Holding On To The Past
Recently, Pat McManamon of FOXSportsOhio.com had a conversation with Cleveland Indians’ team president Mark Shapiro, who talked about his challenges and interests in baseball, the recent history of the team, and his vision moving forward. Following will be a series of opinions and insight about Shapiro’s responses and how they apply to where the team was, how the team got to where it is now, and most importantly, Where Do the Indians Go From Here.
This is part two in the series.
By Bob Toth
When considering where one is going, it can often be beneficial to recognize where one has been.
Cleveland Indians’ team president Mark Shapiro knows this.
Shapiro is a long-tenured member of the Indians’ organization, starting all the way back in 1991. He was present for a massive rebuild in the early 1990’s that led to arguably the most successful ten-year span in team history. This era spawned five consecutive playoff births, six in seven years, and two World Series’ appearances. Some of the most beloved Indians of recent history, including but not limited to – Omar Vizquel (via Seattle); Kenny Lofton (Houston); Sandy Alomar (San Diego); Carlos Baerga (San Diego); Jim Thome (draft); Albert Belle (draft); Charles Nagy (draft); and Manny Ramirez (draft) – were brought in and became instrumental pieces of the team’s success going forward.
After 40 years of failures and dwelling in the dark recesses of the basement of the American League, the team was finally thriving. While the ultimate goal of a world championship was not achieved, there was new hope for the long-suffering franchise and its loyal fan base.
With renewed hope came expectations.
Is it fair that now, 15 years removed from that last World Series appearance, the fans of the Cleveland Indians still actively compare the current team, players, and ownership to that of the mid- and late-1990’s?
It can be difficult to weigh the present club against the past because of the completely different financial models that the team has to adhere to as a small market club with lesser fan support than existed in the past, due to changes in the circumstances surrounding the team.
“The biggest perception issue is probably the simplest one, which is we’re still to some extent always viewed in the backdrop of those ‘90’s teams,” said Shapiro, “when in reality that was a completely different business model. Those (Indians) teams were literally the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Dodgers. We were top five in payroll, as high as three. And our revenues generated that.”
Few in life are held accountable for the actions, positive or otherwise, of those 15 years before them. In relation to the Cleveland Indians’ organization, the complete cast of players has turned over in that span. The team is beginning 2013 with its fifth regular manager in that time (Mike Hargrove, Charlie Manuel, Eric Wedge, Manny Acta, and now Terry Francona). The front office is working with its third general manager (John Hart and Shapiro preceding Chris Antonetti) and there have been two ownership groups (Dick Jacobs and Larry Dolan).
The Indians of 2013 are not the Indians of 1995. The two teams exist in almost parallel universes to one another, in part due to the changes in the city of Cleveland and the economic difficulties of the present.
The 1995 Indians and the teams that followed grew to prominence in a proverbial “perfect storm” situation, one almost impossible and certainly undesirable on some levels to recreate.
The 1994 team left the abyssmal and unfriendly confines of old Municipal Stadium, a long lost relic only recently resurfacing in the public eye. The excitement surrounding Jacobs Field, a beautiful and clean and new top-of-the-line stadium, complete with all the desired bells and whistles, would have been immeasurable if not for the difficulties fans had in acquiring tickets as the team continued to excel on the field.
While the players’ strike of 1994 shortened what could have been a promising season with a second-place record of 66-47 at the time, the players picked up where they left off the next season and strung together a 100-44 record, easily clinching the division and rolling to their first World Series’ appearance since 1954.
It was more than just a nice ballpark that sparked the revival.
The team had character and personality. The most casual of fans could name off their favorites with ease. The city and the team grew up together.
The team traded well. Vizquel was acquired in a swap of shortstops, as Cleveland sent their shortstop, Felix “El Gato” Fermin, and Reggie Jefferson to Seattle. Lofton came with Dave Rohde in exchange for Willie Blair and Eddie Taubensee. Alomar and Baerga were a lucrative haul, along with outfielder Chris James, in the trade of fan favorite Joe Carter.
The team drafted well, too. Future All-Stars and significant contributors to the success of the 1990’s, Nagy, Belle, Ramirez, and Thome, all were brought up through the farm system.
