What if Modell Owned the Indians?
The past couple days have not been kind to Cleveland sports owners, past and present.
On Wednesday afternoon Indians closer Chris Perez slammed Tribe ownership and management for its lack of spending for and building up a contender. Less than 24 hours later, early Thursday morning, former Browns boss Art Modell passed away at the age of 87.
Indians owner Larry Dolan and Modell have both been the subject of fans scorn, for very different reasons. The funny thing is, if the two were able to switch the teams and sports they have been a part of, the Cleveland sports scene might be a far happier place.
We all know why Modell, even in death, has been vilified by the Cleveland fan base. He ripped the city’s heart out on November 7, 1995 when he announced he was moving the beloved Browns to Baltimore at the season’s conclusion. After 35 seasons, 17, playoff appearances, 11 division titles, and several crushing moments in AFC Championship games, Modell decided he could no longer keep a team in Cleveland without the guarantee of a new stadium.
Dolan has been the subject of fan scorn since the offseason between the 2001 and 2002 campaigns. He took ownership of the Tribe, a team that had dominated the AL Central Division for half a decade, in 2000. To his credit, he carried a high payroll into the 2001 season and the Indians won a sixth division title in seven years. That was the end of the glory era for the Indians. After that, Dolan ordered the team and salaries to be stripped down. Since the 2002 season, the once-dominant Tribe has been mired in mediocrity, save for a few seasons. They’ve been to the playoffs once, in 2007, since the decision to shed payroll and keep it low.
To steal a line from the Indians marketing – What If? What if instead of moving to Baltimore, Modell had simply decided to sell to Dolan in 1995? Who knows if Dolan was even looking to buy a team back then, but it is an interesting thought. Dolan, born and raised in Cleveland, would surely not have moved the team. The NFL, too, is perfect for an owner who does not have the deepest of pockets. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL has revenue sharing and a salary cap. Dolan would not have to worry about spending too much money to be competitive. He would have more income coming in. Dolan, who does love the city and badly wants a championship, would have been able to do more to meet that goal in the NFL than in MLB.
Now, let’s say Modell had sold the Browns. Five years later, former Indians owner Richard Jacobs put the Tribe up for sale. What if Modell, with the money made from selling the Browns had bought the Indians? Yes, this one is less likely than Dolan to the Browns as Modell was a football man and a football lifer. Still, let’s go with it.
Modell would have no problem trying to keep up with the money-spending teams of big league baseball. In fact, spending too much money is a big part of what got Modell into trouble and the underlying reason for why he shipped off to Baltimore and then had to sell the Ravens less than a decade later.
Even so, Modell could have certainly kept up, salary-wise, with the Mike Ilitch-owned Detroit Tigers. It’s easy to envision Modell reacting to Detroit’s offseason signing of Prince Fielder with a huge move his own. Remember, this is a guy who took out a loan before the 1995 football season to bring ballyhooed free agent receiver Andre Rison to Cleveland. That move flopped even before the move was announced, but at least he was trying.
That is not to say Dolan and general manager Chris Antonetti are not trying. They have just made unwise moves with their limited resources over the last two years. They do not have the means to make up for those mistakes with other moves and have to live and work with what they have. Someone like Modell would cut ties with those mistakes and just go get someone else. Again, that can be self-destructive, but in the baseball world we live in, you almost have to live on the edge to contend. The Dolan’s do not seem to have the money or, at least, the means to get the money Modell had. Modell would go into debt to try and keep a team in contention.
Naturally, this is all a fantasy, but the scenario is not out of the realm of possibility. Modell’s ownership style would have been perfect for MLB, while Dolan would seem a far better fit in a more small-market friendly NFL. That dream sequence would have save a lot of tears, a lot of anger and may have actually delivered a championship or two to the city by now.
Instead, we have a sports climate where the fans are angry with an owner who has just died and arguably the city’s best player is acting like a member of the fan base in vocalizing his criticism of Tribe ownership.
Oh, but what if? What if?