Are Seismic Changes in Store for Indians?

I spent last winter researching and writing about the 1920 Indians season for this website.

It was really an interesting experience, being able to see the season – and baseball history – unfold in real time, and see what was realized to be important, and what wasn’t, but should have been.

One of those things was the Yankees’ acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. The Yankees were perpetual also-rans in the American League and in New York City, where they shared the Polo Grounds with the Giants.

It’s kind of funny how the purchase was regarded as little more than a sideshow act. Oh, sure, people said, Babe Ruth can hit, but how much difference can one player make? Besides, the move doesn’t improve the Yankees’ team speed!

They didn’t realize that the ground was shifting around them, that Ruth would not only change the fortunes of the team that got him – but the game itself.

I think we’re seeing a similar seismic shift with the operation of the Indians. On Monday, the team and president Mark Shapiro confirmed the rumors that had been swirling for the past couple weeks: Shapiro would leave at the end of the season to take the same position in Toronto.

Shapiro has been connected with the team since 1991, and has seen the team’s fortunes rise and fall. He served as general manager for six years, and team president since 2007. In his farewell, he spoke warmly of his time in Cleveland and made the job with the Blue Jays sound like the proverbial offer he can’t refuse – and in many ways, it might be.

The man Shapiro’s replacing, Paul Beeston, engineered the Jays’ last great dynasty in the early 1990s, and returned to the team in 2009 after serving as chief operating officer for Major League Baseball. He’s leaving the Blue Jays in good shape – much like Hank Peters, who hired Shapiro with the Indians, did when he retired after serving as team president.

This year, the Blue Jays, currently sitting atop the American League East, are spending nearly $116 million in payroll – more than $40 million more than the Indians (and given how much money was tied up with players no longer on the team – Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Brandon Moss and David Murphy – it could be argued the Jays are spending it better, too).

The bottom line is that Shapiro is making this move because he wants to – but does he want to take on the role in Toronto … or leave Cleveland?

Over the weekend, a story in Crain’s Cleveland Business quoted him as saying that the Dolans, who own the team, “have taken losses quite a few years – including this year.” With the exception of the Green Bay Packers, who are publicly owned, major league sports teams are privately held and thus, not obligated to show their books. So be skeptical when someone – particularly someone connected to the team – suggests a team is losing money. And be VERY skeptical when that’s suggested of a team that continues to receive money from a sin tax expected to raise at least $260 million over the next 20 years (but split between the facilities of the Browns, Indians and Cavs).

Conversely, be skeptical when journalists talk about income and profit of sports teams. It might be an educated guess, but it’s still a guess. But when you hear that Paul Dolan is shopping around for a minority partner, rumors of the Indians taking on water financially seem a little more truthful.

So what’s the upshot of all of this? Paul Dolan is looking for a new minority partner, but for now will take on the duties of team president for a team that has shown a marked inability to hit on free agent signings, attract fans – and if the departing team president was to be believed, make money.

Not exactly the most ideal situation to be in, but the team’s been in worse straits. This is a team that spent the 1960s on the cusp of moving and after that watched Cleveland Stadium all but fall down around them.

Things can get better. Problem is, those changes start at the top.

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