Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The gravity of the situation

Every playoff race has its moments. Tuesday night, the Indians had their moment.

Jason Giambi’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning might have been the single most important hit for the Indians as a franchise since Tony Fernandez lofted an extra-inning solo shot over the right field wall at Camden Yards in Game 6 of the 1997 ALCS, providing the Tribe with the run that sent them to the World Series.

Yes, it was that important.

Sure, there have been other memorable hits in memorable games since 1997. In 2001, Omar Vizquel lined a three-run triple into the right-field corner, driving in the tying runs during the Indians’ epic 12-run rally against Seattle. In September 2007, Casey Blake all but sealed the division title with an 11th-inning blast against Detroit. In the 2007 playoffs against the Yankees, Travis Hafner wrote the final verse of what has become known as the “Bug Game” with an extra-inning RBI single.

But none of those hits carried the gravity that came with the situation Giambi faced when he stepped into the batter’s box with a 4-3 deficit to the last-place White Sox, two outs, Michael Brantley on second and the smog wrought by a Chris Perez blown save still thick in the air.

It was a fork in the season road. The Indians were wedged in between Tampa and Texas in the wild card standings, one game’s worth of room on either side. Hundreds of miles away, those teams were winning their games. And the number of games left on the schedule was slipping away like fall’s evening daylight. The Indians had five more games after Tuesday.

A stumble, a slip-up, a several-day swoon, and the season could be over.

Everything about the 15 minutes leading up to Giambi’s at-bat had been migraine-inducing. Perez had coughed up two home runs in the top of the ninth, the first blowing the save, the second giving Chicago the lead.

The single that put Brantley on base was sandwiched between swinging strikeouts by Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles. On Aviles’ second strike, he swung wildly – as he often does -- then grimaced and shook his head, as if to say “Why did I swing at that?”

That was the story of the ninth inning to that point. The Indians were watching opportunity slip through their fingers. They were complicit in their own demise, but there was nothing they could do about it. It’s as if they had been taken over by some self-destructive compulsion.

If Giambi strikes out, if he lofts a lazy fly to the outfield, if he beats one into the ground to second, everyone – including the players in the clubhouse – goes home remembering the Perez flameout and the swinging hack-fest in the bottom of the ninth. The players leave the ballpark with their heads low and come to the park Wednesday with perhaps more tension than they would have otherwise. More pressure to right the ship, to make the perfect pitch, to get the hit, drive in the run.

Baseball is a sport that gives you a lot of time to think. And sometimes thinking can be your worst enemy.

If Giambi makes the final out, Tampa is two games up for the first wild card position. The Indians are tied with Texas and potentially a one-day swing from finding themselves back in the chase pack and no longer steering their destiny – not a good place to be with nary more than a weekend to play.

Giambi was the fulcrum upon which all 156 previous games teetered as he stepped into the batter’s box Wednesday night against Chicago closer Addison Reed. He waved at the first pitch, which caused our throats to tighten just a bit more. He took the second pitch, a ball.

When Reed left a slider high and dry on the third pitch, Giambi heaved his still-beefy 42-year-old shoulders into motion, lumberjack-chopping the night air and making solid, square contact. When the ball left his bat, it was instantly apparent he had sent it on a season-saving flight to the visitor’s bullpen beyond the right field wall.

And for a few moments, 21,000 in attendance on a cool late September night sounded like the crowds of 42,000 from years past.

Maybe Giambi didn’t put the Indians in the playoffs with his heroics, but he very well could have kept the window from slamming shut under the crushing weight of tension, pressure and lament.

After the celebration had died down, Giambi told reporters that he made Perez give him a hug. It was a pick-me-up for an embattled teammate who, largely due to his own actions, is finding it increasingly difficult to pitch well in front of the home fans. But it was symbolic of everything that was made right by Giambi’s home run.

The season could have started to spiral out of control on Tuesday. Perez could have all but punched his ticket out of town. We, as a city and fan base, could have taken a turn down the familiar path of blame and bitter resentment. It could have all been yet another dark, depressing chapter in Cleveland sports.

But it wasn’t. It was all salvaged, rebuilt and buffed to a mirror-shine by Jason Giambi and his timeliest of timely hits.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A carousel of insanity

You’re a Browns fan. You hate owner Jimmy Haslam, the slimy, crooked huckster who is trying to stave off a federal indictment by playing dumb about his company’s rebate fraud scandal.

You hate CEO Joe Banner, the squinty-eyed, lock-jawed little Napoleon who got run out of Philly and views the Browns gig as one big ego trip.

You hate GM Mike Lombardi, the sniveling, shadow-lurking weasel who has a vastly overinflated opinion of himself as a talent evaluator.

You hate them all. And if you have any interest in giving the Browns a fighting chance to chip away at one of the most firmly-entrenched losing cultures in professional sports, you’d better hope that you get to hate them for a long, long time.

For 15 years, the Browns have been on a nauseating, ever-spinning carousel of high-level turnover – really, a carousel of insanity – and it has to stop.

