Tufts of an odd hair-like fur found brushed against broken branches on an old forest path. A muddied indention on a creek bed too big to have been from local wildlife. Toppled tree formations left unexplained. Reports of blurred large images moving in the distance. An entire sect of humanity waits in breathless anticipation as every lead is followed, every potential evidence link is verified for what could fully validate the existence of what they fully believe to be more an eventuality than a mere possibility… proof of Bigfoot.
The elusive nature of the target creates the exclusivity of the prize, the desperation of the hunt, and the greatness to be bestowed upon any who might achieve the feat. Coupled with the potential for an immortal place in history is the sorrow in the mis-steps along the journey despite an almost expectation of defeat. Not to mention all done alongside the commonplace mockery of the practice.
Is a small market’s attempted conquest of baseball much different?
For such a team to come within a game–nay, a single run scored– of obtaining a championship, it might require an unsullied bullpen, an untouchable stretch by a Cy Young Award pitcher, roster fodder arms pulling together quality innings where more optimal options saw their fingers bloodied, and timely home runs from non-hitting fielders. Not to mention requirements to end Hall of Fame careers and demonstrate an ability to win despite raucous crowds in a foreign country.
The desperation felt is immense when all such jigsaw components are found, properly placed, and yet the enterprise still finds itself short of the destination. Baseball is a fickle sport. What is thought to be surely true can often be wrong. Players once thought to be invincible are often humbled with even small reductions in greatness. Others through injury absence.
Then, the uncomfortable truth. Despite the 1990s Indians’ front office leading the analytics revolution, high-revenue ballclubs have not only caught on and caught up but widened the gap between big and small market teams given the resources capable of being spent on data accumulation and analysis.
Discussion shifts to contention windows and available talent as if the environment is static. Increasing payrolls and an infusion of additional resources can be muted by an industry geared towards the creation of class-specific ballclubs; tankers and super-teams.
Every flaw is exasperated in such a climate with others bolstering not only their weaknesses but strengths by acquiring high-level players for reduced asset allocation in a buyer’s market. Elite pitchers such as Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole added to already elite starting rotations. Elite hitters such as J.D. Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton added to already elite lineups. The depth of bullpens being so great, pitchers left off the postseason roster would be high-leverage options for even most postseason teams.
Miss out on the few specific value-adds when other small market teams target the Tommy Pham or Christian Yelich types through trade, then find an aging, non-fielding bat and second baseman populating the starting outfield. An inability to develop bullpen arms capable of throwing in the upper regions of the 90s results in trading away the No. 3 prospect in all of baseball to merely place a patch in the leaking relief structures. Giving away a pitching prospect for an injured former MVP on a rental contract becomes necessary just to give yourself the illusion of hope.
Multiple upper echelon players on relative cheap contracts ensure the contention window will not slam shut, but liberal application of WD-40 combined with added leverage to push through more fresh air might be necessary to grease the creaky structure from its current state. Potential offseason losses of Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Michael Brantley, and Josh Donaldson do not help confidence the competitive probabilities will increase in future seasons. Nor does a payroll already in the top half in baseball despite the lack of in-house replacements. Repeated break-out excellence from the young stars, good fortune with injuries and rehabilitation, and the further development of young players will all be necessary for the clubhouse to be stronger in the next year.
Divisional expectations within the American League Central will lead to assumptions of yet another October as a future likelihood for the Tribe. Such thoughts have a chance to cause complacency; a dangerous mindset as 2018 demonstrated. The Milwaukee Brewers sped up their contention timeline with multiple moves, while the Oakland Athletics surprised experts across the game. The 2019 AL Central might not be stronger, but the Minnesota Twins will continue to make a push, the Chicago White Sox youth will eventually become veterans, and the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals will not forever pay for propping up their own past windows of contention. This is baseball, after all.
Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indians had an opportunity to obtain their championship before the advent of the super-team era for their respective sport. The Cavs secured their ring before Kevin Durant happened. The Tribe… did not. The absence of another banner added, the addition of another year gone by since 1948, the whimper of the past two postseason exits, all add to the exasperation of the fanbase and ballclub alike.
Yet, the elusive nature of a championship validates the pursuit. The desperation of the hunt and the greatness to be bestowed upon the Tribe team to end the drought will create an immortal place in Indians history. Someday, perhaps all will be rewarded for the sorrow felt through the mis-steps along this journey despite an almost expectation of defeat.