Saturday, May 26, 2012

Lingering Items--Battle Royale Edition

When it comes to the NFL, the only thing Cleveland Browns fans want to worry about is whether or not this team will ever win more than 5 games in a season again. But if you want a fun NFL-related distraction that is more competitive than the Browns have been in years, keep watch on the battle royale shaping up between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.

Smith has made almost a cottage industry out of trying to reshape the image of Goodell from guardian of the game to a power hungry dictator more concerned with his stature then the welfare of the game or its players. Goodell for his part treats Smith like the pest that he is.

Smith's strategy was borne from the moment he ran for and won his current role following the death of the previous executive director, Gene Upshaw. Smith took a strident approach to his campaign by implying not all the subtly that Upshaw’s relationship with Paul Tagliabue was bad for the players, never mind that Upshaw and Tagliabue presided over the greatest expansion of wealth ever of their sport.

Smith took this approach because he knew that new commissioner Goodell has won his job by reflecting the desires of a strong and vocal group of owners who felt about Tagliabue like some players felt about Upshaw—that he was selling them out. When Tagliabue pushed a settlement of the previous collective bargaining agreement on the owners, there were many that felt he went to far in terms of the guarantees that went to players.

It was hardly a secret that the owners wanted to blow up the last agreement as soon as it was legally possible and reclaim their economic footing. The recession of 2008 helped their argument.

So it made sense for Smith to play to the fears of the players that Goodell was nothing more than a bag man for the likes of Jerry Jones in Dallas and that strong, strident, combative leadership was needed as a counterbalance.

Most players are about as vested in the inner workings of their union as you’d expect, meaning not much at all. In truth, most would prefer not to have their paychecks lightened by union dues. But they’ll go along to get along and so when Smith’s siren song found voice with the few who pay attention, his hiring was almost a foregone conclusion. I wonder, though, if anyone ever checked his resume. Smith had absolutely no labor experience when he got his job and then went about proving how disastrous that could be.

The owners weren’t exactly private about their intentions with respect to getting out of the last labor agreement and Smith wasn’t exactly private about what he was going to do in response. Relying on his training as a trial lawyer and his lack of experience as a labor lawyer, Smith turned to litigation to get his way. It didn't work.

Smith seemed to be under the impression that he could get the courts to stop the owners from not just exercising their legal right to get out of the contract, but also get them to force new terms and conditions on the owners that they wouldn’t want to accept. It was always going to fail.

Labor laws strike a decent balance between the workers and the owners in virtually all industries. Those laws certainly provide needed protections to workers who ban together to bargain collectively (as well as needed protections to help them ban together in the first place). But they also acknowledge that business owners are the ones at risk and thus don’t require those owners to agree to any particular proposal put forth. Both sides have the legal right to ask for anything and both sides have the same right to always say no as long as all of this is done in good faith.

The owners had, in their view, plenty of economic incentive behind their proposals. It could hardly be said they weren’t made in good faith. The players had good faith reasons for saying no. Eventually though the only place this could ever get settled was the bargaining table and not in court. No court or administrative agency can dictate the terms of anyone’s labor contract, simple as that.

Smith’s pushing the union into a legal battle delayed bargaining for months without meaningfully increasingly the union’s leverage. The owners were willing to lose the season if necessary to take back control of their economic future and the players, whose careers are fleeting, were always going to cave. A more reasoned leader would have seen this from the outset and set about to find the best bargain available in a bad situation. As it turns out, the deal Smith did sign was not appreciably different or better then what he could have had before he let his members get locked out.

So Smith has been smarting from this embarrassment ever since and has gone after Goodell at every turn. Hardly a day goes by when the NFLPA isn’t challenging one issue or another or reneging on one agreement or another.

Consider, three recent examples.

First, Smith agreed to HGH testing in the latest collective bargaining agreement and has since been walking back that commitment and it still isn’t resolved.

Second, the owners voted to make it mandatory that all players wear thigh and knee pads, which is well within their rights to unilaterally make that call under the collective bargaining agreement. It shouldn’t be particularly controversial given all the attention that player safety is getting these days. Not surprisingly the union is contesting the owners’ right to force players to wear this protection. Remind me again who cares more about safety?

Third, the union filed a complaint this week alleging collusion by the owners in the uncapped 2010 season. Whatever claim the union had over that matter they waived when they signed the new collective bargaining agreement. Both sides waived all claims, known and unknown, that either had or could have had about any issues under the old collective bargaining agreement, the uncapped year, or the negotiations for a new agreement. Despite this waiver, which Smith signed, he’s suing anyway buttressed by a failed legal strategy which depends on the union's direct disavowal of the agreement it signed—again.

In each case, and irrespective of what the NFLPA might say publicly, these actions are about Smith trying to build his stature on the back of Goodell. A more reasoned leader would find a more reasoned approach but that hasn't been Smith's style.

