GOODYEAR, ARIZ: Indians fans are smiling. Indians fans are retuning their car radio presets to WTAM (1100-AM) in Cuyahoga County and to WAKR (1590-AM) in Summit County. They want to reacquaint themselves with the sound of Tom Hamilton’s voice.
Indians fans are even investing in all manner of season-ticket packages. Tribe officials haven’t revealed how many seats have been sold, but last week they said they peddled more in a single day than they do in a usual offseason month.
That might not be impressive if we knew the raw data, but when is the last time the club bragged about selling any season-ticket packages?
So it’s all good. The Indians haven’t lost a game. Terry Francona is the manager and most of all — and this is what really counts — the team did more during the winter than sign minor-league free agents whose value to a contending team is zero.
As we suspected all along, money gets the fans’ juices flowing. Especially if it’s not their money. They don’t care if an owner overspends, as long as he’s willing to keep the cash coming. As every baseball partisan in Northeast Ohio knows, that has not been the case with Larry Dolan and his son Paul.
Quite the opposite has been the norm for most of the family’s decade-plus ownership, particularly the past half-dozen years. That doesn’t mean the Dolans don’t care about winning. It also isn’t a sign they’ve been pocketing gigantic profits that should have been poured back into the team. Fact is, they could not and cannot afford to run a perpetual deficit.
With the Tribe’s record continually scraping the bottom of the American League and revenues drying up because fans refuse to pay for a loser, the result was inevitable. So what happened over the winter, when the club spent $117 million on guaranteed contracts to free agents?
Good timing mostly.
Going into the offseason, the Cleveland club dropped some $36 million in salary obligations. For example, there was $13 million to Travis Hafner, $5 million each to Grady Sizemore and Derek Lowe, $3 million for Casey Kotchman, and the list goes on for a while.
But the Tribe has spent more than $36 million during the winter. When the payroll is finally added up before the season opener, it’s likely that salaries for the 25-man roster will total about $80 million, that’s $15 million more than at the outset of last season.
Where did the extra cash come from? We can speculate that the additional $10 million in rights fees being paid by Fox Sports Ohio, which purchased SportsTime Ohio from the Dolans, will arrive before the end of the year.
In addition, it’s possible that the Dolans borrowed against the additional revenue coming their way from new national network contracts that begin next year. But I kind of doubt that.
Maybe a portion of the $240 million the Dolans received from Fox in the sale of STO went to the team. We don’t know and might not find out.
One thing seems clear: The Dolans understood the depth of the fans’ disenchantment with the way they funded the team. Season tickets dropped to a little more than 8,000 last year from a high of more than 26,000 when Dick Jacobs owned the club. Few teams in either league have drawn fewer fans the past several seasons than has the Tribe.
Restoring confidence in ownership was essential, and the winter signing that made the most impact was that of Michael Bourn, not only because he has been one of the more productive players in the National League, but also because the Dolans made a long-term commitment, four years and $48 million that could turn into five years and $60 million because of a vesting option.
Of course, even spending money won’t matter in the long term — that is, an entire season — unless the team wins more games. For three of the past four seasons, the Indians have lost 90-plus games. That shouldn’t happen this year, even with a rotation that needs lots of luck or one more reliable starter (General Manager Chris Antonetti is working on it).
Incidentally, the Dolans were fortunate that Antonetti spent wisely. Granted, he had more cash to work with, but that didn’t guarantee he would give it to the right people. At this point, it does not appear he spent one foolish penny.
There is a danger that the fans will overreact because of the new blood that dots the roster. It would be a mistake to start making plans to attend an Indians-Washington Nationals [or pick your favorite National League team] World Series. The realistic hope is that the Tribe will make the Detroit Tigers sweat in the race for the Central Division title.
By definition, that means the Indians are worth watching. There’s plenty of speed with Drew Stubbs, Michael Brantley and Bourn; the bullpen is among the best in baseball, and there are more guys who can launch drives over the wall, though this is not an offense that will depend on the long ball.
If enough fans show up at Progressive Field, the Dolans might continue to spend $80 million on salaries. Granted, $80 million doesn’t buy what it used to (last year, 20 teams had higher payrolls), but it buys more talent than $65 million.
Certainly, there is no guarantee that the current level of spending will continue. That’s the next question the fans will want to have answered. A clue might come at midseason. If the Indians are in the race, will Antonetti be permitted to add a piece or two for the stretch run?
Did I say stretch run? Maybe I’d better heed my own warning about unrealistic expectations.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.