Monday, October 26, 2009

Acting on Acta

As the Manny Acta Era begins in Cleveland, I have a confession to make:

When word reached the media that the Indians had whittled their managerial search down to four names, I wanted the biggest name of the bunch. I wanted Bobby Valentine.

I wanted Valentine because he has loads of experience, he's been managing pretty much nonstop since 1996, and above all, he's the ultimate anti-Mark Shapiro guy.

Valentine is an old-school manager like Mike Hargrove, but with an eccentric personality that I thought would be a breath of fresh air in an Indians organization that had become bogged down with Moneyball-style analysis and process worship. I wanted Valentine to come in on the first day of spring training wearing Groucho Marx glasses and slinging shaving cream like Trot Nixon. Anything to make baseball fun again for the Tribe's now-youthful roster.

Then, Valentine came to town for the in-person portion of his interview. No one knows what went on behind closed doors, but when Valentine met with the media, he gave a series of rambling responses to questions, ultimately admitting that he did very little research on the Indians or the American League in preparation for his meeting with Team Shapiro.

That in and of itself shouldn't have excluded Valentine from consideration. There will be time to memorize every name on the 40-man roster. I'd be more concerned with his coaching philosophies than whether he can rattle off every pitcher who toed the rubber for the Indians this past season. But what it did show was a lack of preparedness, which could be indicative of Valentine not taking the job opportunity seriously enough.

After that interview, Valentine was all but excluded from consideration. That left Acta, Dodgers bench coach Don Mattingly and Columbus Clippers manager Torey Lovullo.

Of those, the Indians wanted Acta by far the most. He was the lone remaining candidate with Major League managerial experience, a progressive thinker who values the baseball numbers game and a virtual walking encyclopedia of Major League Baseball rosters.

In short: Acta is a Shapiro guy. Like Wedge was a Shapiro guy. But maybe even more so. When the Indians officially hired Acta as the franchise's 40th manager on Sunday, you'd have to think Shapiro was walking on air.

The hire came as something of a surprise, considering that the Astros -- a team with significantly deeper pockets than the Indians and an aggressive owner in Drayton McLane -- had also offered Acta their vacant manager's position. But when Acta and the Astros reportedly had trouble coming to terms on money, the door slid open and Shapiro got his man.

So what did the Indians get in Acta? And how, exactly, is a guy with so many philosophical similarities to Shapiro going to clean out the cobwebs of the Wedge Era?

He can start by relating to players better than Wedge was relating to them by the end of his tenure.

Wedge was decidedly new-school in some ways, but in terms of handling players, he was a modern-era John McGraw tough guy. I'm convinced that Wedge saw himself as something like a spaghetti western Clint Eastwood, and expected the same from his players. Be the strong, silent type. If you're hurt and you can still move, shut your yap and play through the pain. Complaining equals whining equals weakness.

Of course, we all know that a clubhouse of 25 guys is going to contain many different types of personalities. Some can play the role of the lone cowboy, as Wedge idealized. Some are a little more high-maintenance than that. Those are the guys Acta will have to do a better job of connecting with.

Acta will also need to develop a rapport with, and teach, some of the Latin American players that floundered under Wedge. This is a critical connection, because Acta shares a common broad background with the Tribe's foriegn-born Latino players. Born in the Dominican Republic, Acta is the first native Latin American manager in Tribe history. Al Lopez, Dave Garcia and Pat Corrales -- Acta's former Nationals assistant coach -- were all Tribe managers of Latin American descent, but all were born in the U.S.

Players from Latin American baseball factories such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela are, in many cases, taught the game differently than the far-more-structured upbringing that governs the maturation of American-born baseball players. In the U.S., players move from Little League to travel teams to AAU ball, high school ball, advanced summer leagues and maybe college before ever playing a single pitch of pro ball. By then, a U.S.-born player could be 22 or 23.

Acta followed the route that so many young Caribbean players take. He was signed by the Astros as a 17-year-old and was in Double-A ball by 20. He had to learn American baseball on the fly while still a teenager.

