Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Bizarre Game of Chicken

The only thing really worth knowing about the holdouts of Cavaliers restricted free agents Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao is that it underscores why Dan Gilbert would be a far better owner for the Indians than the Cavaliers. Having to operate in a salary-cap constrained world is antithetical to the way guys like Gilbert would prefer to operate.

First, the back story. As most know already, Pavlovic and Varejao are, either coincidentally or in concert, holding out for contracts that the Cavaliers and GM Danny Ferry believe would give the team less financial flexibility down the road. Reportedly each is seeking approximately $10 million a year for several years, a figure the Cavs have deemed too rich and too restricting to their ability to build a team worthy of being a legitimate multi-year contender for a NBA championship.

Though the NBA rules on this sort of thing can get fairly technical, the options each player had given their status were pretty limited, a fact that seems to have eluded both. Once the Cavs made each a one-year qualifying offer (by rule, qualifying offers are limited to one year), the restricted status of each was preserved, meaning that the Cavs could match any offer made by another team.

Of course, the two could have signed the qualifying offer, played the season and opted for unrestricted free agency next year. Apparently each preferred longer-term deals now that would shield them from the risk of injury or poor play and turned down the qualifying offers. In doing so, they boxed themselves even further into a corner, also a fact that seems to have eluded both.

At this point, the corner they now find themselves in is to lower their demands, find another team willing to pay them what they want, or hold out for their original price. There seems to be no sign of them lowering their demand and to this point no other team has jumped into the mix. Thus, they find themselves sitting in Europe somewhere unpaid and facing the specter of hard-bargaining by the Cavs down the road. But the key to all this is that so long as they sit out, they’ll never lose their status as restricted free agents. It’s hard to believe the market gets better for them the less they play, but hey, that’s for their agents to convince them otherwise.

It may be that both overestimated the willingness of another team to pay them that kind of money and get a niche player in return. But knowing the mentality of player agents, more likely the two have been programmed to believe that the only reason no one else has come forward with a contract relates solely to the Cavs having the right to match it. Eventually, the two will learn that their agents are nuts.

If any other team wants either player, all they need to do is sign them to the kind of dollars they want (approximately $10 million per season, 3-5 year deals). Assuming Ferry’s stated reasons for not signing either is based on their demands, then there is no reason to believe he’d match such an offer. He wouldn’t.

This means, of course, that GMs across the league firmly don’t believe that either is a $10 million a year player, an ego-deflating reality that eventually will set in, even as the agents tell them otherwise. So the two are left to sit and stew in Europe or elsewhere while this gets sorted out, hoping against hope that the Cavs will tank so bad early this season that Ferry and Gilbert will be forced to meet their demands to appease the fans, even if that means hurting the franchise down the road.

But that’s a sucker play for both Pavlovic and Varejao and if that’s what they’re relying on to break the logjam, then I hope they enjoy the winter weather in Europe or wherever else they may be hanging out for there is still more reality that they’ll face.

Let’s concede up front that the Cavs are a better team with them than without them. But is that really the issue? We already know that this team, even with the two, is not strong enough to win the NBA championship. That is not going to change just because they have new contracts. The Cavs did basically stand pat going into last season and while they did progress to the NBA finals, they did so out of a much weaker conference. In baseball terms, the NBA East is the National League and the NBA West is the American League. Nothing’s changed on that score.

On the other hand, there is every real possibility that the team will eventually regress should the Cavs accede to their demands. Financial flexibility in the NBA isn’t the same as financial flexibility in major league baseball. In the NBA, having too many role players under long-term, big money contracts that eat up your salary cap is the recipe for long-term mediocrity and frustration. Think New York Knicks.

In baseball, on the other hand, you can buy your way out of such problems if you are so inclined. It may be costly, but there is absolutely no reason for a major league baseball team to repeatedly flounder under large contracts to underperforming players. The absence of a salary cap always allows for a mulligan, several if need be. In basketball, once you get saddled with these contracts, it’s an owner’s, a GM’s and the fans worst nightmare. Put it this way, you’d rather be stuck in a cart forever on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World than trying to fight your way out of NBA salary cap hell.

Which gets us back to Dan Gilbert. This absolutely has to eat at him in a way that no other owner of a Cleveland professional sports franchise could ever experience. So committed to excellence and possessing the ability and acumen to execute the steps needed to achieve it, Gilbert can only sit idly by while Ferry and the players’ respective agents engage in this game of chicken.

Gilbert didn’t get off on the right foot with Cavs fans when he took over because he initially seemed like a meddlesome basketball-player wannabe with neither the knowledge nor the experience to make the kinds of decisions he seemed to be making. But initial appearances can be deceiving. Since that rocky start Gilbert has defied the age-old bromide that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

At this juncture, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better owner in Cleveland sports history, which is not as stunning as that may sound initially. The history of Cleveland sports is dotted with well-intentioned by undercapitalized owners. It’s one of the main reasons, frankly, that this town has not enjoyed a championship in any major sport since 1964.

But Gilbert is different. What distinguishes him from his counterparts, Larry and Paul Dolan with the Indians and Randy Lerner with the Browns, is the fact that while the others possess some, he possesses all of the qualities necessary to actually bring a winner to Cleveland.

The Dolans are life-long Indians fans and value their franchise in only a way that someone with that kind of pedigree can, similar to Randy Lerner with the Browns. But the Dolans ultimately lack the funds they need to realize the full scope of their grand plans.

Lerner, as passionate as he is about the Browns generally, simply seems to lack the singularity of focus that someone like Robert Kraft in New England has. Money may never be an object to Lerner, but it’s not the dividing line in football anyway. Ultimate success in your chosen endeavor has to consume your every waking moment and right now Lerner is a nice guy, rich billionaire with too varied of interests to devote his full time and efforts to ensuring that the Browns win a Super Bowl.

But Gilbert has both the money and the drive. Unfortunately, he exists in a league that, like the NFL, legislates against owner avarice through a salary cap. It simply doesn’t suit his innate sense to spend what it takes to ensure success. The best thing that Gilbert really is doing right now is resisting the temptation to simply spend to solve an emerging short-term problem. Unlike most owners, he has the business acumen to recognize how a short-term fix can cause a long-term problem.

Hopefully, though, Cavs fans will remember this when the Cavs take their woeful preseason play onto the court for good starting this week. It won’t be pretty, but Gilbert’s not the problem. All he’s done is to earn the trust that may require the team to take a half-step back to ensure a sea-change step forward. But as he’s watching this unfold, hopefully he’s keeping an eye on the Indians. If they’re ever for sale, hopefully he’ll make that purchase and never look back.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Something to Celebrate

Maybe it’s not quite time yet for car flipping and couch burning, but for the beleaguered fans who have followed this Cleveland Browns franchise for these last several years they finally have something tangible to celebrate other than Halloween: the Browns first two-game win streak in four years.

All it took to seal the 27-20 victory against the winless Rams was a Leigh Bodden interception with 35 seconds left. Oh, if it were only that easy.

In truth, this game was as much about the Browns overcoming their numerous mistakes on both sides of the ball as anything else. On offense, particularly in the second half, the Browns seemed to be walking backward because of penalties as much as they were moving forward because of quarterback Derek Anderson. Throw in the fact that the Rams were just injured enough and just lousy enough and the Browns were able to get both their first road win, their first winning streak and their first winning record of the season, all at the same time. But again, it wasn’t easy.

At the outset, the Browns look like they had decided they liked their bye week well enough to extend it a few more days, coming out flat and looking unprepared. But after the St. Louis Rams had just finished scoring their second touchdown, a 10-play 71-yard drive that looked every bit as effortless as it was, head coach Romeo Crennel did something as out of character as Britney Spears calling it an early evening. He let his struggling defense know he had a pulse.

There he was, on the sidelines, headphones off, actually reading the riot act to a defensive line that was being abused by a make-shift Rams offensive line. Maybe it was Crennel’s word choice. Maybe it was the sight of seeing their laconic head coach coming unglued. Or maybe it was the fortunate timing of the Rams’ Steven Jackson apparently re-injuring himself followed quickly by Rams head coach Scott Linehan making a questionable call on 4th and 1 from the Cleveland 33 with Jackson out of the game. But whatever it was, the players seemed to respond.

Suddenly, a Browns team that was down by 11 to a Rams team that had only scored nine points in their last two games combined, found new energy on both sides of the ball getting the score back to even, 17-17, as the first half ended.


