Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When You Say Nothing at All

When You Say Nothing at All

By Gary Benz


Though the Indians’ season has been effectively over for more than a few months now, there are still games to play and things to do. There are also fans to please, professional sports being part of the entertainment industry and all. The problem is that the Indians don’t appear to be doing much pleasing of late, the lousy record being only one factor.

If attendance figures are a barometer, then one truism is that the Indians will be further mired in its “mid-market” mentality for the foreseeable future. Last season, the team averaged 28,448 fans per game. That was with a rather odd and cold start to the season and a thrilling and hot finish. It also was only good enough to put the Indians 21st among all major league clubs. This season, the Indians average attendance is down by about 1,200 fans per game. With no hope for a spectacular turnaround, expect it to plunge further. The Indians still are 21st in the league and probably will stay right about there. Attendance being critical to revenues, the Indians’ balance sheet is like the broader economy—gloomy, no quick fix on the horizon.

For the Nate Beckstroms of the world, this is not good news. Beckstrom is a fan from Salt Lake City who took the time to write a rather impassioned email to me about his favorite team. He’s frustrated with the current and projected future state of the Indians. He isn’t alone. What got Nate all excited at the moment was the trade of Casey Blake. With due respect, Nate, that’s about the only thing that has made sense with this team since last season ended. Everything else, your point is well taken.

What Nate wants most of all is for someone to explain to him exactly what the Indians’ game plan really is. He sees a team that was on the verge of making it to the World Series suddenly morph into a team undergoing another rebuilding. Mostly, though he wants Indians’ general manager Mark Shapiro to offer an explanation that makes sense.

That’s a tall order. Shapiro, for all his accessibility and sincerity, makes himself so because of the one skill he has mastered above all others: the ability to say nothing when he’s otherwise making perfect sense. Shapiro can carefully and succinctly explain why anyone would want to acquire Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson and you’re ready to buy into the rationale behind the C.C. Sabathia trade. But as you walk away, you realize that at that very same moment, Shapiro was essentially picking your pocket with his free hand, failing to offer any real insight into how this trade fits into any short, mid or long-term plans of the Indians. It’s a pattern.

In February, for example, Shapiro said this about Sabathia: “I can’t present you with a scenario where it's acceptable to us or to our relationship with our fans that involves trading C.C. or examining trading him.” Reasonable, but what did it really mean? Almost anything you want it to mean.

Then there was this right after the Sabathia trade: “We all headed into this season with what we feel are well-founded expectations for a championship-contending season. Four core players on the DL -- tough for almost any franchise to overcome -- as well as disappointing performances from many components of our team, most noticeably in the bullpen, leave us at the juncture we're at. There wasn't much doubt or question in our mind that it was nearly impossible for us to become a contending club this year.” Obvious, but so what? So nothing, that’s the point.
Then there was that whole rather ugly episode where Shapiro essentially misled everyone about the status of catcher Victor Martinez. Just prior to the June 11 game that Martinez exited early with the previously undisclosed elbow injury, Shapiro explained the reluctance to take him out of the lineup previously this way: “I feel like we don't have a combination of players who are going to give us a lot more than Victor's giving us, particularly in light of what he brings to our team.” At that time, Martinez’s average had dropped to .278 and he was hitting .208 in the last 21 games. Given this, what was Shapiro really trying to say, that Kelly Shoppach, for example, was incapable of hitting .208 with no home runs? Probably not, but maybe.
Even now, fans like Nate are left to speculate exactly what the rest of this season really holds for the Indians. Was the Casey Blake trade really about the players received or opening up a legitimate opportunity for Andy Marte? It’s this kind of puzzle that causes the Nates of the world to wonder whether the Indians are just becoming a farm club for the rest of major league baseball.
At this juncture most fans are well beyond having Shapiro own up to his dreadful offseason miscalculations. He screwed up, fans get that. No one is looking for his head on a stick, they’re just looking for answers. They won’t be coming anytime soon.
Here’s a theory, and until Shapiro comes up and publicly puts a stake in the ground about what he’s trying to accomplish and then sticks to it, there’s no reason to believe it’s not true: the Indians don’t really know what they’re going to do, for the rest of this season, for next year or for the foreseeable future for that matter. The team is about collecting pieces and parts that might be useful but no one, from the Dolans to Shapiro, have any idea just how.

Again, until Shapiro actually proves otherwise, there’s no reason but for Nate to believe that the Indians under Shapiro will forever remain in a state of rebuilding. It’s what Shapiro does best. He’s shown some affinity for judging young talent and in understanding the concepts of what it takes for a team to be successful. He’s had success in gathering all or at least most of the right pieces. Where he fails miserably is in delivering a final product. In other words, he can’t close, which, by no small coincidence, is one of the key problems plaguing his team this year.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Rewarding Faith

It’s such a fine line between delusion and genius that it’s often hard to tell which is which. Leave it to Cleveland sports fans to blur the line even further.

