We watched Steve Olin on that old television set in my mother’s living room. It was 1989, and my brother and I were tuned into the Triple-A All-Star Game. Olin represented Colorado Springs and, therefore, represented the Indians. They were our team, so he was our guy. And when we saw that submarine delivery — the one in which Olin seemed to fling the ball from his shoelaces — we were instantly enamored with the strangeness of it all.
A few years later, when Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident on Little Lake Nellie, it was hard for me to wrap my 11-year-old mind around it. How could that guy from the screen, with so much life in his arm, playing a boy’s game, be gone so soon? How could a sport that was supposed to be a distraction from the trauma of life and loss now be an invitation to it?
As I got older and learned more about what Olin and Crews left behind — a grieving wife and three young children apiece — I gained a greater understanding of the gravity of the situation. And as the 20th anniversary of the accident drew closer, I felt a desire to catch up with those families and see what the last 20 years of their life have been like.
What I couldn’t have expected was how gracious with their time and how open with their thoughts Laurie Crews and Patti Olin and their families would be.
It was surreal to visit Laurie’s ranch and see the exact spot where the accident occurred. We were gathered there – Laurie and her three kids and I – when I asked if it would be all right to take a picture of them together. “Yeah,” Laurie said, “but let’s turn around and get the dock in the background. That’s what people want to see, anyway, right?.” That, I quickly learned, is the essence of Laurie — no filter, no fear, no phoniness. An amazing woman.
And Patti, though a polar opposite to Laurie’s personality, is equally amazing and inspiring. We spoke for hours on end while I was reporting the story, and it was a joy to get to meet her in person at a Cactus League game last week. “You’re like Oprah, Anthony,” she had said to me between tears during the interview process. And maybe, with those probing personal questions, I was summoning my inner Winfrey. Except I was crying, too.
Anyway, the end result is a story that is very special to me and, I hope, to the Crews and Olin families. If you have some time, I hope you’ll give it a read and think good thoughts for those families during this gut-wrenching anniversary.
I’ve spent the better part of the last month or so traveling around the various camps in Arizona and Florida, and it dawned on me while sitting at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale the other day that I have now been to every Spring Training stadium in Major League Baseball. I don’t know what this means, exactly, but I suspect it is something along the lines of what it means to be, to borrow some “Spaceballs” parlance, your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. Which is to say it means absolutely nothing.
But somebody on Twitter asked me to rank my Top 3, and I’m going to take it to the next level. Let’s just rank them all.
23. HoHoKam Stadium (Cubs): I actually have nothing against HoHoKam personally. But the Cubs are abandoning this place after this year. And if you’re not good enough for the Cubs, who play their regular season games in a 99-year-old building with a cramped clubhouse and a rat or three roaming around the batting cages, well, what can I tell you?
22. Tradition Field (Mets): First went to this park when I was like 14, and it hasn’t changed much in the time since. It has a tradition of blahness.
21. Florida Auto Exchange Stadium (Blue Jays): This place is also just… whatever. And it always seems to be 20 degrees colder than everywhere else.
20. Hammond Stadium (Twins): Another whatever. Looks nice from the outside, though.
19. Camelback Ranch (White Sox/Dodgers): Totally state-of-the-art, of course, and I like the desert motif. But this place is rightly criticized for the lack of shade. And the Dodgers ditched the quintessential Spring Training facility in Vero Beach, Fla., to head here so there’s some sentimental docking of points on my not-at-all-scientific system.
18. Space Coast Stadium (Nationals): I always want to call it Space Ghost Stadium. I totally get the Nats’ complaints about their setup and their distance from the other Florida teams. As far as fan experience is concerned, Space Coast is certainly serviceable.
17. Champion Stadium (Braves): This is a very nice building and all. On its own, no complaints. But I just can’t get behind the whole Disney World experience. I feel a little bit more broke just talking about it.
16. City of Peoria Sports Complex (Padres/Mariners): I’ve been here. Multiple times. And to be honest, it left absolutely no lasting memory with me. I just had to do a Google image search to even remember what it looks like. Nice enough.
15. Surprise Stadium (Royals/Rangers): Open concourses down the lines, plenty of shade. No unpleasant surprises here.
14. Osceola County Stadium (Astros): Pretty generic, overall. But it’s small and cozy, the way you want your Spring Training experience to be.
13. Charlotte Sports Park (Rays): Lots of standing room and picnic areas and good sightlines. Solid spot.
12. Tempe Diablo Stadium (Angels): The only spring stadium I can think of that has a line of cabs waiting outside at all times, because the parking situation is rough. Overall, though, nice place, beautiful backdrop.
11. Maryvale Baseball Park (Brewers): I generally tend to gravitate toward the old-school places, and I like Maryvale. Definitely in need of some upgrades and not in the best area, but it’s a charming place.
10. Roger Dean Stadium (Cardinals/Marlins): One of the better Florida parks, situated in a nice little neighborhood in the great city of Jupiter. It’s just a shame it’ll probably get abandoned if and when the Nats, Mets, Marlins and Cards find a way to get closer to the other Florida clubs.
9. Phoenix Municipal Stadium (A’s): Maybe I’m crazy, but I love this place. Great access and sightlines, great mountain backdrop. But the A’s are going to ditch it because they want an improved clubhouse and scoreboard system. So they’re going to go to HoHoKam, which will get some upgrades, in 2015. Oh well.
8. Ed Smith Stadium (Orioles): Barely recognized this place from my Reds beat days when city of Sarasota remodeled it for the O’s. They did it right. What once was a soulless mass of concrete is now a stunning spot with a wide concourse, plenty of shade and crabcake sandwiches. Love it.
7. JetBlue Park (Red Sox): The fan access on the back fields is surprisingly great, and the stadium is a magnificently modern recreation of Fenway Park.
6. Joker Marchant Stadium (Tigers): This place marries today’s needs with old-school Spring Training charm as well or better than any other. It embraces the military motif associated with the former Army pilot training ground.
5. Goodyear Ballpark (Indians/Reds): The Big Chipotle, as I call it, might have stolen some design elements from the burrito chain, but the in-ground ballpark is a beauty, and the Wiffle Ball field for kids is a big plus. Bonus points for the Jamba Juice concession. Only downside is that it’s separated from the Reds’ and Indians’ facilities because of a “ballpark village” concept that, to date, has resulted only in a big, empty patch of dirt.
4. Bright House Field (Phillies): It’s got a tiki bar and Hooters girls working as ball girls, so you’re not going to find many red-blooded American males complaining about their experience at Bright House Field.
3. Scottsdale Stadium (Giants): Location, location, location. Right in Old Town Scottsdale and a jewel of spot. Only downside, I suppose, is the difficulty of getting a ticket.
2. McKechnie Field (Pirates): This is really the last of the old, old ballparks. I know it had some renovations done before this spring season, so I haven’t seen it in its current concoction. But it’s been my experience that McKechnie Field brings you back to that vibe of how Spring Training used to be.
1. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (D-backs/Rockies): A palace of preparation. Every element is state-of-the-art. They’ve even got free suntan lotion in the concourse. Not as big a fan of the parking spots specifically reserved for “low-emitting or fuel efficient vehicles only,” as they discriminate against those of us who don’t have the budget to shell out $26K for a freaking Prius, but whatever. The Talking Stick walks the walk.
All right, for the first time in a long time, with my stay in Arizona coming to a close, let’s get into the nitty gritty about the Tribe.
EXCRUCIATING MINUTIAE OF SPRING TRAINING CAMP…
- Let’s just begin with the one of the most surprising developments of this or any camp — Scott Kazmir is very likely going to come away with a rotation job. It’s one of those great Spring Training stories. “I’m hopeful,” Chris Antonetti said, “it’s a great 2013 story, not a great Spring Training story.” The fifth spot is still being decided between Kazmir and Carlos Carrasco, who was effortlessly dominant against the Giants in his last start (five innings, two hits, one run, no walks, five strikeouts, 55 pitches). But Carrasco can be optioned out and stands to benefit from a little Triple-A seasoning after missing all of 2012 following Tommy John. Kazmir, whose Minor League start was watched by front-office staff and ownership alike Sunday, likely has the job.