Personal Aside #1: Is it too much to ask the NFL to require CBS to broadcast every game in high definition? CBS treats HD like it is brand new technology and their cameras are on back order. Of course this wouldn’t make a difference if the network had more respect for the Browns and to be fair, it’s not as if the Browns prior to this season gave anyone any reason to give them respect. But actually seeing an agitated Crennel in HD while tearing into his defense would have been YouTube-worthy. Instead, the picture was every bit as muddled as one of Crennel’s press conferences.


The emergence of the Browns offense this season has been one of the most pleasant surprises in Cleveland sports in years. Derek Anderson, after a slow start, threw a perfectly placed jump ball to receiver Braylon Edwards for the team’s first touchdown and threaded the ball to tight end Kellen Winslow II for the second touchdown. For the game, he was 18-25 for 248 yards and three touchdowns. But as good as Anderson’s passes were, both touchdowns were set up by the decision of offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski not to eschew the running game despite the early deficit.

In that first drive, running back Jamal Lewis ran the ball five times for 34 yards while Jason Wright added a sixth run for eight yards. The second drive featured another six running plays, including an end around to Josh Cribbs who eluded and otherwise ran through a number of tacklers on his way to 18 yards. Overall, the Browns had 132 yards rushing. By this point, with a run firmly established, Anderson was able to take advantage of what was becoming a soft Rams secondary.

Still, as well as the Browns were playing on offense as the half ended, they were only tied with the Rams, thanks in part to the defense allowing Rams quarterback Mark Bulger to move the ball 52 yards in just over a minute to put the Rams in a position to kick the game-typing field goal.

Thus, an opening drive in the second half to re-establish the momentum was absolutely critical. It happened. But again it wasn’t easy. The drive, which resulted in Anderson’s third touchdown pass of the day, was as comical as it was poetic. It featured four penalties, including three false starts. In the old days, which means any day prior to the end of the Pittsburgh game the first week, any one of those penalties would have taken the air out of the offense if not the whole team. But where this team has really gotten better is in its ability to stay on track, at least offensively.

Despite the self-dug holes, Anderson was able to lead the way mostly by completing key passes to Joe Jurevicius. And when they finally stopped making penalties, the Browns were able to move rather easily through a Rams defense that was looking more and more defeated with each completed pass and third down converted. An under thrown pass by Anderson and a brilliant catch by Edwards got the ball to the Rams three-yard line and, two plays later, Anderson found Edwards in the back of the end zone for his third touchdown pass of the game, pushing the lead to 24-17.

But because this is the Browns and because they have to play defense, the game was far from over. Indeed, even as Bulger was temporarily exiting to get a damaged thumb taped, the Rams were able to move the ball well enough, aided by still another Browns penalty, to get into field goal range and get the game to well within striking distance.

And then it got real interesting. With the Browns taking the next possession and moving to finish the game, Edwards decided it was time to unleash his inner child for the first time this season by channeling the ghost of Dwayne Rudd. Following a 19-yard catch that took the Browns to the St. Louis 26 yard-line, Edwards ran down the field, tore off his helmet and jawed at the crowd, as if he had just invented oxygen. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty took the ball back to the Rams 45. Eventually, the drive stalled at the St. Louis 27 (a sack and a Winslow false start didn’t help, either) and Phil Dawson drilled a 45-yard field goal to push the lead to seven. It could have and should have been more.


Personal Aside #2: As immature of an act as it was to throw off the helmet, Edwards showed some uncharacteristic maturity by actually apologizing to his teammates afterward, attributing the “mistake” to thinking that the quarter had ended. That’s a far cry to how dismissive he was last year about his conduct after chewing out Charlie Frye on the sidelines. Edwards seems serious about turning a corner, which is at least as good of news as Anderson’s play this season.

In fact, despite the Edwards misstep, things looked pretty good after the Browns defense put up an uncharacteristically strong stand, forcing the Rams to punt with 7:47 left in the game. But a three and out put the ball right back in the Rams hand and the Rams were much more efficient this time. Eventually, though, the Rams stalled when they again couldn’t convert on 4th and 1.

With the Rams forced to use all of their timeouts on the Browns next possession, the game should have been over. Unfortunately, a dropped pass by Edwards on third down gave the Rams a final chance, which the Browns were aiding with two straight penalties, including a pass interference call against Eric Wright. But with time running out, Bulger was forced to take bigger chances and Bodden stepped in front of a pass intended for Torry Holt finally close out the game.

If it seems like it’s a broken record at this point to again single out Edwards and Anderson, that’s because it is. Anderson, behind a rebuilt offensive line, now has 17 touchdown passes for the year and is on pace to easily break the franchise record. Edwards is having a Pro Bowl year. He had eight more receptions, giving him 37 on the season. He had 117 yards, giving him 669 for the season. He also had two more touchdowns, giving him nine for the season. Outside of Randy Moss with New England, no receiver is having a better year.

The emergence of the Browns really mirrors a shift in the NFL. In fact, it defines it. This year more than any other year in recent memory, offense is winning games in the NFL, not defense. That’s good news for teams like Cleveland, bad news for teams like Baltimore.

It’s hard to believe, however, that a team with the worst defense in the league could actually make the playoffs, but as this point anything is possible. And if the Browns can find a way to solve the enigmatic Seattle Seahawks next week, even the most cynical among us won’t think the playoffs are so farfetched. But again, it won’t be easy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The End of the Beginning or...

Cleveland Indians fans, having had a few days now to fully absorb their latest disappointment, have been left to wonder whether the loss to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series was the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end.

The popular theory is that the 2007 Indians, particularly the version that stormed its way to the best record in the American League with a late season surge, is a young team on the come with even better days on the horizon. There certainly is enough young talent to justify the perception, which only suggests that the loss brought merely a sudden end to what looks to be a good two or three year run, at least.

But whether that ultimately turns out to be the case is far less certain than it might otherwise appear on the surface.

The problem with baseball economics as practiced in markets like Cleveland is that every season is ultimately a crapshoot. You enter with a hundred questions that only money, properly allocated, can solve. The problem, of course, that major league baseball is not played on a level field. A lack of revenue sharing and a salary cap ensures that’s the case. Consequently the Indians are not ever going to be funded in the same way that George Steinbrenner funds the Yankees. In the first place, the Dolans don’t have that kind of money. In the second place, they don’t have the same inclination toward deficit spending.

Given this double whammy, which is experienced in other cities as well, fans can never be quite sure what kind of team they’ll have entering a given season. Whereas the Yankees or the Red Sox, for example, can keep an already good team intact by simply spending, they can also go out and acquire whatever else they need, unconstrained are they by such pedestrian concepts as budgets or prudence. The Red Sox paid over $50 million just for the right to then pay Daisuke Matsuzaka another $50+ million in salary and didn’t give up any player in the process. It may be an insane way to run a business, especially when you consider the Red Sox were already deficit spending to the tune of $18.5 million a year before that deal, but it’s the reality in which major league baseball operates.

Of course not every investment turns out particularly well, but a bad decision in Cleveland can have tragic consequences. In Boston or New York, it’s often a rounding error. That’s why teams like the Indians, the Colorado Rockies, the Oakland As, and several others, are forced to rely on young talent far enough from free agency to play for minimal salaries to fill out the bulk of the roster and then spend what limited funds they have left on a few veteran pieces to round out the team.

The problem with this formula is that it can be very volatile for reasons almost completely out of anyone’s control. For example, the progression of a young player is not always a straight line. Sometimes there are setbacks, long stretches lasting weeks or months when the player looks overmatched. It takes time and experience to understand and then execute the adjustments that must be made in order to deliver on potential. As for the kinds of free agents that economically-challenged teams end up signing, mostly it’s based on hope. In Cleveland, for example, we’ve seen an endless parade of free agents over the last few years who might as well been inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys, banished there by their former clubs for ineffectiveness, injury histories or both. Some of these signings work, many do not. For every Joe Borowski or Kevin Millwood, there’s an Aaron Boone or a Roberto Hernandez.

If you’re unconvinced how truly volatile the formula is as practiced in Cleveland, just look at the last three seasons. The 2005 Indians finished 93-69. A final week collapse is all that stood between then and the playoffs. A team on the come? Well, it didn’t quite work that way in 2006 when the Indians were worse by a full 14 games! A team on the decline? Well, it didn’t work that way either as the Indians of 2007 improved by 18 games!

The pattern that emerges, really, is that which is dictated by the economics of the times, seasons defined by how well the homegrown talent progressed and the fractured free agents performed.

In truth, offensively the 2006 team was far better than the 2007 team. It had a much higher average (.280 to .268), a better on-base percentage (.349 to .343), scored more runs (870 to 811) and had more home runs (196 to 178). The difference, as everyone knows, was pitching and particularly the bullpen and particularly the middle relievers. The 2005 team, on the other hand, was similar offensively as this year’s team. Again, where they succeeded and the 2006 failed was pitching and particularly the bullpen and particularly the middle relievers.