Money well spent in free agency supplemented the roster with established veteran support, including Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez, and Orel Hershiser. Their value was more than statistical results on the field; their leadership from their years in the game aided the younger talent they complemented.
A revived nightlife in the Flats and a new stadium made Cleveland a place to be. An exciting young roster and a winning team helped to push more fans through the turnstiles.
“I think there’s that general public sentiment,” said Shapiro, “that, ‘Hey if you win enough people will come.’ But that’s not necessarily true. We had a unique set of circumstances.”
Less than two weeks after the Indians’ Game 6 loss in the 1995 World Series to the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Browns’ owner Art Modell announced he would be moving the team following the season. The Cleveland Cavaliers were in the backend of a run of nine playoff appearances in eleven seasons, which included being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in four consecutive appearances.
Both the absence of the Browns and a rebuild for the Cavs created a void for sports fans craving a winner.
The Indians provided that, and the fans continued to fill the seats.
“There was a new ballpark,” said Shapiro. “That’s a huge multiplier. We hadn’t won in 40 years. That’s a multiplier. There was no football team in town. That magnified our revenues. The one that gets overlooked a lot is the industry was coming off a strike, so all of our revenues were amplified because all the other teams’ revenues were significantly tamped down at that point. So ours were amplified. Our spending power was amplified on the free agent market.”
“So all those things are factors that we had a different set of operating conditions and circumstances and we had a different set of revenues and we made decisions differently. We built teams differently than we do now. So to compare the two is a challenge for us.”
Fans of the Tribe have not forgotten the glory years of the team and still hope to one day see the level of success they experienced throughout the ‘90’s. The fascination with the old days and an almost unwillingness to let go trickles into various other facets of the ball club.
How many people still regularly refer to Progressive Field as “Jacobs Field” or “The Jake”? The name of the park changed in 2008 and yet still is not actively embraced by the fans. There appears to be little or no desire to do so by those most guilty of the error.
The same cannot be said regarding Quicken Loans Arena right next door in the Gateway Complex. It was known as the “Gund Arena” from 1994 until 2005. “The Q” quickly replaced it in the vernacular of basketball fans around the city.
When the team fired Manny Acta late in the season, how many people heard the following recommendation? Hire Alomar as the manager. Bring in Nagy as the pitching coach, Hargrove as a bench coach, Belle in as the hitting coach, Lofton as the third base coach and outfielder’s coach, and Vizquel as the first base coach and infielders’ coach.
While these guys had successful careers on the field and some already in their coaching opportunities thus far, the fact that some fans believe that simply collecting a bunch of the names of the ‘90’s and putting them in charge of the team would turn the Indians into a competitor is just astounding and again reemphasizes the allure of the glory days.
Shapiro understands the love affair fans have with their more successful past.
“It’s a reality, so I think at this point it’s not something we want to run from,” said Shapiro. “We want to embrace it as part of our heritage and part of our history. And I think you’ve seen that in what we’ve done here.”
What the team has done and done frequently is to keep those days fresh in the minds of their fans in the hopes that it helps attract them back down to Progressive Field. Bobbleheads of Carter, Baerga, and Alomar were given away this past season, along with a Nagy replica jersey. The team acquired the legend Thome late in the 2011 season and held a ceremony pregame to honor him and disclosed the plans to celebrate his career with a statue near Heritage Park. The team regularly brings back former players for visits, in-game interviews on the radio and television, and autograph signings in the Rally Alley.
The entire “What If?” campaign is a giant homage to the Indians of recent yesteryear.
As the 2012 team collapsed and the “What If” jokes began to pile up negatively regarding spending, acquiring the needed right-handed bat or legitimate left fielder, or having a new owner, the commercials slowly disappeared and focused more on a celebration of tradition.
Hopefully, the tradition that is celebrated looking ahead is the more productive years that Shapiro has seen within the organization and not the other 100 years largely spent losing, underachieving, and cellar-dwelling.
Next time: a look at Shapiro’s take on the trades and signings that have led to the team’s current predicament.
Photo: Associated Press