- The biggest question – among many – with Kazmir is how he’ll hold up over the grind of a season as he accumulates innings. He pitched just 70 innings last season, after all. “That was the idea watching him all spring,” Francona said. “When he came in, he was about midseason form. To his credit, he had worked really hard to do that. Then you’re like, ‘OK, can he hold this and build?’ I know it’s only Spring Training, but to this point, his stuff has held every time out, so that’s really encouraging.”
- Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here, but if Kazmir is still in the rotation in the second half, don’t expect any restrictions on his innings. “In a lot of cases when we limit guys, we know they’re going to be here for multiple years,” Antonetti said. “With a guy like Scott, who’s a free agent, it’s a very different set of circumstances. I don’t expect that we’ll have significant restrictions on him.” In other words, they’ll eke out every last out from that arm, if they can.
- Lord only knows what to make of this rotation, which I’ve compared to truck stop dining on the turnpike. The Indians feel Justin Masterson has done a fine job focusing on pounding the zone and keeping the ball down, and they feel he’s embraced the No. 1 starter mentality. But Masterson had trouble avoiding the big inning last year, and that was the case in his start against the Reds on Sunday, when he was hit hard in the first. Masterson feels his travails last year really came down to just a handful of bad innings. “I had seven games that were really bad, and it made everything look bad,” he said. “Within those games, it was just one inning.” All the innings count, of course. “It’s good that Justin has taken some time to reflect back on things and think about adjustments he needs to make,” Antonetti said. “But I don’t want to read too much into it.”
- What should we read into Ubaldo Jimenez’s improved command in camp? Well, for one thing, we must acknowledge that it comes with a compromise, as his velocity is simply not what it was in his Rockies heyday. Jimenez seems more willing to accept that compromise. “We don’t want him just to throw BP fastballs over the plate, because that’s not the goal either,” Antonetti said. “But for him, it gets back to the goal of him having a consistent, repeatable delivery. If he can do that, the stuff and strike-throwing will still be there.”
- Speaking of Ubaldo, I watched Drew Pomeranz pitch the other day, and suffice to say the Rockies are still waiting for all that potential to turn into reality, too. Pomeranz tweaked his mechanics this spring and is getting his fastball into the low 90s again. But he’s still not quite as consistent with his command as he’d like to be, and there’s still no telling if his stuff — reliant as it is on the curve — will play very well in Coors Field. The mechanical improvement was a big one, though, in building the kid’s confidence. “I’m not feeling lost like I did last year at times,” he said. “I think in years past I’ve been good at making pitches when I need to in tough spots. But if you’re not confident in the way you’re feeling or your mechanics, it’s hard to do that. This year, I feel like I can catch my breath and lock in and make a pitch.” Still no telling who “won” that trade.
- The Tribe isn’t sweating Brett Myers’ unsightly spring stat line (12 runs on 19 hits in 12 2/3 innings). “He’s shown the arm strength we expected,” Antonetti said. “We’ve seen secondary stuff with his breaking ball. He’s just had trouble… one of his challenges has been strike-throwing. He’s walked a lot of guys, which is atypical for Brett. But we’re confident he’ll be ready to go.”
- The Indians aren’t going to rush Chris Perez back for Opening Day just for the sake of having him there Opening Day — an “artificial deadline,” as Francona said. But any concern that he might not be ready early in April, if it existed at all, seems to have dissipated.
- Both of the big-ticket acquisitions — Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn — have a daughter on the way midseason (Swisher in May, Bourn in July). Sixteen years from now, they’ll both be a wreck, but for now they should be fine.
- I spoke with Jay Bruce a bit about his buddy Drew Stubbs, who had a decent .255/.329/.444 slash line with 22 homers and 77 RBI before bottoming out (.213/.277/.333) last year. “So much upside,” Bruce said. “He’s one of the fastest guys in the game. He had a poor year last year for himself and he still stole 30 bases. In my opinion, there’s not a better center fielder out there, as far as getting to balls, running balls down, the closing speed he has, great arm, has a very good sense of where he is on the field. He’s ridiculously athletic. If he can go out there and just learn the [right field] position, there are a few little glaring differences between right and center that aren’t going to be a problem for him. He’s not going to miss a beat. He’s got a chance to be a special player if he puts it together. He has the ability to hit for power, steal bases, play the outfield and really change the game in a lot of ways. I hope the best for him.”
- Stubbs is intriguing, all right, simply because he’s such a Wild Card. But he’s still not putting up consistent at-bats just yet. “To his credit, he’s worked on his mechanics to the point where they’re so simple right now,” Francona said. “I’m not sure he realizes how good he should be. There’s no movement, just a nice little simple approach. He’s so strong and when you see him hit it, it comes off like a rocket. And he’s got the kind of speed where even when teams know he’s running, you can’t stop it.”
- I love that Jason Donald and Armando Galarraga have been in the same clubhouse (Reds) this spring.
- The great John Perrotto, of Baseball Prospectus, has taken a particular liking to the nickname the Plain Dealer’s Dennis Manoloff bestowed upon Michael Brantley — “Dr. Smooth.” And the nickname has legs. As Brantley told a giddy Perrotto, it was used by a surly Yankees fan at Yankee Stadium last year when he yelled, “You suck, Dr. Smooth!” An insult and a compliment, blended beautifully.
- Despite being late to the party, the Indians’ take on the “Harlem Shake” worked out well enough. But why wasn’t Antonetti involved? “They tried to talk me into doing it,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure there was nothing that would reflect poorly on anyone and that nobody would get hurt. Obviously I wanted the guys to have a good time. But I wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any negative repercussions.”
- Tons of love for Jason Giambi in that Tribe clubhouse. The guy has blown people away with his insight and intelligence and approachability.
- You’ve got to appreciate how much Vinnie Pestano generally and genuinely cared about playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. It’s amusing to see people use the Americans’ ho-hum history in this tournament as some sort of referendum on baseball in this country, completely ignoring A. the small sample, B. the number of guys who defensibly opt out and C. the fact that it’s played at a time of year when many of the Latin American players are in midseason form following winter ball. Pestano noted that the Classic takes on a U.S. vs. the World tone. “I don’t know if we had one crowd more for us than against us,” he said. “It’s almost a lose-lose because you’re expected to win, and yet there are so many other great baseball-playing countries out there. Just because you have U.S.A. on your chest doesn’t mean you have any advantage.”
- A common critique of the Goodyear facility when it opened was that the fan experience had taken a nosedive from the decidedly fan-friendly conditions at Chain O’ Lakes in Winter Haven. But the Indians have improved the situation considerably this spring, with “fan liason” Rik Danburg now on-hand to handle concerns, answer questions, keep people apprised of the schedule, etc.
- Jason Kipnis has been eating at this P.F. Changs-owned Asian restaurant chain called Pei Wei rather frequently down here, loading up because he knows we don’t have Pei Wei in Cleveland. I don’t blame him. It’s good, fresh food served quick. (I believe I first experienced Pei Wei several years back at the urging of Indians iTrac vision coordinator Jason Stein, better known here and everywhere as “The Master of Self-Promotion.”) Anyway, if anybody with even the slightest amount of franchisinal (not a word… don’t look it up) influence is reading this, let’s get a Pei Wei in Cleveland, all right?
