I once had a boyfriend.
Shocking, I know.
This boyfriend and I were high school sweethearts, and then high school turned into college, and 8 years in, we were taking lunch breaks in his car, listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio. It was all very romantic. Until the day it wasn’t.
At the end of each lunch break, I used to turn and give him a kiss before I went to class. But one day, I turned and gave him my cheek instead.
“What was that?” he asked.
“I . . . I don’t know?”
You see, we were in the process of a “gradual breakup,” and we didn’t even know it at the time, but when I gave him my cheek in the car that day, it all started to make sense.
The spark we once had was replaced with silence.
The chemistry fizzled into comfort.
The best parts of the relationship had died a long time ago, but I didn’t want to admit it because I have a habit of romanticizing the way it used to be rather than accepting what it has turned into.
A sudden breakup stings, but a gradual breakup aches.
And I’ve been aching with the Cleveland Indians for a decade.
A lot of people claim that Cleveland always has been and always will be a Browns town, and while that is true to an extent, it can’t be used as a blanket excuse for why the Indians and Cavs take the backseat to the Browns, especially when the Browns haven’t given us much to cheer for until recently. Cleveland fans (for the most part) are loving and loyal. And while most of us are guilty of favoring one team above another, it doesn’t change the fact that we typically love all three teams. We want to see all of them succeed.
The Cleveland Indians used to be the love of my life. My unrivaled favorite of the three Cleveland “children.” I used to attend Spring Training games and Opening Day every year. I forced my family and friends to go to autograph sessions. I watched every game. I got a tattoo. I even went to an Indians game instead of going to my prom. I loved that team with every fiber of my being. But in 2009, our gradual breakup started—and the distance between us has grown every year since.
I never wanted to be the person whining about baseball in a blog, but I think I speak for a lot of former Indians diehards when I say that we’d like to come back—but you’re going to have to earn it. Part of earning someone’s trust back is learning from your mistakes.
So let’s talk about what went wrong.
STRIKE 1: OWNERSHIP & BEING A MAJOR LEAGUE FARM SYSTEM
I’m not going to be the #DoLaNzCheAp person. Partially because Indians Elitists will stop reading before I even get to their portion of the blog, but mostly because it’s deeper than just Dolan being “cheap.” It’s about how Dolan’s frugality makes us feel.
I’ve always thought baseball was kind of romantic.
So when talking about baseball, it’s almost impossible to take the “feelings factor” out of it.
Most of us fell in love with the Indians in the 90s, right? We all had our favorite players for different reasons. Those teams were stacked with heavy hitters, defensive wizards, big personalities, and excitement. The 90s were our glory days, and an Indians ticket was the hottest ticket in town. But it wasn’t just because the Browns weren’t around for most of it—it was because we felt a genuine attachment to the franchise. Why else would we sell out the stadium 455 consecutive times?
And sure, there was some drop-off when the Dolans bought the team and Shapiro started giving everyone away, but a lot of fans stuck around because we grew to love the team—even when we saw it change from a major league powerhouse to a farm system for the rest of the league, which is a tough pill to swallow.
Of all the great Tribe teams, 2007 was my favorite. It started with an April Snowpening Day and ended, prematurely, on an October night in Boston. I remained faithful for the next season and a half, but when they traded Victor Martinez during the last hour of the trade deadline in 2009, my feelings for the franchise started to sour. Piece by piece, the team I loved fell apart, and after years of seeing my favorite players get traded or leave for more money, I decided that I would never have a favorite Indian again. And I haven’t. It hurts too much to watch them leave, and we know they eventually will.
When we know that our team is growing and grooming future all-stars for other teams to eventually sign, we’re hesitant to get attached to the players. It also makes us resent the front office. Both of these factors have severed the attachment that we once had for our Cleveland Indians. And it doesn’t help when the ownership admits, explicitly and publicly, that we can’t afford to keep up with the competition.
Mr. Dolan, with all due respect, you’re never going to build a connection with us by trying to seem like one of us. The median annual household income of a Cleveland resident is $26,179 (well below the US average of $53,482.) If you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk, and that takes more than one story about being in Boarding Group C on a Southwest flight, sir. If you want to play the poor card, you can’t have $5 billion attached to your family’s name. By trying to make yourself seem “relatable,” you are only making us mad. It’s almost offensive, really.
We worry about keeping a roof above our heads.
You worry about staying competitive amongst fellow billionaires.
It’s not the same, and we can’t feel bad for you.
When you talk to reporters and say things like “Probably the day we hand out a $300 million contract is when somebody else is doing $1 billion deals” or “Enjoy him” (in response to Frankie Lindor’s future with the team) we get upset.
We hear a billionaire making excuses for why we won’t be able to compete.
We hear the owner admitting that we are in over our heads.
And you did it a week before Opening Day, just to set an unnecessary doom-and-gloom tone.