Wednesday’s trade of Trent Richardson to Indianapolis is symptomatic of everything that has been wrong with the Browns since 1999. You can agree or disagree with the move itself – for what it’s worth, I’ve seen enough of Richardson to agree with Jim Brown’s original assessment of  “ordinary.” Not bad, but certainly not the franchise-caliber game-changer you’d expect to get at the third overall pick. But what makes the trade so troubling is the underlying causes, which stab right at the heart of why the Browns have been so bad for so long.

In 14 seasons since the club’s 1999 relaunch, the Browns have been led by six distinct leadership regimes. Six different brain trusts, with six different leadership philosophies, in 14 years. Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark from 1999 to 2001, Butch Davis from 2001 to ’05, Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel from ’05 to ’08, Eric Mangini in ’09 (the only year he was in charge of the entire front office), Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert from 2010 to ’12, and Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi for the past year.

The math whizzes can quickly figure out that 14 divided by six is 2.33. That’s right. The average tenure for a Browns leadership regime since 1999 is two years and four months. If you don’t include the just-launched Banner-Lombardi regime, the average balloons to a rocksteady two years and 10 months.

It’s a suicidal level of turnover. In any other industry, the Browns would have gone out of business quite a while ago.

It’s because when new leaders come in, they’re brought in because the old leaders, at least in the sample size they were given, didn’t perform at a high enough level. No brain trust comes into a situation like the Browns present thinking that the old regime did anything resembling a good job. Is it realistic to ask that of them?

New leaders will always arrive with their own ideas and philosophies, which are usually starkly different from what came before. That’s why they were hired. They think differently. They’re supposed to be a breath of fresh air. They’re supposed to strip away what hasn’t worked and replace it with a system, and talent, that does work.

Those factors are compounded in the ego-driven world of professional sports. No roster architect worth his seven-figure salary wants to win with the last guy’s players. Then, then previous guy gets all the credit as the “real” brains behind the success. In the world that Banner and Lombardi occupy, that doesn’t compute.

To peek inside their heads, Banner and Lombardi – and every president/GM who has come before them – haven’t come to Cleveland to win games. They’ve come to Cleveland to realize a vision. The wins will come as a byproduct of that vision being realized.

It likely makes you want to put your shoe through the screen to read that, but – welcome to the world of big business.

This is why it is painfully essential that Haslam not follow in the footsteps of former owner Randy Lerner, caving to fan and media pressure for change as the losses mount.

No matter what you think about Haslam, Banner or Lombardi, they need to stay here for the balance of a decade, or longer. They have to be given the space and time to see their vision through to fruition.

The majority of fans and media, and apparently Lerner, seemed to operate under the pretense that it’s better to cut bait with a leadership team that isn’t producing immediate wins than to continue on a treadmill to nowhere for years on end.

But all that does is produce an ongoing stream of executives making short-term moves to save their jobs, with no attention paid to the overarching problems that continually plague the franchise.

As the losing seasons continue to mount and the region-wide frustration with the Browns reaches a boiling point, the pressure to win now grows ever more urgent, leading to a snowball effect. If the latest brain trust can’t reverse the losing in Year One, we want them gone. Because it’s been long enough, and we, as a fan base, are simply fed up to the back teeth.

Again, this is the problem with perpetual reboots. Every few years, the Browns bring in new leaders who want to start from square one. They can only be held accountable for what happens on their watch. But beyond the gates to the Berea complex is an entire region enduring the sum total of 14 years of losing with no end in sight. We end up with the divergent goals of a leadership regime that wants to craft an organization in its own image, from the ground up, and a fan base that is beyond desperate for someone to end the losing as soon as possible.

This is bigger than the latest 4-12 season. This is bigger than an 11-game losing streak to the Ravens or going two-and-a-bazillion against the Steelers over the past decade. Turnover is the fatal, systemic flaw that is leading to all the other problems that are destroying this franchise, eroding the fan base and suffocating what was once one of the great football towns in America.

Do Banner and Lombardi have the answers? Do they comprise the brain trust that can finally turn the Browns around? Only time will tell. But that’s exactly it – time. More time than any previous regime since 1999 has received.

You might hate Haslam. You might detest Banner and loathe Lombardi. And maybe they aren’t the perfect football brain trust. They do come with a very prominent set of questions attached. But these are the guys who found the seats when the song stopped in this latest game of musical chairs. And we have to move forward with them for a good, long while – even if the wins don’t come this year, or next, or the year after.

The phrase “stability for stability’s sake” carries a negative connotation when it comes to the Browns and their various leadership regimes. But without stability and consistency, you have what the Browns have become.

The Browns very much need stability – and for stability’s sake.

Friday, September 13, 2013

It's still worth it

Is Cleveland a bad baseball town?

Apparently, we don’t like what we see in the mirror at the moment.

Heading into play Friday, the Indians were 78-68, 1.5 games out of the second wild card spot, 3.5 games out of the wild card lead, and in a deep but still-scalable six-game hole in the division.

They’re in the midst of a series in Chicago against the last-place White Sox. The remainder of the season includes three games against the third-place Royals, a four-game home series against the last-place Astros, two more games against the White Sox and four games to close out the season against fourth-place Minnesota.