Generations of disappointments notwithstanding, fans arrived at Cleveland Browns training camp on Wednesday unabashedly chanting “Super Bowl.” One would have thought that given how quickly the Indians dashed fans hopes for a big year that these same fans would approach the upcoming Browns season a tad more cautiously. If anything, they are being even more reckless with their hearts. That’s not all bad.

There is an inherent need we all have to believe in something, anything. When it comes to sports, we want to believe in the teams we follow. We want to believe that our favorite players are capable of greatness even as they disappoint us again and again. We want to believe that good will prevail over evil and in the power of redemption. We believe all of this because there is nothing more satisfying than faith rewarded.

The implied question of the entire Browns 2008 season is just that: will faith be rewarded? Fans in Cleveland have stuck behind this franchise when all sense of logic and reason would dictate otherwise. For years, they believed that Art Modell, so sincere until he wasn’t, would find the right formula. When he packed the team’s bags permanently for Baltimore, whatever faith was temporarily shelved was instantly and permanently revived when the NFL did the right thing and gave the city a new franchise a few years later.

A sight that is forever permanently etched in the collective conscience is that of the Browns re-emerging against the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Sunday night in 1999. It’s a buzz that still lingers. Even after the Browns had their collective heads handed to them that evening in a 43-0 blowout that wasn’t as close as the final score, the buzz remained. In reality, the excitement of this season is really just a higher decibel level on a sound that’s been there all along.

The point I think is that even if the Browns fall flat on their face again this season, Cleveland won’t suddenly turn into Atlanta, as lousy a sports town as their exists in America. While the Falcons, for example, scramble to rebuild a modest fan base turned off by a franchise that banked heavily and lost on Michael Vick, it’s hard to imagine a similar scenario in Cleveland. The worst thing that ever happens with Cleveland fans, no matter how they’re kicked about, is that they occasionally turn even more bitter and cynical. But they hang in nonetheless.

If faith is going to get rewarded this season, much of it will depend on players staying healthy. Granted, it’s a pretty obvious observation that tends to be true of most teams, but ask yourself when was the last time that’s all the Browns’ season hinged on.

The extended exhibition season being played out at Progressive Field actually provides a rather fine contrast between those expectations that are justified and those that aren’t. It seems so clear now that the Indians couldn’t stand pat and simply hope to get better that you wonder how Indians’ general manager Mark Shapiro could have missed that one. Pinning a team’s fortunes largely on a steady line of progress by young, unproven players, a closer twice defying the laws of reason and probability, and a remarkable comeback by a designated hitter that can’t hit seems silly in retrospect. And that’s not to even get into the near systemic aversion to actually bringing in players with a proven track record that contributes to the state of things.

In contrast, the expectations of the Browns’ upcoming season seem much more rationally based. The strength of the team is the offensive line and it is a unit that relies mostly on veterans with a proven track record. Left tackle Joe Thomas is only in his second year, but he’s already a far more advanced sophomore than, say, Asdrubal Cabrera was entering into his second (but first full) season with the Indians. Derek Anderson, as quarterback, had a breakout season. Though a veteran by this point, he is perhaps the one player upon which you can tag with hope, as in the team hopes Anderson can progress even further in his second full year as a starter.

The defensive line, the team’s glaring weakness a year ago, has been rebuilt in much the same way Savage rebuilt the offensive line the last few years, with veterans. That doesn’t mean it will play as well as the offensive line, but then again it doesn’t have to in order for dramatic improvement to be shown. The receiving corps, including tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr., is, again, a veteran unit with some measure of accomplishment. Jamal Lewis at running back is still a highly-skilled.

On special teams, the Browns again are relying on veterans in every key position. And these aren’t veterans like David Dellucci of the Indians is a veteran. They are veterans who have actually have a level of accomplishment stretching beyond a half season.

The one thing you do notice as you wind your way through this team, though, is that it lacks depth, meaning that its health will determine its fate as the year goes on, even more so than the schedule. The offensive line, again, has about the greatest depth on this team, the defensive backfield the least. The rest of the units are somewhere in between. The questions regarding head coach Romeo Crennel, may remain but they are severely muted once he turned the offense over to someone actually competent to run it. In short, there are concerns and counter arguments, but they rely far less on speculation for resolution than did those with the Indians.

It’s entirely possible that the Browns will crumble under the white hot spot light of a schedule that places them front and center several times this season. But the veteran make-up of this team does provide a decent level of comfort that a total meltdown is unlikely. Faith may not get rewarded this season. Inded it may never be rewarded to the fans of this town, all of whom deserve more than a little something for their efforts. But at least in the short term, the harmless chanting of “Super Bowl” each time the team takes the practice field in Berea these days seems a little less loony than it did just a few years ago.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Training Camp Ritual

The official opening of the Cleveland Browns training camp on Wednesday also operates as the unofficial close of the Cleveland Indians 2008 season.