- By now, there’s really not much about Life Under Tito that hasn’t already been said. Francona is really bringing the best out of this group simply because he relates to players so well, and that point has been hammered home quite consistently. There was one anecdote, though, that I thought spoke to that point quite well. It came when the Indians sent Mike McDade down after a strong camp and had to tell him, as so many others have told him, to be sure to watch his weight moving forward. Francona approached that conversation in a positive light. As Antonetti recalled: “His message was, ‘You’re a really good player, you can do so many great things, you’re great hitter from both sides of the plate. We think you have a lot of potential. And you’ve heard it before, but you need to take care of your body to take advantage of your potential.’”When players get instruction from Francona, they know he’s coming from that positive place. “Inevitably, in any relationship, you’re going to have those moments where you have to have tough conversations,” Antonetti said. “It’s more constructive to have those conversations once you already have a relationship in place. Terry works really hard to establish those relationships. And it comes from a genuine place. He really is a caring person. He cares individually about every guy in that clubhouse, and I think the players feel that. So that gives him the ability and platform to, when something needs to be addressed with a guy, he can talk to them and say, ‘Hey, I love you, but these are things you need to do to get better’ or ‘You didn’t run that ball out’ or ‘Walk me through what you were thinking in that situation on the bases.’”
- Possibly the biggest news of spring camp: Nick Camino, of WTAM, became the first sober person in America to order a steak at Chili’s. And he lived to tell the tale.
- Later this week on Indians.com, I’ll have a special story about the 20th anniversary of the Little Lake Nellie boat tragedy that claimed the lives of Steve Olin and Tim Crews. I really hope you’ll take the time to read it.
There is shock in the numbers, sure.
A $48 million guarantee to a 30-year-old speedster named Michael Bourn? A $56 million guarantee to a 32-year-old run-producer named Nick Swisher? These numbers don’t mesh with our mindset about the Cleveland Indians. Numbers like these are the reasons the Indians trade away talent months before it reaches free agency. These are not numbers we associate with the Dolan ownership, because these are not numbers that revenues in the time of the Dolan ownership have typically supported.
But these are numbers that form the surreal reality in which the Indians now operate. It is a reality in which the Indians just signed two of the top five position players available on the open market this winter. And no matter the particulars of the market (it was certainly one light on top-end talent), that’s huge news.
Let’s not take this, though, as some bold new strategy on the part of the Indians or their ownership. It is, after all, an ownership that has long spent within its means, and this winter is no different. It is a front office that has always tried to apply some creativity — not always successfully, of course — to team construction to overcome its deficits, be they of the payroll or personnel variety, and this winter is no different (witness the Shin-Soo Choo trade).
What is different, of course, is that new revenue streams — mostly of the national but also of the local television variety — opened up to them at a time when the needs at the Major League level were particularly glaring.
Kudos, then, to front office and ownership alike for traveling down those roads, beginning with the addition of Terry Francona, rather than retreating into yet another rebuild.
A rebuild once seemed likely, maybe even necessary. And given the still-pertinent questions about the talent in the upper levels of the Indians’ farm system, to say nothing of the risks the Tribe is taking on in these long-term deals with players venturing toward the back side of their prime, perhaps one day we’ll look back at this wild winter and wonder whether these momentous moves were really the correct course of action.
For now, though, what you have is a lineup that looks like this:
1. Bourn, CF
2. Jason Kipnis, 2B
3. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
4. Swisher, 1B
5. Carlos Santana, C
6. Mark Reynolds, DH
7. Michael Brantley, LF
8. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
9. Drew Stubbs, RF
All right, so that’s just one version. Maybe you keep Swisher in right, put Stubbs on the bench and DH what’s left of Jason Giambi. Maybe you alternate Mike Aviles between DH and shortstop, spelling Cabrera. Maybe you platoon Stubbs and Brantley or maybe the Chiz Kid doesn’t take off and you need to put Reynolds at third and Santana at first. Or maybe… oh, I have no idea. I just know that it’s interesting to actually be interested in the Indians’ lineup again, isn’t it? It’s nice to know the major lineup intrigue in Terry Francona’s first season at the helm won’t be revolve around an evaluation of the Matt LaPorta Project v. 3.0 and that Aaron Cunningham won’t be playing in 72 games again.
The Indians have assembled a unit with speed and balance and versatility and power and on-base ability. And they have assembled an outfield with the athleticism to augment the work of the starting staff.
Ah, shoot, there I go mentioning that starting staff. I knew this would come up eventually.
All right, let’s just state the obvious: It is impossible to fall head-over-heels in love with this starting staff. I still don’t know what Justin Masterson is – starter or reliever. I don’t exactly know that the AL is going to be a particularly welcoming place for Brett Myers to take up starting duties again, and I certainly don’t know that the No. 3 spot of a rotation is the place for him to do it. I feel like watching Ubaldo Jimenez pitch is a better cardio workout than 60 minutes on the elliptical. I don’t know what to expect from Trevor Bauer and, more to the point, I don’t even expect him to be in the big leagues out the gate. I liken the rotation options, at this point, to the rest stop food options on the turnpike when you’re on a long road trip: You know they’re not likely to blow away your expectations, but you do need them, they do serve a purpose, and you just hold out hope they don’t leave you violently ill.
So, yeah, maybe the rotation tanks this entire thing in 2013. Nobody knows. But you can envision a scenario in which this Bourn thing still makes sense, even in absence of a winning or otherwise competitive season.
Think about it: The Indians were in a prime position to sign Bourn because they can’t give up their first-round pick (as it is within the top 10), they had already given up their second-round pick (in the Swisher signing) and they essentially had two third-round picks. When his price tag dropped, he was too good to pass up, as the Draft pick compensation conundrum that scared away so many others simply did not apply to the Indians. So maybe Bourn has a big season and the Indians don’t. Is it completely inconceivable that he could then become trade bait — at the summer deadline or Winter Meetings — to a team that might have had interest if he wasn’t attached to a prominent pick? I don’t think it is.
(UPDATE: Paul Hoynes reports that Bourn will make $7 million in 2013, $13.5 million in 2014 and ’15 and $14 million in 2016. So the backloaded deal plays in perfectly if the Indians do decide to flip him down the line.)
Or perhaps Stubbs or Brantley are viewed as trade bait in the immediate, and the Indians bring back an arm or two through that route.
Too many surprises have unfolded already for any of us to have a clear idea of what comes next. All we know is that the Indians had new revenue sources and they tapped them. They had an obvious need to get creative with their roster, and they did. They just completed easily their most entertaining and interesting offseason in recent history.
And you have to admit, these new numbers look good on them.
Terry Francona held a town hall session at Playhouse Square this afternoon for a special that will air on SportsTime Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 24. A number of topics were addressed with regard to the future of the Indians. Nothing particularly newsworthy, but certainly an entertaining discussion that involved not only Francona but his father, Tito.
There was, however, one old wound that a fan brought up, and it’s worth bringing up here, too.
Francona was asked about Game 7 of the ALCS between the Indians and Red Sox, and, specifically, about third-base coach Joel Skinner’s decision to hold Kenny Lofton up at third with one out in the seventh, with the Indians trailing, 3-2.
I’ve asked our multimedia crew if it’s possible to chase down the video clip of this play. If they’re able to get it, I’ll post it here. (UPDATE: Here’s the video.)
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
In the seventh, Kenny Lofton was on second after a two-base error by shortstop Julio Lugo, and Lofton could have tried to score when Franklin Gutierrez ripped a single off Hideki Okajima down the third-base line. The ball ricocheted off the photographer’s pit and into shallow left field, and Skinner, fearing Manny Ramirez would gun Lofton down at the plate, held the runner up at third.
When Casey Blake hit into a double play to end the inning, that hold-up loomed large.
“It’s tough to read if it’s ricocheting back to the shortstop or to left-center,” manager Eric Wedge said of that play. “I think it was just a tough read for [Skinner].”
In the immediate aftermath and the time since, Skinner has often been vilified for that play. How do you hold up a speedster like Lofton and not test the mercurial Manny? (That such a pivotal play so prominently involved two members of the Tribe’s so-called glory years is the sort of cosmic kick-in-the-gut that Clevelanders know too well.)
Well, here’s what I’ve said any time the topic has come up in the last five years: Skinner was flying blind. He was at an awful angle to make that read, to know if the ball would bounce away from or directly at Ramirez, and so I find it awfully difficult to give him the goat label.