The owners and the players are under a long term labor contract at the moment so an all out labor war isn't in the offing. But these constant firefights aren't helping the game and they aren't helping the players. They aren't even helping Smith. The union should have strong leadership. Goodell does need a foil and a counterbalance. But Smith at the moment isn't helping his stature or the union's by constantly reneging on the agreements he's signed.


When did Jim Brown turn into Bob Feller?

People who never saw Feller pitch tend to know about him through old photos and newsreels or, prior to his death, from his gig as a so-called goodwill ambassador for the Indians. He pull on a uniform occasionally and throw the ball around. He'd also wax cranky on just about everything and everyone. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the cartoon character Crankshaft was based on Feller.

But Feller had a certain charm anyway. Jim Brown? Not so much.

Arguably the greatest running back ever and certainly the best player to ever play for the Browns, Jim Brown used to serve the role with the Browns that Feller did with the Indians. But then Mike Holmgren was hired and for reasons that have never been explained, adequately or otherwise, Holmgren jettisoned Brown and his $500,000 salary from the Stadium while owner Randy Lerner wasn't looking.

Since that parting, Brown has turned into the cranky old guy. He raised a few eyebrows when the Browns drafted Trent Richardson by calling Richardson ordinary. And he still tweaking his old employer, Richardson and Holmgren, per an interview Tony Grossi conducted with him recently for ESPN Cleveland.

Brown stuck by his assessment of Richardson, calling him efficient. Brown just doesn't see greatness. Fair enough since Richardson hasn't even played a down in the NFL. But Brown did take another shot at Holmgren. He said the Browns are still a mess and it is due in large part to what he feels is Holmgren's lack of commitment to the team or the area.

Brown certainly is coming across as embittered. Losing a half million dollar salary will do that to a guy. But it's not as if Brown's comments lack a basis.

He explained in detail why he feels Richardson is ordinary, mainly due to what Brown feels is a lack of speed and quickness. Brown says Richardson has the opportunity to be a good workhorse type back but fans shouldn't be expecting the second coming of Emmitt Smith. On Holmgren, Brown rightfully points out his penchant for giving revealing interviews to Seattle radio stations while being mostly invisible to the Cleveland media.

The Browns have been a strange organization for so long that it's hard to tell what Holmgren is causing vs. what Holmgren is continuing. But alienating Brown was one of Holmgren's dumbest ideas. Maybe it was a money saver but that probably wouldn't have been necessary if Holmgren has not exercised his dumbest decision to date, wasting a year in this franchise's life by keeping Eric Mangini around for another year.


There seems to be a growing consensus that Browns head coach Pat Shurmur isn't very good at his job, based mostly on the team's performance last season.

It's an unfair conclusion to draw.

Shurmur was hamstrung from the moment he got the job. First, he was hired a year too late because of Holmgren's aforesaid dumb idea of retaining Mangini and his system for an extra year. Then Shurmur was hamstrung by the NFL's labor situation which prevented him from having any contact with any players in the off season. That set Shurmur back and set the players back. At most, the offensive scheme he was implementing wasn't fully in place until late in the season.

Finally, Shurmur was handcuffed by the front office's refusal to provide Shurmur with one credible receiver, which is a kind of important position in the West Coast offense. Sure, they drafted Greg Little, but he hadn't even played in a year and when drafted he was immediately their best threat. That's how bad it was.

Shurmur's now had a full off season. The front office still hasn't helped him by again refusing to provide him with credible receivers, but at least he now has a good running back and a quarterback in whom he's more fully vested. This doesn't represent a make or break year by any means for Shurmur but it will tell us far more about what kind of head coach he might ultimately be.


The Indians' sweep of the Tigers leads to this week's question to ponder: What's more surprising, the play of the Indians or the play of the Tigers?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Attacking the Wrong Problem

It’s never dull when a professional athlete goes off script around beat writers. If anything other than “we played great” or “it was a tough game but we hung in there” gets uttered, it becomes a moment of sublime confusion.

So it is with Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Chris Perez who, in the course of saving a game he looked to be blowing, took some boos and then had the temerity to talk about it a few days later in not so flattering terms, assuming you're one of the fans doing the booing or one of the fans not showing up to the games or, well, generally one of the fans.

Perez is, at the least, an interesting breed of cat. He doesn’t seem to take the “athlete” portion of his job description any more seriously then another interesting breed of cat, former major leaguer David Wells. It was Wells who claimed he was misquoted in his own autobiography (and not the first athlete to make that claim, actually) when he said he was hung over when he pitched his perfect game. He also had a lot of other mildly idiotic things to say in that book but mostly it was done to cement a view that he was not your typical baseball player. He needn’t have opened his mouth. The belly told that story.

Perez isn’t on a Wells trajectory just yet and may never be. But he is an athlete with an opinion, which automatically puts him in the .01% of all athletes who won’t say shit even if they have a mouthful of it.

