The old saying is a picture says 1,000 words. This one says 40,000.
It’s the middle of the summer. OK, so the weather in Cleveland was less than ideal Tuesday night, but even if it was (and has been at times), people still are not filing in to watch the Indians take the field. Even when the team was winning during the previous two seasons, I would go to games either during the week or on a Sunday afternoon and it would be me, my kids, and about 8,000 of our closest friends. When the Indians start the season slowly, which seems to have become an annual rite of passage since the Dolan Family took over ownership of the team (save for the forgettable Acta Ball era), the casual fans turn their eyes elsewhere. Whether it’s their kid’s summer camp experience, their golf game, lake life, whatever is your pleasure—those things immediately push the Wahoos to the back burner.
The last time that the Cleveland Boys of Summer have jumped out to the lead in the Central from the start and commanded the city’s attention was 2001. But by then it was old hat and expected. Even during the magical 2007 season, they sputtered out of the gate as they always seemed to do under The Grinder Eric Wedge. In addition, it seems as though the team has an aversion to high preseason expectations. 2006 was supposed to be the year of the Tribe after winning 93 games in ’05 and somehow missing he playoffs by a single game. That season was a wash as that money bullpen of the previous year fell apart. And as we know here more than most, a bad bullpen spells doom for any team trying to contend. ’07 was a special season, but even then the big crowds didn’t start arriving until late August. Naturally 2008 was supposed to be their year. Many national baseball scribes including
the legendary Peter Gammons had the Indians as a World Series club. Instead they were dealing ace CC Sabathia in early July.
Remember the summer of 2007 and the famous picture of the crowd spilling out from a Tribe game into the plaza to see the Cavs take down the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals?
To their credit, the organization is doing as much as they can to bring people back to the park off the field. The winter renovations of the center and right field dubbed “The Corner,” have been widely praised by everyone who has experienced them. All of this was funded internally by ownership, who still continue to be public enemy number one with a large faction of this “fan base.” The new food options in The District, from Barrio to Sweet Moses, Dyn-o-mite Burger, and Melt have been a critical success. The two-story Kids Clubhouse is a fantastic place to get younger fans acclimated to the ballpark and is a major step up from the previous version of itself. The Corner Bar is literally the place to be on Friday and Saturday night games. The $13 District tickets with your first beer on the house and a cool place to chill during a Tribe game is a fantastic idea. It’s just not enough for the casual fan.
I was raised on the Game of Baseball and I am raising my kids on the game as well. Like me, they have taken to it at a young age. It’s in their blood and as a season ticket holder, it’s “our thing” to spend time together at the park. Yes, we go down early so my kids can take swings in the whiffle ball cage or race their favorite players in the 40-yard dash. They are members of the Tribe Town MVPs kids fan club, another new addition this season. We have our routine: Get our food on the way to the seats before first pitch (a hot dog for my daughter, pizza for my son), crack open the peanuts in the third, watch the hot dog race after the fifth and if the weather is hot follow it up with ice cream, sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at stretch time, and hopefully celebrate a Tribe win on our way out. Yes, my five- and eight-year-old kids sit for nine innings regularly. My son keeps score. They get into it and love the game the way I did when my dad took me and my brother to games when we were their ages. I also can fully recognize that they are the exception, not the rule. The generation that is growing up now has an attention span that lasts only a few innings. They’d rather be playing with their phones and texting the person five feet away than sit through an entire nine-inning game.
Baseball is a regional sport and one that is not favored in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic. I’m going to say it: It’s an old, white man’s game. The NBA and NFL are more popular, that is an undeniable fact in 2015. The slow nature of the game of baseball and the amount of games being played hurt the game’s Q rating. I could watch the Indians every single night (and I do), but you know how many of my friends are “baseball first” guys like me? One. Maybe two. Sure, I know a lot of baseball fans, but in this town they are few and far between. Thank goodness for Twitter. I’ve found myself a community of Tribe fans just as sick as me that I interact with on the regular. Tribe season wouldn’t be the same for me at this point of not for the likes of SportsYelling, Brutal Stephanie, Jeff Ellis, Matt Bretz, Monte the Color Man, Ed The Revelator, and the like. There are diehards out there, but we seem to be a dying breed.
The Indians are trying to enhance the in-game experience by improving the park, which was long overdue. The problem remains the game of baseball and the city’s lackluster attitude toward the team. The product on the field continues to disappoint. Sports Illustrated picked the Indians to win the World Series and even with a team that looked like a contender on paper, many seemed skeptical. Unfortunately, the Tribe sputtered out of gate while LeBron James and the Cavs were driving towards the NBA Finals. That run was the best and the worst thing to happen to the Red, White, and Blue. As The Q was jumping, Progressive Field went unnoticed. Those who were heavily invested were disappointed and turned their attention across the plaza to the Wine and Gold and the casual fan went back to ignoring the Indians, choosing instead to stand outside the baseball stadium for four quarters to watch a basketball game on a giant television.
Remember the summer of 2007 and the famous picture of the crowd spilling out from a Tribe game into the plaza to see the Cavs take down the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals? We could have had that again. The Tribe didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
Meanwhile, Dan Gilbert’s spending spree during free agency makes things even worse for the much maligned Dolan Family. With the Cavs luxury tax bill creeping well north of the entire Indians payroll, no one seems to recognize that they paid for the renovations. “The Dolan’s are cheap” narrative will never go away. Nevertheless, big-name free agency is fools gold and brought you Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Never mind that they smartly extended Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, and Carlos Carrasco—the core of the team.
They are what they are. They will never be Dan Gilbert. But if Paul Dolan suddenly had billions instead of millions, would the masses reappear from the mid-to-late-90s and come out to support the team? Nothing will ever compare to the “Era of Champions,” and unrealistic fans seemingly want that or nothing. Even when the Cavs went through a four-year dizzy spell before LeBron came back, the attendance was still solid. The Browns, one of the worst franchises in the NFL since returning in 1999, continue to have a robust season-ticket base with legions more waiting in line to get their shot, and sell out every game no matter how bad they are. But as I said earlier, the NFL is king and the NBA is a younger, hipper sport than baseball.
So where do the Indians go from here? There is still a distrust of ownership and the front office duo of President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Chris Antonetti. These two have essentially lorded over a 14-year run where we’ve seen just two playoff seasons, one of which lasted a single game. You don’t see that kind of stability in pro sports anymore. They are on par with Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs in terms of tenure only, and they have a fist full of rings to show for it. No front office gets this kind of leash. Since Shapiro and Antonetti have been on the job, the Browns have gone from Dwight Clark to Butch Davis and Pete Garcia to Phil Savage to George Kokinis to Mike Holmgren to Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi to Ray Farmer. Am I missing anyone? The Cavs? They’re on their second GM in two seasons and their fourth head coach in four.
You have to admire an organization that respects vision and stability, but the Indians have a real problem. Unless they win consistently, and do so from start to finish over a run of several years, people are going to continue to stay away. The worst part? While the team claims to have drawn 10,800 fans on Tuesday night (though that image above says otherwise), those who stayed away missed a gem from the current AL Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, who fanned seven in 6 2/3 innings, earning a much-needed win. As a die-hard Tribe fan and season-ticket holder, I don’t agree with it. But I can’t deny that it’s an issue that isn’t going away, regardless of how many $2 beers and dollar dogs they offer up.