When GM Mark Shapiro decided, for example, not to sign Bobby Howry going into the 2006 season, he cut the legs out of the bullpen. The young talent did not perform as hoped and the free agents were a disaster.

On the other hand, the 2007 team was aided immeasurably by relatively homegrown talent such as Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez, and later Tom Mastny and Jensen Lewis, performing beyond expectations at the same time that the free agent acquisitions of Joe Borowski and Aaron Fultz were doing likewise.

But in the larger sense, the story of these teams was simply a case of one year the formula working another year, not so much. That’s why it’s so difficult to project where the Indians really stand on the heels of this past season. All this year’s stability does is ensure that the Indians are likely to go into next season relatively intact in the bullpen and hope it works out just as well. The flaky nature of relief pitching, particularly when dominated by such young talent, makes that far from a sure thing.

It’s why, ultimately, Shapiro will find himself tinkering. Despite his 45 saves, would anyone be surprised if Shapiro decided he could do without the rollercoaster ride that is Borowski and instead went with Betancourt, particularly when Betancourt seems to be developing into the same kind of lockdown reliever as the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, a pitcher who, when he has to, can come in the game in the eighth inning and still get the save in the ninth. But if Betancourt finds himself in the closer role, can Lewis or Mastny pitch as effectively over an entire season as Betancourt did this year? Will that force Shapiro to sign another middle reliever or hope someone else also emerges from the minors?

The questions, though, are hardly confined to the bullpen. Is Fausto Carmona the real deal or a one-year wonder? Who is the real Cliff Lee anyway? Can Paul Byrd really be counted on for 15 wins next season? Will Jake Westbrook return to the kind of form that earned him that huge contract? And what about C.C. Sabathia? He is entering his free agent year and decisions need to be made. No player has yet given Cleveland the “hometown discount” whatever that means and there’s no reason to believe that Sabathia will be the first. Besides, do the Indians even want to keep Sabathia beyond next season? There is talent just waiting its turn in the minors that works much more cheaply. But will they be as effective? What’s the right trade-off, 13 wins at minimum wage vs. 20 wins at $1 million per win?

You could spin yourself into knots just thinking of all the questions that are dictated by the Indians economics, despite how relatively tranquil and stable things otherwise seem with this team. And you can be sure, too, that’s just what Shapiro’s doing. How these turn out, however, are the key to whether or not the Indians are entering into another golden age for the difference between right and wrong is the difference between the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

Monday, October 22, 2007


There are any number of ways one can choose to look at the Indians collapse over the last several days. There are the individual plays, of course, that will be talked about and that list already has started: Kenny Lofton being called out at second when replays show he was safe; Joel Skinner’s puzzling decision to hold Lofton at third when he seemingly could have easily scored; Casey Blake grounding into the double play, etc.And generally individual games tend to turn on individual plays. That’s just the way it is.

But if the point in understanding what happened is to arrive at some greater truth that can be utilized down the road, then the real reason the Indians are cleaning out their lockers on Monday and Boston is preparing to play Colorado on Wednesday comes down to leadership. Boston had it, Cleveland did not. The inability of two of the Indians key leaders, C.C. Sabathia and Travis Hafner, to put the rest of this young team on their backs and close out the series when it had the chance is not only a stark reality to be faced but a situation to be addressed.

Sabathia may win the Cy Young award based on his performance this season, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who watched the Cleveland/Boston series who’d say that Sabathia is a better pitcher than Josh Beckett, particularly when it counted most. While Beckett seemed intimidated by nothing much, Sabathia acted almost overwhelmed by the enormity of the playoffs, starting with the Yankees series. He wasn’t completely ineffective, just mostly, but what he did do was demonstrate that at this point he’s not the fully realized superstar Cleveland fans would like to believe he is.

What was particularly frustrating in this regard is how he seemed to abandon what had brought him to this stage in the first place. He repeatedly nibbled rather than challenged, and in the process unwittingly set a tone for the other pitchers to follow. Outside of one glorious half-inning in game two when Tom Mastny set down David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell in the 10th inning, Sabathia and, by proxy, the rest of the Indians pitchers, basically had no answer to the middle of the Red Sox lineup.

It would be hard to overstate how poorly Indians pitchers approached the middle of the Red Sox lineup. There is no question that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are terrific hitters, but time and again Indians pitchers, led by Sabathia, treated the two, as well as Kevin Youkilis and eventually Mike Lowell, with such caution that they were pitching from behind even before they threw a pitch.

Ortiz, went 0-5 on Sunday and still batted .292 for the series. Youkilis batted .500 for the series while Ramirez batted .409. Lowell batted .333. But those raw numbers hardly tell the story. What matters most is that they were an intimidating presence in the lineup and time and again Indians pitchers simply pitched scared or expended so much energy trying to be so fine in their approach they didn’t even notice that the inning and the game was getting away from them in the meantime.

Consider, for example, game one. The third inning effectively spelled the end for Sabathia and the Indians. Julio Lugo led off with a double and was sacrificed to third by Pedroia. Up came Youkilis. Instead of Sabathia challenging him, he nibbled and begged and ultimately walked him on four straight pitches. Shaken, Sabathia then hit Ortiz to load the bases. After getting ahead of Ramirez 0-2, Sabathia couldn’t finish, instead throwing four straight balls to walk in a run. Lowell then him a double and a game that had been 1-1 was now 4-1.

In game five, Youkilis hit a home run off of Sabathia in the first inning. Ramirez then doubled and Lowell singled. The only thing that kept that inning from being bigger was that Ramirez got thrown out at the plate trying to score. In the third inning, after Youkilis hit into a double-play, Sabathia then walked Ortiz and Ramirez singled and the Indians were now behind 2-1. In the seventh, when Sabathia should have been sitting in the dugout, something for which he can’t be blamed, he gave up a lead-off double to Pedroia and a triple to Youkilis before being replaced by Rafeal Bentancourt. Youkilis eventually scored that inning on a sacrifice but the two runs were charged to Sabathia and the Indians were now behind 4-1 and that game, too, was now effectively over.

If there wasn’t a straight line from Sabathia’s performance in either game to ineffectiveness of Carmona, particularly on Saturday night, the line wasn’t very circuitous either. In the first inning Saturday, Dustin Pedroia was down in the count 1-2 and then singled. Carmona, like Sabathia, sensed the pressure and tightened up, immediately getting behind to Youkilis, who eventually gets an infield single on a 2-2 pitch. Ortiz comes up and all Carmona did was immediately go 3-0 on him, eventually walking him after getting the count to full. The bases were now full. Carmona then got ahead of Ramirez quickly and ultimately struck him out then induced Lowell to fly out. On the cusp of getting out of what was looking to be a disaster, Carmona seemed completely spent by what had already taken place. As a result he let down and eventually J.D. Drew drilled a 3-1 pitch over the wall in center field. That game was effectively over, too.

It’s not like these situations were limited to the games Cleveland lost. In fact, the middle of the lineup for the Red Sox was active throughout the series and caused Indians pitchers fits time and again. It’s just that in the games Cleveland won, the other Red Sox hitters had trouble capitalizing on all the attention that was being paid to Youkilis, Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell.

But as intimidated as Sabathia and the rest of the Indians pitchers seemed to be by the Red Sox lineup, the Indians could still have prevailed if Hafner had been able to step up when Sabathia could not. Instead, Hafner effectively killed off whatever remaining hope remained after Sabathia’s flameout.

On Saturday night, despite Drew’s grand slam, the Indians were still just one swing away from tying the game in the third inning. Trot Nixon and Casey Blake had both singled. Grady Sizemore lined out and Asbrubal Cabrera flied out. Up came Hafner with the opportunity to do something special.

It may be unrealistic to ever expect a home run, but somehow great players find a way to seize the moment. Hafner, like Sabathia, showed he’s not yet in that category. When great was needed, he quickly went down in the count 1-2, a place he seemingly found himself in throughout the series. Hafner then grounded out to first to kill the inning and sap whatever chance the Indians had of getting back into the game.

If that seems like too harsh of an assessment, then consider the following. In Hafner’s first at bat in game one, he hit a solo home run. It was as good as it would get for him the entire series. He struck out in the fourth inning and flew out in the sixth inning (with Cabrera on base and one run already in). In game two, Hafner flew out in the first inning with Sizemore on second. In game three, Hafner went hitless. Although the Indians won the game, it bears mentioning that in the fifth inning with two out and one on, Hafner grounded out when a single would have scored two.