I’m presuming that Perez, who has pitched mostly flawlessly this season and is probably the single biggest reason the Indians find themselves in first place at the moment, was ticked that he got booed for pitching like Bob Wickman the other night. I presume that because Perez said exactly that.

Perez has a short memory because even though he’s been far steadier this year, he’s mostly been of the Wickman ilk as a closer, which is to say that every outing tends to be a white knuckler through the ninth inning. That’s not to suggest that Perez’s record isn’t good. Indeed, he gets out of more rough patches than Phil Mickelson. But too often his schtick is a high wire act that causes more consternation than the average fan, right or wrong, thinks is necessary.

Yet Perez took that slight call of boos and turned it into a general statement about the lack of support his team is facing from the fans, which isn’t exactly news. Perez, earning plenty of dough for throwing a ball, probably hasn’t bought a baseball ticket in years. He knows little about the struggles of those that do. In that sense, then, his remarks were a tad insensitive.

But there’s no real reason to pick on Perez for being a clueless boob and I hate the fact that every time an athlete does have an opinion, even one that’s misguided, the journalistic genes of the sportswriter kick in at exactly the wrong moment by immediately turning on the source not even realizing that by doing so they are contributing to the rather bland way professional sports gets covered in the first place.

Perez always seems to have plenty to say but let’s not confuse him with being the clubhouse intellect. So why attack him for not possessing second level thinking. I’d rather someone, anyone really turn the focus on the underlying point.

Let’s face it, fans aren’t supporting this team. Perez has it completely wrong when he tries to decipher why, but he doesn’t have the underlying facts wrong. Besides, wouldn’t time be better spent in this town by the lazy scribes that cover this team engaging in a healthy debate as to why this team lacks support?

And that, my friends, is the nub of the issue. The writers who cover this team aren’t going to take on team management over anything more controversial than a failed trade. When Tony Grossi lost his plumb beat reporter job covering the Browns because he had the audacity to publicly, but inadvertently, express what most already think about Browns’ owner Randy Lerner, wasn’t that a pretty strong message being sent to every other reporter in town? Do you think that the PD's Paul Hoynes wants to lose his place in the buffet line and his access to Mark Shapiro’s pithy insights by taking Shapiro to task for creating a culture that makes the fans feel foolish for supporting this team?

Of course not, so let’s at least be honest about it. Perez may be cocooned in a world where everyone but the ball boys earn a million dollars a year so his losing perspective about the problems the fans have with this team isn’t a surprise, but at least he spoke out about it. Likewise, Perez doesn’t handle the business end of his profession, leaving that to an agent. So it’s not a surprise he would see only the periphery of why free agents aren’t playing in Cleveland, but let’s at least celebrate his willingness to talk about it.

In most circles outside of sports, a participant talking about the process would trigger a substantive debate out their merits. In sports it triggers a debate about the speaker.

If you don’t think so, consider the evidence here. Once the “story” broke, the follow on had everything to do with how the Indians would deal with their bullpen philosopher king and nothing to do with learning what the Indians plan to do to address the attendance problem.

We learned, for example, that Perez had to sit down to presumably get lectured by Shapiro and Chris Antonetti about the uselessness in saying anything more controversial then “I just couldn’t locate my slider today.” We were treated to a handful of questions to Shapiro about whether Perez was disrespecting the fans all dutifully answered in the bland way that Shapiro wishes Perez had kept to. We then had it all wrapped up nicely in a Shapiro press release that speaks to Perez’s passion for the game, the town, its fans and his team.

All any of that does is push the problem out of view and the local media is as complacent in it as anyone. Consider the insidious way Shapiro used his press release to expertly deflect attention from the problem he’s helped create by keeping the focus on Perez and how he thinks Perez really feels. It really is an attempt to put a nice ribbon on the whole package and, not surprisingly, it’s mostly be taken at exactly that level.

It is frustrating, though, that there isn’t a stronger willingness to attack the underlying issue while putting Perez to the side. It’s the far more important debate for the long term future of the club.

Everyone has their views on why the fans don’t feel enough connection with this team to fork over dollars to support it, but let’s at least acknowledge the existence of the divide between the club and its fans instead of acting as if it’s a weather-related phenomenon. It’s not.

On a weekend of perfect weather, the Indians still drew under 30,000 for each game against the Miami Marlins. In context, that’s cause for celebration but as Tom Hamilton would say, there will still plenty of good seats available. And before anyone gets giddy about attendance that would have been cause for consternation in the ‘90s, let’s note that each one of those weekend games was a high water mark in attendance this year except for opening day. Want more? Of the 15 games with the most fans watching the Indians this year, 10 were on the road. Of the 15 games with the least fans watching the Indians this year, 13 were at home and in none of those home games were there more than 12,000 fans.

My guess is that Shapiro is concerned about attendance and has found some 5-tool business analyst to break it down for him on an Excel spreadsheet. But if Shapiro is addressing this item, you wouldn’t know it. It’s not hard to dodge questions that aren’t getting asked.

