PEORIA, ARIZ.: Except for the first sellout since 2009, a March 16 game against the San Francisco Giants, there have been plenty of seats available for every Indians home spring-training game.
In fact, on average, there are more seats available than are in use.
Northeast Ohio fans might find a perverse pleasure in the fact that if you disregard the sellout — which had everything to do with the popularity of the visiting team and a postgame fireworks show — the Tribe is averaging 3,417 customers for games at Goodyear Ballpark.
This has nothing to do with bad weather in Cleveland, apathy on the part of the fans (well, maybe a little) or the economy in Cuyahoga County. All of these factors get blamed when attendance sinks at Progressive Field, especially early in the season.
But why can’t the Tribe attract more fans for spring-training games? This isn’t an answer, but the Reds, who share the ballpark with the Indians, aren’t turning customers away either.
There are three fundamental reasons why the Tribe isn’t packing them in for exhibition games.
• Few Clevelanders spend part or all of the winter in Arizona. For whatever reason — an easier drive, custom and practice, lower air fares — most Northeast Ohio snowbirds head for Florida to escape the frigid weather at home. That’s one reason former Tribe owner Dick Jacobs moved the team from Tucson to Winter Haven 21 years ago.
By contrast, baseball fans who live in Illinois — particularly those who fantasize that beer will sell for 50 cents at Wrigley Field if the Cubs win the pennant — flock to Arizona for the winter, the reason the Cubs formerly were known as the Kings of Arizona (I think they’ve slipped a little in the popularity standings).
• The Indians are not a marquee franchise — they could be, they were in the 1990s — as are the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs and Diamondbacks (because they train at home). All of these clubs draw well in the desert.
• With half the teams in baseball spending the spring in Greater Phoenix, there are clubs in virtually every major suburb as well as the city of Phoenix. That means a team had better draw from its immediate area because two towns away, fans can visit their own spring-training ballpark.
Here are the population figures for the suburban cities that have built spring-training venues: Mesa 439,000; Glendale 227,000; Scottsdale 217,000; Tempe 162,000; Peoria 159,000; Surprise 118,000; Goodyear 65,000.
The fan base for the Indians and Reds just isn’t big enough to attract large crowds. Moreover, once you pass Buckeye — the city that abuts Goodyear to the west — the next metro area you will encounter is called Los Angeles via Interstate 10, which runs all the way through Phoenix and ends in Santa Monica, hard by the Pacific Ocean.
Most teams will tell you that drawing fans to spring exhibition games is a bonus. More important are the quality of the practice facilities and whether the area is attractive enough to induce staffers to live there year-round.
It might be a point of pride if the Indians were among the elite spring-training attractions in Arizona, but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
The Indians are in a no-win situation with Ubaldo Jimenez.
If he pitches well this season, he will leave to become a free agent; if he continues to struggle, the Tribe will happily watch him walk out the door.
His contract includes a mutual $8 million option — that is, either side can decline to exercise it — which surely is what will happen, unless Jimenez has a modestly successful season.
If he pitches 200 innings and wins 12 games with an ERA in the low 4.00s, he might decide that $8 million is more than he can get on the open market, and General Manager Chris Antonetti might feel that crossing his fingers for one more season is worth the anguish of watching him.
The first hint of what might be in store for their relationship is happening in exhibition games. Jimenez has shown a lively arm, though his days of throwing 97 mph apparently are over (Did he really do that or is that an urban legend generated by the guys who run the Rockies?). On the other hand, Jimenez has put too many men on base, which has been his MO since coming to Cleveland from Colorado.
There is a definite pattern to Jimenez’s ups and downs. When he throws from the windup, he is much more effective and more likely to command the strike zone. The opposite is true when he pitches from the stretch.
The problem is that with his penchant for putting runners on base, Jimenez is forced to throw from the stretch far too often.
Speeding it up
Reports from Brett Myers’ last outing against minor-leaguers at the Goodyear complex were positive, with the veteran throwing six scoreless innings.
Indians manager Terry Francona was unable to watch Myers throw but was told that Myers displayed a sharp breaking pitch, which was the highlight of the appearance.
All well and good, but Myers simply has not thrown hard this spring. Gun readings reportedly have been in the 86-88 range, which probably is not going to cut it, regardless of the wiles that Myers has learned over the years.
Maybe Myers’ fastball will perk up by the end of training camp, after he has finished building up his arm — remember he pitched only in relief last year — but there is no guarantee that will happen.
The Tribe has committed a spot in the rotation to Myers, but he will have to pitch relatively well to keep it, because Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer will be in Columbus, anxiously waiting for a promotion.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.