Here’s what Francona said:
“To be really honest about this, being a third-base coach in Boston is probably the most unfair job in the world, because you’re making a split-second decision, and you’re the only one in the ballpark who can’t see the whole field. Because you get that blind spot down the left-field line, and the ball caroms off the wall like it did in that instance. I think what you have to hope for is you have to make that split-second decision and what we used to tell our runners was keep your head up, like on a swivel, so you can be your own coach. Because that happens more often than people realize… If the runner keeps his head up, then he can score on his own and you don’t run into that problem, because the third-base coach is in a real bind there.”
Maybe, when you think of it in that light, this was one of those moments in which the notion of home-field advantage is rather real. Maybe the Indians, as a whole, should have been better prepared for such a scenario. Maybe we ought to consider the possibility that Lofton could have/should have acted on his own and ran right through the stop sign (it’s not the boldest suggestion in the world, given that Lofton played 63 regular-season games at Fenway in his career and was, therefore, well-versed in its quirks… to say nothing of Manny’s quirks). And maybe we shouldn’t forget that Blake grounded into the ensuing double play on the first freaking pitch (not that Indians fans ever had much trouble picking on Blake over the years).
This, then, was a sequence with no shortage of blame to go around. And it undeniably altered the complexion of that game. Teams that advance in the MLB postseason have to have a little bit of luck on their side, and they have to have the talent to capitalize on that luck. The Red Sox did just that, as they went on to stomp the Tribe, 11-2, that night, before sweeping the Rockies in the World Series.
Indians fans, meanwhile, were left to bemoan that seventh-inning sequence, and pointing the finger at Skinner has always been the easiest coping mechanism available to them.
You know, this is as good a time as any to bring up another element in this that I’ve thought about often. Prevailing wisdom in these parts — and I’ve heard it uttered from many a neighboring barstool — is that the Indians would have make short work of the Rockies in the World Series, if only they would have gotten past Boston.
Admit it: You’ve thought or uttered that belief at some point, have you not?
My counter to that contention is simple: Who could be certain of such a thing? Did you watch the way CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona pitched in that LCS? Were you supremely confident in Joe Borowski in the ninth inning? More to the point, are you at all familiar with Cleveland sports? Don’t you think it’s even the slightest bit possible that there might have been some other disaster waiting around the corner?
No, all we know is what we know. We know the Indians lost Game 7, and they haven’t been back to the playoffs since. Maybe Francona will get them there again. But in the meantime, let’s back off the belief that Joel Skinner and his magical stop sign were the only things standing between the Indians and World Series championship glory. It’s never that simple, really.
PS: Just showed this post to my dad. He read it, he liked it. But he still blames Skinner.
A defense of the attack on “Field of Dreams.” Or an attack of the defense of “Field of Dreams.” Or something.
There was this movie on one of the Showtime channels — not sure if it was Showtime Beyond or Showtime Extreme or Showtime Moderate or Showtime Time-Waster — the other day called “Vibrations.” It is the story of an up-and-coming young rocker named T.J., who loses his hands when his car is attacked by drunken, violent hooligans.
You’re already intrigued, aren’t you?
Well, spoiler alert: T.J. flees his hometown and his comely girlfriend and becomes a drunken bum on the streets of Manhattan… until Christina Applegate and her friends in the electronic music scene come along and help restore his confidence by creating mechanical hands that can be programmed to play the keyboards. Under the stage name Cyberstorm, dressed like a futuristic robot, he becomes a huge hit on the club circuit, and his national tour takes him back to his hometown, where he gets revenge on those hooligans (coincidentally enough, assigned as security guards at the theater he’s playing) by locking them into a basement and subjecting them to obnoxious noises at full volume.
No, I didn’t make any of this up. This movie really exists.
“Vibrations” is a story about love and friendship, about overcoming difficulty and handicap, about redemption and revenge. So it has some admirable, overarching themes.
But these themes do nothing to prevent “Vibrations” from joining “The Room” as one of the most addictively awful movies I’ve ever seen. It is poorly acted and poorly conceived. And if we didn’t live in a world in which a guy like me could have access to 19 different Showtime channels, it inevitably would have been lost in the sands of time.
Now, I’ll allow, easily, that “Field of Dreams,” the film my friend and MLB.com cohort Jordan Bastian is so passionately defending, isn’t anywhere near as bad as “Vibrations.” It had a bigger budget, bigger stars and, of course, has a much, much bigger following. “Field of Dreams” is routinely listed among the best baseball-themed flicks of all-time.
One issue with “Field of Dreams,” however, is that its supporters are so fiercely devoted to its father-son sentimentality and tear-jerking homage to the glory of the game that they lose all sense of rationality and reason. To rail against the movie, as I did in a recent column, is, in their eyes, to demystify a legend, to desecrate a sacred social institution, when, in fact, all those of us in the anti-“Field of Dreams” camp are doing is pointing out that the plot is preposterous, the sentimentality is silly and Kevin Costner is annoying (the movie poster alone is annoying).
Another, otherwise reasonable MLB.com colleague, Zack Meisel, tweeted at me the other day that if I don’t like “Field of Dreams,” I don’t like baseball. What a ridiculous suggestion, Zack. I love baseball. And the best thing about baseball is that I don’t need sci-fi theatrics, ghost stories or unresolved daddy issues to love it.
There seems to be an assumption that those of us who don’t like “Field of Dreams” (and while I am clearly in the minority, I know I’m not alone in this opinion) don’t understand its message. As if the depths of this screwy script can only be deciphered by only the most emotionally advanced among us.
Please. This could not be further from the truth. Just as anybody with at least a third-grade education can understand the message in “Vibrations,” the message in “Field of Dreams” is not so difficult to decode.
It’s the presentation that leaves plenty to be desired.
Sure, it’s frustrating that Ray Liotta wasn’t dedicated enough to the Shoeless Joe Jackson role to learn how to take a few swings from the left-hand side of the plate. But every movie has its share of “goofs” that make their way to the IMDB page. No, my central issue with “Field of Dreams” is that it dumbs down the profound issues of generational conflict, spirituality and the afterlife and, in the process, abuses and cheapens the connective qualities and simplistic beauty of a great sport, all for its own box-office gain. It is a fairy tale that feels more like an acid trip — an overly layered plot that is too corny and contrived for its own good.
Shoeless Joe, you’ll remember, is the central figure in an argument between Ray Kinsella and his dad — an argument that leads Ray to flee home and never see his father again. Ray doesn’t respect his father because his father’s hero was Shoeless Joe, one of eight men banned from baseball as part of the Black Sox scandal.
Listen, Shoeless Joe took the money. $5,000, to be exact. But he played a great World Series. So his is a complicated case involving potential moral corruptness but probably not outright criminality. Count me among those who believe his “lifetime ban” from baseball should have ended when he died. But let’s not rope Shoeless Joe into our parental problems, all right? Let’s not use him as an axis in some conceptual conflict meant to illustrate the generational divide between 1960s-era fathers and sons. Hasn’t Joe been through enough? Let the man rest in peace, for God’s sake.
And Terence Mann? Make up your mind, Mann. Are you an anti-establishment black activist, or do you worship at the altar of baseball nostalgia and all the racial segregation it once embraced? (Bastian mentioned wanting to go to the “Field of Dreams” to see Cool Papa Bell stealing off Josh Gibson. I didn’t see either one in the movie. Let’s just leave it at that.)
One of the many agonized (and agonizing) themes of “Field of Dreams” is pursuing your dreams without regard for the cynics or the skeptics. As Bastian wrote: “It was a story of a man doing something he believed in, no matter what people thought of him along the way. He risked everything in order to do something he felt was right. He had a dream, and wanted to have a catch with his dad, and the baseball gods made it possible.”
Wait a minute… let me get a tissue.