In the crucial game five, with Josh Beckett on the mound, Hafner had a chance to break open the game early. Sizemore led off with a bloop double and Cabrera singled. Hafner then grounded into a rally-killing double play, which was all the more deflating when Victor Martinez singled. Instead of a three or four run inning and a chance to send the Red Sox a message that they wouldn’t be intimidated by Beckett, the Indians only got one. Finally, in the eighth inning of game seven, after both Sizemore and Cabrera singled, Hafner struck out on three straight pitches.

You can’t fault manager Eric Wedge for sticking with Hafner, but the Boston series was the mini-version of Hafner’s entire season. Thus, his failure to step up in the postseason was not necessarily a big surprise.

But even if his failures weren’t a surprise doesn’t mean that they weren’t critical to the team’s overall failures, just as were Sabathia’s. This is a young Indians team that needed its leaders to step up when things seemed darkest. It’s hard to gauge, but the failures of these two could linger well into next season. Look what’s happened to Alex Rodriguez. Even if the Indians make the playoffs next year, the story line will focus on Sabathia and Hafner and their 2007 failures. Can they handle that additional pressure? It’s a question that will be asked until adequately answered on the field.

As the Indians enter the off-season, getting these answers correct will help determine the future of this franchise as much as anything else. In the case of Hafner, GM Mark Shapiro can only hope considering how much money already has been committed. With Sabathia and potential free agency looming after next season, Shapiro must go even a step further. If Shapiro convinces the Dolans to invest the kind of money into Sabathia that his regular season stats will dictate, then it will be as a result of a huge leap of faith that Sabathia will become what the Red Sox have in Beckett. The Indians can’t afford to get this wrong.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Road Games

There’s any number of roads one might consider going down after Thursday night’s Indians loss to the Boston Red Sox. But they all lead to the same place: The city of Boston with the Tribe up three games to two.

The first and far more traveled road in this town is the Negativity Boulevard. It’s hard to find it exactly on a map, but considering where the key sports venues are in this town, it has to be somewhere between East 9th and Ontario. At one time or another we’ve all been on it, many of us recently. Everyone by now knows this road, right?

It’s the road where Manager Eric Wedge convinced all his old naysayers Thursday night that he really isn’t a very good manager because he sent C.C. Sabathia out for the 7th inning Thursday night when it was clear that Sabathia was lucky to get through six after only giving up two runs. It’s also the place where a different group of naysayers are screaming for Travis Hafner to be dropped down in the lineup because he’s sucking the life out of this team with one lousy at bat after another. And while we’re here, how the heck did Kenny Lofton misplay what should have been a routine fly ball in the first inning Thursday? It led directly to Boston’s first run.

Hanging out on Negativity Boulevard can actually be quite fun, for a limited period of time. It helps cleanse the sole of the pent up anger over the fact that the Indians didn’t get it done in their own ball park, denying their fans to collectively rejoice in the exact moment that the Indians received their invitation to the 2007 World Series.

But hanging out on Negativity Boulevard is hardly recommended even if that’s where many Cleveland fans like to call home. In a sense, it’s hard not to empathize. Cleveland hasn’t had a championship team in any major sport in over two generations by this point. There have been any number of close calls which most can recite in painstaking detail. Indeed, it may not be the nicest place to live, but it’s the nicest place we know. It has a certain perverse comfort in the same way that pounding your head against the wall does—it feels so good when it’s over.

And far be it from me to stop someone from visiting an old friend every now and again. But as the brokerage houses like to tell us all the time when hawking their mutual funds: past results may not be indicative of future performance. Indeed, other than as interesting footnotes, nothing about what has taken place with prior teams in any sport in this town has any bearing on whether the Indians will advance to the World Series this year. Accept it.

And while I’m at it, accept the fact that you can change out of your so-called lucky shirt or stop aligning the remote control just so on your coffee table. If you really have that sort of dominion over the outcome of an Indians game by the shirt you wear or the chair you sit in, then there are probably even greater uses for such power, such as making that speeding ticket you got for going 85 down I-77 two weeks ago disappear.

For those who do occasionally leave Negativity Boulevard, it’s a short trip over to Indifference Alley. Most folks don’t like walking around in a bad mood all the time. Convinced, however, that ultimately nothing good could possibly happen in Cleveland sports, they eventually take a side trip down Indifference Alley, flipping the remote, for example, from the game to The Office even though the game is only two innings old, trying to convince themselves that they really could care less what happens in the game.

As if that ever works. Eventually they put on the picture-in-picture, just to keep an eye on the game in case something happens. And with the very next Indians hit, they get sucked right back in. So much for Indifference Alley. It’s only permanent residents are the wives and girlfriends who’d rather be shopping anyway.

A far less traveled road is Optimism Avenue, not to be confused with Naïve Street. See, on Naïve Street, a person doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Even though there is no cause and effect between Earnest Byner’s fumble and Edgar Renteria’s base hit, you can’t appreciate success without understanding its disappointing run-ups. The residents of Naïve Street just sort of believe everything will work out just fine even as the parking lot vendors are picking their pockets for nearly double the price during a playoff game.

Those on Optimism Avenue, on the other hand, have a clear understanding and healthy respect for the past. They know that in September it cost $20 to park in one of the lots on Sumner just off of E. 9th and now it is $30 but pay it anyway because it’s a small price to be part of history. These folks, too, believe everything will work out just fine because, sooner or later, it’s our turn, right? Right?

The final road is reserved for the remaining few who can place events into context. These folks live on Realistic Road. The reason you find so few fans living here is because it’s inconsistent with the concept of being a fan in the first place. As we get reminded from time to time (and as I’m doing for you right now), fan is short for fanatic, meaning someone whose emotions tend to run in extremes.

While you may not find many fans living down this road, it’s absolutely critical that the players live there. Boston’s Manny Ramirez received great criticism on Thursday for publicly extolling the credo of those who live there when he said, quite simply, that if Boston didn’t win the series, it wasn’t the end of the world. Dismiss that as Manny being Manny, but what he’s really saying is that as professional athletes, they can’t afford to be too optimistic, too pessimistic or too fatalistic. The only thing that works, that keeps them sane is to be realistic. Anything else and it is hard to perform.

In Thursday night’s game, one of the lessons learned for this young Indians team, frankly, is that they need to be more like Manny, except without the ill-fitting pants, the mile-long dreadlocks and the uneven facial hair. It wasn’t so much that the Red Sox did anything different so much as it was simply that they had been in this position before and thus were able to remain realistic about what would come next. They’d either win or they wouldn’t but no matter they were still going to play the game the only way they knew how. It’s what they came to do.

Fortunately, it isn’t necessarily a long learning curve in professional sports and won’t be for the Indians. By the time most athletes have reached this level, they’ve been in enough pressure situations for enough years that processing a new experience is second nature.

The other thing that’s important to remember, indeed what Manny and the Red Sox clearly understand, is that in reality this is a very good Indians baseball team even if it didn’t appear that way Thursday night. The Red Sox are neither intimidated nor overconfident, just realistic enough to know that their future can’t be predicted so no use trying. Simply stay in the moment.

This is the reality, too, that Wedge has drilled into his group over and over this past season. It’s what allowed them to overcome the harsh reality that good pitchers sometimes struggle and good hitters are still only successful slightly more than 30% of the time. Along with having hearts the size of Montana, it’s also what will ultimately allow them to apply the lessons learned and prevail in a series they should win, whether in six games or seven.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

It's Not Personal, Just Business

As if Cleveland fans didn’t have enough to worry about, up 3-1 in the American League Championship Series. Now we have to fight against the big bad “national media” and its blatant cheering for the Boston Red Sox to win this series.

It’s a popular theory, repeated on these pages and elsewhere, that the “national media” has it in for Cleveland and would rather see the Red Sox in the World Series. But while oft repeated, it’s done so without so much as a source or even a drip of logic. In fact, to the extent that this amorphous “national media” wants anyone to prevail, it’s probably Cleveland. It’s the better story.

Cleveland fans are notorious for seeing conspiracies where none truly exist. There may be hordes of people rooting against the Indians and for the Red Sox, but at best an Indians win is a nightmare for Red Sox Nation and the Fox Network, nothing more.

The “national media” is not some homogenous entity that moves with a collective conscious and even if it did, it could hardly care who wins what. Its interest first, last and always will be in a good story and on that score, an underdog team with the second longest streak of World Series futility is a far better read or listen than another victory by a high payroll team that got the World Series monkey off its back just a few years ago.

I’ll concede, on the other hand, that there likely are certain executives at the Fox Network that may be wringing their hands a bit, but that hardly qualifies as a national consensus. Besides, these same network executives wring their hands at almost anything. It’s what happens when you pay billions to televise sports and other crap and realize that it was a pretty lousy investment in the first place.

