Tuesday, July 29, 2008

From grinder to glory


Dictionary.com offers six definitions for the noun:

1. a person or thing that grinds.

2. a kitchen device or appliance for grinding food.

3. a sharpener of tools.

4. a molar tooth.

5. Chiefly New England and Inland North. Hero sandwich.

6. grinders, Informal. the teeth.

Fans of the Indians have more than willingly offered another set of definitions during the Mark Shapiro-Eric Wedge era:

7. A baseball player coveted by Indians management for his ability to take the same approach to every game, "grinding out" at-bats and innings.

8. A baseball player with a strong work ethic, humility and no-nonsense attitude brought on by the fact that he has only marginal big-league talent, and therefore has to work that much harder just to stay in the bigs.

9. The type of player Eric Wedge was during his short major league career.

Over the past five years, no player has come to represent the archetypal Wedge-infatuating grinder than Casey Blake. Like Wedge, he was a product of the hailed Wichita State baseball program. As a pro, he bounced around four different organizations between 1999 and 2002, playing a grand total of 49 games at the big league level before landing in the Tribe's laps in 2003. The Indians were looking for a stopgap at third base after injuries forced Travis Fryman into an early retirement following the '02 season. They found Blake, already 29 at the time.

Blake answered the bell, and then some. in 152 games for a stripped-down Tribe team that would lose 94 games, Blake amassed 143 hits, 35 doubles, 17 homers and 67 RBI.

Yet there was something about Blake that made us uneasy as fans. It probably started with his difficulty producing in the clutch. After years of watching the likes of Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome produce late-inning magic with stunning regularity, we just couldn't stomach a guy who hit .233 with runners in scoring position and .154 with runners in scoring position and two outs, as Blake did that year.

It also had something to do with his plate reflexes, which always seemed a click too slow. He seemed to take a lot of called third strikes, particularly in his first several years with the Indians, as he couldn't seem to decide whether or not to swing at a pitch. In the fraction of a second he mulled it over, the ball hit the catcher's glove.

I started to call Blake a hitter with major league power but a minor league hitter's eye. He could drive the ball when he made contact, but it seemed like his natural-born reflexes just weren't quick enough to handle top-notch major league pitching. Better hitters could foul off a particularly nasty slider or a 98-mph fastball and stay alive in the count, whereas Blake tended to take a feeble swing or watch strike three sail right by him.

After all, there was a reason why Blake didn't catch on in the bigs until age 29. This guy was a baseball Rudy, minus the whole getting-into-Notre-Dame thing. He worked hard, he did what was asked of him, he got the most out of his limited talent, and he finally caught on with a big league club. Thanks for giving us a heartwarming story, Disney will be calling shortly for the movie rights. Now seriously, Mark Shapiro, you're going to go find us a real third baseman, right?

Well, if by "real," you meant Aaron Boone, sure. Boone took over Blake's third base job in 2005. But Blake still hung on, receiving yet more praise from Shapiro and Wedge for taking his game to right field without a word of public complaint. He continued to not hit in the clutch, batting .171 with runners in scoring position and .085 with runners in scoring position and two out.

Wedge and Shapiro praised Blake's athletic ability. Not every player could make the drastic move from third base to right field successfully. Blake did so, at least in the field. But the shift likely affected him at the plate.

But the fans scoffed. "Heck, he'd make himself into a left-handed reliever and wash uniforms after the game if that's what Wedge wanted," we said. "If it wasn't for Wedge, Blake wouldn't be in the bigs. He'll do whatever it takes to please his surrogate dad."

The Aaron Boone era began with a whisper and ended with a whimper after the '06 season. Over the '05 and '06 seasons, Blake started more than 200 games in the outfield, committing 11 errors -- only three in 93 games in '06.

The 2007 season was supposed to begin the era of Andy Marte, the all-world prospect acquired in the Coco Crisp trade with Boston. By then, the court of public opinion had reduced Blake's ultimate sentence from "Lifetime banishment to Class AAA" to "He can stay as a bench player. But ONLY as a bench player."