I’ll counter with a public-service announcement: Just because you hear voices in your head doesn’t mean they’re correct, OK? Costner’s character winds up redeemed here because enough lunatics happen to share his “vision” to plop down $20 and see his field of ghosts. Let’s not take that as gospel that we should risk our family finances and livelihood to pursue every half-cocked hallucination we have (in fact, as I type this, my wife is upset that I’m paying more attention to my dream of artfully ripping “Field of Dreams” than I am to watching the NFL playoff games with her… she’s probably onto something). And we certainly shouldn’t put our families at risk if the end-goal is to summon some dead relative. Nine times out of 10, their spirits do not emerge in our cornfields.
Hey Ray, you have regrets about the way you disrespected your father? Leave me and my $7 out of it, all right?
I think one reason “Field of Dreams” sneaks its way onto so many “best baseball movies” list is because of the simple fact that there aren’t many great baseball movies. Many of them wind up too intellectually dishonest to appeal to real baseball fans and too boring to appeal to the masses. If Hollywood wants to co-opt baseball nostalgia for its own greedy gains, I’d rather it just leave the game alone altogether.
Bastian’s response to my three paragraphs of anti-“Field of Dreams” propaganda was well-written and heartfelt. Ultimately, though, his post was about his fond feelings for the field where the movie was filmed — a field he and his family visited each summer of his childhood. And as my initial column made clear, I love that field, because it represents the game’s more simple and satisfying strengths. The field is everything the movie is not — uncomplicated, well-constructed and a beauty to behold.
Those are some great childhood memories and photos you have there, Bastian. I have a childhood memory, too (but, sadly, no photo to accompany it). My memory revolves around the day in 1989 when my dad, my brother and I (just 8 years old) went to a matinee at the Lakeshore 7 in Euclid to see a newly released baseball movie called “Field of Dreams.” The Lakeshore 7 sits just down the street from Sims Park, where my dad would take me just about every day one summer when he was unemployed to play catch (not “have a catch”… because nobody who has any appreciation for proper linguistics would ever teach their kids to say “have a catch”).
The lights went down, the movie came on, and, a couple hours later, we walked out of the theater, and our opinion of what we saw was (and is) a shared familial feeling:
“Field of Dreams” stinks. It stunk then, it stinks now. And given the choice, if only for a dose of unintentional comedy, I’d rather watch “Vibrations.”
Bauer is a fascinating figure, be it because of his importance to this Indians’ organization, his quick descent from highly prized prospect to discarded trade piece in Arizona, his oft-discussed training program, his intellectual approach to the game and the variety and intensity of opinions about him and his skillset. Frankly, it’s all too much to fit into a single story, and I’m certain Bastian will have plenty of Bauer-related content in Spring Training and beyond.
But I wanted to delve just a little bit deeper into one aspect of my interview with Bauer that didn’t get full coverage in the column: The rapping.
Below is the YouTube video for “Diamond in the Rough,” the rap song mentioned in the piece. It was released by Bauer and his friend Connor Garelick, under the name Consummate 4sight, last summer.
It’s not great, right? It actually contains the line, “I’ve got slobber on my feet, ‘cause all the females want to drool.” Not great.
I do, however, find the feelings of detachment Bauer expresses in that song to be interesting, and that’s a theme I explored in the story.
But what about this act of rapping, in and of itself? It is, after all, the nature of our often-dismissive, hyper-critical world to scoff when a guy like Bauer gets involved in an extracurricular pursuit of this nature.
Frankly, though, I love Bauer’s perspective on the matter.
“It’s something I really enjoy doing,” he said. “People can say whatever they want about it. I know I’m not good at it. But maybe one day I’ll make a song where one person gets something out of it that helps them.”
In other words, Bauer knows it’s just a hobby. If you don’t like it, don’t listen. And as he put it, if his hobby was fishing and all he could reel in was a two-inch fish, would anybody rip him for that? Probably not.
As a guy who writes for a living, I can certainly appreciate Bauer’s creativity and the honesty he conveys when he puts pen to paper.
“Writing has always been my way to vent,” he said. “When I’m down, when I’m happy, I write. I like to write. I like the puzzle that words are. My dad wrote two poems a year for my mom — one for Mother’s Day and one for her birthday. I started helping him write the poems, so they came from me and him. And then my sister, who also likes to write books, got into it. It became a family thing.”
The rapping is not a family thing. In fact, Bauer said he only turned to rap by default.
“I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument, so I was pretty much left with nothing but rap,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a rapper. I’m not that into it. I have no illusions about that. I’m not trying to make a career out of it… There’s a lot that goes into the process. Coming up with lyrics, finding the rhythm, making the beat. I taught myself how to do that from scratch, as well as the actual mixing techniques. How much reverb, how much EQ [equalization], how much compression, how do you make the whole thing fit together?”
Bauer, who studied mechanical engineering at UCLA, is always trying to learn how things fit together and why they work the way they do. It’s something he obviously applies to pitching, and he’s made attempts to pass what he’s learned along to the next generation.
“I’m trying to give young baseball players a resource,” he said. “Someone they can bounce questions off. That’s the reason I have a YouTube channel and a Facebook page. People ask questions, I can make a video for them.”
And if “Diamond in the Rough” whet your appetite, Consummate 4sight has several songs on SoundCloud.
Well, this is what happens when you hesitate or procrastinate or otherwise elongate what ought to be a prompt procedure. You end up writing an introductory paragraph on top of an introductory paragraph, and you get another life lesson about the value of striking while the proverbial iron is hot (and we’ll just have to save the lessons about using clichés and misusing the word “proverbial” later).
What I’m trying to say is I’ve had this file called “DQ DAVE” sitting on my desktop for the last couple weeks, and it was an intended blog post about the vast value of mere effort, of approaching life with even the slightest hint of panache and pizzazz. But — perhaps ironically — I’ve let that file sit there, half-written, because all the little moments, both magical and mundane, that make up the holiday season kept getting in the way of me finishing it off. And then on New Year’s Day, I woke up and the first tweet I read was from the ever-brilliant Joe Posnanski, linking to his latest blog post about this very topic. And his includes a review of a Springsteen concert, naturally, making the fact that I essentially got scooped on a philosophical thought all the more frustrating.
So anyway, let’s just acknowledge that Posnanski nailed it, and no matter what I write from this point on it likely won’t involve mention of Little Steven’s guitar solo on “Cover Me” so, really, there’s not much to see here. But I do still want to tell you a little bit about DQ Dave.
You see, one of my many guilty pleasures is Dairy Queen. I love Dairy Queen. Back in high school, my friends, the Paoloni brothers, worked at a Dairy Queen on Mayfield Road. It was one of those old-school, shack-sized Dairy Queens, since torn down and rebuilt to better incorporate both the “hot eats” and the “cool treats.” Needless to say, I liked the old one better. When I go to Dairy Queen, invariably for a Blizzard, I prefer the person taking my order be focused firmly on the “cool treats.” I don’t want their mind wandering or gravitating toward the “hot eats.” I feel this can somehow detract from the Blizzard experience. And the best thing about having friends working at Dairy Queen in high school was that my Blizzard experience was always top-notch. They would not let you walk out of there with a Blizzard that wasn’t thick enough to break the red plastic spoon. (They also let you get creative with your order. I would hope my friends would attest that, in 1999, I invented what is now known as the “Cookie Jar” Blizzard, and my inability to properly cash in on this invention is yet another in a long list of regrets caused by hesitation.)
Well, time marches on, and the Paoloni brothers did not, in fact, make a lifelong career out of their Dairy Queen employ. This has worked out wonderfully for them, but not as much for me, because, as is too often true in life, good help and good service are hard to find. Even at Dairy Queen.
But in the last couple years, a wonderful thing has happened. The Dairy Queen in our neighborhood, I’ve come to discover, has an employee named Dave. And Dave is like a Paoloni brother reincarnated. Or something. Point is, he’s wonderful at what he does. If we go to get Blizzards, we cross our fingers and hope DQ Dave is working that night, because nobody this side of the Mississippi can mix a Blizzard quite like DQ Dave can.
