- Walter Novak
- When you do well at work, does Ronnie Belliard show up to cheer you on and buy $5 beers?
Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro had built a baseball trifecta certain to sell: a winning, likable, long-ball-hitting team. But the turnstiles weren't spinning.
As September dawned, and the Tribe's hammers grew to mauls at the gates of the American League Central, attendance still hovered around 20,000. Radios came alive with calls from Bob in Garfield Heights, Larry in Euclid, who mixed cries with castigation: Where's the support?
There was much talk of "true fans" -- those at the altar, win or lose -- and "bandwagon fans," whose names are spoken in the same breath as perverts and health-care executives. Even The Plain Dealer's Cheers & Jeers section, normally reserved for shots safe and sure, took time to spank the city.
Behold the peculiar nature of baseball economics: When wealthy young men do well, paycheck-to-paycheck Cleveland is required to give them money. It's our civic duty.
Alas, it's a one-way street. When you hit that perfect weld, or do the work of two to cover a guy on vacation, Ronnie Belliard doesn't show up to cheer you on and buy $5 beers.
That's just the way it is, of course. Fans understand this. But they also understand that the Tribe -- or more accurately, Major League Baseball -- hasn't even upheld its limited responsibilities to the relationship.
Witness again the annual rite of October. Six of the eight playoff teams came from monied markets. St. Louis and San Diego filled the designated peasant slots. The rest of the league -- the Clevelands and Milwaukees, Kansas Citys and Pittsburghs -- played the role of schedule filler.
That's because baseball is run by the same trust-fund morons who run the country, serial fuck-ups who will continue to do what they do best -- fuck up -- because they bought the right. It makes it just as hard to love baseball as it is to love your country.
Unlike other sports leagues, owners don't seem to understand they're selling competition. The salary cap is a comical $128 million -- and you can buy your way out of it. That leaves most teams at a 2-1 disadvantage before the first pitch is thrown, making competition slightly more honest than professional wrestling.
Tribe fans know the drill. The powerhouse of the '90s disintegrated over an empty wallet. The team has rebuilt, but fans are wary. One day, it too will be sold off piece by piece. When baseball teaches its lesson of survival-of-the-richest economics, Ma and Pa Cleveland don't forget.
So you can't blame 'em when they don't show. It takes a certain emotional investment to follow a team for 162 games. And in middle-market America, it's like trying to love a woman who's bound to leave you. Only schmucks allow themselves to be repeatedly torched.
Bob DiBiasio probably understands this, but he's not letting on. He's the community face of the Tribe front office, keeper of good cheer and positive thought. He'll tell you that after the all-star break, the Indians' average attendance was 27,619. He'll tell you that TV ratings were up 29 percent. He'll tell you that Martinez, Hafner, and Sabathia have been signed to long-term contracts, and that Sizemore, Lee, and Peralta are likely to get the same.
Talk to DiBiasio, and you feel good about the future. His is the gift of comfort and optimism.
But the jilted lover is taught to be cautious. The smart know the odds, and the odds forecast coming home one day to empty closets.
Among middle-market teams, only the Cardinals have managed to remain a power. They have the advantage of residing in America's best baseball town.
Oakland has stood strong, but only by playing a brand of ball so dull -- they're really into walks -- that no one will pay to see it. The A's finished 19th in attendance this year.
The Twins are perhaps most analogous. Their tale: Win two World Series. Enter economic collapse. Suck for a decade. Win three division titles. Sell off players. Begin to suck again.
During their latest run, they too had a winning, likable team -- and never moved from the bottom half of Major League attendance. Still, Twins spokesman Brad Ruiter refuses to acknowledge that fans have smartened up: "I don't necessarily subscribe to the theory that the fans have that attitude."
You can't blame the guy. To admit his industry is methodically slaying its customer base is to shoot his paycheck.
Cleveland is likely to do better. It's one of the country's best sports towns. Testimony: the Browns' continual sellouts, despite owners so bumbling they might well be former presidents of the Arabian Horse Association.
But the Tribe, like the Twins and the A's, will have to court us by selling a system. Yes, our best and brightest will soon wear pinstripes. Yet this will be combated with smarts, wise spending, and renewal from the farm. The system makes the parts on the field interchangeable. The true cleanup hitter is Shapiro.
It's not the most romantic of overtures. Sports are supposed to be escapist, offering the gallantry of the great slugger, the ferocity of the high heat. But the Tribe will ask us to love a man in wingtips. It's like proposing marriage after confessing that you're not good-looking, have the sensuality of a mackerel, and will always be broke, but at least you keep a clean house.
Don't blame the fans for awaiting better prospects. Baseball isn't a giving husband. You either accept it, or learn to speak these new words of love: Go White Sox!