indians have now, and certainly not the seemingly solid place a team finds itself in the fabric of a city, a region, a culture. The Indians either refuse to recognize this or haven’t thought about it at all. Either way, it’s to their detriment, and more than that will lead to only more pain and ultimately apathy for their fans.
That should be what matters here.