Shapiro is decidedly more clever than the people covering his team so we’ll always be left to wonder how deeply Shapiro understands the problem and how strategically he plans on attacking it. We let him focus public attention on the wrong issue by allowing him to purposely deflect the conversation away from him and the job that he’s doing. Good for Shapiro, not so much for the fans who won't fill the seats until Shapiro actually does internalize the problem and addresses it meaningfully.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lingering Items--Wishful Thinking Edition

Glancing at the baseball standings in early May is usually a fool’s game. The reason the baseball season is so long is that it takes a hundred or so games to actually get the full measure of a team’s worth. Anything short of that can and often does lead to false impressions. That isn’t just a cautious reminder about your team. It’s applicable to all teams.

Still, avoiding my own advice, it’s worth looking at the standings in the American League Central right now where the Indians find themselves in first place by 3 games over the Detroit Tigers. That’s the kind of lead that can be lost in the weekend and as we saw last season, a hot start does not necessarily beget a hot finish.

Putting the Indians aside for the moment, though, aren’t you at least tempted to draw some conclusions about the division generally? For instance, the Minnesota Twins are already 15 games below .500. Even at an early stage of the season that’s too huge of a hole to climb out of in terms of being a pennant contender. They’re done.

The Kansas City Royals are done, too. It doesn’t matter that they’re only 5 games under .500 at the moment. It might as well be their usual 50. The Royals were done when the season started for exactly the same reason they, like the Pittsburgh Pirates, are done as each season starts. They suck.

The franchise is poorly run because it is headed up by a management that secretly doesn’t believe they can ever be successful and then goes about its business proving just that. In Kansas City, they labor under the perpetual dread of their circumstances, like Eeyore, knowing that no matter what they do, who they sign, how they train, it’s never going to be good enough because all the best looking girls are still going to go out with the guys from Camp Mohawk. So they show up, make a little noise once in awhile but mostly try not to get in anyone’s way.

That leaves the race to three teams: the Indians, the White Sox and the Tigers. This is where it does get interesting because at the moment the teams are in a statistical dead heat despite the differences in their records. More time, much more, will be needed to sort it out.

The Tigers looked like a team that could challenge the Texas Rangers for the number of runs scored this year. Yet they have scored exactly the same number of runs as the Indians at the moment, which is actually quite stunning. The White Sox are lagging behind, but only by a few runs.

The Tigers are hitting better than the Indians, the White Sox a little worse and none are hitting particularly well. The difference is that the Indians have a higher on base percentage then the other two, but again the differences aren’t particularly statistically significant.

Pitching is somewhat a similar story. White Sox starters have a distinct advantage over those in Cleveland and Detroit, with a collective ERA that’s a half run better. But whatever advantage that gives is lost in the bullpen where the Indians clearly have the advantage at the moment.

White Sox relievers, at 38%, are second only to Baltimore in the percentage of inherited runners who end up scoring. Detroit is close behind at 34%. Indians relievers are third best at only 22%. Even more telling is that while the Indians bullpen has been called upon the most to enter games in save situations, they’re also converting 78% of those changes, which is fourth in the majors. Tigers relievers have been called upon 36 times in save situations and are only converting 57% of those chances. The White Sox relievers are getting even less chances and still only converting 57% of those chances.

What this all suggests is that like a horse race that’s at the quarter pole, the main horses are still too bunched to figure out who will win. The AL Central will be a 3-team race and could easily stay that way for the entire season. The Indians’ flaws are more known to the locals but in truth neither Detroit nor Chicago seem to be clearly superior at the moment.

It may be that Detroit eventually finds its footing offensively, but their bullpen will remain suspect for the season unless they find some new arms. It’s going to take a lot of runs to cover up for a bullpen that can only be counted on about half the time to hold a lead and get a save. Chicago would seem to need both more hitting and better pitching to stay competitive.

The Indians aren’t close to being the best team in the American League this year. In truth, they don’t compare all that well with the best teams in the West and the East. But the Central is proving to be weak and that, frankly, is Shapiro’s dream scenario. The Indians are never going to be able to go toe to toe with the bullies, but since they currently reside in a division of dipshits at the moment they have a fighting chance. Will the fans notice?


Have you purchased your Brandon Weeden Fat Head wall hanging yet? Maybe they’re on back order given all of the run Weeden’s been getting from the Plain Dealer lately.

Most certainly Weeden looked good to novice NFL beat writer Dennis Manloff at a rookie mini-camp. Weeden was wearing shorts and a helmet so that in part could be the reason for the gushing analysis of Weeden’s rocket arm and pin point precision. It was enough really to send Manloff into a rant about how Weeden shouldn’t have Colt McCoy looking over his shoulder when the season gets underway.

I’d talk about how little Manloff seems to understand professional sports and athletes but the call for dumping McCoy in order to clearly signal to Weeden that he’s our new man crush in order to soothe his psyche was more than enough proof. If Weeden’s is so tender as to be intimidated by the understudy just aching for the star to get sick, then Weeden has absolutely no chance to be a starter in the Arena League, let alone the NFL.

