From the turbulent sea of Cleveland professional sports dysfunction emerges one model of competence.
The Cavaliers and Browns test the limits on organizational upheaval, but it remains to be seen whether the Indians will be rewarded for their capable leadership.
Some fans will roll their eyes at that suggestion since the Dolans remain in charge. Many still hold a grudge that they failed to pony up millions to keep pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and catcher Victor Martinez. But the supposedly cheap Dolans shelled out big bucks for free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in 2013, so some of that ire should be fading.
If Q ratings were taken on the Cavs’ Dan Gilbert, the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam or the Indians’ Larry and Paul Dolan after a shocking six days of firings earlier this month, the Tribe’s father-and-son duo might win the popularity poll in Northeast Ohio.
Gilbert canned General Manager Chris Grant, then said he liked the team’s talent. That move came 10 months after Gilbert dumped coach Byron Scott and re-hired Mike Brown, a decision prompted by a lack of defense that the Cavs still refused to play. An imploding locker room might have been scared straight, with the Cavs winning six of their seven games since Grant was fired.
Haslam stunned the NFL by dumping CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi. That brought Haslam’s scalp total to six — two GMs, two coaches, one president and one CEO — since he was approved as owner in October 2012. Looming is a possible federal indictment over rebate fraud by Haslam’s Pilot Flying J truck stop company.
In President Mark Shapiro, GM Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona, the Indians have the antithesis of the Browns’ Three Stooges (although Haslam is the lone one standing). Shapiro has been mentioned as a possible successor to Commissioner Bud Selig when he retires in January 2015. Francona won two World Series with the Boston Red Sox. His hiring in October 2012 to replace the fired Manny Acta still seems like a stunning coup even though he’s close to Antonetti and Shapiro. Antonetti, on shaky ground early in his tenure, seems stronger since Francona’s arrival.
The Indians also have no one like the emotional Gilbert, who seems to act first and ask questions later, forging ahead with no visible plan.
The Cavs last went to the playoffs with LeBron James in 2010, but are 86-200 since then. They have so few victories you don’t even need a calculator.
The Browns have made one playoff appearance since 1999 and remain one of four franchises that have never been to a Super Bowl, one of 13 that have never won it.
The Indians have reached the postseason eight times since the wild-card era began in 1995, which ranks fifth in Major League Baseball, according to SI.com. They trail the New York Yankees (17), Atlanta Braves (14), St. Louis Cardinals (11) and Boston Red Sox (10).
Yet, for some reason, the Indians aren’t getting their just due. Their season-ticket base is about 7,000, a far cry from the mid-1990s, when friends or neighbors or businessmen or drinking buddies formed groups. Season-ticket renewals are about 92 to 93 percent, one of the team’s strongest numbers of late, but hitting 10,000 this year is out of the question.
There is a strong lineup of players to root for, headed by first baseman/right fielder Nick Swisher, who leads MLB in Twitter followers, and second baseman Jason Kipnis, a throwback chosen for his first All-Star Game last season. There are models of consistency like outfielder Michael Brantley and starting pitcher Justin Masterson. There is an exciting young flamethrower in Danny Salazar.
But as new Indians outfielder David Murphy observed last month, there is not one big draw, a player fans want to see every night like former sluggers Albert Belle or Jim Thome.
“There’s not that face in the clubhouse you’d identify as one of the faces of Major League Baseball, but maybe that’s a good thing,” Murphy said. “That makes it a lot of fun, you never know who it’s going to be.”
When it comes to ticket sales, it’s not a good thing. Perhaps that draw will soon be Salazar, or in two or three years, center fielder Clint Frazier, the Tribe’s fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft.
The Indians know their major-league record of 455 consecutive sellouts from 1995-2000 was the perfect storm. The Northeast Ohio economy was booming, and there were more Fortune 500 corporations who wanted to entertain clients. The Browns were gone from 1996-98. James was still a youngster, not drafted by the Cavs until 2003. There were not as many minor-league teams nearby that offered a cheaper form of family baseball entertainment.
In baseball, a good year isn’t reflected in ticket sales until the following season. In 2013, the Indians felt the effects of three 90-loss seasons in the previous four years. Their attendance of 1.57 million ranked last in the majors as they went 92-70 and qualified for the American League wild-card game. In that respect, they are still suffering.
The Indians remain undaunted. They hired a new marketing executive from Proctor & Gamble. They continue to offer attractive ticket discounts. Bleacher seats range from $10-15, the best value in town.
But apparently Northeast Ohio sports fans are captivated by ineptitude. They would rather see a runaway train than the Indians on a roll.
Even with Francona at the helm and a roster full of promising talent, the notion that the Indians will capitalize on the Cavs’ and Browns’ failures may be merely wishful thinking. As one who heard the suggestion retorted, “Are the Browns moving?”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.