With the Indians attendance in the tank, neither owners Larry and Paul Dolan nor those responsible for putting the “Progressive” name on the former Jacobs Field are likely to be all that happy about it. But the daily overload of Browns coverage in this town provides enough of a distraction from the wreckage of an Indians season that initially held such promise that it all but assures that the Indians will be mostly a footnote for about the next six months to most fans.

Already there have been a couple of dozen of the same story about the upcoming Browns season from the usual media outlets. You’ve read them. It’s a civic obligation. They have such come-on headlines as “The 10 Questions Heading into Training Camp” or “Everything You Need to Know about the 2008 Browns” or “The Five Key Battles to Watch in Training Camp.” If there were indeed only 10 questions, five key battles and someone did know everything, we could bank the season and start the debate early on the 2009 Indians.

But these are the Browns, a puzzling franchise on its best days. All you really need to know right now is that the team made dramatic moves in the offseason that will take most of the season to evaluate, has temporarily staved off a potential quarterback controversy by anointing Derek Anderson the starter and managed to find a way to muzzle sports agent and self-promoter extraordinaire Drew Rosenhaus long enough so that Kellen Winslow, Jr.’s contract situation won’t be a distraction, at least early on.

Thus do the Browns find themselves heading into the season riding the wave of trendy expectations with a whole bunch of naysayers waiting in the wings to say “I told you so.” That can wait for another day, like when the first high ankle sprain is suffered. Questions may abound, just as they do with any team this time of year. But if you are harboring the na├»ve, almost quaint notion that the purpose of training camp is to resolve such matters, think again. Most of what will get resolved are questions that no one yet has thought to ask.

The problem, of course, is figuring out just how to glean insight from the daily grind of a mind-grippingly dull training camp. Feel free to attend if you’d like, but don’t say you weren’t warned. If you’re going to go, take sunscreen. It will be hot, real hot.

Camp is important for the players, but for the fans there is little information to be gained from watching players stretch. The lure of training camp for fans really seems to be the ability to channel Phil Savage as you watch players going from one drill to the next.

You, too, can then cross your arms, adjust your sunglasses and experience the whistles blowing as the players go from drill to drill. You, too, can watch the kickers standing around mostly quizzing each other on movie trivia as they “rest” between kicks. You’ll get to see passes thrown and passes dropped. Some will also be caught. Many will get intercepted. Predictably, you’ll conclude that “Quinn threw several tight spirals” or “Anderson under threw his receivers all day.” If you’re lucky a few fights will break out. None of it will mean a thing.

In fact, this year’s version of training camp could very well be the most boring in recent memory. There’s a decided lack of controversy. There aren’t any hold outs. Most of the key positions are settled and those that are not have little chance of being settled in 7-on-7 drills.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t significant work to do, there is. It’s just that most of it actually takes place away from the fans anyway, inside the meeting halls and conference rooms of the Browns’ practice facility. It’s there that film is broken down, technique studied and players lectured to for hours on end about the various finer points of the game.

So much about pro football has changed over the years that it’s not a surprise that training camp has taken on such a vastly different character when compared to the “old days,” by which I mean when the Browns used to hold training camp at Hiram College. Back then, the overriding emphasis was on getting players back in shape. Many actually had off-season jobs because they needed the money. If they stayed in shape, and many of them did certainly, it wasn’t under the laser-like glare of team officials. The players needed training camp for physical conditioning as much as anything else.

These days, a player that reports for training camp in anything other than optimal shape is a major story and it should be. Football is considered their full time job and players are paid to work out in the off-season. If a player does anything else in the offseason, maybe he heads back to school to complete his degree. But his first priority is to keep himself in shape and focused and if it’s not, then he finds himself looking for work elsewhere. Just ask Jason Taylor.

That’s why so much of training camp is now devoted to the mental side of the game. Physically, the players are ready on Day 1 and whatever fine tuning is needed for established veterans comes during the otherwise meaningless pre-season games. Mentally is where coaches believe this game seems to be won more often than not.

What you’re left with really is the misnomer that training camp really has become. You see it in the schedule established and in the approach to the fans. There are now official autograph tents and plenty of buying opportunities—refreshments and team merchandise of course. But it seems that outside of making a few bucks, the only reason teams invite fans any more is tradition. Given the paranoia that grips most NFL teams, you get the sense they’d rather face a congressional inquiry on steroids then open up a meaningless practice in August.

Still, as rituals go, attending training camp is a mostly harmless exercise. And as a last bit of advice, treat it like you would the regular season. Go in with expectations lowered. That way you can’t be disappointed. Oh, yeah. Take sunscreen.

Friday, July 18, 2008

When to Say When

The melancholy drama playing out in Green Bay between Brett Favre and Packers management is a painful reminder that at its core, professional sports is far more about the business than the game. One doesn’t survive without the other, but never forget, as Favre certainly won’t now, that when business imperatives crash head on with personal issues, the business will win every time.