The Fox Network’s woes in the ratings game are hardly a proxy for the concerns of the national media except as one of a billion angles to cover during the downtime between games. But a preference by Fox for a Boston World Series as the answer for ratings magic is more myth than reality, couched less in truth than in perception.

The truth is that the World Series ratings will suffer irrespective of the participants; something Fox probably realized when they signed their latest deal with Major League Baseball in 2006 at slightly less than the previous deal that first gave it the exclusive rights to the World Series.

It matters little, for example, if Boston, the seventh largest media market, has a direct stake in the game vs. Cleveland, the 17th largest market. Again, irrespective of the participants, the ratings have been trending downward since Fox took over in 2000. In fact, the last time that baseball had at least a 30 share, meaning at least 30% of the viewers watching television watched the games was, ironically, in 1995 with a 33 share. That translated into a 19.5 rating, or about 21 million viewers. That series, of course, featured the Indians and the Braves and was broadcast by both ABC and NBC.

But since that time, the ratings have trended downward to the point last year when the Detroit-St. Louis series got only a 17 share and a 10.1 rating or slightly more than half the viewers that watched the 1995 series. While that may be the all-time low, it wasn’t much lower than 2005 which featured the Chicago White Sox, a team in the nation’s third largest media market and a team also suffering Cleveland-like World Series futility.

In 2004, when the supposedly beloved Red Sox finally broke through, that series only had a 25 share, a 15.8 rating and about 17.3 million viewers. This is a full eight points and about four million viewers less than the Cleveland-Atlanta series in 1995 and, by the way, four points and about 1.1million viewers less than the Cleveland-Florida series in 1997.

The point, I think, is that if Fox is having problems with television ratings, it might want to start examining how it’s doing business.

For example, why did the Tuesday night game not start until 8:20? Forget about the appeal to the kids who might want to stay up, what about the adults? Last time I looked, not only do kids have school in the morning, their parents have to go to work. And as romantic as it sounds to be able to party late and get up early, it’s not such a fun or healthy thing to do on a regular basis.

This late starting times in the east is a question that’s constantly raised and rarely satisfactorily answered by Fox. The usual response is that the networks want the games to start at a time when folks on the west coast are coming home from work. Any earlier and they’re still at work. That’s true, of course, but hardly a compelling reason if you’re looking strictly at ratings as your guide.

Of the top 10 media markets, only two are on the west coast—Los Angeles at number two and San Francisco at number six. The remaining eight are evenly split between the east and central time zones, meaning that the overwhelming majority of the viewers in the top 10 markets combined would be home from work if the games started at 7 p.m. in the east. The story isn’t much different when you expand it to the top 20 or even the top 20 media markets.

Fox then compounds the problem by having extra long breaks at the half-inning. Certainly they need to sell extra time slots to pay for the broadcasts (witness, for example, the ever-lengthening and increasingly meaningless pre-game shows) and you can’t begrudge them that point. But it’s becoming a self-defeating proposition. The longer Fox waits to start the games and the longer they take to broadcast the games, the more likely they are to lose viewers, in which case the more commercials they’ll need to sell to recoup their costs, meaning even longer broadcasts, and on and on.

And these are just the most obvious issues. What about the strange off-day while still in the same city? If someone can offer a coherent explanation as to why Fox has chosen to kill the momentum of the Cleveland/Boston series by inserting an off day on Wednesday with the series still in Cleveland, drop me an email. And if Fox really wants to get deep into self-analysis instead of opting for easy answers, then address the continuous mystery that is Tim McCarver.

Though there is much that Fox can control and doesn’t, there are some things that are simply out of their reach. Baseball may be the great American pastime, but it’s hardly the national sports obsession. That belongs to football. For comparison purposes, Fox’s typical Sunday afternoon football broadcast garners a similar share and a nearly identical amount of viewers than its World Series broadcast did last year.

Another factor is that playoff baseball plays out like an extended cricket match. The Super Bowl is a one-time event, even if it comes around each year. Except perhaps for Game 7, none of the other games seem to capture much of the imagination of the casual fan even if the series can end sooner than that.

Just because Cleveland fans are paranoid doesn’t mean that others aren’t out to get them, but just not in this case. Whatever the concerns of Fox, it’s really nothing personal, just business. What Fox knows but just doesn’t say is that there really isn’t a match-up that exists that is likely to ever return the ratings to what they were in the early 1990s, let alone the ’80s or ‘70s. The landscape has simply changed too much.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Baseball, as Indians manager Eric Wedge likes to remind us, is a very difficult game. It’s why he tends to resist the opportunity to upbraid his players, at least publicly, when they fail to perform. Indeed it’s why Wedge steadfastly stood by his team during this middle of the season when they otherwise looked like they were on vacation, at least from hitting.

The tendency, of course, is to dismiss Wedge’s assessment of the game as an excuse to cover for the mistakes that get made. If that’s true, that’s fine. Part of a manager’s job is to have the backs of his players during the lean times. But Wedge issues that reminder as often as necessary predominately for one reason: it’s true.

Of all the professional sports, baseball seems to be the easiest to play to the causal fan. Unlike football, there are few if any instances of all nine players ever having to move in concert at one time to accomplish a singular goal. Unlike basketball or hockey, most of the time the players seem to be just standing around waiting for something to happen. Americans, in general, like their entertainment like they like their people—direct and with as little subtlety as possible. In that respect baseball will always suffer in comparison. You have a round bat, a round ball and you have to hit it square.

But every once in awhile, a baseball game comes along that is so transcendental that it makes every other sport look lame by comparison. Saturday night’s game ALCS game between the Indians and the Red Sox was just that game. It set the table for Monday night’s victory and for all that will follow as the Indians continue their march toward the World Series.

Unfortunately, those who know that game only by its final score will never appreciate its beauty, drama and suspense. They’ll also never fully appreciate why this Cleveland Indians team deserves a special place in their hearts and minds.

By now, of course, everyone knows the story line. After about five hours of play, the Indians broke a 6-6 tie, scoring seven runs in the 11th inning and completely letting out whatever air remained in Boston’s Fenway Park. While this was dramatic enough, it pales well in comparison to all that took place before it.

This Cleveland-Boston series features all manner of intrigue all of which was on display this past Saturday. The starting pitchers, so feared because of their reputations, were not able to contain the bats of their opposition. There was hand-wringing, of course, every other inning or so when David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez came to the plate. Not only couldn’t they be stopped, they couldn’t be contained. And who knew how important a seemingly innocent ground out in the top of the 6th inning that scored Jhonny Peralta would be?

But once Peralta scored, the game was locked into an endless loop of near misses and as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, it was hard to imagine it would ever end. The fact that it did end and in such grand style for the Indians had nothing to do with luck, karma or any other such cosmic phenomena. It came down to heart.

Start, for example, with the very first inning. After the beat down of the night before, the easiest thing for the Indians to have done, knowing they were facing Curt Schilling, was lay down. Not intentionally, to be sure, but it would have had the same effect. Instead, Grady Sizemore, who took the collar the night before, started it off with a hustle double and came home on Victor Martinez’s double. It sent a message to the Red Sox that what happened on Friday night stayed on Friday night.

Boston, of course, is nobody’s weak sister. With Fausto Carmona struggling with his control, the three runs the Red Sox scored in the bottom of the third was no more of a surprise than how they scored them, mostly at the hands of Ortiz and Ramirez.

Ramirez, the displaced Clevelander by way of Washington Hts. in New York City, is quite a study. He is a testament to all that can be accomplished with a spotless mind. He could stand in the middle of a hurricane and eat a sandwich. Completely unfazed by the circumstances or enormity of any situation, all he does is hit, with his bat, your bat or a waffle bat. And if he’s not hitting, he’s still scaring the bejeezus out of opposing pitchers anyway. Whereas Alex Rodriguez has a sensitivity meter with a hair trigger, Ramirez suffers no such burdens. It’s why Ramirez will always perform whatever the setting and why Rodriguez will always struggle particularly when the stage gets bigger.

The third inning should have and could have buried the Indians, particularly with Schilling on the mound. But Schilling was not able to perform one of the most important tasks a pitcher faces: shut down the opposing team after your guys have just put a crooked number on the scoreboard. Following singles by Martinez and Ryan Garko, Peralta hammered a 3-run home run to temporarily give the Indians the lead, 4-3.

Though Carmona did struggle, his ability to hold Boston in the bottom of the fourth inning after the Indians had just taken the lead was bigger than most even recall at this point. It didn’t work out so well in the fifth for Carmona, but getting out of the fourth was critical.

