The Doldrums

After the first flurry of activity, this period of the offseason tends to be very quiet. Until the next round of GM meetings, when the true Hot Stove season gets started. When agents, GMs, players, and the media all get together, things tend to get done quickly. By then most of the preliminary talks have concluded, and free agents generally have their choices narrowed down to a small number of suitors. In recent years, the arbitration deadline has become an important milestone, because some clubs do not want to give up high picks if they can help it. The Indians don’t really have to worry about offering arbitration to any of their pending free agents, because the only two that were ranked by Elias have been signed (Bob Wickman and Omar Vizquel). Since their record placed them in the bottom half of the league, they won’t have to give up their first round pick if they do sign a Lieber or Clement, but they probably will give up a second round pick if they do sign a decent pitcher.

Besides writing about waiting, I’d like to get something off my chest while there’s nothing else to talk about.

Yesterday the Indians placed Opening Day tickets on sale, and won’t start selling the other single game tickets until after the New Year. Why are they doing this? I think the biggest reason is to encourage season ticket sales. Another reason is to help to sell out Opening Day. If next March Bob DiBiasio is appearing on Spring Training broadcasts pleading for fans to buy Opening Day tickets, there’s something wrong with the fanbase. And I mean that seriously. I understood why people stayed away during the beginning of the season last year; the team was coming off a bad year, and they had just traded away their best player. But now there’s no excuse. The team is coming off a season where they finished two games below .500, and for a brief period of time was a serious contender for the division. Aside from Omar Vizquel (and I’ve beaten that horse to death), the team should bring virtually everyone back.

So why is there so much perceived apathy towards this team? I can think of a couple reasons. One, the Browns and Cavaliers are bigger draws right now. LeBron attracts fans that aren’t necessarily basketball fans, and the Browns, no matter how much ineptitude they show, will still sell out games because of how engrained Browns football is in people throughout this region. Truthfully, the Indians have been the most well-run franchise in Cleveland since they set up shop in Jacobs Field. But facts generally do not attract the non-core fans; perceptions do; this is my second reason. Perception: Since the Browns are in the NFL, they have a good chance of making the playoffs. Perception: LeBron is playing, therefore the Cavaliers are worth watching. Perception: the Indians don’t spend any money, therefore they don’t deserve mine. The Indians don’t have a LeBron James on their roster. They don’t have a history sprinkled with multiple championships. Therefore right now, even though the team posted a higher winning percentage then either the Cavaliers or the Browns last year, they seem to be pretty much forgotten.

I hope I’m wrong about the ticket sales, but even though they made the correct decision letting Vizquel go, they may sell less tickets because of it. Now if the Indians had gone out and loudly signed Armando Benitez to a multi-year contract instead of bringing back rickety old Bob Wickman, people might have said “Yeah, the Indians are spending more money, so I might go down and watch them play.” Again, this is where I bring up the difference between money spent and money spent wisely. Because the attendance was poor last season, the payroll will increase, but not by much. This model hasn’t changed one iota since the team moved to Jacobs Field; the payroll is based largely on attendance. What has changed is the opinion of the team in the eyes of the fans. In 1991, the payroll was extremely low, and nobody really cared, since the team hadn’t made the playoffs since 1954. Now the payroll’s low and everyone cares, mainly because the team has a recent history of success. “Because Dolan won’t spend the money, I won’t go” is a common phrase I hear. Unfortunately, this perpetuates the process into future low payrolls, future fan apathy, and on and on.

How do you turn this around? Change your criteria for supporting a team. Go if the team wins. Stay home if they don’t. It’s as simple as that. I don’t care if the Indians field a team that has a $20M payroll; if they win, show up. If the Indians spend $100M and lose 100 games, then stay home and play golf. Because of the nature of the MLB salary structure, most rebuilding teams have a lot of young talent, which by definition means they won’t cost much. The Indians were the most cost-efficient team in baseball because of this. They spent $833,417 per marginal win, the best in baseball. What does this mean? While the Indians were definitely “cheap,” they also were good. Why reward teams who foolishly spend their money, and punish those who use what they have wisely? That in my opinion is why wins-based attendance is a more fair feedback mechanism than a spending-based model. While spending may lead to better a record, it may also lead to a worse one. Winning more games always leads to a better outcome. Winning more games leads to more attendance, and unless the owner is a crook, a higher payroll. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t this basic supply and demand?

Unfortunately, perception is a powerful tool. And because the current perception of the Indians is negative, becuase they aren’t outspending everyone in the division, then attendance will probably be lower than it should be. Larry Dolan, unfortunately, isn’t going to spend money he doesn’t bring in; there isn’t going to be any owner-provided catalyst to bring fans back. The kickstart will have to come from the team itself, and if it does, there’s no excuse for not showing up.

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