Maybe Acta can turn Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez around, or maybe he can't. But it's an important element to his new job. Carmona represents the front of Acta's rotation next year, and Perez a key member of the back of his bullpen. If his background as a young Latino player can help him reach the young Latino players on the roster, that would be a huge asset for Acta.

One thing you shouldn't hold against Acta is his won-loss record in two-plus seasons as manager of the Nationals. Nor should you assume that just because he was fired by the worst team in baseball midseason, he must be no good.

John Lannan, he of the 9-13 record and 3.88 ERA, was Washington's best starting pitcher last season. He made 33 starts. The Nationals' rotation also included Jordan Zimmerman (3-5, 4.63), Garrett Mock (3-10, 5.62, 28 starts), Shairon Martis (5-3, 5.25) and Craig Stammen (4-7, 5.11). Washington's lineup was topped by Ryan Zimmerman (.295, 33 HR, 106 RBI), Adam Dunn (.267, 38 HR, 105 RBI) and Josh Willingham (.260, 24 HR, 61 RBI). Beyond that, no one cracked 60 RBI or even double digits in home runs.

In short, the Nats' struggles had a lot more to do with the experience level and talent on their roster than anything Acta did or did not do. And when teams lose, managers tend to get fired, deserved or not.

So aren't the Indians in the same boat with the experience/talent question? Quite possibly. But apparently Acta developed an interest in building young teams, or he wouldn't have taken the Indians job.

It's that interest that makes him an intriguing choice to take the reins on this lastest Tribe rebuild.

If Acta is a Shapiro type of guy, that's not entirely a bad thing. It means he's organized, understands the value of making sound administrative decisions and won't make those decisions without the data to back them up.

The fact that Acta is a Shapiro-type guy who believes in Shapiro's organizational principles, yet isn't a product of the Indians organization, might mean that we could have the best of both worlds: a forward-thinking manager who isn't institutionalized by the Indians Way. A guy on the same philosophical page as the front office, but with enough outside influence to bring some different perspectives to the table.

There will be time for the big picture to become clearer. For now, he has to get down to business with his players, which he'll start doing this week. Those are the relationships that will, in the end, determine if Acta's tenure in Cleveland is a success, and whether Acta falls closer to Wedge or Hargrove in the pantheon of Cleveland managers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cleveland's Cubs

There were six of us at dinner on Sunday night, at a Toledo-area restaurant. My fiancee Jane and I had returned to the city of her more formative years to finally nail down a reception site and a wedding date for late next summer.

Joining us at the dinner table were her parents -- Detroit fans who had moved the family to the outskirts of Toledo about 20 years ago -- and my parents, who had made a daylong trip from Cleveland to assist the four of us in the reception site selection process. My parents, like me, are Cleveland natives saddled with a lifelong attachment to Cleveland sports.

Inevitably, the conversation among the men at the table turned to football and the common thread of losing shared by the Lions and Browns. This past Sunday came and went like so many other Sundays before. While the Browns were busy enduring a 12th straight loss to the Steelers, the Lions were in the process of getting rolled by the Packers 26-0. It was Detroit's 19th straight loss to the Packers in Wisconsin.

The football talk ran out of steam, and the conversation turned into a comparison of how Detroit and Cleveland sports are bottomless pits of misery -- subjectively speaking based on where you live, of course. We have LeBron and Shaq, but no championships in 45 years. They can actually remember the last time a Detroit team won a title, but they've mostly been Stanley Cups by the Red Wings, which doesn't really have any bearing on NHL-devoid Cleveland. As far as the Lions, Tigers and Pistons are concerned, the less said, the better.

Just then, my mom interjected in that way that so many moms do when it comes to sports -- vaguely on topic, but kind of not really.

"You know, your grandma remembers being downtown and watching the parade the last time the Indians won the World Series."

A brief background was provided for Jane's folks: That would be 1948.

Jane's dad didn't miss a beat in asserting that ever-so-slight advantage of Detroit over Cleveland. The Tigers last won a World Series in 1984.

"Wow, that's 61 years ago," he said, drawing out "sixty-one" for full effect.