What’s surprising though is the complete lack of historical context Manloff and others have while anointing Weeden and clearing his path. Weeden plays for an organization that hasn’t had the same person starter at quarterback for 3 straight seasons since Bernie Kosar. They’ve made so many draft blunders over so many years that it’s insane at the moment to give the latest occupiers of the Berea headquarters the benefit of the doubt on any of their picks.

I’m not particularly laying the wood to Tom Heckert or Mike Holmgren, either. It’s just that whatever you might think of the players they’ve drafted thus far, if you’re measuring results by such pedestrian measures as wins, then they aren’t any better than the previous clowns or the clowns before them or the clowns before them. Remember, too, that Holmgrem is the same guy that deliberately threw away a season by retaining a head coach he didn’t respect just because he didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings. In short, until all these fine draft picks of previous years start actually producing more than 4 or 5 wins a season, there’s no reason to afford them any more benefit of the doubt then their predecessors.

That’s the context that Manloff needs to consider before he starts throwing all in on Weeden without the benefit of having seen him actually perform in one practice with the entire team. Weeden may very well be a franchise savior, but let’s wait a little longer for that judgment. In the mean time, let’s keep around last year’s starter as a hedge, even if he’s not your idea of the Answer. He didn’t he embarrass the team given the embarrassing group of players that aforementioned Heckert and Holmgren surrounded him with. Something tells me that this team just might need him.


As if Dan Gilbert didn’t have enough on his plate with his sparkling new casino, he now is a member of the NBA’s newly constituted competition committee. It’s an interesting development, to say the least, one he wanted and one he may come to regret.

The NFL has a competition committee, but it’s populated with head coaches and they debate the meaty issues of the day, such as the tuck rule and whether or not the bump and run should be further limited.

Until now, the NBA’s competition committee was an unsightly gangly mess of a group of all the league’s general managers. Getting them to agree on a lunch menu probably ate up most of the average meeting. Slimming down the committee and putting one of the more vocal owners in the league on it will certainly shake things up. Whether or not it’s for the greater good is a whole other matter.

The NBA does have a huge competition problem. Despite the rancorous labor negotiations that gave the owners a little more financial certainty and relief, the new collective bargaining problem didn’t solve one of Gilbert’s main issues: the fact that the rules are stacked against teams trying to rebuild themselves back into relevance.

Here’s Gilbert’s main concern. His team has Kyrie Irving, the recently named rookie of the year. Yet Gilbert knows that in a league with the fewest number of players per team, it remains the hardest league in which to turn around a team’s fortunes. Gilbert has already let the fans know that even next year’s team may not be playoff bound. Indeed, with luck it won’t be because in the NBA it’s far better for your team’s long-term prospects to not make the playoffs then to just make them.

One of the main reasons that it takes so long to graduate to the upper tier of the league is that you’re punished with purgatory for just making the playoffs. You’re out of the draft lottery and out of the running for the few really good college players that can make an immediate difference to a NBA team.

Most of the things that will keep Gilbert’s Cavs on the outer fringes of basketball relevancy can’t be changed simply because of a competition committee. He can’t, for instance, suddenly make Cleveland a warm weather city where available free agents want to winter, irrespective of how well his casino is climate controlled. He can’t change the bizarre, exception-riddled salary cap that keeps the really good potential free agents mostly tethered to their current teams. The time and place for that was at the bargaining table and it didn’t happen. In short, absent the overhaul that can only come through difficult labor negotiations, there isn’t much that can actually be done to shorten the Cavs 10-year path back toward relevance, Irving notwithstanding.

I have great admiration for Gilbert. He’s a guy that can get things done. But for as hard as he works and for as hard has he pushes, I think he’s starting to realize that the odds aren’t just long, but almost impossible for achieving meaningful change. And when he becomes frustrated with the process, which he will, just hope that the only thing that happens is that he quits the committee or rotates off. Neither the Cavs, its fans nor the city can afford to let Gilbert get fed up with a broken system and take his considerable talents elsewhere, unless it’s across the street to Progressive Field or down the road to Cleveland Browns Stadium. In that case, I hope his work on the competition committee breaks his resolve.

Apropos to nothing, but this week’s question to ponder: When did the NHL playoffs become more compelling viewing than the NBA playoffs?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Searching for a Marketing Strategy

The Cleveland Indians find themselves in first place, which would seem like good news except if your business is selling the Indians, then it’s not. The Indians can’t seem to gain any traction with the locals who are staying away in droves and that’s got everyone inside the inner sanctum scurrying about sending tweets and generally acting frustrated.

I don’t blame team president Mark Shapiro for taking a few subtle digs at the fact that virtually no one even knew that the Indians were playing a day/night doubleheader on Monday because of a make up for a previous rain out. It’s an honest sentiment from a guy that usually keeps his real feelings well below the surface.