I know next to nothing about Dave, aside from the fact that his name is Dave. I don’t know what his hopes and dreams were or are. I don’t know if he runs the DQ or seeks to one day own a DQ. I don’t know if DQ is, for him, a step on the so-called career ladder or a final destination. I just know that, when it comes to mixing Blizzards, Dave has a job that many people would wearily plod through, a job that any pimply faced teen trying to make some gas money can probably do with very minimal effort or intensity. But Dave is different. Dave does his job with flair. He takes pride in his Blizzards. He ensures that you get your money’s worth when it comes to the portion size of your toppings.
And this is the brilliant part… after the mixing is complete, Dave returns to the counter, Blizzard cups in hand. He turns them upside down to reveal to you that these wondrous creations of his are so thick and so perfectly congealed that there is no danger of them spilling out, even at this 180-degree angle. It is this awesome little detail that makes you momentarily forget you just plopped down $4 to get a little bit fatter.
This, ultimately, is the essence of a life fully lived — taking pride, and not in some boisterous or obnoxious way, in what you do and how you do it. Unfortunately, not all of us are blessed with the skill or the luck to ascend to some prominent and well-compensated position in our work lives. Not all of us have the intellect to cure diseases or the financial flexibility to change lives. But we all have the ability to make this world a little more special, a little more satisfying, a little more interesting for ourselves and those around us. Let’s all remember that as we begin a new year.
Well, this is an Indians blog. I think. So I’m going to somehow relate the above to the Cleveland Indians.
I like this Indians offseason. Not because I think the Indians have set themselves up to be dramatically better in 2013. Frankly, it remains difficult to view them as a legit contender in the coming year. But this offseason, much like a visit to DQ Dave, has been just a little more interesting than recent offseasons past, and the Indians’ competitive chances both in the immediate and the long-term have improved. Tribe fans deserved at least that much.
When last I wrote in this space, all too many moons ago, I advocated a trade for Asdrubal Cabrera. Asdrubal Cabrera, you might have noticed, is still around. Perhaps that’s a matter still subject to change. I would still argue that you can get by on a steady dose of Mike Aviles, waiting for the kids to ripen in the upper levels of the farm system, and get back a nice haul for Cabrera. But in the meantime, the Indians did something I didn’t think was all that possible — they eked out a satisfying trade return for one year of Shin-Soo Choo’s services. And while Trevor Bauer, the key acquisition in that swap, comes with a reputation that was soiled especially quickly in Arizona, he represents the kind of risk this organization has no choice but to entertain. He has a high ceiling, so his arrival to an organization loaded with pitchers whose ceilings are an injury risk to your head is a welcomed one.
The Tribe essentially gave up one year of Choo for nine years of Bauer and Drew Stubbs, with a couple relievers tossed in. It is impossible not to like that trade from the Indians’ perspective. I particularly liked the way Chris Antonetti seized upon Kevin Towers’ particular (and some D-backs fans would call it peculiar, considering what he gave up) fascination with Didi Gregorius to orchestrate the swap after direct discussions with Arizona (discussions that involved Cabrera) bore no fruit. It’s difficult to pull off a trade in this game, and it is exponentially more difficult to pull off a three-team swap. A real understanding of the worth of your assets and the desires of your fellow GMs is a prerequisite. Antonetti met it.
We’ve discussed here, once or twice, that Antonetti’s tenure as GM has been about as smooth as Ubaldo Jimenez’s delivery, which is to say it hasn’t been smooth at all. But in a winter in which the Indians had plenty of reasons to strip things back down to the bone, they’ve surprised a lot of people in the industry with their aggressiveness. That all began, of course, with the move to bring in Terry Francona, and the aggressiveness in free agency has been made possible by a sudden influx of TV money, both national and local.
Look, the Nick Swisher signing, the Mark Reynolds signing and now the Brett Myers signing… are these moves enough to put the Indians in the same class as the Tigers? On paper, probably not, and we have plenty of time in the coming days and weeks for further analysis and soon-to-be-obliterated predictions. But suffice to say there is risk in giving a 32-year-old Swisher the largest free-agent contract in club history and adding Reynolds’ 32.6 percent strikeout rate (then parlaying that with Stubbs’ similarly frightening strikeout tendencies) and converting Myers back to starting work (in the AL, no less).
But if you’re an Indians fan, you certainly have to be encouraged to see them doling out some dollars to take those risks, rather than orchestrating another major rebuild just three years after the last rebuild didn’t really build much. Fact is, this is not an ownership/front office group that has ever punted on, say, a five-year window in order to save money and reap draft picks, as some other small markets have been prone to do. And while STO was not exactly a YES-like revenue-generator, we can certainly see, in retrospect, how it worked out for the Dolans, squeezing a major monetary commitment out of FOX Sports about six or seven years after negotiations over a renewal with FOX didn’t go where the Indians wanted them to go.
No, the Indians’ payroll isn’t really going to jump into a new stratosphere, and the difficulties that come with being a small-market club situated in the general midst of three other MLB clubs and in a town that has seen major population declines aren’t going away. But Indians fans have to at least appreciate the way the last few months have played out, for they’ve seen the Tribe do things in a new way with some new voices on the front lines and new money in-hand. “New” does not always equate to “improved” (see my above feelings on the DQ on Mayfield Road), but we can all agree the Indians had every reason to shake up their way of doing business, to do things with a little more flair, to make this winter a little more interesting for a frustrated (and, if attendance is any indication, shrinking) fan base. They’ve done that, without hesitation or procrastination.
The Indians didn’t acquire Mike Aviles over the weekend in order to trade Asdrubal Cabrera. In fact, when asked if he still envisioned Cabrera as his starting shortstop on Opening Day 2013, this was general manager Chris Antonetti’s precise, plain-as-day reply:
Hmm. Not a whole lot of room for shades of gray there.
But heading into an awfully interesting and important winter for the Indians’ organization, Antonetti has the option to be a little bit more open-minded about his shortstop situation. Because while he has multiple trade chips he can dangle the next few months, as the Tribe figures out how best to surround its championship-caliber new manager with a championship-caliber ballclub, none, in this moment, is more attractive and more ready to reap an impactful return than Cabrera.
The Indians know their roster, as currently constructed, is too flawed, too fragmented to be a realistic contender in 2013, even in as winnable a division as the American League Central, where the eventual AL champion Tigers needed just 88 victories to claim the division crown in 2012.
A glaring lack of upside arms in the rotation and a lineup that leans too heavily left were major culprits in the Tribe’s glaring fall from grace in the second half of 2012. And while Terry Francona was an applaudable acquisition who could create a winning culture in Cleveland, this club was clearly much more than a managerial switch away from making major strides in the standings.
The front office, then, is forced to evaluate its assets.
Some have viewed Francona’s arrival as a sign that that the Tribe is not focused on a full-scale rebuild. Perhaps that’s the case. But no matter the profile of the skipper, the Indians are not in position to field a high-profile payroll. And the state of the roster and the state of the farm system presents a strong case for being opportunistic in the trade market, exploring the possibility that two birds in the bush could, in fact, eventually outweigh the bird in hand.
Who are the birds in hand?
There’s Shin-Soo Choo, an impact bat against right-handed pitching who has proven adept at both the leadoff spot and No. 3 hole. Great arm. Great competitor. But a year away from free agency, the Scott Boras client could have a limited market, especially when you factor in his struggles with lefties.
There’s Chris Perez, the colorful and quotable closer. He’s a reasonably reliable ninth-inning option for a team in need, and the Indians have Vinnie Pestano ready, willing and able to step into that role. But Perez’s expanding arbitration worth (he could make $7 million or more in 2013) and open mouth don’t bode particularly well for his trade value.
There’s Justin Masterson, who was emerging as an ace in 2011 but took a drastic step back in ’12. Teams would line up to take a chance on him, but the Indians would be selling low.