Each day may bring a new wrinkle or two in the on-going Favre saga, but its essential elements are as old as the business, indeed any business: an aging, once productive player who still feels he can contribute vs. a business that must constantly replenish its talent to survive in the long-term.

You can compile a list where this same scenario has played out in any city. Because it’s Favre and because he’s a quarterback, football fans can quickly tick off Joe Montana’s two-year run of sorts with the Kansas City Chiefs, the year Johnny Unitas spent in San Diego and even Joe Namath’s lost year with the Los Angeles Rams as the most obvious examples.

There have been plenty of examples right here in Cleveland. Bill Belichick’s mid-season banishment of Bernie Kosar comes immediately to mind, although fans on both sides of that debate are still arguing whether it was truly a case of diminished skills or the clash of two head-strong personalities. It’s far from the only example. On the other side of it, the Browns seem intent on wringing out whatever might be left in Willie McGinest’s reservoir. In baseball, the Indians tried the same thing with both Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro, two distinguished pitchers who desperately tried to hang on longer than was probably advisable. Arguably, even the Indians’ refusal to resign Omar Vizquel falls into this category.

As much as every situation is different, each also is very much the same: a high profile, Hall of Fame-type player unable to know when to say when and a front office wrestling with a potential public relations disaster. The Baltimore Colts could no more relish the though of turning their back on Johnny U as could the Packers turning away Favre. Each also involves a heavy dose of emotion emanating from every corner.

And, as usual, fans are caught in the middle. Almost universally, they’ll support the player. Fans are far more interested in watching their favorites long past their primes than in retiring too soon. Jim Brown and Barry Sanders may set the standard for retiring on top, but they are as much criticized by parochial interests for retiring too soon.

Packer fans are predictably distraught. The thought of Favre not playing again is as distasteful to them as the thought that he could end up with one of their rivals. That’s why you hear the argument that the Packers are making a colossal mistake in seemingly not allowing Favre to return because by any measure, Favre is a better quarterback than Aaron Rogers. It’s an emotional argument, but it’s also incomplete because Rogers really hasn’t had any opportunity to establish himself and Favre is a Hall of Famer. It’s also an argument that looks back without any appreciation of what is to come.

The better question, but not necessarily the best question, is one that asks which quarterback gives the team the best chance to win the next game on the schedule. Even then, this doesn’t entirely resolve the matter because so much depends on the time frame. In other words, Favre may give the Packers the best chance to win the first game of the season, but is that true for the eighth game of the season? What about the 12th?

Favre may have proven to be the football equivalent of Bruce Willis’ character in “Unbreakable” thus far, but sooner or later the statistics will catch up with him. He will get hurt. If the Packers miss the opportunity in the interim to develop Rogers, a quarterback in whom they also have much invested their chance of winning later drops measurably.

That’s really the right question, isn’t it? What’s best overall for the franchise? Even fans complaining about the perceived unfair treatment of a multi-millionaire would concede that their loyalties ultimately run to the franchise first, the players second. If Favre ends up with the Minnesota Vikings, some fans may buy a purple Favre jersey out of spite, but I can pretty much guarantee you that in two years the Goodwill bins in and around Milwaukee would be filled with those same jerseys.

Unfortunately, defining “overall” is a nearly impossible task, one that makes you appreciate how difficult the job of general manager really can be at times. It’s like the economy; everyone has an opinion on it. Making it even more difficult is the fact that with Favre, just as in most cases like it, the professionals can’t even agree. Certainly if the Packers ultimately release Favre, someone will pick him up, which is at least some validation that Favre can still play in the league. Just as Kosar played some meaningful games for the Cowboys immediately after Belichick booted him from Cleveland, Favre will certainly do something heroic for another team.

That seems to be the real fear of Packers management and it shouldn’t be. Favre may contribute for awhile with another team, but it won’t be for too long. Packers management should take great comfort in the lessons of Montana, Namath and Unitas. Even Belichick wasn’t too far off base when it came to Kosar. Each of these situations should provide as much proof as Packers management really needs that their long-term assessment on Favre isn’t wrong. There may be some gas left in Favre’s tank, but that tank is hardly full.

The Favre case really is a pretty easy one from a distance. Packers management may be exhausted by the yearly ritual of his indecision and are using it against him now to extract a bit of revenge but they should just let it go. If Favre’s a distraction it’s because Packers management has let it become a distraction. What they know in their hearts should guide their actions: Far worse than letting Favre go too soon is hanging on to him too long.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Another Slice of Irony

The line between love and hate is paper thin, as is the line between hope and despair. If you’re a Cleveland sports fan, though, not to worry. Razor thin or as wide as a bus, it’s a line you can walk with one eye closed, playing a banjo in one hand and balancing your checkbook with the other.