But neither, then, should Shapiro blame the fans who have greeted the Indians’ early success in much the same manner as they did last season, with a confused and indifferent shrug.

What last season proved is that Shapiro and the baseball side of his operations weren’t quite ready to embrace a successful team. They could hardly contain their surprise at how things went early on and then fretted about what they might do come late July when the trading deadline beckons. As sellers most seasons, the Indians’ brass found themselves facing a public that assumed they'd sell once again even as the team made a mild push toward the playoffs.

In the end, Shapiro and Chris Antonetti weren’t quite sure what to do and ended up giving up some of their best minor leaguers for Ubaldo Jimenez. Despite the currency used to pay for Jimenez, it was neither a transformative nor definitive transaction that said “we’re here to win it this year.”

Antonetti understandably wanted more then a rent-a-player but it’s exactly those kinds of players that tell the fan base that the front office will be aggressive when the playoffs appear to be in reach. Jimenez always was a compromise candidate, someone with enough current credentials to perhaps convince a skeptical fan base of the front office’s commitment to them but sporting a club-friendly contract.

So if Shapiro is frustrated with the fans for not showing up, he needs to keep it in context, this context specifically. The working business model he pushes is to have competitive teams but not necessarily successful ones. He knows he can’t have playoff caliber teams on a yearly basis because he doesn’t have access to the payroll to support it. He thus tries for decent teams that occasionally can make a run—his words, not mine.

I’m not here at the moment to question this model (I’ve done plenty of that previously) but I am here to throw that model back in Shapiro’s face when he bitches about why the team can’t attract fans, corporate or otherwise.

Fans love to see winning baseball, certainly, but they want to see winning baseball with a purpose and not one that wins around 80 games a year. It’s hard to put your money down repeatedly for a team that you feel will abandon you just when it gets interesting. Whether or not it’s true, and I’ll allow for reasonable debate over whether the Jimenez deal represented abandonment or commitment, the larger point is that the fans believe it’s true.

That’s where the marketing of this team is almost completely disconnected to the perceived fan experience and ultimately another reason fans can’t see themselves investing money into the club on a regular basis.

What Don Draper has taught us all is that people tend to buy products on emotion, because they feel a connection to it. Marketing built around capturing the emotional experience drives sales, if you capture the right emotion. But marketing that is tone deaf works counter to purpose. The Indians’ current campaign, a carryover of the “What if?” theme of a year ago is tone deaf.

Listening to the excited calls of Tom Hamilton and watching Indians of 15 or so years ago perform great feats is meant to evoke a sense of nostalgia about the team generally. That’s nice as far as it goes but it is irrelevant to the way the Indians are currently run.

The Indians of 1995 and 1997 were star driven teams funded by an owner who was willing to put cash into the operations and maintain one of the larger budgets in the league. The current owners work in an entirely different fashion.

The Indians of recent vintage aren’t star driven in any sense of the word. It’s a revolving door of young players, aging, flawed vets on one year contracts and bargain basement pitchers that aren’t much known outside of the tri-state area. Fans rarely have time to get to know these players because they’re either eventually released or traded but always replaced. Antonetti cobbles together almost an entire team each off season like someone playing fantasy baseball. The holdovers are those tethered to the team by a lack of options under the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

Fans sees this. They absorb it and it just becomes a part of the very fabric of the franchise. I was in the Indians team shop at Progressive Field recently with a teenager who isn’t native to Cleveland but who wanted to buy a jersey. She asked two different clerks whose named jersey was the most popular. Not surprisingly, it was two different answers. When pressed, each admitted that no player was selling predominately more jerseys than any other.

That doesn’t mean none of the players are popular with the jersey-buying public. It’s more that no player is particularly popular. Fans have various favorites but there’s no one around whom their interest coalesces.

Given this paradigm, the marketing challenges are obvious.

Alas, I’m not Don Draper, so marketing the Indians to me is like marketing Heinz baked beans. It isn’t glamorous. Maybe it takes a Meagen Draper to discover the right approach, but there is an approach. But whatever that may be I’m sure at least that it’s not one that pivots off of a time where the team was a star-driven enterprise populated with the likes of Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle or Jim Thome. All that does is remind people of the vast differences between then and now which in turn evokes more negative feelings than positive ones.

The problem the Indians face on the marketing side is very similar to that of a number of self-anointed small market clubs. You can bribe fans by giving away tchotchkes and the Indians do plenty of that. But the items are mostly cheap crap that clutter up a room until you have the good sense to give them a toss. You can bribe them with fireworks and the Indians do plenty of that as well. Indeed these are the some of the most popular dates on the calendar.

But none of that answers the vexing issue of a mid-week game in the spring, summer or fall. You have to find fans who actually want to spend money to attend a night game against Chicago in May and getting them misty about the 1995 team isn’t going to do it.