Of course, we all remember what happened next. Marte didn't use that large wooden stick in his hand for much more than displacing air particles, and Blake was soon summoned from an odd outfield-third base-first base platoon situation to once again assume the everyday third baseman's job. He saved the position from becoming a black hole, hitting .270 with 18 homers and 78 RBI as the Indians won the division for the first time in six years. He still didn't hit with runners in scoring position (.190) or runners in scoring position and two out (.163).

By that point, we shoved our hands in our pockets and just accepted the fact that Blake is what he is. He's solid, versatile and would probably never hit with runners in scoring position. But after sitting through the brutal Trot Nixon and David Dellucci experiments, we learned that you can certainly do worse than Blake.

Blake rewarded our begrudging acceptance by becoming the Tribe's most consistent hitter in 2008. As he did in his first Cleveland season, he thrived on a Nowheresville team, leading the club in RBI for most of the season. He finally hit with runners in scoring position, batting at a .393 clip. We started fretting over what a lineup without Blake's production would look like. We knew we were going to find out soon.

This weekend, we did, as Blake was sent to the Dodgers. He is headed toward free agency, and the underdog grinder who had arrived on Cleveland's doorstep five years ago had played his way out of the Tribe's budget. It wouldn't be a shock to see Blake command $7 million or $8 million a year this winter.

On the surface, it seems like a very Cleveland thing. We suffer through the pitfalls as a player struggles through growing pains, perfecting his craft. Then, just as he becomes a finished product capable of commanding more than our team wants to spend, we have to let him go.

But maybe the trade was Blake's biggest gift to Cleveland. He saved his best performance for his walk year, and because of that, Shapiro was able to nab a closer prospect in Jon Meloan and a possible catcher of the future in Carlos Santana.

Blake is a grinder, no doubt. He grinded his way from obscurity to one of the better supplementary players in the game in five years. You might consign him to history as one of Wedge's more bizarre fascinations, but the fact is Blake saved the Tribe's bacon on more than one occasion, and might have delivered two mainstays of the future upon his departure.

If you look deep down inside yourself and remove all denial, you might even find a faint feeling of regret that he's no longer an Indian.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Injury Bug

Let's behave like true Clevelanders for a second and ask, "What could possibly derail the 2008 Browns season?"

The Browns cup of promise runneth over as training camp opens this week, at least more so than any Browns team since the late '80s. The weaknesses of the roster, such as cornerback depth, are relatively small and kind of nitpicky. The strengths are many: A deep offensive line anchored on the left side by two Pro Bowl-caliber blockers in Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach. An improved defensive line featuring Shaun Rogers, a nose tackle who might finally command double teams and open up rushing lanes for Kamerion Wimbley.

The Browns have two starting quarterbacks. Hate on Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn as much as you would like, but a number of NFL teams would gladly take either and give him a shot under center.

The receiver and tight end corps is fronted by a couple of thoroughbreds in Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. Donte' Stallworth is a third option who would likely be a second option on a lot of teams.

So with all this rampant optimism, how can we balance it with a nice shot of negativity to give it that true Cleveland feel?

Don't worry. The Browns are already doing it for us. Or has the boulevard of broken dreams that was LeCharles Bentley's short stay as a Brown already passed from conscious thought?

It's the middle of summer. It must be time for a visit from the Injury Bug. That annoying little gnat that buzzes around the collective head of the Browns seemingly every year, claiming weeks and months and seasons, and in the cases of Bentley and Gary Baxter, maybe even careers.

Did I say annoying little gnat? Maybe more like a horrifying, carnivorous harbinger of doom. Like a piranha with wings.

The Injury Bug can strike swiftly and severely, crushing a season in the time it takes for a knee tendon to burst, as it did with Bentley. Or it can nick you to death with a thousand well-placed paper cuts. If the Injury Bug is to ruin the Browns' '08 campaign, that would appear it be its method of operation.