This is exactly what we wanted in March, right? September finally matters for the Indians, and it’s one of the softest September schedules the team has ever faced.

We should be oozing confidence as a fan base. We should believe that the Indians not only could make the playoffs, they should make the playoffs. They should be able to tear through the remainder of the schedule at an .800 clip and, at the very least, end up on the doorstep of the top wild card spot.

But we don’t believe that. We’ve voted with our attendance at Progressive Field, where four-figure and low five-figure weeknight crowds are still the reality of the situation.

The first playoff-contending season in six years, and the Indians might as well be 20 games out to look at Progressive Field on most game nights. Much like the team stock that former owner Dick Jacobs issued in the latter part of the 1990s, people just aren’t buying it.

It’s not the economy. Not when the perennially-inept Browns also make a perennial killing at the season-ticket sales window. Not when nearly every decent restaurant in town has a 45-minute wait on a Saturday night. People still buy what they want to buy.

It’s not endemic hard feelings toward owner Larry Dolan. Maybe the fans really are cooler toward Dolan than they ever were toward Jacobs. It’s tough to follow an act like what the Indians put on the field from 1994 to 2001. But fans aren’t staying away in droves to spite Dolan.

The biggest culprits in the short-circuiting of the Tribe’s attendance are the numbers 6 and 27.

That would be the Indians’ combined record against the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees. The three highest-profile teams on the schedule, and the Indians completely wet the bed against all of them.

In other words, this team might make the playoffs, but nobody believes they have chances of making much noise once they get there. In a city that hasn’t seen a championship trophy in 49 years, the prospect of making the playoffs just isn’t enough to excite the fan base, because all it means is more heartbreak and embarrassment if they do get there.

In baseball, the small-market war cry is “Just make the playoffs, and anything can happen.” That’s true, but when you are all but assured of seeing at least one of the teams that combined to beat you 27 out of 33 games this year, the dreams turn to nightmares in a hurry.

If the Indians were in or near first place, if they had battled the Tigers to a draw this year, if they had the look of a 95-win team that could do some damage in October, chances are the hometown stands wouldn’t be a field of green silence. But that didn’t happen. We have the situation we have. Far from hopeless, but with enough negative warning signs to scare off the region’s emotionally-battered fans.

So is it worth it for this team to even make the playoffs, with the odds so heavily stacked against them once they’re there?

It depends on your definition of “worth it.”

If you just want the ring, you’re fully within your right to feel that way. Forty-nine years – with three teams for most of those years -- is a long enough drought for any city. Nobody in this space is going to tell you to just be happy with making the playoffs.

But then you really take a look and see how bad it can get. And in baseball, the postseason droughts  can reach legendary status.

The Indians themselves went 41 years without a playoff game. The Pirates are working on ending a 20-year drought that included no winning seasons from 1993 until this year. The Royals haven’t made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985.

The Orioles broke a 15-year playoff drought last year, and the Nationals broke a drought that dated to 1981, when they were the Expos.

Bear in mind, we’re just talking playoffs. No mention of the Cubs’ 105-year World Series title drought, the Red Sox’s 86-year “Curse of the Bambino,” the White Sox’s 88-year drought that ended in 2005 or the Tribe’s drought, at 65 years and counting.

World Series title droughts have their own poetic verse. They almost always involve episodes of failure and foreboding under the bright lights. They become so well-known, they get reduced to names and phrases: Bill Buckner. Steve Bartman. The Black Sox. The black cat at Shea.

Curiously, in a town that loves to attach “the” to every sports misadventure, the Indians’ meltdown in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series never really received a widely-accepted nickname. Even the main antagonist of that fateful ninth inning, Jose Mesa, has become little more than a minor sports villain in local lore. It would take 100 Jose Mesas to equal the rage inspired by one Art Modell or LeBron James.

The lack of resentment toward Mesa is a curious anomaly – good for Mesa, and probably good for our collective blood pressure, but still curious -- because he scraped closer to a World Series title than Modell ever did to a Super Bowl title or LeBron to an NBA title during their time in Cleveland. If you’re going to get mad at someone, it’s probably going to be the likes of Mesa. Those are the rules of the game when a world championship is at stake.

But playoff droughts? Failing to even make the postseason for years and decades? Those are just pathetic. Playoff droughts don’t make villains or tragic characters. They simply produce an endless, numbing parade of forgettable players and forgettable teams. 

The Indians have been playing baseball in this town for 112 years. They have made the playoffs in 10 of those seasons. That means roughly 92 percent of the time, an Indians season has ended on the last day of the regular season.

Regardless of how much of a buzz they’re able to create around the region, regardless of their record against other contenders, regardless of whether they make the playoffs with room to spare or squeak in on the last day of the season, it’s better for the 2013 Indians to become the 11th Tribe team to make the playoffs than the 103rd Tribe team to miss the playoffs.

There have been enough dark Octobers in our past. There will be more dark Octobers in the future. This year – even if it’s for a moment – we can have October baseball again. Maybe it won’t possess the electricity of 1995. Maybe it won’t possess the magic of 1997. Maybe it won’t become a surprise ALCS gift dropped in our laps like 2007. But it beats the all-too-familiar alternative.