Like a boxer temporarily staggered, the Red Sox were able to regain the lead in the fifth, thanks in no small measure again to Ramirez. But by the time Franklin Gutierrez’s chop grounder allowed Peralta to tie the score in the top of the sixth, it was obvious to all that this was a team that wouldn’t die. No matter where the Red Sox pounded the wooden stake, either they were missing the heart or, more likely, the heart of this team was just too big to be stilled.

If the Red Sox had any doubts about that at all, they were silenced in the bottom of the 10th. With Ortiz, Ramirez and Mike Lowell coming to the plate and reliever Tom Mastny on the mound, there were few fans in either city that gave the game much of a chance to make it to the 11th inning. Even when Ortiz grounded out to Peralta, that still seemed the most likely outcome.

But all Mastny did was retire Ramirez and Lowell on harmless fly balls to right field. That momentum shift turned into the onslaught by the Indians in the top of the 11th and is what, ultimately, tied this series at one game apiece.

Every game is ultimately the sum of its separate parts and often the mini-dramas that brought about that final result get lost in the mix. And even if they do in this case, there is a major takeaway not to be missed. This team has heart and it has it in spades. The strength, character and will, all sports synonyms for heart, that it takes to prevail in such circumstances is widely talked about it but rarely witnessed. But when it’s there, it’s awesome in its power.

It directly led to Monday night’s victory, not by momentum but by shear force of will. It propelled Jake Westbrook to reach down to find something that had been missing for most of the season. It pushed Kenny Lofton’s hit over the right field wall. It’s the reason Rafael Betancourt was able to squeeze still another magic inning out of his tired arm. It’s why the Indians will win this series.

It’s one thing not to be favored in a series or being forced to play in an unfriendly environment. It happens to every team. Simply overcoming those odds is not, in and of itself, much of a deal. But overcoming adversity whatever the circumstances and with limited experience in dealing it is a much different issue. Not only did the Indians not let Friday’s demoralizing loss carry over to Saturday’s game, neither did they let the gut punches within the two games derail them from the mission at hand.

The Indians have had more talented teams in their existence that have accomplished much less. By winning on Saturday and again on Monday this team already has gone beyond expectations that were reasonable to make in the first place. The only thing that’s left is to finish the job. Don’t bet against them.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Baby Steps

It may be that you get better by playing better teams. But if you want to know if you are better, play someone inferior. That’s exactly how it set up for the Browns on Sunday and based purely on the final score, the Browns clearly are getting better, beating as they should have a bad Miami Dolphins team, 41-31.

Showing the capacity to learn from the mistakes they made in Oakland earlier in the season, the Browns appeared prepared, if only because they didn’t take the Dolphins too lightly. Aided greatly by a Dolphins personal foul on the opening kickoff, the Browns found themselves up 7-0 five plays and 2:14 into the game following Jason Wright’s bull rush into the end zone and to the stomach of the umpire, Undray Wash. That cost Wash the rest of the game. The Dolphins weren’t so lucky.

Despite making a game of it entering the third quarter, the Dolphins demonstrated exactly why they are winless. Too many mistakes and too little talent won’t get you very far in the NFL. Just ask the Browns. Until this season it’s been their m.o.

The Browns, in winning a game it should have, kept their focus and minimized their mistakes, at least offensively, for much of the game. And as the game got close, they moved the ball and scored points at just the right moments to thwart any momentum the Dolphins were able to generate when they had the ball.

Indeed, looking back the story of this game is that the Browns do have a legitimate offense that will allow them to compete with any team in the league. The defense? A different matter altogether.

A victory over the Dolphins is never going to be nearly as satisfying as a victory over the Steelers or the Ravens. But at this point in their existence, neither the Browns nor their fans can afford to quibble.

Quarterback Derek Anderson, who has made amazing progress since nearly being cut at the end of training camp, had his best day as a professional. He was a very efficient 18-25 for 245 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for another. As importantly, he committed no turnovers. In fact, he didn’t even come close to throwing an interception.

Receiver Braylon Edwards, who prior to this season was known more for his mouth and surly attitude then his actual performance, is making the thousands who have bought and publicly wear his jersey to the game look like geniuses. He tied the Browns franchise record for most touchdown catches in a game, three. As importantly, his presence now commands sufficient attention from the defense that the field has become much more open for players like Joe Jurevicius and Kellen Winslow II.

While the Anderson to Edwards combination has turned potent, the offense is more than a one-trick pony under coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Despite the absence of running back Jamal Lewis, Chudzinski didn’t abandon the run, relying instead on Jason Wright and the seldom used Jerome Harrison to carry the load. And the two responded, leading the Browns to 140 yards on the ground, split nearly evenly between the two.

The ability to control the ball on the ground ultimately allowed the Browns to ice the game late, even as they were otherwise making puzzling choices, like the squib/on-side kick after going up by 17 with 4:34 left in the game. It may be that the Browns were nervous about kicking again to the Dolphins’ Ted Ginn, Jr., whose run back for a touchdown at the start of the third quarter was nullified by a holding call. But given another woeful performance by the defense, taking a chance on a long run back would have been a more reasonable risk than giving the Dolphins a short field.

This Browns offense may not be the football equivalent of the Cleveland Indians in the mid ‘90s, but like those teams they have enough weapons to go toe-to-toe with the opposition and simply out slug them for a victory. It’s something, frankly, they’ll need to in order to win given the overall lack of progress by the defense.

Cleo Lemon, a fourth-year player out of Arkansas State, was making his first NFL start—ever. But apparently not much about the Browns defense rattled Lemon as he completed 24 of 43 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for two more. That’s four touchdowns plus a field goal to a team averaging only 19.4 points per game.

Maybe the Browns’ defense instead was more focused on stopping running back Ronnie Brown. If so, that didn’t much work either. He went over the 100-yard mark for the fourth straight week and had nine catches for 69 yards. In fact, if not for the vastly improved offense of the Browns, coupled with a Dolphins defense that is every bit as woeful as Cleveland’s, the Browns may very have found themselves on the wrong end of this game.

But as it stands, the Browns do find themselves at 3-3. For perspective, this is the most victories the Browns have had this late in the season since 2003. Of course, that didn’t end so well for the Browns as they won only two more the rest of the way. Thus the better measure may be the 2001 season when they had their “new” Browns peak after six games, 4-2, again under Davis. That was a season where they went 7-9 and parlayed that the following season into the playoffs before imploding under the great salary cap purge that ultimately resulted in Davis’ panic attacks and the Romeo Crennel years.

The Browns’ .500 mark entering the bye week is as unanticipated as nearly anything when the 2007 schedule was announced. Running a close second is the 3-1 home record. Though not at the season’s halfway point, the remaining 10 games now provide a mixed bag of opportunities for the Browns to demonstrate that they are no longer a league doormat.

But before that happens, they simply have to find a way to improve on defense. Whether it is a rash of new players, new schemes or a combination of the two, something has to change or a team with a decent chance to finish 8-8 will end up with, at best, six wins. The difference may not seem like much but it is significant in this league. It’s the difference between ending the season with momentum for the next and ending the season knowing that a full third of the team needs an extreme makeover before the playoffs are realistic. Knowing how long it’s taken the Browns offense to look this good demonstrates that such makeovers are not a one-year task.

The other drama that’s really starting to take hold with this team is at quarterback. Given Anderson’s shaky performance during the pre-season, the Browns’ best case scenario seemed to be that Anderson would hopefully play well enough to keep quarterback-in-waiting, Brady Quinn, on the sidelines until at least the break. As it stands now, barring an injury, Quinn isn’t likely to see much action except in mop-up for the rest of the season.

Anderson’s play, even more than that of Edwards, has been the most pleasant development in this franchise in years. He has 14 touchdown passes after six games and is on pace to break Brian Sipe’s franchise mark of 30 for a season. After Sunday’s performance, his quarterback rating will put him in the top half of the entire league. More importantly, he continues to show the kind of progress that makes one wonder what this coaching staff ever saw in Charlie Frye in the first place. There is a real chance that the Browns may very well find themselves in the same position as the San Diego Chargers did a few years ago with Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers—two able quarterbacks and only one ball.

It’s a good problem to have, of course, but a problem nonetheless. Fortunately, solving it ranks low on the priority scale. On this day and at this break, this franchise should feel good about the baby steps forward it has taken, but only if, at the same time, it understands that the real key to success is not offense, it’s defense.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Stacking the Odds

It’s easy, convenient and commonplace right now to use the Indians’ win over the Yankees Tuesday night as a symbolic ending of sorts of another Yankees’ era. And if that turns out to be the case, it’s worth celebrating. But hopefully it has a much more useful purpose, that being as a substantive, if temporary, end to baseball’s bizarre economics.

