Sunday, August 12, 2012

The burden of stewardship

The legendary baseball innovator Branch Rickey once noted that a baseball team in any city is a quasi-public institution.

The quote -- included in Ken Burns' 1994 documentary series "Baseball" -- was in reference to the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958. Rickey said that in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were "public" without the "quasi."

But I'm more concerned about the first part of Rickey's quote. Any sports franchise in any town is indeed quasi-public. Though Rickey was speaking about the special connection the Dodgers had with Brooklyn, the only true "public" major league sports franchise in North America is the Green Bay Packers, owned by shareholders. Every other sports franchise toes the line between private business and public entity. They are privately-owned, for-profit enterprises that are held in the same esteem -- or higher esteem, in most cities -- as publicly-funded institutions.

To boot, most teams now play in publicly-funded and owned facilities.

Pro sports teams are about as public as you can get while still having a private owner. The ownership group has to answer to no one regarding how the team is run. Yet in a very real sense, the owners are stewards of a public entity. If the team is not successful, fans don't show up at games, which hurts downtown game-night business at bars and restaurants, necessitates fewer game-day employees inside the stadium, and results in a far-smaller injection of revenue into the local economy than if the team had been contending.

Losing also takes a psychological toll. As the years of losing mount, fans become more jaded and less willing to believe that any sign of success is more than a temporary radar-blip that will be gone within a few weeks or months. Any hope of a buzz-creating pennant race is short-circuited and replaced by, at best, cautious optimism. And cautious optimism doesn't sell tickets.

Welcome to the world of the Cleveland Indians under Larry Dolan and his son Paul. They purchased the team in 2000 from Dick Jacobs for $323 million. Since 2002, when the so-called "Era of Champions" was formally imploded and the Dolan regime put their thumbprint on the franchise, the team has managed two winning seasons and one playoff appearance. That would be exactly the same number of winning seasons and playoff appearances the Lerner family managed in 13 seasons of owning the Browns.

This season doesn't look like it will reverse that trend. The 2012 Indians, supposedly the team that was going to turn the corner toward contention after showing some flashes of promise in 2011, have been all but scuttled on the rocks. An 11-game losing streak has plunged the team nine games off the pace in the AL Central as of Sunday. Unless Manny Acta's crew has a few miracles up their sleeve, the Indians are headed for their fifth straight .500-or-under season.

But the problems go much deeper than that. Years of nearly-fruitless drafting have rendered the farm system all but impotent. The system can crank out the occasional Jason Kipnis, a quality player with all-star upside, but the last true franchise-caliber position players to come through the Indians farm system were Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez 20 years ago.

The trading hasn't been much better. If you can't draft a organizational backbone, you have to trade for it. To that end, two of the most pivotal recent trades -- the 2008 trade of C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers and the 2009 trade of Cliff Lee to the Phillies -- have three and four years later yielded a grand total of Michael Brantley thus far. You can attribute some of it to bad luck, like Carlos Carrasco's Tommy John surgery and the ongoing severe arm problems of the recently-released Jason Knapp, but for the trades two Cy Young Award winners to yield an signle starting outfielder between them is a horrendous development.

The end result at the big-league level is predictable: A roster that simply lacks the firepower to keep up with the well-endowed White Sox and Tigers for 162 games. A fan base that does not believe in the product, and is voting with their wallets, planting the Indians at the bottom of baseball in attendance all season long.

Whenever Mark Shapiro or another member of the Tribe brass appears in the media, they have a list of reasons why the team is performing poorly at the gate: It’s a bad economy. Small market teams have to deal with some harsh realities. Their latest focus group says they need to offer more deals with parking and concessions. The success of the ‘90s was due to a perfect storm of circumstances that aren’t likely to be repeated.

The trouble is, the “small market blues” argument only holds so much water. When you consider the ease of getting in and out of Cleveland by car – as opposed to just about any larger city with more traffic – the Indians can draw from as far away as Canton, Sandusky and Erie, Pa. for a midweek night game during the summer. They have a pool of about 3 million people within a two-hour car ride who can realistically attend games. When you combine the Cleveland, Akron and Canton markets, it is the 18th largest metropolitan conglomeration in the country.

The “bad economy” argument is only so watertight, too. Yes, the economy is far worse than it was in the mid-‘90s. Yes, more people are financially strained and have far less in the way of disposable income. But that ignores the biggest number of all: 48.

That would be the number of years since the last Cleveland championship in any major-league sport. The fans of this region are so hungry for a ticker-tape parade, if they think one of their teams has a real shot at winning a title, the turnstiles will click. But you have to give them a reason to believe.

That brings us back to the Dolans and the question of whether they are good stewards of the Indians franchise anymore.

The fans seem to be done with the revolving-door rebuilds. If this offseason brings another purge of veterans for prospects, the fans are only going to become that much more jaded and cynical. Joe Casual Fan doesn’t want to hear about three-to-five years from now anymore. He’s been hearing about it on almost all Cleveland sports fronts for the balance of the past decade.

The only way to reverse the downward spiral is for ownership to commit tens of millions of dollars to improving the 25-man roster. An infusion of cash has to come from somewhere that will allow the Indians to invest heavily in the current product. After years of minimal results from the farm system, I really don’t see any other way for the team to lure the fans back en masse.

That has been a primary problem with how the Dolans have run things since 2002. They are solely reliant on what the team makes at the gate to sustain the on-field product. That’s fine, as long as the team is drawing. But when a team gets as far off the tracks as the Indians have, ownership needs to have a reservoir of rainy-day funds. Something has to jump-start success, and it’s not going to be the fans. That’s not the way it works in business. The proprietor has to bear the risk, make the investment, and get people interested in what they’re selling.

In modern times, multi-billionaires make the best team owners. The local-guy-made-good is a touching story, but if the local guy isn’t sitting on the type of fortune that will allow him to dip into the coffers for some well-placed acquisitions, the chances of enduring success go way down. At this point, I don’t see any way for the Dolans to rescue the Indians other than opening the checkbook and spending.

The ‘90s were indeed a perfect storm for the Indians. A robust economy, a new stadium and a team contending for the first time in 40 years. But the stars shouldn’t need to align that perfectly for the Indians to enjoy an era of contention again. The Indians should be able to contend even when the economy is sagging. They should be able to outspend a couple of bad moves here and there. And they should be able to put whatever resources are necessary into the farm system to minimize the number of bad moves that they need to outspend.

If the Dolans can’t make that happen, they should acknowledge that they can no longer do right by the Indians franchise, and the fans who haven’t seen a World Series victory in 64 years, and sell the team to owners who have deeper pockets and a desire to keep the team in Cleveland.

Sometimes, the burden of good stewardship is recognizing when you can’t be a good steward anymore.