A strong whiff of 'What if...'
Much has been said and written about the lack of fan support at Tribe games to date. In spite of the fact the Indians have been able to replicate their early-season success of a year ago and again reside at or near the top of their division this year, they are dead last in attendance in the major leagues.
"But, how can this be, oh Learned One? How is this so?"
Friend, your queries are understandable. After all, isn't this the same organization which set attendance records slightly more than a mere decade ago? Well then, Grasshopper, why don't we take a couple of microseconds and examine the issue...
As you may or may not recall, many observers attributed the success at the gate which the Indians enjoyed beginning in the late 90s to a "perfect storm": The result of opening Jacobs Field, the disappearance of the Browns – courtesy of Art Modell – and the team becoming a baseball powerhouse, all about the same time.
I concur with these observations, and as one who recalls the lean years of the 60s and 70s and the very real threats of the team being moved to New Orleans, I was sure the Tribe's brain trust would parlay the team's success into a generation – at least – of solid baseball attendance. Attendance should NOT have again been a cause for concern in my lifetime. In other words, I never thought I would be writing a column like this one unless it was from that big box seat in the sky. But, as they might say at the new casino, "It just isn't in the cards."
Just as there were a number of reasons for a positive version of the "perfect storm" seventeen years ago, there are multiple causes for the "perfect emptiness" which now describes the feeling on any given day at Progressive Field. Whether the Tribe's at home or on the road, it's hard to tell the difference when you drive by the corner of Ontario and Carnegie. Let's examine the issues:
1. Arrogance on the part of Tribe management: For quite some time, it was an "event" to be at an Indians game. People who couldn't care less about baseball suddenly became Indians fans, because starting in 1995, Jacobs Field was the place to be. One of the advantages of constructing a ball field with a seating capacity significantly less than the cavernous old stadium was that suddenly the very real prospect of not being able to get Indians tickets essentially forced people to buy tickets ASAP or risk getting shut out. Management didn't anticipate things going back to "the way it used to be" until it was too late for aggressive, fresh marketing. Sort of like closing the barn door after all the animals had escaped, no?
2. Attempting to trivialize the backlash of the Sabathia, Lee, and Martinez trades: I'm not sure the Indians will ever understand what a firestorm they created over a 30-month period when they traded those guys. In the first place, fans have had it up to their watered-down-beers with the Indians playing the "small market" card every time it comes time to pay the piper. I'm not saying they had to – or even needed to – sign all of those guys, but I have a newsflash, Tribe: Fans become invested in the players and don't respond well when you're dumping guys quicker than Kim Kardashian. Nor does it help when you get pretty well hosed on the trades for all three. There's a guy I know at work - a big baseball fan - and he and I have a running joke about how soon it will be before we say goodbye to Santana and Kipnis. As they say, perception is reality, Tribe. Look at it this way: Everybody says this is a football town, right? Well, imagine, for instance, Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden becoming very successful Browns, but after a few years, the Browns, citing "financial constraints of the market" trade them for draft picks. Hmmm...Wonder what the reaction to that would be.
3. But in spite of numbers one and two above, where I really think the Indians blew it this year was the "What if..." advertising campaign the Indians marketing department decided upon. Produced in-house by the Tribe, they unveiled the commercials in 2011 and they were quite successful. I guess they went with the "If-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it" approach and decided to go the "What if" route again this year. Another newsflash, Tribe: It worked in 2011 because the team was coming off a 93-loss season, and fans did have to use their imagination to picture the Indians as contenders. This year, coming off a season in which the Tribe was in contention for most of the year, the Indians made a lot of noise about taking the next step and making the playoffs in 2012. My point is this: If you really feel the Indians are legit and are trying to sell them as such, it makes no sense to tell the fans to squint and think "What if," now does it? We were told to dream last year, and now we have to go back into la-la land again this year? Jeez...Why not just make every night "Valium Night" down at the ballpark and we can all drift to our respective Wahooland "happy places."
And if we really go crazy with the dreams, we can squint real, real hard and picture Santana and Kipnis still playing for the Indians five years from now, in front of a full house.
Now there's a hallucination.
Lifelong Westlake resident who dabbles in writing whenever the real world permits.