Money matters in sports and always will. But whereas football with its hard salary cap and basketball with its semi-hard cap has brought a level of socialization to those sports that has been anything but evil, the capitalistic experiment that major league baseball has allowed to run nearly amok has created such galling disparities that it threatens the very foundations.

It’s been written many times already and is getting almost cliché to decry how the economics of baseball ultimately portends its downfall. If things continue unabated, that will occur. But thanks in large part to the Indians’ victory over the Yankees and what that likely means to the Yankees, the end of the world may be a little further down the road than it was at the start of the season.

Looking at the results of the divisional series in both leagues one conclusion to draw is that in the end, money didn’t make a difference. The combined payrolls of the Indians, the Diamondbacks and the Rockies do not equal what the Yankees spent on their mess of a team. But scratch a bit below the surface and you’ll find that for many years now there is no surer way to building and sustaining a playoff caliber team than by spending outrageous sums. That kind of spending doesn’t guarantee ultimate success but on the other hand it’s always nice when you can stack the odds in your favor and baseball still has too many teams trying to do just that, even as it threatens the game’s overall health.

The Yankees have been exhibit A. They may have had some trouble over the last seven years or so in terms of advancing to the World Series, but with all the talk about how that supposedly reflects on some mythical shortcoming of manager Joe Torre, don’t forget that in his 12 years as manager, the Yankees have not missed the playoffs. In that same period of time, the Yankees have spent nearly $1.6 billion on players.

The Red Sox have been exhibit B. In virtually that same period of time, the Red Sox have nearly matched the Yankees dollar-for-dollar in payroll and only finished lower than second in their division once, last season when they were third. As a result of their insane spending, those two teams are primarily, but not solely, responsible for baseball’s inflated economics and growing disparities between the so-called large market and small market teams.

Exhibits C, D E, F and G have helped and they are not hard to peg, either, even if their success has been less consistent. The Angels, Cubs, Tigers, Dodgers, White Sox and Phillies all have massive payrolls and have had for several years.

But over the last few years, a variety of teams, including three of this year’s four participants in the league championship series have demonstrated that being a low payroll team doesn’t necessarily translate to failure on the field. The same held true to a certain extent last year as well with the success of the Twins and the As. And while other examples can be had in most any other season, right now it sure feels like there is something about the way the Indians put away the Yankees in this year’s ALDS that could very well change the equation.

It’s unlikely that George Steinbrenner will be pleased with what he got this year for his $194+ million dollar payroll. It’s unlikely he’s pleased with what he got over the last three years for spending nearly a half a billion dollars, for that matter. And while he may be fiscally insane, he’s not stupid. Sooner or later he’s bound to notice the trend.

Indeed it’s actually happening and the Indians victory will only accelerate the process. When you look at the Yankees this past season, Alex Rodriguez, the best regular season player of his generation and one of the best regular season players of all time, helped keep the Yankees from falling completely off the map early. But his presence alone wasn’t enough to make them competitive.

It was only when the Yankees completely committed to youth, in the form of guys like Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Chien-Mien Wang, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes did they really begin to take off. The combined salaries of that group are around 10% of what Rodriguez alone makes.

Even if Steinbrenner proves to be too pigheaded to see the trends right now, it’s clear they haven’t been lost on their GM, Brian Cashman, who told the media Monday night that he is completely committed to organic growth. In other words, Cashman has seen what guys like Mark Shapiro have been able to do over the last several years and has realized that there may be another, indeed better, way.

The real question is that with religion seemingly suddenly returning to the Yankees, will guys like Theo Epstein in Boston and the lunatics running the payrolls of their clubs into similar ether come to similar conclusions. A year or two ago it would have been sheer folly to even consider that scenario. Now it may be slightly more realistic.

The Yankees payroll this past season was actually down from 2006. More to the point, with all their talented youth, their average salary per player was nearly cut in half, from almost $3 million to nearly $1.5 million. When Roger Clemens drops off and if Jorge Posada doesn’t resign, it’s likely to drop further. The real question is whether Cashman or Steinbrenner will be able to resist the temptation to grab another overpriced trinket if the Red Sox don’t do similarly. We can always hope.

The real likelihood in all this is that the Bostons, New Yorks, Anaheims, Chicagos and Detroits will only commit a payroll of less than $100 million as an acceptable but impermanent business model and that relative economic balance will be returned only temporarily. Instead, their commitment to youth will be as it’s been in the past—a means for replenishing their ranks to create attractive trade bait for teams like Cleveland with players like C.C. Sabathia whose talent and experience will eventually price them out of reach of their existing team.

But until that happens, we all can and should enjoy the respite because teams like Cleveland are likely to have the competitive advantage over their previously free spending counterparts. They have been operating in a budget constrained environment for years and better understand its vagaries. This, of course, doesn’t guarantee sustained success either, but for once it would be nice to have the odds stacked in our favor.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bridging the Gap

Whatever side of the puzzle that this Rubik’s Cube of a Browns team thinks it solved in the last few weeks, the loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday 34-17 served as a sober reminder that there are still five other sides to that cube that need to be solved as well.

It’s no sin, of course, to lose to the Patriots. Four other teams have done likewise this season and just about everyone else has as well over the last several. And despite the overwhelming mismatch this game appeared to be at the outset, the Browns under quarterback Derek Anderson were able to hang in early despite great odds and do enough late to at least keep the game from ever getting completely out of control.

The game started out as expected, which wasn’t good news. Quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots marched down the field on their first series in precision-like fashion, pushing their way through Browns defenders as if they were mere inconveniences. But as much as the Browns front seven was outplayed on that drive they were able to keep the Patriots out of the end zone, forcing them to settle for a field goal.

Demonstrating that even if they were undermanned they wouldn’t be intimidated, the Browns and quarterback Derek Anderson looked in control at the outset, immediately pushing back with almost equal ease. That is, until Anderson decided to channel Charlie Frye.

On third down from the New England one-yard line, Anderson scrambled right and threw an ill-advised pass back over the middle late which is as close to a cardinal sin as exists in football. The inevitable interception followed and suddenly, what could have been a lead, however brief, or at least a tie, ended up being the kind of lost opportunity that a team like Cleveland just can’t afford against a superior opponent.

Despite that inauspicious start, two other first half interceptions, both of which led to Patriots touchdowns, and significant pressure in the second half, Anderson showed great pluck. When it would have been just as easy to simply crawl into a shell until the game ended, Anderson put together two strong drives, both of which led to touchdowns in the fourth quarter, to keep the game relatively close. Overall, Anderson finished 22-43 for 287 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

The mysterious loss of running back Jamal Lewis after the Browns’ first play from scrimmage didn’t help the cause and neither did the turnovers. But the story of this loss was mostly the suspect play, again, of the Browns front seven. Unable to pressure Brady at all, the defensive backs were fully exposed and Brady to the surprise of no one took advantage. For example, Brady’s first touchdown pass to Donte Stallworth, following Anderson’s second interception on consecutive throws, wasn’t so much a case of the Patriots going for the jugular as it was the Browns’ defensive backs’ inability to first keep up and then step up by making a tackle.

Brady’s second touchdown, which came late in the second quarter, was just as instructive. Following the Anderson interception to linebacker Junior Seau, Brady was given a short field with which to work, which had to look as enticing to him as does a buffet line to Ted Washington. On first and goal at the seven, tight end Benjamin Watson stayed in to block, though it was hardly needed, then casually drifted out to the left flat where Brady found him wide open. Watson could have moonwalked backward into the end zone while the Browns defensive backs were stuck looking at each other and wondering what just happened. All told, the Patriots rolled up over 400 yards of offense on this defense, 265 of which were off the arm of a mostly flawless Brady. It could have been worse.

What ultimately kept the game closer than it might have or should have otherwise been was a lethargic Patriots third quarter when they had three indifferent possessions, all of which resulted in punts. It would be nice to suggest that it was lethargy induced by a reinvigorated defense, but it really appeared to owe mostly to the Patriots’ Monday night game last week against the Bengals.

While this did allow the Browns to remain theoretically in the game, down only by 17 as the third quarter was ending, it felt more akin to how Purdue was theoretically in the game down 17-0 at halftime against Ohio State on Saturday night. You knew, no matter how close the score appeared or would get neither the Boilermakers nor the Browns were likely to string together enough drives to completely close the gap.

Indeed, that’s exactly how it played out. Even when the Browns twice got to within 10 points in the fourth quarter, was there anyone who didn’t think that New England would reassert their dominance and put the game back out of reach?