Before the Browns don pads and engage in full contact drills, they will already be without Ryan Tucker, who is recovering from a hip injury, Daven Holly, lost for the year to knee surgery, and Joe Jurevicius, struggling to come back from multiple knee surgeries, the result of being the latest Brown to suffer a staph infection.

It appears Jurevicius, aging but still one of the better possession receivers in the league, will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, holding him out until after Week 6 at the earliest. Another setback, and he might call it a career.

Right now, the Injury Bug's bite is a relative nibble. Tucker was slated to enter the season as the starting right guard, but the Browns have other options on the roster. Losing Holly hurts an already-depleted cornerback group, but he was considered a dark horse to land a starting job at best.

Losing Jurevicius for months would have caused more damage last year when he was the second wide receiver. As the third receiver, there is a better chance his production could be replaced by someone already in camp. Maybe Travis Wilson can finally start earning his keep.

If this is all the blood the Injury Bug draws this season, the Browns will still field a team capable of playing deep into January. But when three potential starters go down with long term injuries before the start of training camp, you have to wonder if this is only the tip of the iceberg.

It's not a problem if Tucker can't take the field until sometime in September. It will become a problem if second, third and fourth injuries befall the offensive line. It's not a problem if Jurevicius has to wait until October to see if he can make one last push before retirement. But it will become a problem if Jurevicius is followed into sick bay by some combination of Winslow, Edwards and Stallworth.

The problem with injuries is not just the loss of the player himself. It's the fact that each injury depletes the depth of the roster a little bit more and forces players further down the depth chart to step up and assume larger roles. If any team in the NFL is entering December starting three backup offensive lineman and plugging in the fourth receiver as a starter, that team is likely in a heap of trouble in the playoff race.

Injuries are common in football. Even the best of the best, teams like the Patriots and Colts, have to deal with their share. It's not part of The Cleveland Experience to have your team's players end up in an assortment of braces and casts. But it is part of The Cleveland Experience to see a few cracks in your team's armor and wonder if a complete structural failure is forthcoming, only because it has happened before.

As Training Camp 2008 opens, we have every right to finally feel optimistic about the coming season of Browns football. But as long as the Injury Bug hovers around our heads, buzzing sweet nothings about ruptured tendons and staph infections into our ears, we will always wonder what is just around the corner.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The waiting is the hardest part

Cavaliers fans have been anxiously anticipating the moves of Danny Ferry this summer like small children who can't fall asleep on Christmas Eve.

The Cavs are flying heavy with about $30 million in expiring contracts. LeBron James strongly hinted at the end of the Cavs-Celtics playoff series that he'd like to see some kind of improvements made to the team.

That's all the spurring our San Antonio-groomed general manager should need, right? It's all a matter of going out and waving some tantalizing expiring contracts under the nose of a team with a superstar or two in need of a rebuild, and LeBron will officially have his Pippen, and we can start planning that NBA championship parade to Public Square for next June.

Well, it's mid-July, the draft is past tense, the NBA's free agency period has been underway for a couple of weeks now, and all the big names available have pretty much changed addresses already, to places other than Cleveland.

Richard Jefferson is in Milwaukee, which can be taken as a strong indicator that Michael Redd isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Baron Davis is a Clipper, Corey Maggette is a Warrior, Elton Brand is a Sixer and Cavs front-office favorite Mickael Pietrus jumped to Orlando.

Ferry made a play for James Posey, the battle-tested swingman who played such an important role in allowing the Celtics to hold off the Cavs this spring, but ultimately finished second to the Hornets.

So far, the only basketball news of the summer in Cleveland is that first round pick J.J. Hickson dropped 26 points and nine boards in his summer league debut, and on Wednesday, Daniel Gibson completed the formality of agreeing to a five-year, $20 million contract. Like he was going anywhere. He's affordable and the Cavs' best shooter. His re-signing was as close to a foregone conclusion as you are going to find in the world of restricted free agency.