There’s Carlos Santana, not so long ago viewed as a superstar-in-training. But he, too, had a subpar season, and his positioning has come increasingly into question, as even the Indians seem unsure of whether his future is behind the plate or at first base. Either way, he’s signed through at least 2016, so dealing him now — when it still seems his best days are firmly in front of him — does not appear to be an attractive option.
In a rebuild, you deal just about all of the above and bring back as many warm bodies as you possibly can. The Indians, though, have given no indication that they’re going the full rebuild route. The route they’d rather take is the one Oakland traveled a year ago, dealing from depth and going young but feisty. The A’s proved feisty enough to stunningly win the AL West — a method easy to admire and all-but-impossible to replicate. But for the Indians, Cabrera at least fits the formula.
Why? Because he’s a 27-year-old All-Star shortstop locked into a reasonable deal ($16.5 million over the next two seasons). There is always a demand for up-the-middle talent, and Cabrera, even with some concerns about his conditioning and fading range, has value as a starting option at either short or second. And for teams like the A’s, Red Sox and Mariners, there could be particular demand in the shortstop trade market, because the free-agent market this winter is definitely dim.
It’s true that the Indians also have use for a 27-year-old All-Star shortstop on an affordable deal. But the Aviles acquisition buys them some flexibility. Aviles, who hit .250 with a .663 OPS in 136 games as the Red Sox’s primary starting shortstop last season, could be a stopgap before the Indians start dipping into their Minor League options — Juan Diaz, who spent the bulk of 2012 in Double-A, and Tony Wolters and Ronny Rodriguez, who spent the whole season at the High-A level.
Francisco Lindor, the Tribe’s No. 1 pick from the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, is viewed as the club’s shortstop of the future, but, even in an environment in which clubs are speeding up the timetables of their top picks, Lindor is only going to be 19 next year. So he’s still a ways away from the bigs.
You deal Cabrera and start to lean on Aviles and the organizational depth if and only if you can bring back some young and projectable starting pitching options. That will be the goal in any trade the Tribe makes at this juncture, but Cabrera has the ability to bring back more than any other trading chip the Indians can reasonably dangle. If the Indians explored this route, they’d be dealing Cabrera at his perceived peak (though his 2011 season, in which he hit 25 homers and drove in 92 runs, was likely his <i>actual</i> peak).
Maybe that’s not the route the Indians are currently inclined to go. But that’s the sort of aggressive approach a small-market club that has struggled in the drafting and development departments needs to take to build a winner on a budget.
Baseball, like any other business, is built on them. And for Terry Francona, the relationship with the men who make the Indians’ personnel decisions began on a hotel treadmill at the Winter Meetings many years ago and a couple managerial stops ago.
Francona and Mark Shapiro got to talking in the workout room, and their conversations have evolved steadily over the years. On Friday, the conversation was about the Indians’ managerial vacancy, and on Saturday, the announcement was that Francona had accepted it.
For the Indians, this is quite a managerial coup. They’ve averaged less than $60 million in player payroll over the last three years, they’re coming off a 94-loss season and their upper-level Minor League talent is, shall we say, suspect.
Add up those factors, and this ordinarily would not be the type of job a Terry Francona — a two-time World Series winner with a resplendent reputation — would touch.
But the relationship has remained steady and sturdy, even as many changes have taken place in Francona’s life and the Indians’ various ups and downs. When the Phillies fired Francona in 2000, Shapiro, the Tribe’s newly appointed general manager, scooped him up in a special assistant role. When Francona interviewed for the Red Sox job, Shapiro and his then-assistant, Chris Antonetti, helped prep him.
They didn’t prep him for Friday’s interview; they didn’t need to. Francona’s enthusiasm for this position – enthusiasm that surprised some – was all the Indians needed to move forward. Yes, Sandy Alomar Jr. was fit for this role, and I was definitely among those touting him. But that backing was fixated on the faulty premise that Francona wouldn’t actually be interested. That he was served to surprise, though, in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have, given the relationship base he’s built with the front office and his family lineage in Indians baseball.
All Francona needed was some assurance of stability. A four-year guarantee buys him that, and in recent days Francona had let on that such a guarantee is worth more than the money alone.
Now that this personal relationship between Francona and the Indians’ higher-ups has led to a more formal one, it is, of course, Francona’s job to start building relationships with the young faces on the Tribe roster. And the front office is supplied with the likely more difficult task of building up the talent level of a team aching in the one area that is most difficult to alleviate – starting pitching.
That’s why the question of whether or not Francona can win in Cleveland trends more toward “when” than “if.” There is some thought that Francona wouldn’t have taken this job without some assurances that the Indians plan to expand their player payroll. Perhaps that’s true, though more than a decade-long track record from the Dolan family of not vastly outspending projected revenues speaks for itself, and revenues from a 2012 season in which the Indians finished next-to-last in the attendance tally weren’t exactly robust. Neither are the projections for 2013.
What people need to understand is that a jump from the $60 million range to the $80 million range, even if applied appropriately, might only buy a club another win or two. Even a seismic increase in the payroll department — and that’s not going to happen in one of the game’s smallest markets, unless there’s some franchise-altering regional television deal on the horizon of which I’m completely unaware — means nothing if it’s not backed by solid baseball decisions.
Fact is, the Indians could have survived quite well (particularly in the AL Central) on their present payroll, had the personnel decisions — from the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jimenez trades to the amateur Drafts — not turned out so consistently unproductive in recent years.
Time will tell, as it tends to do, but this Francona hiring feels like a significant step in another, more positive direction in the decision-making. It is, however, only a small step, for the Indians are clearly much more than a manager away from contention.
But if the Indians wanted a clubhouse culture change, they’ve found it. If they wanted a guy fans can respect, a guy whose beliefs they can buy into, they’ve got one.
The Indians knew quite well, when they began the process of replacing Manny Acta, what they’d have in Terry Francona if they could get him to come aboard. And now that he’s agreed, this already long-term relationship is really just beginning.
The guy in the Travis Hafner shirt, doing pushups in the cardio room? He thinks the Indians should keep Travis Hafner.
The guys in the weight room, over there by the crossover cables? They’re intrigued by Russ Canzler.
It was an interesting experience at my local gym the other day, because people were talking about the Cleveland Indians. And while this might not sound strange, given that, you know, we were actually in Cleveland, I can assure you this was, indeed, a rare occasion, considering we’re in the middle of the NFL season and the end of an MLB season in which the Indians lost 94 games.
But it just goes to show you that there are two types of teams that attract heated discussion — those in the thick of the race, and those who are so far out of it that you can make a case for overhauling every element, right down to the bat boy.
In the former instance, every fan is a manager. They offer their opinion on each call to the ‘pen, each pinch-hit opportunity, each lineup, because every game, every inning, every last matter of minutia matters.
In the latter , every fan is an owner or a GM. They know who to hire, who to fire, who to trade and who to sign.
So, yeah, the Indians, as hard as they’ve been to watch these last couple months, have been pretty easy to discuss. Because there are plenty of talking points at play here and plenty of decisions for this front office to make in the coming weeks and months.
With that in mind, let the following serve as an addition to the discussion. Here, in my view, are the 10 most pressing, pertinent and possibly perplexing personnel issues facing the Indians in the coming weeks.
TERRY FRANCONA/SANDY ALOMAR JR.: We can’t rule out the possibility that others get involved in the managerial search, but for now all we can do is focus on these two. And if Francona is as interested in this job as he’s been telling people, I humbly and happily rescind everything I wrote in this space a week ago. I think Alomar is absolutely deserving of this opportunity, and I think a team in the Indians’ position – a team that will be young, by default, in 2013 – can afford to go with a rookie skipper. But if Francona really wants in, I think you’ve got to bring him aboard.
That’s just my opinion, of course, and it’s easy to offer that opinion when it’s not your money. Francona made $4 million in Boston. No manager is going to make that much here. So this particular personnel decision might ultimately rest with him and his willingness (or lack thereof) to take a significant pay cut. It has been noted that this might be the only job available to Francona this offseason, depending on how things shake out, and that could certainly play a part.