Which is, of course, exactly what they did, first by putting together a textbook 10-play 71-yard drive that culminated in Brady’s second touchdown to Watson and then taking enough air out of the ball by holding onto it for five of the last six minutes to squelch any chance that the Browns would have enough time to score twice more. After the Browns took over on downs, Anderson’s pass to Winslow with 49 seconds was complete and then fumbled and picked up by Randall Gay who took it in for what was the final margin, giving the Patriots their fifth straight game scoring at least 34 points.

Though the game was actually closer than the final score might otherwise indicate, it really wasn’t all that close. It just wasn’t embarrassing. But when the Patriots needed to do something, they were able to, which is what you’d expect when two teams on opposite ends of the talent spectrum meet.

The question that a loss like this then engenders is where exactly does this team stand now? When a team swings as wildly as these Browns have in the course of their first four games, finding meaning in a loss in their fifth game of the season remains elusive.

Where the Steelers game seemed to demonstrate that the team had not progressed since the end of last season, an observation essentially confirmed when Frye was first benched and then traded, the improbable victory against the Bengals demonstrated that there may be some skill on the offensive side of the ball but the defense was still sorely lacking. The Raiders game showed that the Browns were too immature to sustain success from one game to the next, even against a bottom-tier team. The Ravens game, finally, showed that playing a complete game was not only within their grasp but possible.

That’s why this Sunday’s Browns game against the Patriots proved to be such an intriguing game for one occurring so early in the season. The Patriots, at least through four games, looked nearly unbeatable in every phase of the game with the only thing standing between them and a perfect season being the inevitable clash with the Indianapolis Colts.

And while not much about the game Sunday made the Patriots more beatable, what it did show to Browns fans is that the gap between the Browns and the upper levels of the league is still quite wide though not as wide as it once was. Even then, for the Browns to bridge that gap, there’s still much to repair on their side of that bridge before it is steady enough for real travel.

The fact that the Browns did come into this game at 2-2 and not 0-4 seemed to help their overall confidence. It’s likely too that they way they were able to hang in when things could have gotten ugly in this game is likely to help, too. For whatever talent they lack, and they do lack considerable talent, the Browns can look back and say with a straight face that they didn’t play as if they were in awe of their competition. And that ultimately may be the most important step they’ve taken in a very long time.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Worry Warts

We live in such a time of scandal and uncertainty, of fear and insecurity, it’s fair to ask: what worries you more, the Indians’ upcoming series against the Yankees or the Browns’ upcoming game against the New England Patriots?

Fans of Cleveland sports can recount all the horribles that accompany their status. It’s an endless checklist of the dues we all have paid over the years to wear a badge that few outside the metro area care to wear anyway. And while the inability of any of the major professional teams to close the deal in most folks lifetimes will forever hang like a yoke around our necks, it sometimes obscures some of the actual success that has been experienced.

In the last 10 years there has been much to root for in Cleveland. The Indians by and large have been competitive for the last 12 years. There have been some down times and missed opportunities, to be sure, but it’s not like they’ve been the perennial bottomfeeders of our youth. The return of the Browns in 1999 was a significant event even if it’s been mostly a disappointment since. Still, in the big picture, there is a team to talk about and if there’s one thing that this town likes to do, it’s talk about its football team.

The Cavs, at least since the arrival of LeBron James, have been transformed into one of the “it” teams of the NBA. They get substantial national attention for mostly the right reasons and they were in the NBA finals last year. And don’t forget about Ohio State. Most in this town will confess to being Buckeye fans and the teams that Jim Tressel continues to assemble in football and the promise of Thad Matta in basketball help ensure a sports environment in this town that is incredibly positive even if not as successful as any of us would like.

Still, this being Cleveland it would be hard to ignore what passes as our favorite hobby, worrying. Thus it is fair to ask with the Indians about to re-enter the American League playoffs and the Browns having just played their single best game in recent memory, whether you’re more worried about the Yankees series or the Patriots game.

The fact that Cleveland fans can even have both issues on their minds at the same time, as if they are of equal importance, probably reveals more about us than anyone would care to admit. After all, the upcoming Browns game against the Patriots is largely meaningless while the Yankees series has something substantial at stake. But to state that is merely stating the obvious yet doesn’t change the fact that this is a Browns town first and so their fate, even at this moment, is of equal importance to the fact that the Indians have the World Series justifiably in their sights.

Dispensing thus with the incongruity of it all, each presents their own boatloads of worry. Looking at the upcoming Browns/Patriots match-up, it would seem that this presents about the least likely of the handful of opportunities the Browns have had to break their nearly four-year inability to win two straight games.

One could look at the wildly disparate statistics between the two teams and draw any number of conclusions, none of them good.

At first blush, the season thus far for the Patriots has been a clinic in how to run a buzzsaw franchise. They are second in the NFL in offense and first in the league in defense. And it is every bit as lopsided as that would imply in a vacuum and by comparison. As a team they have 105 first downs while yielding only 60. They are 20/39 on third down while teams are only 12/60 on third down against them. They have gained almost twice as many yards as they have given up. They’ve sacked opposing quarterbacks 11 times while Tom Brady has been sacked only three times. And if all that wasn’t good enough, they average holding on to the ball a full 10 minutes more per game than the opposition. Feel free to manipulate the statistics any way you want. There is no good news in them if you’re a Browns fan.

While the Browns/Patriot match-up wouldn’t necessarily be the most lopsided contest you could find in the league, it’s pretty close, particularly when you factor in the play of the Browns defense. But given the predilection of Cleveland fans to worry about things they can’t control, you might as well factor in the unwarranted swagger that some of the players have gained as a result of the win over the Ravens last Sunday.

In this regard, it’s nice to see receiver Braylon Edwards coming out of his shell a bit. In a fit of unbridled enthusiasm, he said yesterday that “the offense is sound. When you execute it, it’s easy. We have so much at our disposal, it’s scary.” Well, maybe.

The Browns offensive line is playing as well, remarkably well in fact. But it’s still not nearly as good as the Patriots line. Moreover and more to the point, Edwards description actually fits the Patriots much better. If any team in the league has so much at their disposal, it’s the Patriots. The Browns, not quite so much. But if they have one advantage, it’s the chance that New England may take the game too lightly, particularly coming off of a Monday night game on the road. Not exactly a counterpoint to much of anything, but it’s something nonetheless. Right now, though, it would be nice for Edwards and the rest of his teammates to remember that at most, their two victories thus far just got them upright. They still need to walk steady before they even consider running.

As for the Indians/Yankees series, statistically it’s a mess as well and it has nothing to do with the fact that the Indians are 0-6 against the Yankees this year. Offensively, the disparity is significant. There’s a sizeable gulf between the teams in on-base percentage, runs scored, total bases, walks and strikeouts. In other words, the Yankees get on base far more often, hit better, score more runs, take more walks and strike out far less. If offense decides the series, it will be a short postseason for the Indians.

But the counterbalance to the offense is pitching. The Indians give up almost a half run less per game than the Yankees and have walked 100 less batters. Opposing teams have a .322 on-base percentage against Indians pitchers while opposing teams have an on-base percentage of .340, which owes much, again, to the disparity in walks since both staffs are otherwise holding opponents to the same overall batting average, .268.

But the difference in on-base percentage really shows up in the clutch statistics, meaning how well the teams are pitching, for example, with runners in scoring position and less than two outs, when the teams are within one run of each other and the like. Across the board, the Indians are far superior in this regard, meaning that when it really matters Tribe pitchers are better at keeping opponents off the bases than the Yankees.

But as good as that news is overall, the one cautionary note is that the pitching advantage starts to shrink when you consider that a playoff match-up is much more about the top five or six pitchers on the staff than the 10 or 11 that got you through the whole season. Chien-Ming Wang vs. C.C. Sabathia in game one is basically a wash. At this juncture Fausto Carmona has a huge advantage statistically over Andy Petitte in everything but experience, something not easily discounted. The same can be said of a potential Jake Westbrook/Roger Clemens match-up in game 3.

The difference then will likely come down to the bullpen, where the Indians have the clear advantage in set-up (Kyle Farnsworth, Luis Vicaino both of whom have had health issues of late and Joba Chamberlain vs. Rafael Bentancort and Rafael Perez) but, with all due respect to the season he’s had, Joe Borowski as a closer is no Mariano Rivera.

What this hodgepodge really tells you is that while there is much to worry about if you’re an Indians fan, and they will, it’s not as if the Yankees fans enter this series with clear heads either. Despite the disparity in head-to-head match-ups this season, this series is really an intriguing contest. And given the near impossibly high standards of Yankees fans in light of their relative failures in recent years, it is fair to say that maybe, just maybe, Cleveland fans won’t hold the franchise on angst in this series.