My dad and I didn't bother counting the several near misses for the edification of Jane's dad. The 1995 team with the lineup for the ages but not enough pitching to match the Atlanta Braves, and more specifically, Tom Glavine. The 1997 team that got hot at the right time, scored improbable upsets over the Yankees and Orioles in the AL playoffs, fended off a 3-2 series deficit against the Marlins in the World Series, held a 2-0 lead going into the middle innings of Game 7, and ... well ...

More recently, there was the 2007 team that had a 3-1 series lead against the Red Sox in the ALCS, but fell victim to the playoff-inexperienced knock-knees of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, who crumbled right when their team needed them the most.

I know it has been 61 years for the Indians, but when someone from outside the Cleveland sports cocoon says it with an air of disbelief, it's kind of jolting. I dwelled on those near-miss Tribe teams for a few minutes while the conversation shifted to other topics. I thought about the thoroughly scary case of the Chicago Cubs, who are now working on 101 years without a World Series title.

It can get that bad. And I wonder if it might get that bad for the Indians, who are already six-tenths of the way to a century without a championship.

The conditions that created the gold rush of the 1990s might never come together again, unless the Indians manage to once again construct a lineup of borderline Hall of Famers just as they're moving into a new ballpark, with a title-hungry fan base eager to drop millions in disposable income on tickets and merchandise.

Six division titles in seven years? Those days are long gone, never to return without unforeseen positive developments. The Indians aren't designed to win that way.

The Indians are now designed to win the way baseball wants its small-market teams to win: once in a while.

For the longest time, I thought baseball wanted a salary cap. I thought Bud Selig, for all his warts as commissioner of Major League Baseball, was trying to fight the good fight and put teams like the Indians, Twins and Rockies on even ground with the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox.

Now, the salary cap talk has gotten strangely quiet since the last collective bargaining agreement. The Yankees and Red Sox are more popular than ever. The Yankees, Dodgers, Angels and Phillies -- all from the five largest U.S. markets -- comprised baseball's final four this year.

Baseball's leaders want it that way. They've wanted it that way since the days of Babe Ruth, but as the rich get richer and the less rich get less richer by comparison, the chasm only widens. And as the tectonic rift between baseball's made men and indentured servants continue to grow, teams like the Indians are going to find themselves just plain out of luck. Baseball's competitive system will be inherently weighted in favor of big market teams from now until the Rapture.

Unlike the NBA, and to a lesser extent the NFL, baseball is a sport that markets teams over players. MLB's lot is cast with the highest-profile teams that have the most name recognition among Joe Fan types from coast to coast. Certainly, the NBA wants to see pillar teams like the Lakers and Celtics in the playoffs, but baseball places far more weight on their money-maker teams to generate interest and draw viewers.

In short, baseball wants to see a steady diet of the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, Angels, Phillies and Mets in the playoffs. It's OK if the Indians, Twins or Rays rise up and go on a Cinderella run every so often. Fans like a good underdog story. But this isn't March Madness. Cinderella can't visit the ball every year, or one of baseball's wagon-pulling Clydesdales consistently misses the party.

A world in which the Indians can make the playoffs 15 times in 16 years is not a world that baseball wants to create. With that in mind, you can probably start engraving the headstone for baseball's would-be salary cap. The cause died sometime after the 1994 strike, and no one looks like they're going to bother reviving it anytime soon.

The Indians of the now-closing decade are the Indians of forthcoming reality. Out of contention 50 percent of time, on the outskirts of contention 40 to 45 percent of the time, and maybe a legitimate contender once or twice every 10 years.

Part of the problem is certainly how the Indians do business. The Dolans don't have the deep pockets to make risky investments on high-priced veteran players. Mark Shapiro and his staff have made errors in conducting drafts, free agent signings and trades. But at their best, all the Indians can probably every hope to become is the Minnesota Twins, racking up a few extra division titles, but seldom playing deep into October. Mostly because of where Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia now pitch -- New York. The only market big enough to cater to their contract demands.

If nothing changes in the baseball landscape, you'll probably only need one hand, plus maybe a finger or two if we're lucky, to count the number of times the Indians will be able to mount a serious World Series run in the next 39 years. If opportunity only knocks once or twice a decade, you better be doggone sure you can answer the door. Unfortunately, it would be all too easy for the hand of fate, and better teams, to thwart a mere handful of playoff runs in the coming decades.