To the doubters, meaning those outside Cleveland without any sense of history or perspective, all you needed to do was listen to the reaction of hardcore Indians’ fans following their team’s improbable four-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays this past weekend to understand the inherent contradictions of an Indians fan.

More than a few see great hope in a team even as they secretly admit it was against a team that may be more media-created pretender than legitimate contender. This detail aside, many of these were the same fans alternately bemoaning the trade of CC Sabathia and then putting their best smiley face on it last week. If this all sounds rather oxymoronic, that’s because it is. The only thing Cleveland fans, so conditioned to also-ran status, hate worse than a losing team is a winning team. That’s life through this looking glass and the Tampa Bay series is an object lesson.

It really is rather difficult to figure out just what the Indians rather modest four-game winning streak means, particularly, and naturally, coming as it does on the heels of a 10-game losing streak. The glass half-full (or as George W. would say, the half-glass full) types see this as a portent of things to come, a confirmation of sorts of the inexplicable faith general manager Mark Shapiro had in this crew going into the season. The half-empty folks see it as an aberration. The truth doesn’t lie necessarily in the middle somewhere, but it’s out there nonetheless.

The weekend did show a few things worth noting, especially for those in the “remain calm” camp. First, shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s off-season laser eye surgery seems to finally be kicking in. Or maybe he’s drinking more Mountain Dew or getting more sleep. Undoubtedly, though, he’s more or less slowly but definitively seizing control of the clean-up spot in the Indians’ batting order, making it less of the black hole it’s been for over a year.

Second, Ben Francisco can hit. In his last 10 games, he’s batting .333 with two home runs and seven RBI in 39 at bats. Of course, it was clear in spring training that Francisco could hit. But the team and the town living as it does in a sort of Bizarro World where down is up and right is left, the Indians deep thinkers needed to make really, really certain that the Jason Michaels/David Dellucci platoon wouldn’t work. Here’s hoping they’re satisfied.

Third, when catcher Victor Martinez returns, nearly half the lineup can actually hit, assuming center fielder Grady Sizemore doesn’t misplace his stroke during the All Star Game’s Home Run Derby. While that won’t fully limit the maddening number of times the team scores two or less runs a game, it should make a serious dent in it.

Fourth, the combination of good starting pitching and scoring runs can cover up a healthy number of sins in the bullpen. Even with those sins, it’s not as if this year’s model is the reincarnation of the Bullpen From Hell, 2003 edition. There is no reason to give up on Rafael Betancourt, for example, even if he looks like he is battling demons on the mound. In actuality, Betancourt looks more like a guy struggling to understand his role than a pitcher struggling generally. Massahide Kobayashi has shown enough promise to keep marching him out there to close out games, at least until Shapiro invests in a legitimate closer. Rafael Perez, Tom Mastny and Jensen Lewis are still decent prospects, if nothing else. We’ve seen far worse.

For those in the “bring on the Browns” camp, they are nonplussed with the Indians’ ability to impose its will on the Rays. It’s a turn really on the Groucho Marx joke of not wanting to belong to a club that would have you as a member. If any team can let this Indians team push it around for four straight days, it wasn’t a team worth beating in the first place.

Celebrate all you want in Peralta’s latest hot streak, but haven’t we been here before? In fact, that’s the biggest problem with Peralta. He’s becoming a baseball version of Kordell Stewart, a player who impresses just often enough to keep around and fails nearly as much. Peralta may not be a coach killer like Stewart, but if Shapiro’s not careful, he’s on his way to being a GM killer. With intermittent talent spurts, Peralta remains the ultimate tease that keeps Shapiro from finding a more consistent player, ultimately threatening Shapiro’s own tenure.

Injuries may have hurt this team, but its problems were more fundamental in the first place. Even if the chance that the team will be bolstered by the return of its injured players is likely, the impact is far from certain. Of the three key players slated for return, Martinez, pitcher Fausto Carmona and designated hitter Travis Hafner, only Martinez is likely to pay immediate dividends. Carmona will need time to round back into form and build up arm strength. As for Hafner, his problems never appeared to be physical in the first place. Easing him back into the lineup in a way that doesn’t interfere with Peralta will be tricky under the best of circumstances and this year is hardly the best of circumstances.

If you want to put a gloss on the future of the bullpen, feel free but that bit of wishful thinking won’t magically turn Mastny, Lewis and Kobayashi into reliable, proven veterans. If there is one conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from the present administration, it’s that its history of actually developing players is uneven. Neither Mastny, Lewis nor Kobayashi, among others, come with the pedigree of Sabathia. Until manager Eric Wedge actually can eke out the last drop of talent from these borderline kinds of players that dot this roster, mid-level prospects will stay in the suspect corner.