As much as you might still be crossing your fingers and hoping against all hope that Ferry does something, anything, to improve the Cavs' chances at unseating the Celtics as the league's champs next spring, you will likely be forced to admit that you see the giant letters known commonly as the "handwriting on the wall."

When Danny Ferry says he likes the makeup of this roster, he means he likes the makeup of this roster. You might disagree, but Ferry's opinion is what matters. In other words, once the Delonte West contract situation is resolved one way or the other, that's probably going to bring the curtain down on the offseason as far as major moves are concerned.

West's restricted free agency and contract negotiations -- which might turn out to be noticeably more suspenseful than Gibson's -- is the only real drama left to play out for the Cavs before training camp opens. If the Cavs do make a headline-grabbing move, the guess is it will be to acquire a point guard because negotiations with West have stalled out, or West is about to sign an offer sheet that Ferry has no interest in matching. But if I were a betting man, I'd still place my chips on the side that says the Cavs and West will hammer out a deal before camp starts.

Other than that, there might be a few minor tweaks. The Cavs will probably use a portion of their midlevel exception to sign one or two Devin Brown types, and there is a chance that Damon Jones, who spent most of the playoffs rotting on the bench, will be dealt, but the early edition of the 2008-09 Cavs will probably look suspiciously similar to the Cavs squad that was knocked out by the Celtics.

Is it playing with fire to stand pat when LeBron's potential free agency looms a mere 24 months from now? Well, no matter what Ferry does or does not do, it's a roll of the dice. Stand pat, and other teams -- like the Celtics -- might seize the opportunity and blast right by you. Make aggressive moves, and you could end up in salary cap hell, riveted to a bunch of lousy deals doled out to aging players.

If a team is willing to deal one of their stars for expiring contracts, it's normally because that star player is signed to a gargantuan deal and the trading team wants to get out from under the contract. Those kinds of deals look attractive in the short term, but can absolutely kill the long term flexibility of the team receiving the star player. It's generally a bad idea to make short term deals for long term contracts, particularly if the player you acquire has or will soon reach the big 3-0.

With all that in mind, if Ferry stands pat and makes no major moves for the remainder of the offseason, here is what he's banking on:

1. Familiarity will make last February's blockbuster look better.

The deal that brought West, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith to town didn't have the shot-in-the-arm effect that everyone was hoping for. The revamped Cavs accomplished what the Larry Hughes-Donyell Marshall group likely would have: 45 wins and a second-round exit.

Now this group will come to camp with a playoff run under their belts and the knowledge that they'll have an entire season together to learn each other's games and learn Mike Brown's schemes. This is probably better than a 45-win team, but injuries and upheaval took their toll. Ferry probably wants to give the current roster time to jell before he starts changing more pieces in and out.

2. Boston will come back to Earth, at least a little bit.

After watching the Cavs, without homecourt advantage, give the Celtics everything they could handle short of an upset, Ferry is probably pretty confident that this Cavs team can take out anyone in the East in a seven game series. The Celtics stayed remarkably healthy last year for a team built around a core of 30-somethings, they played with a determination to win not seen in the league since the heyday of Michael Jordan, and they had a cast of reliable role players fronted by Posey.

The injury bug might bite Boston a bit harder this year, and even if it doesn't, it's hard to imagine the Celtics spending themselves to win 60-plus regular season games again next season without suffering dire consequences in the playoffs. To top it off, Posey is gone, eliminating a huge thorn in the Cavs' side from this spring's playoffs.

The East is always subject to change. The Magic continue to get stronger, but won't ever pose a threat to win the conference until Dwight Howard can perform at the level of LeBron and Kevin Garnett in the playoffs. The Sixers added a major piece in Brand, but he's coming back from an Achilles' tendon injury and, even if he's healthy, Philadelphia's roster still has some large holes.

Detroit could come out of nowhere and deal for Tracy McGrady. But if that kind of fairy tale wheeling and dealing doesn't happen, Ferry likely believes that his team, as presently constructed, can get back to the NBA Finals and maybe win it.