If you can’t afford to play, it’s time to sell the team to someone who can. Cleveland fans have proven that if there is something exciting to watch, we’ll show up. But since a lot of us actually are kind of poor instead of just pretending to be, we won’t pay when we can watch it on TV for free. (And we do still watch.)
STRIKE 2: SOCIAL MEDIA & TRIBE ELITISTS
If you want to run a successful business, you need to successfully connect with consumers. I’ve worked in marketing for years as a copywriter and a content specialist. Before I wrote any piece of content, I asked myself “how does this specific group of people want to be spoken to?”
Consumers want to be heard, understood, respected, and included. I would never talk to consumers the way I talk to my friends because they are not my friends—they are people I don’t personally know, and I am using words to get them to buy what we are selling.
I don’t think the Cleveland Indians do a good job of connecting to their consumers. Not all of us, anyway. They do a great job of connecting to a very specific group of people.
The Tribe Elitists.
Let me explain. There are three distinct portions of Cleveland Twitter: Browns Twitter, Cavs Twitter, and Indians Twitter. We all jump in and out of all three groups occasionally, but you are usually associated with one more than the others.
Browns Twitter is very vocal, but typically pretty friendly. Even though we argue about the same things repeatedly, (Sashi Wars) there is an underlying “we’re in this together” attitude.
Cavs Twitter can be dramatic at times. Still some lingering debates about LeBron’s departure and the future of the franchise, but we’re finally at a point where we’re feeling optimistic. Together.
Indians Twitter is basically high school and Tribe Elitists are basically Mean Girls. There are a few small cliques at the very top, and they decide who is worthy. You only matter if you publicly support everything the franchise does, and if you don’t, you will be blocked, chastised, or ignored. Oh, and they have rules for being a fan.
The Indians social media not only mirrors the Elitist behavior, but they also seem to encourage it and sometimes even reward it. They do it by setting a combative tone, arguing with consumers, and showing favoritism through exclusive promotions. This marketing strategy strengthens the team’s connection to the fans at the very top—the Elitists. But if you’re trying to win fans back, (and attendance proves that they should be) this strategy will not work.
We want to feel respected, heard, understood, and included. Help us feel that way, and we’ll come back.
STRIKE 3: MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL, IN GENERAL
It’s not all the Indians’ fault, guys.
Thanks to technology, we live in an era that demands a fast pace. We’re impulsive, and we have short attention spans. We love storylines and drama and superstars.
Do you see the disconnect here?
Major League Baseball was not built for this generation, folks. And every year, it becomes more apparent. Sure, it’s still a fun family activity for those who live near a big city and can afford it, but the overall appeal of the game has dropped far below the NFL and NBA, even though the baseball season remains longer than both.
I’m not sure that it’s a problem that can be fixed, given the design of the game, but I do believe that Major League Baseball can adjust some areas to make it “fit” better in this generation.
- Shorten the Season
I can’t think of one logical reason why a season has to be 162 games or why it has to begin in April, when most of the Northeast and Midwest are still defrosting. Nobody likes sitting in the cold for 4 hours, watching a game that typically doesn’t offer much action. If the regular season started in May and ended in September, more people would attend games.
- Salary Cap
Have you seen Venezuela lately? That’s what happens when the income inequality gets out of control. (OK, I’m being a little dramatic, and there’s a lot more to this story, but it serves a purpose here.)
The point is, nobody likes monopolies. It makes the little guys feel like they can never get ahead, and they’re not totally wrong. I know we give the Dolans a hard time about not spending money, but I also think we can all agree that these recent contracts are completely out of control.
Here are the World Series winners over the past 20 years:
Boston Red Sox: 4
San Francisco Giants: 3
New York Yankees: 3
St. Louis Cardinals: 2
Philadelphia Phillies: 1
Chicago White Sox: 1
Chicago Cubs: 1
Anaheim Angels: 1
Arizona Diamondbacks: 1
Florida Marlins: 1
Houston Astros: 1
Kansas City Royals: 1
Some will look at this list and say “hey, there are some small- to mid-market teams on there,” and they’re not wrong.
But I look at this list and say “14/20 rings were won by teams that can spend a lot of money.”
- Improve MLB Marketing
Major League Baseball still has a lot of talent. There are future Hall-of-Famers all over the place, but would you recognize them if they walked past you at the grocery store?
Probably not. And that’s a problem.
The NBA is full of daily drama, even in the offseason. The NFL is packed with action and personalities. Both leagues also benefit from the popularity of NCAA football and basketball, where we are introduced to future players while they are still in college.
Major League Baseball is living almost exclusively on tradition, and tradition will only take you so far in this generation. Unless they figure out a way to better market their league and its superstars, its popularity will continue to decline.
So anyway, what’s it going to be, Tribe?
Are we going to kiss and make up, or should we keep giving you the cheek?
We are a loyal bunch. You know that. We’ve proven that. We would love to stop this gradual breakup, but the trust is broken.
And it’s on you to win us back.
The BIGPLAY Podcast
live wednesday nights @ 8:30pm