Searching for Perspective on the 2014 Indians

Cleveland Indians

Let’s be clear up front: The Cleveland Indians fell short of their goals in 2014. They won’t play in October. They didn’t improve upon last year’s record. They finished in third place in a nominally weak division. I don’t want to be accused of being an apologist for failure, so I should say it loud and clear: I’m disappointed the Indians didn’t make the playoffs. This isn’t the end I wanted for this group.

I also think we shouldn’t let the front office off the hook for the mistakes they’ve made. Extending Ryan Raburn last year during his first hot streak in years was the height of arrogance; but it might work for US, they seemed to intone.  Their struggles in the draft over the last decade and a half have been well documented, but perhaps an anecdote is in order: the best player this group has drafted since CC Sabathia—the absolute best—is likely Jason Kipnis, who managed less than a single win above replacement this season. Finally, their apparent disdain for defense is unforgivable, as evidenced by the roughly 145 run swing between the Royals’ fielding and our own. That’s a fifteen game headstart we gave the Royals, just by running out such crummy fielders day after day. This is to say nothing about the Nick Swisher abomination.

Extending Ryan Raburn last year during his first hot streak in years was the height of arrogance. Their apparent disdain for defense is unforgivable. But the fact that people are even having the discussion about firing the GM again is ridiculous.

But I also think that the fact that people are even having the discussion about firing the GM again is ridiculous. The Indians have won more games in the last two years than the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Rays, the Royals, the Angels, the Rangers, the Mariners, and the Blue Jays. Of the 30 MLB teams, only seven have won more games over this span than the Indians, three of whom reside in the American League. This front office has taken a team with the worst ticket sales in baseball and a hamstrung budget, and won more games than all but three teams in the League.

They’ve also managed to acquire the following players via trade: Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Yan Gomes, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Santana. That’s a 200-hit guy, a soon-to-be Cy Young winner, two of the best catchers in the American League, and two of the brightest young pitching talents in the game. They were smart enough not to re-sign Ubaldo or extend Justin Masterson before this season, even though they caught flack for both.  They single-handedly brought one of the most decorated managers in the game to Cleveland, to play in front of an empty house with unproven players. I think you could reasonably argue that no front office in baseball has done more with less in the last fifteen years, including the Rays and A’s.1

The problem is that they haven’t won a Championship yet, and that this city will continue putting people on crosses until that’s no longer true. Nevermind that they play an unfair game. Nevermind that the MLB playoffs are harder to make—and more of a crapshoot once you’re in—than any other sports’ championship tournament. Nevermind that they are in a city that refuses to support them, often gleefully so, because of the memory of a bygone era.  What’s that? You made a good trade? Go to hell and bring me back a Ring. Oh, you’re in a small market? Hope you enjoy the severance check. Sign a superstar free agent and manager? We literally can’t wait to mock them.

Far be it from me to tell someone what to feel or think. I tend to believe that demanding anyone’s job is a bit uncouth, but I also understand that pitchforks are generally a part of the deal when you take jobs like these. Shapinetti are big boys who can take care of themselves.

I just find the “FIRE THEM” narrative to be instructive, both in how the city views itself and how it relates to its sports teams.

For instance, we like to pretend that it can never get worse—we’ll just clean house and find somebody better! This is a particularly frustrating sentiment, if only because the Browns LITERALLY PLAY FOUR BLOCKS AWAY and are concrete evidence that it can and does get worse.  Eric Mangini a bit heavy handed and slow to succeed? EAT SH*T. HERE’S PAT SHURMUR WHO LITERALLY CANNOT COUNT! Mike Holmgren resting on his laurels and stealing Randy Lerner’s money? WELCOME JIMMY HASLAM: AN HONEST-TO-GOD FELON!

A city like ours should appreciate that the next best thing is almost never as advertised—in fact, it’s usually a lot like the thing it’s replacing: which is to say, crummy.  While being afraid of change is never a good reason not to move on from a bad situation, we seem to pull the plug earlier and with more glee than most.

And yet, almost counter-intuitively, here we are, still the leading T-shirt economy in the free world. This isn’t because we’re optimistic. It’s because we are fickle.