The case is easily made either way. But in actuality, what really took place this past weekend was a little bit of sunshine in an otherwise dismal season. It was a reminder that things aren’t usually as bad as they seem or as good as hoped. In a season full of much consternation and contradiction, it was just another nice slice of irony—a team finally getting hot just as a three-day break arrives.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Trust Me

As if there’s a choice.

Cleveland Indians general manger Mark Shapiro completed what ultimately is a “trust me” trade for C.C. Sabathia on Monday and now fans are being counseled again about exercising just a little more patience with a team and a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series in 60 years.

That may not be as satisfying as the near-term splash that a press conference announcing the signing of Sabathia might have generated but it will have to suffice nonetheless. It’s the kind of move that reminds fans again that despite the billboards, it’s not their team.

The beauty of this trade, at least from Shapiro’s standpoint, is that the time will never arrive for properly evaluating it. The prospects received are in the low minors. Fans are more likely to forget that Sabathia was ever an Indian in the first place well before they have any idea whether this trade was any good. And even if the prospects arrive sooner rather than later, it undoubtedly will be just in time for someone like Grady Sizemore or Victor Martinez to plan his exit. By keeping the team in a constant state of transition, Shapiro has made it nearly impossible to assess.

Speaking at the press conference Monday about the move, Shapiro said nothing unexpected. In fact any fan paying attention the last few years could have written the script. At best, the only possible news was Shapiro’s admission that the Indians were never on the same page with Sabathia’s demands in the first place. But that ceased to qualify as news once the New York Mets signed Johan Santana.

There was the usual talk of the prospects received and the expected rationalization of taking a deal now instead of waiting to see who might emerge with a better offer closer to the July 31 trade deadline and it all made perfect sense. But Shapiro has given this same speech so often, you can now set a watch to it.

The bigger picture in all of this is that it matters little who the Indians received in exchange for Sabathia anyway. The real takeaway is that this is the kind of trade a franchise like Cleveland is always going to make. The Indians, under present ownership and management, are not going to devote a large portion of its self-imposed budget on any one asset, particularly a pitcher and particularly a pitcher of Sabathia’s stature at this point in his career.

There was never any chance that the Indians would pay Sabathia upwards of $20 million over the next seven years, which is the kind of money and the length of time it was going to take to keep him in a Cleveland uniform. The risk in the out years of injury on such a contract are far too great for a team like the Indians to sustain. Like it or not, the present regime is not going to allow itself the kind of payroll flexibility to withstand an extra $20 or $30 million of unproductive money should Sabathia have proved to be ineffective or injured in years five, six or seven. Capitalism being what it is, someone else will. It’s the system that Major League Baseball prefers.

If you focus just on the American League Central, which is as good a barometer of the rest of Major League Baseball as anything else, it is clearly a division of haves and have nots from a payroll perspective. More than anything else, it illustrates why the Indians can’t invest in a player like Sabathia for the long term while Chicago and Detroit can and will.

Both Chicago and Detroit are working with payrolls that are in excess of $120 million. At that level, a $20 million a year salary for one player still allows either team to spend more than 80 percent of the rest of its payroll on the other 24 players. And that’s 80% of a rather large pie to begin with. For the Indians, or Kansas City or Minnesota for that matter, a team that works with budgets well below $100 million, that kind of salary eats up 25% or more of the team’s payroll. That gives the team far less to work with, both as a percentage of payroll and in real dollars, when filling out a roster worthy of investing that much money in a superstar in the first place. Indeed, it’s the reason that the Texas Rangers ultimately decided that their signing of Alex Rodriguez was among the great blunders ever in baseball.

For reasons that still defy any logic, baseball continues to dodge a salary cap as if it were another shattered maple bat. Maybe it doesn’t recognize that all of its markets are not equal or maybe it just doesn’t care, but clearly it prefers a tilted playing field. By essentially ignoring the economic disparities between its markets, baseball creates situations like that with Sabathia in which a team like Cleveland essentially feels forced to give away a player it nurtured and brought to the doorstep of greatness in order to remain a viable franchise years later.

That doesn’t mean that current management gets a free ride to throw up its arms in frustration, although that seems to work season after season in places like Kansas City and, until today, Milwaukee. Shapiro still has an obligation to see the obstacles as opportunities and improve the team in ways that may be as trivial as they are unnecessary for their rich uncles in other cities.

But Cleveland fans will never be able to use this trade to figure out whether Shapiro has met that charge. Instead, they’ll have to be content to judge the dozens of other relatively minor moves that have made this team one year only to break it the next.

There is no doubt that most Indians fans secretly hoped that the team would find a way to re-sign Sabathia, even as they accepted the reality long ago that it would not. It’s not just part of the grieving process but also a defense mechanism for avoiding the nasty reality that baseball has once again stacked the deck against a mid-market team like Cleveland.

A Matter of Style

The race to write off the Cleveland Indians season probably began for most in late April. Let’s hope the race to write off the Browns season doesn’t begin in late September.

