This week the DTTWLN staff is doing an in-depth look at the Cleveland Indians attendance. While everyone knows the Indians have an attendance problem, how they necessarily got to this point appears to be an explanation with many answers including play on the field, population and economic changes and improvements in technology. Regardless of the reasons, one thing is certain, the Indians have an attendance problem. This afternoon, we examine the tipping point in the current attendance decline.
Previous Stories This Week:
From the Perfect Storm to the Indians Attendance Disaster by Bob Toth
Times Have Changed While Indians Attendance Issues Have Worsened by Mike Brandyberry
Indians Attendance Issues Have Spanned Over 65 Years by Vince Guerrieri
In 1986, the Jacobs brothers were heralded as the latest people to save baseball in Cleveland.
The Indians’ grip on the town had been tenuous for the past 30 years, and seriously discussed leaving the city on several occasions. But in each instance, a change in ownership led to some stability in the team – but usually its own upheaval in the front office, leading to decades of mediocre baseball.
When Dick and David Jacobs bought the Indians for $35 million, the Indians had played mediocre baseball and lost money for the previous 17 years. The Jacobs brothers, Akron natives, bought the team out of civic responsibility, and set about building a winner. From 1948-1956, the Indians were one of the best teams in the majors, and one of the best-attended.
Hank Peters was hired to rebuild the team’s farm system – the pride of the major leagues in the 1950s – virtually from scratch. And they campaigned for a new ballpark. The Indians had been full-time tenants at Municipal Stadium since 1947, but the stadium had fallen into disrepair as maintenance wasn’t kept up first by the city, and then by Browns owner Art Modell, who leased the stadium and ran it under the guise of the Cleveland Stadium Corporation.
David Jacobs died in 1991. By then, Cuyahoga County voters had passed a sin tax to pay for a new baseball-only stadium and a new home for the Cavs, who had been playing at the Richfield Coliseum since its opening in 1974. And by the time Dick Jacobs sold the team before the 2000 season, it had become the most valuable in Major League Baseball, bought by Larry Dolan for a record $320 million.
The worst thing that could be said about the Indians during Dick Jacobs’ tenure as owner is that they didn’t win a World Series. The team won five straight American League Central Division titles and made two World Series appearances while setting attendance records in the new ballpark, Jacobs Field.
When Peters was introduced as team president, after the Indians lost 101 games in 1987 (the “Indian Uprising” year), he preached patience.
“Without it in this business, you’re a lost soul,” he said in his introductory news conference. “We’re dedicated to winning. You can’t accomplish things overnight.”
Fans’ patience was rewarded relatively quickly after Jacobs and Peters took over – and it coincided with a shimmering new ballpark, which made going to Indians games feel less like detention. And the Indians were able to contend over an extended period of time, enabling fans, starved for a winner and abandoned by the Browns, to buy into the team.
But since Dolan’s takeover of the team, the mantra has gone from “win now” to “windows of opportunity,” and it seems like fans’ patience not only hasn’t been rewarded, but was stretched to the breaking point.
Economic realities of the game have been brought to bear on the Indians, who play in the smallest market to support at least three major league teams. It’s no coincidence that all of the teams that advanced to the league championship series this fall were among the top 11 payrolls (the eventual World Champion Red Sox had the fourth-highest payroll in the majors; the Dodgers, who lost in the National League Championship Series to the Cardinals, had the second). The Indians had the 21st highest payroll – and that was after doling out the largest free-agent contract in team history, to Nick Swisher. Two teams had lower payrolls and made the playoffs: The Pirates and the Athletics. Neither made it out of the division series.
But that’s not where the problem lies. The Indians under Hank Peters and his successor John Hart made some spectacular misfires, with free-agent signings like Keith Hernandez (who was really expected to be the type of presence Jason Giambi demonstrated last year), Jack Morris and Jack McDowell. You could also fill a serviceable major league team with the talent traded away in search of the one missing piece, players like Brian Giles, Sean Casey and Danny Graves. But the team held on to a deep and productive farm system in spite of all that.
Under Dolan’s ownership, the farm system withered. First round picks by Peters and Hart included Charles Nagy, Manny Ramirez, Paul Shuey and Jaret Wright. First round picks under General Manager Mark Shapiro – now team president – included Jeremy Guthrie, Jeremy Sowers, Brad Snyder and Trevor Crowe. And when the Indians did draft talented players – like future Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum in 2005 – they were unable to sign them.
The farm system is starting to recover, but at the same time, while the Indians were able to make some good trades, the blockbusters they’ve made failed to pan out. The Indians got Carlos Santana in a trade with the Dodgers for Casey Blake, closer Chris Perez in a deal with the Cardinals for Mark DeRosa and Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez. All of those acquisitions became regular contributors to the Tribe, but it’s the big deals where the Indians seem have suffered.
As Joe Carter was preparing to leave the Indians for free agency after the 1990 season, the Tribe dealt him to San Diego and got a future Rookie of the Year in Sandy Alomar Jr., and Carlos Baerga. In one of his first deals as Tribe general manager, Shapiro dealt Bartolo Colon to Montreal in 2002 for Lee Stevens and three prospects – all of whom were future All-Stars.
Grady Sizemore became the Indians everyday centerfielder before injuries curtailed his productivity. Brandon Phillips became a Gold Glove infielder – for Cincinnati. He was dealt to the Reds in 2006 as manager Eric Wedge opted to keep infielder Ramon Vasquez. The Indians got Jeff Stevens, who never played a game in a Tribe uniform. He was flipped to Chicago for future Chris Perez trade bait Mark DeRosa.
Cliff Lee went on to win a Cy Young Award in Cleveland and become the Tribe’s first pitcher in 25 years to win 20 games in a season. But Lee’s departure from Cleveland might have been the unkindest cut of all. In 2008, CC Sabathia was the defending Cy Young Award winner and was dealt to Milwaukee. In 2009, Cliff Lee was the defending Cy Young Award winner and was dealt to Philadelphia.
Sabathia was a homegrown talent, drafted and developed by the Indians. But eventually, the Indians couldn’t afford his asking price, and he was traded a year after the Indians were one win away from a World Series, effectively signaling the end of another window of opportunity. Ultimately, Sabathia – for all his talk about playing closer to his Bay Area home or in the National League where he could hit – followed the money to the Bronx.
Lee was traded shortly after the Indians dealt Victor Martinez, another potential free agent whose price couldn’t be met, to Boston. But while the Martinez deal worked out, with the Indians acquiring putative staff ace Justin Masterson and Nick Hagadone, nothing of any substance has come from the Cliff Lee trade.
The centerpiece of the Sabathia deal was regarded as Matt LaPorta, who has demonstrated himself to be a 4A player, demonstrably better than most minor league talent but not quite good enough for the majors. But the real star of the deal for the Indians has been Michael Brantley.
It’s unclear whether the Indians’ personnel issues are a run of bad luck or a reflection of mismanagement. But most fans aren’t willing to make that distinction. What they see is that unlike the 1990s, their patience isn’t being rewarded. Good deals beget bad deals and the farm system is only now recovering from a series of bad picks.
And that’s what turns fans off. When quick starts turn into below-.500 seasons, fans see it as a mirage. Sustained competitiveness and good personnel moves will bring fans back – probably not to the levels of the 1990s, but at least to the levels where it doesn’t become a question for local and national media. The 2013 season was a good start. But the question is what will be done to build upon it?
Because as was said in “Field of Dreams” and proven at Jacobs Field, if you build it, they will come.
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images