3. Some teams that think they have a shot at winning could be singing a different tune in February (I'm looking at you, Milwaukee).

Right now is a time for optimism. Right now, Bucks fans are ecstatic that Jefferson and Redd will team up on a playoff run. Right now, the Hawks are one of the rising young teams in the East, as are the Sixers. Right now, the Nets are apparently content to build around Vince Carter. Right now, the Bobcats, with Larry Brown calling the shots, are poised to possibly make a run at their first playoff berth.

Chances are, one or more of those dreams will be shattered by the time the trading deadline is in sight, and Ferry might have a better chances of gleaning one of the above mentioned players at that point.

As we sit and watch the summer progress, some fans are sharpening their Ferry-shredding instruments, waiting to pounce if the leaves start turning and the Cavs don't have a second perennial all-star in camp. Start shredding now if that's the case, because despite what the one-in-a-million story of the 2008 Boston Celtics might tell you, the other 99 percent of the time, good things come to those who wait.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The essential all-stars

The Indians don't have the largest contingent at Yankee Stadium for this week's all star festivities. But the two players they did send should arrive and depart packed in egg crates.

All star week is a who's who of valuable players. The rosters are overflowing with team home run leaders, RBI leaders, strikeout leaders and shutout leaders. But few teams have more riding on their all stars than the Indians do on Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore.

Lee and Sizemore are both having great seasons. The particularly obsessive fans can pick apart their performances, nitpick Sizemore's underwhelming .273 batting average in relation to the rest of his stats, fret over Lee's tendency to lose command of his stuff for an inning or two, but for the sweeping generalization needed to pack this judgment into one paragraph, we can say Lee and Sizemore are having great seasons.
In New York, the Tribe's dynamic duo is in good company. Once the season resumes in Seattle on Friday and the pair are once again surrounded by their struggling last-place teammates, greatness will be a lonely pursuit.

It is possible that the Indians, a team that appears destined for 90 losses, could still tout the AL's home run king and a second straight Cy Young Award winner after the season.

The pessimist would call it a waste of two perfectly good seasons by a bumbling organization. The optimist would call it proof positive of better things to come. The realist would probably say that if the Indians want to have better seasons in the future, they need Sizemore and Lee to produce like this every year. That's a lot of weight to put on the slight shoulders of two of the Tribe's skinniest players, but when you consider the uncertainty swirling around the rest of the team, Sizemore and Lee comprise the closest thing the Indians might have to a bedrock foundation for '09.

When two players are having seasons like Sizemore's and Lee's, and it still isn't enough to counterbalance the sheer volume of injuries and underachievement on the rest of the roster, it's not exactly a glowing recommendation for the other 23 guys. Of course, as badly as things have gone for the Indians this season, we could reasonably expect some players to bounce back in '09. Baseball is all about giving the law of averages every chance to take effect, after all.

But a quick glance at the rest of the roster reveals a relative sliver of certainty and a whole heaping helping of question marks for next season.

Victor Martinez is recovering from elbow surgery. He was hitting for average for the first couple of months of the season. We can reasonably expect him to bounce back. He's been with the team long enough that we know what to expect from him. Outside of Lee and Sizemore, Martinez might be the only close-to-sure thing Mark Shapiro can offer up for 2009 without making some significant moves this offseason.

Travis Hafner is recovering from an injured shoulder, but he hasn't been right at the plate in over a calendar year. Ryan Garko shows flashes of his 2007 form, then regresses into a pull-happy hacker. Johnny Peralta is producing in the cleanup spot, but this is his fourth season in the bigs, and inconsistency is the name of the game with him.

Casey Blake will likely be gone at the end of the year, if not sooner. Franklin Gutierrez will probably never hit for a high enough average to be an everyday player in Cleveland. The sample sizes of Ben Francisco, Shin-Soo Choo and Andy Marte are still too small to accurately gauge their long-term impact. Regardless, none of them project as heart-of-the-order hitters.