Cleveland fans so conditioned for disappointment, particularly after watching this baseball season crash and burn this year in spectacular fashion, it will be completely understandable if the fans want to storm the Cleveland Stadium gates if the Browns start the season 1-3. There’s every chance of course that the Browns could actually start that way, but if they do it won’t be because its front office stood pat. In fact and if anything, it will be because they tried too hard.

Standing in stark contrast with Indians general manager Mark Shapiro is Browns general manager Phil Savage. Where one is passive, consumed by statistics and paralyzed by analysis, the other has displayed an almost reckless sense of now. Whether it turns out better for one than the other remains to be seen but there is no chance that if the Browns fail it will be because Savage didn’t act.

When a team has a deep talent void, the job of the general manager can be much easier. Almost any player he chooses is likely to be an upgrade and thus it’s easy to miscalculate the real value of the moves that are made.

Shapiro made absolutely the right move when he determined that the Indians of the mid and late 1990s needed to be rebuilt. He hatched a plan to get young and good by trading Bartolo Colon for prospects. He assembled some other young talent as well, signed most of it to above-market contracts based on their years of service, and then has been mostly content to watch its uneven development.

To a certain extent, it seems that Shapiro’s inaction the last few season was brought on by a false sense that he had truly built a juggernaut in the making. He wasn’t the only one that thought so. There have been budget concerns, of course, but how else really to explain the kind of fringe moves that Shapiro has made the last few years? In retrospect, by failing to stay vigilant to the plan he initially hatched, Shapiro now faces another rebuilding job, even if he doesn’t admit it publicly.

Savage, too, made absolutely the right decision in invoking an extreme makeover. The pre-Savage Browns were mostly a yearly embarrassment, nearly barren in legitimate NFL players. Almost any progress would have been appreciated, and there was some early, but unlike some of Shapiro’s early moves with the Indians, Savage’s early moves didn’t show the same kind of visible progress. Savage’s steadfast support of head coach Romeo Crennel is a good example.

Though Savage counseled patience, he remained quite active. When things got dicey so committed was Savage to his plan that he almost walked out in protest during a power struggle with then team president John Collins. Having prevailed, Savage has since been even bolder and focused on winning as much as quickly as possible. Savage, like Shapiro, would obviously like to build a machine like the one in New England. But for the time being, and much unlike Shapiro, Savage seems to want at least least one championship season first and then let the chips fall where they may thereafter.

Certainly the trade that brought in quarterback Brady Quinn was firm evidence of a general manager seeking more than gradual progress. But the rebuilding of the defensive line, easily the team’s weakest link in 2007, was actually an even bolder move considering the circumstances. Coming off a 10-6 season, which usually is good enough to make the playoffs, it would have been easy to conclude that all this young team needed was another year to gel.

But here is where Savage and Shapiro parted ways. Savage wasn’t mesmerized by the lure of having a team on the brink. He well understood its weaknesses and went about trying to fix them quickly. It may have cost the Browns a viable defensive backfield in the process, but you had to applaud the effort. One gets the sense that if Savage had been more like Shapiro he would have found more reasons than not to stand pat than move forward.

There really is no right formula when you have a team on the brink. It’s a fair point to suggest that indeed sometimes all a good young team needs is another season together. But if you’re going to go down that road, you just as often end up sacrificing greatness in order to be good. Make the gamble too many years in a row and pretty soon good is sacrificed as well.

One of the object lessons of business school is that standing still is rarely an option. With shareholders to please and customers to serve, companies simply can’t afford to relax even after a great year. There’s always someone trying to knock you off your perch. These competitive pressures mandate a near constant reassessment of every aspect of your operations. Continuous improvement may be consultant-speak, but its underlying message is sound.

So too is it in professional sports, as big a business as most anything else. Fans serve the dual role of shareholder and customer and their expectations never change. They too want a solid return on the time and money invested. They want a championship now and they’re tired of waiting. And even if you just won one championship the next loss is so much an issue of what have you done for me lately? If you own or run a professional sports team and really crave success then you can’t just stay static either. With so many moving parts around you, staying still is really moving backward.

The Indians playoff experience last season was in many ways like the Browns playoff near miss. Both raised reasonable expectations that both teams were about success and were just about there. But where Shapiro got complacent, Savage got hungry.

That doesn’t mean that all of Shapiro’s decisions have been wrong or that Savage’s moves have been all right. In fact, both have a healthy dose of hits and misses over the years. But when it was most necessary to begin the really hard work of stepping up or stepping aside, the edge certainly goes to Savage. Whether that will yield different results is up for grabs. But if it doesn’t Cleveland fans will be even more apoplectic then usual for there is nothing worse than not knowing where to turn next.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Road From Perdition

For a season with so little to celebrate, Indians’ fans can be grateful for one thing. The front office is on message.