Jane's dad might have been shocked and awed by the title-bankrupt state of the Indians over the past six decades. But the real shock and awe is what might not happen over the next four decades.

If' I'm still around, I'll turn 69 in 2048. Our family dinner conversation in 2009 will probably have been long forgotten by then, but the Indians might still be plugging away with 1948 as their last entry in the World Series championship log. In fact, it's a highly probable outcome.

Even worse than that, the Indians might become trendsetters among small market and midmarket teams. Future generations might see further entries in the Century Club. The clock is already ticking on the Giants (2054), Expos/Nationals (2069), Brewers (2070), Pirates (2079), Orioles (2083) and Royals (2085), just to name a few.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Teardown mode

This Browns season is a death march to an inevitable conclusion that ends with a very high draft pick, no present and only a future to look forward to. Maybe. But we've been down this road a few times before, so it's kind of easy to assume.

If you think the Browns's uninspiring win over Buffalo last weekend is a possible turning point, great for you. I'll take a win over a loss any day of the week, too. But as far progress? It wasn't exactly the Industrial Revolution.

A 6-3 win isn't going to get me through this Browns season. It really isn't going to offer any shelter in the storm. The only thing that makes me hopeful involves a sense of grim resignation about the team's current state.

New coaching regime. Bad team. Botched draft picks from the previous regime. Players who want out. The equation kind of solves itself.

The Browns aren't rebuilding. They haven't reached that point yet. Right now, Eric Mangini is in teardown mode. And that's the prism through which I'm viewing this season -- if only as a means of keeping my sanity.

The Browns are going to be a worse team at the end of the season than they were at the start of the season. They might be a worse team than they are right now, with the NFL's trade deadline approaching next Tuesday.

Teams in teardown mode get rid of players who don't fit the new coach's philosophies. Teams in teardown mode part ways with locker-room cancers and other dissenters within the ranks. That's especially true of the Mangini, who is making it crystal clear that it's his video game, and he has his hand on the joystick at all times.

So out the door went talented players with a tendency to provide their own sideshows, either with their mouths or actions. Kellen Winslow, playing on borrowed time with a reconstructed knee, was shown the door rather quickly by Mangini. It took an alleged fight outside a nightclub to get Braylon Edwards on the next train out of town, but in the aftermath of the incident, Mangini got on his tin-can-and-string to the Jets' front office and had Edwards traded in less than 48 hours.

Brady Quinn had 10 quarters to show his skills as the starting quarterback. When the Baltimore game got out of hand in Week 3, Quinn was ushered to the bench, and might not see action in a Browns uniform again. He is attempting to sell his house in Avon Lake, per reports this week. Quinn's stated excuse is that he doesn't want to commute 30 minutes one way from Avon Lake to Berea. He told reporters that he's "downsizing."

The slumping economy has his just about everyone with varying degrees of force, but Quinn shouldn't be surprised if fans and media find it a little suspicious that a guy making NFL first-round draft pick money is selling his house simply to decrease his commute time and save some green. Quinn also shouldn't be surprised if he's wearing another team's uniform (possibly green) by the weekend after next. Something tells me he really won't be.

So far, each move, each threatened move, I've approached with a deep breath and a sigh. Losing Winslow and Edwards means that they didn't work out here. It means that decreasing the talent level on the roster is better than moving forward with guys who are game-changers with flapping gums and maturity issues. OK, I can see the logic. When the plant you're trying to grow hasn't sprouted yet, it's best to remove all potential poisons from the soil. Winslow and Edwards possessed definite poison potential.

If Mangini trades Quinn, I won't be happy because I will still stand by my belief that Quinn didn't get a fair shake. He's been jerked around worse than Tim Couch in some ways. But two starting quarterbacks is one too many. More poison potential, so it's better to proceed with one QB for the immediate future. If Mangini believes that guy is Derek Anderson, fine. It's a decision. And this season really isn't about wins and losses anyway.

