Even in the midst of a precipitous decline that's all but erased the euphoria of their record-setting start, the Indians' proximity to first place in the American League's Central Division is still more than a nice surprise. After what happened between the Cavaliers and the kid from Akron, and with the Browns having rebooted the coaching staff for the fifth time in a decade, a fog of sports hopelessness as thick as any since the mid-'70s appeared set to descend upon Cleveland. That the Tribe has kept the clouds at bay for this long is as uplifting as it is improbable.
Experts unanimously pegged the Indians for no better than a fourth-place finish, and it was easy enough to see why. More than any other major American sport, baseball has come to be characterized by haves, have-nots, and an ever-widening gap between the two. With no cap on team salaries and no meaningful revenue sharing among franchises, it's become common for large-market teams to spend three or four times as much on player payroll than their small-market "competitors."
The difference between a Honda and a Bentley is one thing, but the difference between $50 million worth of world-class baseball players and $200 million of the same is entirely something else. So it shouldn't be surprising that in the 19 seasons since the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 title, only one team that plays in a media market smaller than Cleveland has won the World Series: the St. Louis Cardinals, a franchise with such a large out-of-town fan (read: revenue) base that the exception proves the rule.
In many ways, Cleveland has been ground zero for baseball's economic inequities. The exodus of no-longer-affordable superstars that started with Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome had fans reeling by 2009 with the loss of two consecutive Cy Young Award-winners (C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee) and an All-Star catcher (Victor Martinez) in the span of 13 months.
But the cruelest twist of the knife? Try the grand slam hit by J.D. Drew to turn the 2007 American League Championship Series for the Boston Red Sox after the Indians had taken a 3-1 series lead. In the first year of a five-year, $70 million deal at the time, Drew was the poster boy for overpriced free-agent signees: He hit .270 during the regular season, with only 11 home runs. Had the Indians (2007 payroll: $62 million) gotten such meager production for so much money, it would have sunk a season in which no Tribe batsman made more than Travis Hafner's $4 million. But the Sox's $14 million man was just one of five $9 million-plus hitters in the lineup, comfortably taking cuts at the bottom of Boston's batting order. As Drew rounded the bases in Fenway that October, it had never been clearer that the Indians and Red Sox are playing different games.
Which makes it all the more impressive that we can even hope to compete with the Bostons, New Yorks, and Chicagos at their game.
The common misperception that Cleveland's current owners, the Dolan family, are too cheap to own a baseball franchise is belied by the fact that all Major League teams spend roughly the same percentage of revenue on payroll. In defending the Lee and Martinez trades in '09, Paul Dolan explained: "Every four or five years, if we can have a shot at the World Series and compete for the playoffs like we did in '05, that's as good as it gets." Dolan's words were as frank as any spoken by a Cleveland sports owner in the last decade, and downright Lincolnesque compared to Dan Gilbert's "guarantee" that the Cavs will win an NBA title before LeBron.
And most important, here we are on the early side of "four or five years" since the Tribe last contended, with just about every significant contributor on this year's team signed up for next season as well. An uphill battle isn't completely hopeless, competence is good, and predictably consistent competence is even better. As much as we might want the Indians to more enthusiastically embrace the role of small-market standard-bearer, and for the Dolans to take more of an activist role against baseball's tilted playing field, "as good as it gets" is still something, and we're getting it. Especially here, especially now, that's pretty damn good.