Thursday, January 7, 2010

2010: A new hope

The calendar has turned on another year without a title for the professional sports franchises of Cleveland. It’s easy to be cynical about this all-too-familiar scenario, but the beginning of the new decade offers reasons for optimism that weren’t readily apparent even a few months ago. Ahead I will share my hopes and expectations for all three teams, keeping those aspirations as realistic as possible considering the state of each franchise. As I’m feeling expansive this wintry afternoon, I’ll include Buckeye football in the mix:

The two losses that began the 2009-2010 campaign seem long ago, do they not? The Cavs are cruising, with the highpoint of the season being the Christmas Day slaying of the Lakers in L.A. That’s a game you want bottled come playoff time and reflects the style of hoops the Cavaliers need to win a championship....defense, bench depth, and a consistent second scorer behind LeBron.

The post-season will also tell whether “The Big Shaquisation” will bear fruit. I’ll admit, the big man looks old—his shot is flat and his post-up maneuvering has all the grace of an aircraft carrier carving its way through an ice floe. However, the games against the Lakers and Magic show why Ferry made the deal. Shaq may be aged, but that’s a lot o’ sweaty beef to park in the paint against KG, Howard, Bynum, and the other wide bodies he’ll likely face come June.

I don’t know for certain whether the Cavs can beat the elites four out of seven times in the grind-it-out nature of late-round playoff basketball, but I expect them to keep our hearts aflutter well into the spring. Win or lose, I also expect LeBron to sign another three-year deal to stay in Cleveland, but that’s a story for another day.

2010 national title chatter is starting already for Ohio State. A bit premature perhaps, but the Rose Bowl was certainly sweet redemption for an embattled coach and his young quarterback. Tressel-ball is an oft-maddening affair, including at times against Oregon, so it was good to see the vested one open the spigot and allow Pryor some downfield throws.

Pryor may never make us forget the rocket arm of Troy Smith or the smarts of Craig Krenzel, but with the reins off next year the lanky QB should be an early-season Heisman candidate and be the leader of a squad returning a number of starters on both sides of the ball.

Next year’s schedule is favorable, with home tilts against Miami U, Penn State and Michigan. And for all of you Joe Bauserman fans, there’s the usual heaping helping of MAC cupcakes to feast upon. Hope the big fat check is worth the 49-2 whoopin’, Eastern Michigan. Joking aside, 2010 should be considered championship or bust for the Buckeyes.

If there’s one thing you can say about the Browns since their return in ’99, it’s that at least outside the hashmarks, they’re never boring. Not 72 hours after Mike Holmgren is officially announced as president of football ops, Josh Cribbs is sending melodramatic tweets about “insulting” contract offers and his drama queen agent is huffing about #16 “cleaning out his locker.” No shit, Sherlock, it’s the off-season.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press is reporting that Eric Mangini and his entire staff(including Daboll!) will return for the 2010 campaign. Drama, thy name is the Browns, and thy location is in Berea, forsooth.

My fervent wish for Brownstown this year is a spike in actual football-related news, with the off-the-field craziness kept to a minimum. Remember those pre-Internet/Facebook/Twitter days when it was fun watching the Browns and the only topic of discussion was their next opponent? I want those days back, badly.

And maybe Holmgren is the guy to finally bring that much-needed stability to this shaky franchise. I’m surprised about the Mangini decision, and even with four fairly dominant wins to end the season, I did not think he would be returning. Continuity is a critical component to winning, but not if you don’t have right man at the helm. I think back to such odd personnel decisions as the nonsensical Quinn/Anderson “debate” at the beginning of the year, the refusal to play Brian Robiskie on a squad with very little WR talent, and wonder if 2010 will be another wasted season with a lame duck coach.

What makes me not hate the move is the presence of Holmgren. Mangini’s QB waffling would never have happened if the coach had a higher-up to answer to. I suspect Holmgren will also put a leash on Mangini’s well-documented over-the-top disciplinary measures that reportedly turned a portion of the locker room against their coach.

Some may compare Mangini to Butch Davis. Both men have coaching ability, but were damaged (irreparably in Butch’s case) by ass-hatted personnel decisions. Davis in particular needed someone like Holmgren (or Ron Wolf, who Davis refused to work under) to circumvent his draft-day idiocy. Mangini has that now, and while he’ll no doubt carry some input come late April, “The Big Show” and an as yet unnamed GM will have the final word. Sounds good to me. I’m actually looking forward to see how this plays out, and I haven’t been excited about anything the Browns have done in two years.

Let’s get to work, fellas.

The Tribe is last on this list for a very simple reason. I have very little hope for their chances in 2010. Instead, I’m casting a wider net to snare the broken business of the game itself. While a real revenue sharing plan and a workable salary cap are my baseball dreams for 2010, we all know those dreams are of the pipe variety.

It’s hard to muster rah-rah when two formerly Wahoo-ensconced Cy Young winners are facing off in the World Series in the uniforms of cash-bloated East Coast clubs. The future looks to be no different with baseball possessing the strongest union in sport; a union that likes things just the way they are, thank you. That means no change to the revenue stream, and certainly no cap on spending.

Paul Dolan said last summer that the Tribe was set to lose $16 million in 2009. Their situation hasn’t been aided by MLB’s current profit sharing plan, where all 30 teams contribute 31% of local revenues, with the pot evenly split among all league franchises. Where does this money go? Into Larry Dolan’s pocket, it seems. The lack of a cap means teams like the New York Yankees, which earn millions from hefty television contracts, can easily outspend Cleveland and other small- to mid-market clubs for top talent.

The Indians must rely heavily on ticket and merchandise sales when deciding to sign their own players or spend money on free agents. That’s one ass-backwards business model, kids, because nobody’s coming to the park to watch Austin Kearns or some other cast-off Mark Shapiro plucks from the free agent scrapheap. A Tommy John-ed Jake Westbrook as your Opening Day starter is not going to sell tickets, no matter how many stupid bobblehead giveaways you advertise. You’ve gotta spend money to make money, but the Tribe is unable (or unwilling) to do the former in order to catalyze the latter.

What frustrates me, unfair or not, is the perception that ownership is throwing up its hands up and saying, “Whatta ya gonna do?” in the face of the no doubt unfair financial advantages the Yanks, BoSox and Mets carry. This franchise has no imagination. Instead, the Dolans and Shapiro have unequivocally stated that in the current market the team may be able to compete once every few years if they hit on all their draft picks and get lucky with a few free agent fill-ins. So, maybe one Marlins-like trip to the playoffs before the fire sale begins anew? The Dolans cannot expect fans to re-up their season tickets in response to this morose outlook.

Maybe Dan Gilbert can use his future casino revenues to buy the Tribe. That’s a dream for another year.