In the rotation, Fausto Carmona has a stellar '07 season sandwiched in between a disastrous '06 closer experiment and an injury-plagued '08 campaign. Right now, his career could go any one of a number of directions. Jake Westbrook is recovering from major elbow surgery and is effectively lost as a front-of-the-rotation starter until 2010. Aaron Laffey is in the same boat as Francisco and Choo -- promising, but way too young to proclaim a core player moving forward. Jeremy Sowers needs pinpoint control and excellent command to be effective, and so far, he's had neither.

When you consider all of the above, it's apparent that the Indians have a large portion of both their present and future on display at Yankee Stadium this week.

While it's fantastic to see Sizemore compete in the Home Run Derby as a prelude to appearing in Tuesday's All-Star Game, while it's a thrill to see Lee named the Tribe's first All-Star starting pitcher since Charles Nagy in 1996, the glow will dim noticeably once the grind of the season starts up again and you realize there might not be much more to smile about when it comes to the Indians, this year or next -- or at least until Matt LaPorta makes his already-highly-anticipated big league debut, which might still be a year or more away.

For now, Lee and Sizemore are the genuine article, producing at a high level and bringing positive attention to the Indians during this mostly-miserable season. Others might join them later this year and next year, but anyone else in the Indians organization is saddled with that two-letter blanket qualifier, "if."

If Travis Hafner returns to form... If Victor Martinez can start hitting for power again... If Fausto Carmona doesn't suffer any setbacks...

If Andy Marte earns his keep at third base... If Ben Francisco continues to hit... If Mark Shapiro can ever find a long-term solution for the closer's role...

Lee and Sizemore are the only two Indians who don't need "if" right now. That alone makes the Tribe's two representatives in the Bronx this week worth their weight in gold.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A trail of tears

Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey once said that a baseball team in any city is quasi-public institution, but the Dodgers were public without the quasi.

When a city loses a public institution, the ripple effects can last for years. Few cities took it on the chin harder than New York, which lost both its National League teams in the same offseason prior to 1958. The Dodgers and Giants, both staples of New York summers dating to the 19th Century, packed up and moved to the West Coast.

After 1957, Ebbets Field never saw big league baseball again. It was knocked down a few years later. The Polo Grouds, the Giants' oddly-shaped landmark of a park in extreme northern Manhattan, remained vacant until the Mets moved in for the 1962 season. By 1964, however, the Mets had moved to Shea Stadium and the Polo Grounds followed Ebbets Field into the crosshairs of the wrecking ball.

The sports history books are loaded with teams leaving various locales and arriving in others. Baseball, in particular, went through a glut of relocation over approximately 20 years. In addition to the Dodgers and Giants, the Braves left Boston in 1953 for Milwaukee, then moved south to Atlanta in 1966. The Athletics left Philadelphia for Kansas City in 1954, then moved westward yet again to Oakland in 1968.

The St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954. The Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins in 1961, replaced a year later with an expansion Washington Senators franchise, which became the Texas Rangers in 1972. The Seattle Pilots left the Pacific Northwest after one unremarkable expansion season, becoming the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970.

It makes for good reading if you are into sports history and like to memorize random facts. But the impact felt by the fans losing their team is hard to appreciate until it happens to one of your teams.

In 1995, we felt it in Cleveland. Most people still remember where they were when Art Modell stood on that stage in Baltimore and announced to a throng of enthusiastic fans and city leaders that he was filling the pro football hole in their hearts by creating one in ours. What followed was an ugly several-year sequence involving the NFL, the governments of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County and tens of thousands of irate fans who will see to it that Arthur B. Modell is unwelcome in Cleveland, Ohio for the remainder of his natural life.

We retained the Browns name and history. We also received a hastily-constructed stadium and expansion team for our trouble, a team virtually guaranteed to not contend for at least five years. Nearly 10 years and two regime changes later, we are only now starting to see evidence of a well-run, winning Browns organization begin to sprout.

Meanwhile, Modell hoisted high the Vince Lombardi Trophy in January 2001. He handed the Baltimore Ravens off to new ownership in 2004, having won the Super Bowl title we still covet.

