It doesn’t make any real, logical sense to be a Cleveland Indians fan. Perhaps if you’re over a certain age and you have some kind of geographical attachment to the team, or like me have a familial connection to the team it make sense. In the grander scheme of things, there are just better choices to make, if only to protect your sanity and have some kind of peace of mind in your life. Fans want a winner, a constant contender who has a real shot at a World Series and won’t be hamstrung by their own pocketbook. The Indians were a few feet away from one of those titles in 2016, but it’s hard to call them a true, top-flight, Astros-ian contender in any sense, whether then or now.
With the ever expanding online reach of the game, and the ability to see any game you want at any time — except, ironically, the team closest to you — and the media coverage teams like the Yankees or Dodgers get in relation to the Tribe or any other small market team, there’s just such a natural pull away from a squad like the Indians. It’s too easy to see other teams, too easy to see the gulf that separates them from the golden boys of the game. Plus their uniforms are admittedly uninspired at this point. Why would anyone really love this team? It only makes sense that a young kid just finding the game would look somewhere else.
Then things like Jason Kipnis happen, proving that logic has no place in real life.
He was never supposed to be anything other than a solid player, a good role guy at best, a face in the crowd. On the field, for a few years there, he was just that, maybe just a bit more. He was the second round pick in the draft that brought Lonnie Chisenhall though, the third baseman with the lightning bat and perfect Baseball Name. That was supposed to be the core player for the Indians these last eight years, not the awkward-swinging second baseman. Kipnis didn’t listen, or likely didn’t care, though, because for a few years there he was something like great. He’s been a grinning, goofing idiot that’s filled the clubhouse with giffable moments even as he’s helped the Indians fill their fans with great memories. There’s no rhyme or reason to him or why he’s so wonderful. He’s just a happy guy who’s living his best life. we love that.
I’ve written probably a dozen articles about how inconsistent Kip has been for the Indians. Not in a bad way, just that he never really had similar years. There was the all-around season in 2013 when he walked a good deal, hit 17 home runs, stole 30 bases and did everything solidly without dazzling. There was Leadoff Kipnis, hitting .303 and spraying the ball around while hitting just nine homers but notching seven triples. There was the 23 homer power threat Slugger Jason, bizarrely two or three years before home runs started spiking across baseball. Amid all this were injury-plagued and diminished versions of a player that, through some kind of strange, grungy charisma and grit, stole Cleveland’s heart.
Thinking of other “heart of the team” type players on teams that have chased titles the last few years, there’s usually a thread of leading in the box score along with leading in the clubhouse. José Altuve won an MVP, so did Mookie Betts. Depending on who you pick, either Anthony Rizzo (my choice) or Javy Báez are scintillating players. Clayton Kershaw is Clayton Kershaw. Kipnis’s career accomplishments don’t, and won’t begin to touch these other guys. But he’s the beginning, he’s the constant figure of the Francona Era if you will, the only core guy who’s been there since the beginning and continues to last. He’s been the best player on the team once, in 2013, which was literally the beginning of this run, the first winning season since 2007. It makes sense that he would be the guy to kick start it, even if he did take a back seat on the stardom bus to Brantley and Santana before the keys landed firmly in Lindor’s hands.
I wrote recently wondering about what endings look like, whether the Indians even face one right now. Their talent pipeline isn’t exactly bare. If anything there’s more intriguing position player prospects en-route to the big club than they’ve had in a while. It’ll be nice to see some new faces. The care for the team comes from the names on the back and the faces we see every night though. When it’s a guy like Kip, someone who’s built themselves really a hell of a career with the Indians and through sheer force of will and hustle turned a middling projection into some wonderful years, that seals you into the golden memories of a fan base.
Who knows where he’ll end up. Baseball isn’t kind to guys in their 30’s who haven’t been even average players in two or three seasons. That’s what sucks. This guy is beyond stats for a lot of people. That doesn’t pay the bills though, and certainly doesn’t win games.
Whatever happens, he was a minor god in Cleveland for a long time. What-ifs will follow him as much as the what-were’s, but that’s true of any player, and most don’t have the undying love of half a state following them wherever they go. He was a kind of everything for the Indians for a while there, and hopefully, more than anything, that’s what we remember when we see him in some weird new uniform.
It’s easy to say that he’ll be missed, but more wonderful about Jason Kipnis is that, unlike so many others who come by for a fleeting moment and make us smile, he’ll be remembered.