As the losses mount, Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge takes the occasional post-game detour to remind the great unwashed how truly hard of a game baseball is to play at the major league level. Mostly he does this as a way of protecting his players from otherwise getting the harsh criticism they probably deserve for their repeated failures.

To the extent that Indians general manager Mark Shapiro has spoken at all publicly and substantively about the disaster that this season has become it’s been to express frustration over several players not playing to his expectations. He may not be couching it in terms of the game’s inherent difficulties, but the underlying message is consistent: it’s the players, stupid.

Don’t get confused. Shapiro isn’t admitting that the team has the wrong players and Wedge isn’t admitting that he has failed to push the right buttons to cajole a higher level of performance. It’s just that this incredibly difficult game has caused this lovable bunch of talented mugs to be mired in a big ol’ collective slump. Oh, and don’t forget about the injuries. And, oh yea, there’s been a lot of rain. And, by the way, gas is $4.00 a gallon. And there might be an actor’s strike.

Though the message is clear that the fault lies not with management, if that’s placating anyone other than the most casual of fan whose awareness comes from failing to change the channel quick enough before accidentally hearing last night’s score, I’d be shocked. The Indians have fallen so hard and so fast, the answer can’t be that simple. And it isn’t.

But don’t think you’re going to get any truly candid response or a coherent and far reaching solution. Self-critical analysis isn’t exactly this team management’s strength.

Consider, for example, the last few games. If you had the misfortune of watching the recently completed Cincinnati series, particularly on Saturday and Sunday, or Monday’s loss to the Chicago White Sox and then listened to Wedge’s post-game comments, you would have thought that these were hard-fought games that could have gone either way and hey, it’s just been that kind of season. Wedge even told the media after Monday’s loss, for example, that at least the team didn’t shut down after being down 8-1.

If that’s true it’s only because it never turned on in the first place. What actually was painfully apparent was that in losing each game, this was a team essentially going through the motions—in June. For either Wedge or Shapiro to acknowledge as much would be tantamount to acknowledging institutional failure. To be as candid as they haven’t, that acknowledgement would be a good start on the road back from perdition.

This lack of enthusiasm, this lethargy on the field is a poor reflection on Wedge. The inability to perform any better in the first place is a reflection on Shapiro. One has a questionable eye for talent and the other has a questionable ability to develop it. Roll these concepts around in your head for awhile as you consider whether or not you really want the Indians to trade pitcher C. C. Sabathia.

Signing Sabathia seems off the table. Indeed, even if it wasn’t from the Indians’ standpoint, Sabathia, far closer to the situation than any fan, can look at the landscape and see one of the more miserable lineups in recent memory and accurately discern that Shapiro and owners Larry and Paul Dolan don’t have the wherewithal to sign him and make the moves necessary to really improve the team.

But even with the Sabathia situation begging for obvious resolution via a trade, the far more pertinent questions revolve around whether anyone trusts Shapiro to make the right kind of trade or trusts Wedge to make the most of whatever “talent” Shapiro acquires. Take all the time you need at arriving at the answers. Time’s up.

Put as fine a point on it as you’d like or be satisfied with the broad strokes. Either paints an easily discernable picture. Shapiro for all his supposed statistical wizardry is far too accommodating to reclamation projects and utility players as a way of completing a roster. His decision-making comfort zone occupies the space between A and B in the alphabet. He’s got the same risk profile as the person who puts his money in mason jars because the banks are run by some shadowy Tri-Lateral Commission.

Wedge, for all his patience, has trouble motivating his players and constructing a batting order. Three seasons into the Jhonny Peralta experiment and Wedge still hasn’t found a way to get solid performances from him in two straight games. A team with the worst batting average in the American League and close to the worst average in the major leagues, and Wedge still has Grady Sizemore batting leadoff.

And neither Wedge nor Shapiro has given anyone reason to think that any of this will change anytime soon or ever.

That’s why the thought of Shapiro making another “signature” trade is every bit as scary as the Indians’ next road trip, or the one after that. Granted, keeping Sabathia around until the season ends isn’t much of an option either. After all, if Sabathia stays it likely will be the same cast of characters that would have to somehow do something with the two extra draft picks the team would get as compensation. Different problem for a different day.

Neither alternative offers much comfort to the fans that have been so let down by the endless string of front office and on field bungling, but all a trade, any trade, now would do is buy Shapiro a few more years to see if this week’s version of the grand experiment can gel, or congeal as the case may be. It’s time he hasn’t quite earned.

Though the Dolans seem blissfully ignorant of Shapiro’s shortcomings, plunging attendance and a roster in complete disarray should be enough to at least give them some pause before allowing Shapiro to pull the trigger on what is sure to be a desperately conceived quick-fix trade that will only yield more white noise and a bench full of reclamation projects and utility players.

It’s barely July, but the best way to get the fans back in the fold is for the Dolans to declare fan appreciation days early and send Shapiro to Tierra del Fuego until at least August and cut off his cell phone. We all could use the vacation.