Fans in Cleveland tend to label themselves as good fans, but it’s a mostly vacuous phrase. What connotes a good fan from a bad one? Is it his willingness to pay to attend that Monday night game in May irrespective of how the team is otherwise performing? I think that’s a little harsh. You can try to appeal to a fan’s love of the sport but that only goes so far. Ultimately a team has to be successful or at the very minimum, perceived as successful. That’s true everywhere including Cleveland, because the fans here really aren’t any better or worse than those in any other city. They’ll fully support a winner and will avoid a loser.

The answer to the problem that frustrates Shapiro is too long term for him to fully comprehend. But there’s now enough empirical evidence over a number years to prove the point. Until the Indians are perceived as an aggressive franchise truly doing everything in its power to be a winner as opposed to being competitive, the fan reaction will remain muted irrespective of whatever early season success it might enjoy. No one wants to invest in a drifting enterprise and whether true or not, the Indians have cultivated an image of a franchise always building for another day.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Lingering Items--Public Relations Edition

During most weeks of the year, but most certainly the regular season, one NFL player or another runs afoul of some league rule.  Maybe he tested positive for a banned substance.  Maybe it was an illegal hit.  But in every case the league levies a punishment, the player appeals and eventually it gets resolved through the arbitration process.  And as that’s all taking place no one much pays attention, let alone complains about the process.

I mention this because in very large measure the punishment the league handed down to 4 current and former New Orleans Saints players for their alleged involvement in a pay-to-injure scheme are of the same ilk.  The allegations are a bit more salacious certainly but otherwise it doesn’t command any sort of resort to media handwringing.

Yet whether it’s Mike Florio over at or any number of other like-minded moralists, this situation is different and in their view the league should be handing over to the public all of its evidence against the accused so that everyone can pass premature judgment.  We don’t even demand such things in the prosecution of real criminals, but this is football so this kind of transparency obviously is much more important.

It’s a false argument and one the league most certainly will ignore.  The NFL doesn’t owe the public that kind of transparency any more than the Plain Dealer or ProFootballTalk or Yahoo or ESPN or the guy running the local 7-11 does in terms of how they deal with internal disciplinary matters.  There is an orderly process that will ultimately test the value of the league’s evidence against the defenses proffered and a decision will be rendered and we can all go about the business once again of wondering exactly why the Browns hate wide receivers.

The far more interesting dynamic in this Saints debacle is that of exactly how the union resolves its massive conflict of interest.  There’s no question that certain Saints players, including the Browns resident outhouse lawyer Scott Fujita, put money into a pool to reward other Saints players for playing with a certain, shall we say, intensity.  Fujita admitted this openly.  The dispute is whether the rewards were doled out for hits intended to injure the competitors.  Fujita’s spin is that they were simply for good, clean hits because, apparently, a million dollar salary isn’t enough of an incentive for a professional to perform as required, which means make good, clean hits.  Other players and the league say that it was a bounty program.

Common sense would indicate that the league has a good case if only because Fujita’s rationalization is idiotic.  But who knows?  The league has had seemingly open and shut cases before and they’ve managed to blow it so anything’s possible.

What really rubs the wrong day is as usual the strident views taken by a union run by an individual, DeMaurice Smith, who cares not a whit for the good of the game.  He fancies himself more in the vein of Marvin Miller when it comes to his role, as if protecting and defending his members is always at odds with acting in the best interests of the greater good.

This isn’t to suggest that the union shouldn’t mount a defense on behalf of the suspended players.  It’s their legal duty to do just that.  But to not denounce, even in the most general terms, any players who might have participated in a bounty system is reprehensible.  Smith and the cronies and lawyers that report to him are so blinded by their distaste for commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners that pay their salaries that they cannot even comprehend the awful message they are sending to the vast majority of their members with their odd defense of the Saints’ players.

Eli Manning, for one, had no such qualms in denouncing any of his fellow union members who would deliberately set out to injure another.  Same, too, for Aaron Rodgers.  But apparently Smith has forgotten that he is supposed to represent Manning, Rodgers and Brett Favre (the target of one of the alleged bounties) just as equally as Jon Vilma or Will Smith.  And because he has forgotten that charge, Smith has set up an internal civil war within the union that will not just hurt the union but also hurt the greater good.

I’ve been consistent in my views on Smith.  It was a mistake to hire him as the head of the union because he had absolutely no experience in labor-management relations.  He then proceeded to foolishly incite a lockout with a completely failed legal strategy, which wasn’t a surprise.  He didn’t negotiate any better deal then what he was offered before he pushed the union off the cliff.  That hurt his members most of whom are so disconnected to these matters anyway that they awarded Smith with a new contract.

Smith has once again taken his charges down the exact wrong path and that has nothing to do with whether or not the suspended players are guilty.  If Smith thinks it’s wrong for one union member to target another union member for injury, it’s his duty to say so and as publicly as possible.  Until Smith takes a stand as a real leader and finds a more elegant way to balance the sometimes competing interests of his members, he’ll continue to fail as a leader and the union will continue to look like the overmatched boobs they’ve become.