But the Browns have a way of taking your shoulder shrugs and turning them into wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is a team that has a knack for hitting its followers right where it hurts. Sometimes, it's not even the fault of the team. At least, not directly.

Thursday's report that Josh Cribbs wants a contract extension, and would possibly welcome a trade if the Browns don't give him what he wants, was another inventive way for something Browns-related to raise my blood pressure.

According to The Plain Dealer, the Browns probably won't trade Cribbs prior to Tuesday's deadline, unless Mangini is absolutely bowled over by an offer. Chances are, it's little more than posturing. In the NFL, where the players have very little bargaining power compared to their counterparts in Major League Baseball and the NBA, holdouts, threats of holdouts and trade demands are an often-used bargaining chip in contract negotiations.

But suppose negotiations get really contentious. Suppose Mangini won't budge. Suppose Mangini, who apparently isn't below playing God with his team, decides to call Cribbs' bluff and smite him with a trade, either before next week's deadline or during the coming offseason.

Call it the Butch Davis Rule. Davis believed that players were little more than movable pieces, and it didn't matter how talented or electrifying a player was, he was replaceable by someone younger, cheaper and more grateful just to have a spot on an NFL roster.

If Davis could have farmed special teams work out to a call center in India, he would have. I'd be lying if I said I didn't see a Davis streak in Mangini.

The problem with that line of thinking is, Josh Cribbs is really the only player the Browns have who is talented enough to be a star. Yes, Shaun Rogers is pretty darn good, as is Joe Thomas, but "star nose tackle" and "star offensive tackle" are both something of an oxymoron. They're supporting cast positions by nature.

Cribbs is the only player dangerous enough to force other teams to adjust their attack. He's the only player exciting enough to make fans stop raking the leaves on an Autumn Sunday and watch an opponent's punt. Sure, Cribbs' star has pretty much been limited to special teams, but he is one of the rare players who can actually change the complexion of a game by touching the ball only a handful of times.

If the relationship between Cribbs and Mangini becomes pocked and scarred by the battle over contract money, and Mangini feels like he can replace Cribbs with any Syndric Steptoe who comes down the pipe, I'm going to have a hard time believing any rationalization Mangini might have for trading Cribbs.

Draft picks were enough for Winslow and Edwards because they weren't part of Mangini's long-term plans, and they both wore out their welcome anyway. Draft picks would be enough for Quinn. In all three cases, the trades are and would be about subtraction as much as addition.

But Cribbs is different. Cribbs has been one of the few players, perhaps the only player, we could count on to consistently pique our interest in this dreary era of Browns football. He's a solid citizen, and by all indications, loves playing for the Browns, in spite of the losing. Unlike Winslow and Edwards, he's worth paying. He's worth building around, even if his specialty is, and probably always will be, returning kicks.

Despite the throwaway mentality that Mangini -- and most other NFL coaches -- have toward players, guys like Cribbs don't come in 24-packs at Costco.

I can rationalize Mangini's teardown mode mentality almost all the way. But if it comes to trading Cribbs, I just can't do it. In the backwards way of the Browns, he's a franchise kick returner. He's just about the only thing we have right now.

Mangini had better recognize that fact, and recognize the damage he'd do to the franchise's reputation -- and possibly ticket sales -- by trading Cribbs. Then, he'd better open up Randy Lerner's wallet and give one of the few Browns players who is worth a damn the raise he's seeking.

If Cribbs isn't worth paying, who on this roster is?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Braylon burnout

It shouldn't have come to this. It really didn't need to come to this. Braylon Edwards shouldn't have failed in Cleveland.

Other high draft picks had their reasons for failure. Tim Couch came from a pass-happy system that inflated his college numbers at Kentucky, and was physically abused playing behind a Swiss cheese offensive line for the better part of five years with the Browns.

Courtney Brown's knees started to deteriorate the instant he suited up for the Browns. Gerard Warren was drafted to be the next Warren Sapp, but never possessed the skills or motor to dominate inside. Kellen Winslow came with warning tags when he was acquired by Butch Davis on draft day 2004, and promptly flipped himself over the handlebars of a high-performance motorcycle, severely injuring his knee and forever altering his career.

