Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's better to be there...or so the Indians hope

The Indians are facing a two-fold test this week: The first is on the field as the Tribe opens a three-game series at Progressive Field against the equally surprising Kansas City Royals. The second and perhaps more important challenge will take place in the stands, where Cleveland currently ranks dead last in attendance with an average of 14,000-plus fans coming through the turnstiles over nine games.

Progressive Field's looking more like Municipal Stadium these days.

A small sample certainly, until you check the 2010 attendance numbers where the Tribe also finished in the cellar. There is a problem here, one that's reflective of a poor economy, a dwindling core population and a fanbase that views the Indians with cynicism and apathy.

If winning cures all ills, then this really is a critical week for the Tribe. A six-game home stand against two division rivals (Detroit comes in for the weekend) with seasonable temperatures in the forecast means Indians' brass may be straining their ears extra hard for those revenue-generating clicks at the gate.

The question, of course, is whether Cleveland ready to embrace this team again. Three-game losing streak aside, the Tribe has one of the best records in the majors and seem like they can be competitive within a mediocre AL Central. Staying power is a question, but in a sports scene on a downward slope since the Cavs' ouster from the playoffs last year, you'd think a surprise start from the Wahoos would be enough to rouse fans from their slumber.

If only it were that easy.

The Indians have an image problem that goes beyond socioeconomics, even if people have been leaving the city proper by the busloads over the last 10 years, This franchise has a public relations nightmare on their hands, one that is going to take a few years of consistent winning and, just as importantly, player retention to repair.

In a recent podcast, Peter Gammons lauded Shin Soo Choo, Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera as three of the best young players in game. Gammons also questioned whether or not the Indians would be able to accrue enough revenue over the next two seasons to keep that young talent, and even expressed concern about the sustainability of baseball in Cleveland.

Therein lies the crux of the Tribe's dilemma. Unbalanced financial playing field or not, and grossly unfair as it may be, it's quite possible that many Cleveland fans will look at this early success and snark, "Well, they're just gonna get rid of all their good players anyway" and continue to stay away from the ballpark. That cynicism, combined with the city's struggles in a slow moving economic recovery, is what's hurting this ballclub right now.

It also means that winning simply may not be enough to get the Indians an appreciable jump in attendance. In the late summer of 2007, when the playoff-bound Tribe was was one of the hottest teams in baseball, the team drew crowds only in the 20-25K range. After three straight losing seasons and with fans still irked about the Sabathia, Lee and Martinez trades, the front office would probably kill for those kinds of numbers as the calendar creeps toward May.

If the Tribe continues to win as the temperature gets consistently warm, those middling crowds may indeed return. However, what should concern the front office is that the fans lost in the most recent spate of roster-paring trades may never come back if the Indians don't find a way to sign future premium players. If they have three eventual All Stars in Choo, Santana and Cabrera, then the Dolans have to find a way to sign two of those guys.

Fans are tired of Tribe management jingling the shiny keys of process and patience, and don't want to hear any "woe-is-us" economics breakdown from Paul Dolan. Tell people that their team may compete once every few years as Dolan did and everyone but the hardcore baseball fan is going to turn their backs on your product.

An interesting analogue for the Indians could be the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew's payroll ranks in the middle of the league, even though Milwaukee is one of the smallest markets in baseball. The Brewers' also placed 11th in attendance last year, which undoubtedly helps their financial prospects.

Milwaukee made headlines last week by signing slugging outfielder Ryan Braun to a $105 million extension. Braun's fat deal probably means star first baseman Prince Fielder will be playing elsewhere next year. Still, this is the way sports are supposed to work: Player gets good in your system and you keep that player as he enters his prime years.

To be sure, the Indians' recent financial risks (Travis Hafner, Jake Westbrook) exploded in their faces and likely helped necessitate two Cy Young winners going bye-bye. The front office can't let those failures make them gunshy. The ass backwards financial structure of the league means you'll win some and you'll lose others to the Yankees or Red Sox. But if the Tribe continues to lose all of them to the big markets, then baseball may truly be in trouble in Cleveland as Gammons suggests.

It's up to ownership more so than the fans to make sure such a disastrous scenario never even comes close to fruition.