Ever since the dominoes of despair started falling on that Autumn day in 1995, I've been sensitive to the plight of fans losing their teams, particularly if the fans have supported the team for decades through thick and thin.

Even when the Expos' situation in Montreal was well beyond repair, I thought about the loyal Expos fans, though small in number by the team's 2004 end, who were losing a small part of themselves so the franchise could move on to greener pastures in Washington, D.C. -- which was getting a nearly unheard-of third chance as a baseball town.

You simply don't lose a franchise after 35 years without twisting a knife in someone's back -- thousands of times over. Which is why, when the latest franchise to pogo-stick out of a city made their move official last week, I once again felt that same special brand of contempt that I felt when the Browns moved. That certain type of contempt that can only be reserved for incredibly rich businessmen and politicians who treat the sports team into which you invested so much of your heart and paychecks over the years like a bargaining chip.

The story of the Sonics' exodus to Oklahoma City is, like so many other franchise moves, the story of powerful men attempting to throw each other under the proverbial bus. It's the story of a relationship that had become so contentious between Seattle leaders and team owner Clay Bennett that the sides negotiated a settlement that would allow the Sonics to leave town ahead of the 2010 expiration of the team's lease with the supposedly-outdated Key Arena, just so the sides wouldn't have to deal with each other anymore.

It's the story of former owner Howard Schultz selling his team to Bennett, an Oklahoma businessman, then suing Bennett for control of the team because, of course, Schultz wants to stand up for Seattle in the face of this Oklahoma carpetbagger. It's a move that now seems like a shallow attempt by Schultz -- whose tenure as the Sonics' owner is not remembered fondly by most in Seattle -- to save face with the thousands of now-former Sonics fans who drink his notoriously-overpriced Starbucks coffee.

It's the story of Seattle government refusing to buckle to pressure and finance the building of a new arena, and paying the price for doing what is right --though the city might end up with an extra $75 million out of this whole fiasco as part of the settlement with Bennett and his investors. But if Seattle wants NBA basketball back, it will likely have to spend that amount several times over to build a new arena, sooner or later.

It's the story of legal wrangling and finger-pointing and a lot of hot air. But most of all, it's the story of 41 years of basketball, about Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma and Lenny Wilkens and the only pro sports title in Seattle's modern history, claimed in 1979.

It's the story Gary Payton's slick handle at the point guard spot, of the pre-Cleveland Shawn Kemp, one of the most astonishing athletic specimens the game had ever seen. It's the story of Nate McMillan, Sam Perkins and all the other players who made a mark on Seattle in four decades of pro basketball.

That is what the fans lost. The ability to make more memories, the ability to watch the latest Sonics phenom, Kevin Durant, blossom into a superstar.

The years will pass, Seattle might land a replacement for the Sonics -- and it might even carry the Sonics name. But it won't be the same, even if they fall in love again.

We in Cleveland, who remember those bitter Sundays on the lakefront in the spartan confines of Cleveland Stadium, turning it into a disorienting vortex of noise for anyone wearing the opposing team's colors, can attest to that.

Life goes on, but you can't ever really, truly go home again.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Retooling or rebuilding?

When Mark Shapiro woke up one morning in 2006 and found the Indians hopelessly adrift and six miles out of first place in the AL Central, he knew he had to make a decision. So he did. He traded away several of the team's expendable veterans for young players.

Eduardo Perez was sent to Seattle for Asdrubal Cabrera. Later, Ben Broussard followed suit in exchange for Shin-Soo Choo. Bob Wickman was pawned off on Atlanta for catching prospect Max Ramirez, who was swapped for Kenny Lofton a year later.

Simple enough, right? When your team is floating through a lost season, you jettison the guys who don't figure into the future, and try to get a little bit of extra depth for your farm system in the process.