Edwards had his issues, but nothing that would make you think his road to NFL stardom would be curtailed. He was a certified top-shelf playmaker at Michigan. He was arrogant, but in the way that all star NFL receivers seem to embody arrogance. Unlike Winslow, he wasn't self-destructive.

He was very good and had the drive to become better. In short, he looked like the kind of star-in-the-making the Browns sorely lacked when Phil Savage made his first draft selection as Browns GM with the third overall pick in 2005.

But what began with such promise four and a half years ago has now ended in true Browns fashion: with the team failing the player and the player failing the team.

Most of us can recite verbatim the ways in which Edwards failed the Browns: every time he dropped a pass. He was never able to overcome his war with the dropsies. He could make twisting, diving catches in traffic, when he had time to simply react. When he had time to think about a ball headed straight for his jersey numbers, that's when it clanged off his body and fell to the turf.

Whether he didn't concentrate enough or concentrated too much, it was maddening to watch.

Edwards didn't do the Browns many public relations favors away from the field, either. When things went badly for the team, things went worse for Edwards. When he gets frustrated, he has a nasty habit of not keeping his mouth shut. He stated a belief that Cleveland fans were rooting against him because he played for Michigan. He once wondered aloud if LeBron James even wanted to play in Cleveland. When Coye Francies reportedly threw a bucket of ice at Brandon McDonald a few weeks ago as retaliation for a prank, Edwards was overheard saying "Welcome to the Browns locker room."

Edwards was even a footnote to Donte' Stallworth's vehicular manslaughter conviction. Edwards had reportedly been drinking with Stallworth prior to last spring's accident, in which a legally-drunk Stallworth hit and killed a pedestrian in Miami.

All of the above are forgivable sins when taken individually. Even the dropped passes, if they're not eliminated outright, can be reduced through coaching and sports psychology.

But the Browns, through their own organizational instability, failed Edwards as well. For his entire time in Cleveland, Edwards was surrounded by poor coaching, a carousel of quarterbacks, front office plans gone awry and repeated doses of infighting, in the locker room and higher up the ladder.

Edwards has his attributes. Maturity and leadership are not among them, at least right now. It's OK to have a Braylon Edwards on your team, but he'd better not represent a part of your cultural backbone. If the team backbone is already comprised of stable veterans who set the standards of conduct and police the locker room, someone like Edwards can thrive within that. Put Edwards in an unstable environment, and you'll bring out the worst in him. That is what the Browns have been way too good at for the past decade: highlighting the worst aspects of their players.

It became a snowball effect. Edwards arrived in Cleveland with a boatload of talent but in need of a stable team environment that would promote his maturation. The Browns didn't give him that, so the game-day brain cramps and questionable behavior started building on itself. Essentially, Edwards never progressed past his college years in terms of maturity.

He had a pro Bowl season in 2007, mostly because he finally had a quarterback in Derek Anderson who could get him the ball, and another receiver who could command double teams in Winslow. But in the Browns' system (or lack thereof), it was never anything that Edwards, or the Browns' offense, was going to sustain.

the '07 season was a blip on the radar. The other three-plus years were Edwards' Cleveland reality. Which brings us to the last straw. The chain of events that began with Edwards allegedly punching a friend of LeBron outside of a nightclub in the wee hours of Monday morning and ending with his trade to the Jets on Wednesday morning.

Edwards will probably go on to play at a much higher level in New York, where he'll grow in a much more stable organization. If that is the case, it will certainly look like the Jets hosed the Browns in giving up receiver Chansi Stuckey, special teamer Jason Trusnik and two conditional draft picks for Edwards.

But the real tragedy isn't that the Browns bought high and sold low on Edwards. It's not that Eric Mangini couldn't or didn't unload Edwards for a better haul during the season. The real tragedy is that this relationship was probably doomed from the start, like so many other Browns draft picks.

The real tragedy is that Edwards and the Browns could have been good for each other. They should have been good for each other. But they were terrible for each other. Wednesday's parting of ways was a long time in coming.

Want an even more sickening thought? This probably won't be the last time this happens to the Browns.