This series is not intended to bash the Oakland Athletics but to explain the Cleveland Indians decline. However, using a proxy like the Athletics helps to explain Indian fan support, which is what this series is about. Since 1992, the Athletics have participated in the Post Season 8 times (not including this year). That is 8 times in 22 years. Not too bad really. In fact, pretty darn good. However, in those 8 appearances from 1992 forward, they have won exactly ONE playoff series and then promptly lost in the AL Championship series 4- 0. No World Championships. Not even one American League Championship. And those teams were, in general, created by highly sophisticated drafting and analysis and not by simply getting the best players.
Obviously, since this time frame included the 90’s, the Indians did far better and did massively better in attendance and in success in the playoffs. The lack of a World Championship during that time was more based on the Baseball Gods than actual talent. Sometimes even the most talented teams do not win it all.
But in the mid 90s, Cleveland fans KNEW that the team was vastly talented and odds on favorites to win their division and always contenders for the World Series. In fact, the Indians were so good that it was kind of a sick joke on Cleveland that a Championship banner never flew during those years. And therein lies the secret to attendance and acceptance in sports. The fans have to perceive you have created a team that is built to win. The fans have to perceive you have created a team that is likely to win. But most importantly, the fans have to perceive YOU will do whatever it takes to win. That is how trust is built. That is how sports teams thrive. That is how customer loyalty is created. Then, when the fans come and you match their perceptions with actual winning, you have a money generating machine that will continue even if you underperform for awhile.
BUT, if you do it the opposite way and build a team that the fans perceive is built to be competitive with a minimal chance at winning a championship. That the fans perceive is not likely to win but might win. And conduct business in a way that the fans perceive you won’t do whatever it takes to win but you would like to win. Then, when the fans come and you match their perceptions by failing to win big games, you have built a money hemorrhaging machine that won’t bring fans even when you outperform for awhile.
This is why the Oakland model won’t work to bring in fans even when they have modest success. And this is why the current Cleveland model won’t work. A super close friend of mine and I were talking recently and he provided me with a simple but profound explanation for all of this. You decide to go to a restaurant with a decent but not outstanding reputation hoping to get a good meal. When your meal does not meet your expectations, the owner comes up to you and says “I’m sorry the meal was not good tonight. But I promise if you just keep coming I will be able to afford better meat and you will eventually get a good meal.” How likely are you to return to that restaurant for a possibility that you might get a good meal? Exactly !!! Not very likely. That is my analogy for the Cleveland Indians model of attracting fans.
They hope that fans will see they try hard and might win someday and will forget that the ownership’s commitment to winning is based on marginal deficit spending “hoping” to win by outsmarting and not outspending the competition. That is actually a smart way to approach the Cleveland market except for one thing that has buried Larry Dolan ever since he said it. He said something like this “When the time is right, I will spend what is necessary to bring us a winner. And not just for one year but for multiple years.” That is the missing link in the way to change fans perceptions and then transform those perceptions into reality. Thus creating a strong bond between fans, management and ownership that will sustain not only success on the field but in the stands.
The Indians need to build a strong team that is built to challenge for a CHAMPIONSHIP and not challenge for a possible “play in” game as a Wild Card winner. The fans can see it as clear as day and like looking through perfectly cleaned glass. They see a Cleveland Indians team that, while clearly talented, has virtually no chance for a championship without wild unadulterated luck. That is not the perception that will bring attendance unless the team dramatically outperforms their talent. While playing very hard and caring, the team just doesn’t quite have the horsepower needed to challenge the big boys. The Cleveland fans will not support that model. Isn’t happening now and won’t happen in the future. That is why the Dolans need to look in the mirror and make a tough decision this off season. The entire Indians franchise might be hanging in the balance.
Finally, we will talk some Indians baseball in my next post. I will explain how this could work out well for all parties concerned. There IS A WINDOW of opportunity for the Indians to jump through. But it will take a drastic departure from the current model to pull this off. Our journey will continue tomorrow.