Speaking of fickle, does it ever feel like we suffer our losses so much harder than we celebrate our wins? Quick: what’s the narrative about the Indians and a big series against a rival opponent? Ding ding ding! They always crap the bed when the season is on the line, right? Except that last season they won 10 consecutive games to make the playoffs, all of which were “must win”. Except that this season they were 25-21 in one run games, 13-8 in extra inning games, and above .500 in the division, including a winning record against all but one AL Central team. They outscored their Pythagorean record by several games, which I think has to be something like the definition of “clutch”. But they lost consecutive games to the Tigers, and we turned on them hard. The wins are forgotten; the losses amplified.

And because of that, they’ll be remembered as losers. Just like last year: a bunch of losers, who haven’t proved a thing.

There are, you might not believe, cities that would consider a season like this one to have been fairly fun—successful even! We won more than we lost! We outperformed preseason forecasts! We had a Cy Young-worthy performance, a 200-hit season, and some breakout years from young players we have under control for years to come. This might be seen as a good thing, even!

But not here. They failed. They suck. Fire the bums.

Somewhere along the line, success became equated with Championships, so that any season that comes up short of that benchmark is necessarily a failure.2 When you set standards so high, you’ll almost certainly be disappointed. And disappointment is what we do best. After all, we’re exceptionally well-practiced, as we love to remind anyone who will listen.

I honestly wish this piece were a strawman argument. I wish that the sentiments outlined above were a caricature—not the way people really feel, but rather the way people who disagree with those people make them out to be. I wish that I were being hyperbolic. But…

Depressed yet?

Sorry about that, but I wanted to make sure you knew what I’m talking about. So let me say this once again: Our front office is an asset. Our ownership spends well beyond what the attendance merits.3 Our players are young, fun to watch, and most importantly, good at playing baseball. That is not an accident. It’s also not guaranteed.

So when I see sentiments like those above—and yes this one too:

I get a bit frustrated.  Not because we’re not seeing eye-to-eye on whom to hold accountable—generally speaking the front office and ownership are logical scapegoats for failure.

No. What’s frustrating to me is that there is a sentiment out there that we deserve to be seeking vengeance for something. That we should feel angry and forlorn. That we have been failed by our team and its leadership. A bunch of lousy losers. Forever and ever, Amen.

The wins are forgotten; the losses amplified.

And I just don’t think any of that’s true. This team played entertaining baseball. They were in a playoff race to the last week of the season, which is usually what I’m asking for when the season starts. They have gobs of young talent—most of which is under team control for the rest of this decade due to the stewardship of the front office. I had fun this year, and I bet if you’re still reading this you did too. The notion that it was only fun pending some future outcome seems dissociative at best and dishonest at worst.

So while I’m sad that the season is over and that we couldn’t eke out a playoff spot and that Ryan Raburn and Nick Swisher are still under contract, I’m also happy that we got to see such a fun season and that we’re set up for more fun….wait for it….NEXT YEAR.  I’ve never much thought of myself as an optimist, much less a cockeyed one, so it’s weird to look all around me and see anger and bloodthirst, when all I can muster is some general Autumnal sadness with a healthy complement of expectation and hope. Maybe you’ll tell me I’m just a well-trained sycophant to a regime that’s long since lost its luster. Maybe you’ll tell me I’m an unimaginative sap who whitewashes the failures of other because it’s easier than confronting them head on. Maybe you’ll tell me I just don’t want it enough, that I’m just a lousy loser—same as I ever was, forever and ever, Amen…

But I sure hope things are more complicated than that. I hope, for instance, that we can acknowledge the front office’s successes with the same passion we typically reserve for their shortcomings. I hope that we can criticize without always demanding a pound of flesh just to prove we really mean it this time. I hope that we can stop looking for the cracks—because there will always be cracks—and try to enjoy the whole messy thing just a little bit more.

Most of all? I hope this winter flies by. Nineteen weeks ‘til pitchers and catchers. I’m never gonna make it.

Thanks for bearing with me this season, even if you didn’t have any fun at all…

  1. Imagine, just for a second, if the Indians had done what the A’s did for Billy Beane: namely, give their front office an equity stake in the team. Talk radio would become self-sustaining, methinks. []
  2. Only for the Indians, of course. If the Browns won more games than they lost there would be a parade down Euclid Avenue. []
  3. Don’t look know, but we outspent nine other teams on payroll this year, among them the Mets, the Cubs, the White Sox and the Padres—despite, of course, drawing fewer fans than every team in baseball. But we had some really great, well-argued reasons for not going… []