It was relatively simple, paint-by-numbers retooling for Shapiro in '06. Ryan Garko was waiting in the wings for his shot to relieve Perez and Broussard at first base, and Fausto Carmona was -- at least we thought at the time -- a budding closer prospect, ready to replace Wickman. There wasn't a whole lot of risk in trading Perez, Broussard or Wickman, for the '06 season or beyond.

Fast forward to 2008. Another lost season, another moment of truth for Shapiro. To trade or not to trade? But this time, the stakes are much higher.

This time, when and if Shapiro pulls the trigger on trades, it will impact the front of the starting rotation and the heart of the already-wounded batting order. This year, the potential trade deadline subtractions will cut deep, and could have impacts ranging far beyond this year.

If Shapiro deals C.C. Sabathia, Casey Blake, Paul Byrd and maybe a bullpen arm (let's just say Rafael Betancourt for argument's sake), that's four-fifths of the opening day rotation gone, counting the injuries to Carmona and Jake Westbrook. Deal Blake, and you're dealing your leading RBI man and best clutch hitter. Deal Betancourt if the right trade arises, and you just pulled the plug on one of your two workhorses from the 2007 bullpen.

Unless those players yield a booty of major league-ready or nearly major league-ready prospects, there is a high probability that the hangover from the deadline purge will continue into 2009. Even if a series of deadline deals does bring one or two players who can step in and contribute in short order, it's probably not going to be enough to save 2009 from the effects of lost production, unless Shapiro bails the team out with some nifty wheeling and dealing over the winter -- though many of Shapiro's previous attempts at making worthwhile offseason moves haven't panned out.

In scuttling the 2008 season by dealing off the likes of Sabathia, Byrd and Blake, Shapiro will likely take 2009 with it, meaning the earliest we could probably hope for an Indians rebound would be 2010. And so many things can happen in two years, it's almost ridiculous to try and predict that far ahead. Ask the people who are trying to accurately weigh LeBron's love of New York against his ties to home.

Of course, all three Tribe players would almost certainly be gone after the season, so what is the harm in dealing them? Well, if Shapiro nabs a few top prospects in the process and the fans are willing to age another two years, minimum, before they see contending baseball again, nothing is wrong with trading them.

But at what point do you draw the line between retooling and rebuilding? At what point does a simple reloading of the the gun chamber turn into a trip to the gunsmith for extensive repairs?

Trading two-fifths of the starting rotation and your leading RBI hitter isn't on par with the demolition job performed by Shapiro in 2001 and 2002, but there is no question it's far more extensive and risky than dealing away assorted flotsam like Perez and Broussard.

The prospect of trading away major parts combined with the fact that Travis Hafner faces an uncertain future, Westbrook faces a yearlong rehabilitation stint, and Carmona and Victor Martinez are both on indefinite timetables to return from injuries, and you could make a case that Shapiro's original rebuilding plan has become derailed. Not beyond repair, but certainly damaged.

Hafner, Westbrook, Carmona and Martinez will all return to fight again with varying degrees of effectiveness. But the team they return to -- depending on how long each is sidelined -- might be vastly different than the team they left. It will be younger and will have a number of new last names stitched onto jersey backs. Grady Sizemore, who will turn 26 at the start of August, could be among the veteran leaders. Martinez, 29, will be a wise Yoda figure compared to some of the greenhorns likely to occupy the roster.

And that roster will have to learn how to win all over again, just like this roster did in 2005 and '07. If that happens, then to me that falls under the definition of a rebuild.

Rebuilding doesn't always mean that a team's front office blew up the plan and started over. Sometimes, it means going forward with the same idea, but a significantly changed roster compiled over several years of non-contention. That's the possible future of the Indians over the next year or two, unless Shapiro has some tricks up his sleeve that we haven't seen yet.

If that's the way it shakes out, the fans will once again be asked by their team to look to the future and see the prize down the road. Perseverance and patience are noble qualities, but once you remember that the Indians' last World Series title came during the Truman Administration, somehow grinding it out, taking a Eric Wedge-approved mentality to being a fan, it's just not that satisfying anymore.