Colt McCoy showed up to work out for the Browns and a consensus seems to be emerging that mixes both surprise and bewilderment.  They’re surprised because McCoy didn’t kick up a fuss about the drafting of Brandon Weeden.  They’re bewildered because the Browns didn’t immediately trade McCoy in order to pave the way for Weeden.

To that I would add my own surprise and bewilderment but not for anything that either the Browns or McCoy have done but for the simplistic reactions of those being paid to write about it.  What exactly about the current situation immediately demands that the Browns part with McCoy?  Stated differently, what about McCoy personally suggests that his default reaction would be to bitch and moan and demand a trade?

I sometimes wonder whether many in the media that cover professional athletes for a living have any real clue about what makes athletes tick.  Their view of the McCoy/Weeden dynamic suggests they don’t.

If there’s one thing professional athletes understand by this point is that they aren’t long for professional athletics if they can’t stand a challenge.  Nearly every aspect of their existence is built on competition.  They are constantly fighting off others for the right to be the starter and the moment they think they have it made is the exact moment they need to worry the most.
McCoy is under contract with the Browns.  That’s why he showed up to work out.  He didn’t bitch about the drafting of Weeden because he’s been fighting off competition since Pop Warner.  It’s the nature of the job.  McCoy might fall short as a quarterback because his physical skills aren’t quite sufficient for a league of all stars.  But he won’t fall short because he lacks the desire to compete.

Besides, there’s no specific reason for either the Browns or McCoy to conclude at this point that it’s best for McCoy to ply his trade elsewhere.  If you believe that Weeden should be the starting quarterback, then by default having McCoy as the backup is far better than having it be Seneca Wallace, who couldn’t even beat out McCoy for the starting job.

The other benefit is that McCoy may burn with the desire to remain a starter in this league but he’s not the kind of personality that would publicly undermine Weeden like Wallace did with McCoy last season.  And as a final measure, there’s little chance that if Weeden starts next season he’ll make it through the season unscathed.  He’ll likely suffer an injury if only because every quarterback seems to.  There’s also every reason to think that he’ll hit some real low points where it will make sense to go to the bullpen even temporarily.  Wouldn’t you rather have McCoy in that bullpen then Wallace?

When the Browns signed Gary Danielson to mentor Bernie Kosar it worked because Danielson was still a serviceable starter in his own right while simultaneously not just recognizing but embracing his role as a placeholder for the next generation.  McCoy isn’t Danielson, but then again very few are.  If the Browns in theory could find a Danielson clone to mentor Weeden then by all means have at it.  But that player isn’t out there for if he were every team with a young quarterback, and there are plenty of them, would have snatched him up by now.
Until that kind of player emerges there’s no reason to run McCoy out of town and deliberately undercut the one area on the team where some depth is finally starting to emerge.

In the last 9 seasons, the Browns have won as much as 6 games just twice.  The rest of the time they’ve been in the 4 and 5 win category.  This isn’t just a garden variety losing record of a club that just lacks a few breaks.  It’s long term incompetence running head long into long term mismanagement.

In that context it’s understandable that the fans are excited about anyone who might promise something more than 6 wins in a season.  Still, doesn’t the exuberance around Weeden seem a bit, well, irrational?

At any time other than perhaps the last week and a half, not just the average Browns’ fan but nearly any Browns’ fan couldn’t have picked Weeden out of a lineup let alone talked confidently or intelligently about his accomplishments at a near second-tier Big 12 college or how the hell it could possibly translate into NFL success.

The exuberance too seems in large part manufactured by the public relations department of the Browns who are selling attributes like his advanced rookie age as a benefit without mentioning that if Weeden is indeed successful he’ll be the first.  Age does bring maturity but let’s face it, Weeden’s old because he couldn’t make it as a baseball player, his preferred occupation.
I’m not down on Weeden because it would be impossible to have formed that opinion given absolutely no body of work on which to draw any such conclusion.  Which is the point, isn’t it?  

I don’t mind the Browns’ p.r. department doing what it should be doing.  But it seems incredibly premature to anoint Weeden the starter let alone the savior of this dysfunctional franchise.
I’m not sure when the Browns fell out of love with McCoy but it was somewhere around the time that Pat Shurmur was hired as head coach.  That’s fine because every coach has his views on what it takes to execute his vision.  But the reason this franchise has performed so miserably is completely related to its reaction to Weeden before he’s had even one practice.  It’s always cart first and then horse with this team and in simple terms that’s why the results for the last decade have been consistent and awful.

When people talk about Scott Fujita, it’s always in glowing terms.  And while it’s not always fair to judge someone by one mistake, including a mistake that lasted for years, it does lead to this week’s question to ponder:  If Fujita really has the stand up image he’s cultivated, wouldn’t he simply take his relatively mild medicine, apologize and vow to work even harder to improve player safety?