But there is plenty of speculation in the industry that if the Tigers don’t win the World Series, they’ll part ways with Jim Leyland (and for all we know, Leyland might make like his close friend Tony La Russa and go out on top even if they win). The Tigers job would be an extremely attractive one for a proven skipper like Francona. Ultimately, this might all come down to timing. But even if the Indians don’t land Francona, they could do a lot, lot worse than Alomar for this job.
SHIN-SOO CHOO: One of the more genuine players I’ve covered. Genuinely cares about his performance, genuinely cares about winning, genuinely wants to represent South Korea well and genuinely felt embarrassed and accountable when he made that dumb decision the night of his DUI. And there’s another genuine quality to Choo, too: He genuinely wants to take advantage of his market worth when the opportunity presents itself, and he, of course, has every right to do so.
I’m not sure that worth will be quite as staggering as some assume, given that his continuing struggles against left-handed pitching keep him well short of superstar status, and he’ll be 31 when he hits free agency. But by now, the Indians have to know where they stand with Choo and Scott Boras on this issue. And if they can flip Choo for near-Major League ready starting pitching or corner outfield help, that’s a move they have to make at this juncture. The question is: Will Choo’s trade value will be significantly greater this winter than it will be next July? Because any team that acquires him has to know he’s likely to test the market next winter.
CHRIS PEREZ: There is a mountain of evidence that suggests the Indians ought to trade this guy. From a results standpoint, closers are an erratic bunch, by nature. This particular closer brings in the added element of saying or doing whatever feels right at any given moment, sometimes crossing that fine line between passion and recklessness. He’ll also come with a price tag likely north of $7 million this season. For a team that had somewhere in the neighborhood of a $66 million payroll at the outset of this season, that’s an awfully high percentage to invest in a ninth-inning arm.
But Perez’s ever-growing reputation likely isn’t helping his trade value, which might have peaked around the time the Tribe opted to stand pat in late July. Joel Hanrahan is at least one other closing option that could be made available in what could well become a crowded market. So while the evidence says trade Perez, it’s not necessarily a slam-dunk decision for the Tribe.
ASDRUBAL CABRERA: He’s going to make $6.5 million in 2013 and $10 million in 2014. The Indians aren’t in a position where they need to shed payroll, but they are in a position where they need to bring in some controllable, projectable pieces, even if it means parting with what few marketable talents they have on-hand. Cabrera would seem to be an attractive trade chip.
JUSTIN MASTERSON: Sure, you have to at least explore his market worth. But this would definitely be a “sell low” situation, so it’s probably not the best time the pull the trigger.
The buyout of Hafner’s $13 million option for 2013 will cost the Tribe $2.75 million. Though I freely admit I could be completely off-base, it’s hard for me to imagine the Indians paying Hafner $2.75 million to play elsewhere (or nowhere) next season.
What, realistically, is Hafner’s open market worth? If, just for the sake of discussion, we follow FanGraphs’ rationale that a win is is worth roughly $5 million in free agency and Hafner, with all his injury issues, has a 0.7 WAR this season, then he might be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5 million, tops (this, by the way, is extremely debatable). If you’re going to be paying him the bulk of that anyway, is it worth it to keep Hafner around in the part-time role he’s suited for? Otherwise, with $2.75 million already doled out to Pronk, what is your best, most realistic, most cost-effective DH option in free agency? A 42-year-old Jim Thome? Or do you just rotate position players through your DH spot? And if so, do you have the kind of depth necessary — i.e. nine position players worthy of 500 ABs — to make that worth your while?
I think the vast majority of Tribe fans are simply done with Hafner. They’ve seen enough. (That guy at the gym in the Hafner shirsey is one of the few exceptions to the rule.) But 2013 might — emphasis on might — be the first time in a long, long time that Hafner’s salary is commensurate with his value, and I can’t help but wonder if the Indians will take advantage of that.
UBALDO JIMENEZ: There’s no other way to put it: The Big U has gone backward in his time with the Indians. They thought they could fix his mechanical flaws, but his performance regressed. He thought a happier environment would propel him to his past success, but the only difference is that he’s in a better mood between lousy starts. And despite all that regression, he stands to get a significant pay raise, to $5.75 million, if the Indians pick up his 2013 option.
What a country.
To decline the option would cost the Indians $1 million for the buyout, and ordinarily this would be a no-brainer. Except you might have noticed that the Indians don’t exactly have a staggering number of bodies lined up to make starts for them in the Majors next season, and that roughly $5 million saved on Jimenez won’t buy them much in the market (See: Lowe, Derek).
CARLOS SANTANA: Catcher or first base? There are few things in this game as valuable as the middle-of-the-order hitter who also serves as your catcher. But what if that hitter regresses at the plate and provides only average value behind it?
I can’t tell you that the regression in production we’ve seen from Santana this season is directly tied to him catching. But I do know the wear and tear can’t possibly help. Santana’s offense improved in the second half, and that’s encouraging. But he’s still not the dynamic lineup presence the Indians thought him to be or he seemed to be trending toward last year.
Santana works hard on his defense, and he’s gotten better this season. I’d say he’s about average. He threw out 26 percent of opposing baserunners this season – ranking him 15th among those with at least 70 starts at the position. According to Baseball Info Solutions, he provided two defensive runs saved (an improvement over his minus-6 mark of a year ago), and this ranked 13th.
Is that defense worth preserving if the position itself has any impact on Santana’s power and production on the offensive side? That’s a question the Indians grappled with a year ago. They opted for the best defensive infield alignment they could muster in signing Casey Kotchman, and he came as advertised as a terrific defender. But he also had one of the worst offensive seasons of any player at any position in the big leagues, so I’m not sure the tradeoff was worth it.
I’m not sure the Santana tradeoff is worth it, either.
RUSS CANZLER: All right, so Canzler probably doesn’t really present a “pressing” decision. But the need for left field and/or first base help for next season is glaring. The first step, of course, is to assess your in-house options. So… is this guy anything? And if so, where was he two months ago? I suppose the fact that he wasn’t in the bigs at that point is indicative of whether the Indians feel he’s a Guy or, you know, just a guy.
(Apropos of nothing: My wife saw Canzler come up to bat the other night and thought he slightly resembled a bearded Jon Hamm, “only not as attractive.” That’s no knock on Canzler, because I have the sneaking suspicion my wife doesn’t think anybody is as attractive as Jon Hamm, myself included.)
THE FRONT OFFICE: Chris Antonetti has built up too much equity in this organization to be dumped after two years on the GM job, but Antonetti would be the first to admit that the last year and a half has not gone particularly well for him on the decision-making front. So the Indians have to take a good gander at their structure, their personnel and their decision-making process and see if they might benefit from an assist from other voices brought in from the outside. Baseball men with different perspectives gleaned from different experiences in different organizations.
As Paul Cousineau of the DiaTribe points out in this piece, the Indians have shown a willingness to explore this possibility in the past, as they discussed bringing aboard Josh Byrnes in an advisory role in the fall of 2010, shortly before he wound up joining the Padres. Ironically, Cousineau’s piece came to the conclusion that Francona might be a fit for such a role. Turns out, he might have a decidedly more prominent one with the Tribe.
PS: Having just cited his work, I’m going to take this opportunity to thank Cousineau for his contributions to the Tribe scribing community over the years. Many of you who read this space also read Paul’s, and for good reason. His work is thorough and thought-provoking and, overall, fair. He’s the rare fan who doesn’t let his passion get in the way of his analysis. And I’m fortunate enough, through our mutual interest in spending an inordinate amount of time writing about the Indians, to have become good friends with him over time.
Well, Paul has decided to call it quits on the DiaTribe front, settling into a happy retirement focused on his day job and his wonderful family. I don’t blame him a bit, but I’ll miss reading his stuff (sometimes kicking myself when he presents a point I wish I had thought of first).
I hereby raise an imaginary Bombshell Blonde (a refreshing canned beer… check it out) to you, dear DiaTriber.