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It's time for Dolan to sell the Indians

It's time for Dolan to sell the Indians
August 12, 2012
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I've been a baseball fan since I was four years old.

I followed it so much so that, at five, I could tell you what team any player played for, which used to amuse my parents' friends (the only one they got me on was Sam Malone - those 80's tricksters). The first game I remember was in 1987 at Municipal Stadium. We had season tickets and I loved every minute of it. The Indians lost 101 games that year, and I didn't care. I loved Indians baseball and I wanted to be there no matter what. 

Maybe that's why I have never understood why most people didn't support the Indians - until now. 

Larry Dolan made his first mistake in November of 1999 when he agreed to buy the Cleveland Indians. Dolan had missed out on buying the Cleveland Browns, and decided he wasn't going to miss out on owning the Indians. At the time, the sale price - $323 million - was the most ever paid for a baseball team. Dick Jacobs, who, along with his brother David, paid $36 million for the Indians, said something that should have sent Dolan running away:

''There's a time to hold and a time to fold,'' Jacobs, 74, said during a news conference with Dolan, whose initial bid of $275 million was rejected the previous week. ''I don't think I'll suffer from seller's remorse.''

The Indians core had pretty much topped out after losing in the first round to Boston in the 1999 American League Division Series. Going into Dolan's first season as owner in 2000 they had no true ace and their best starting pitchers - Chuck Finley (37), Dave Burba (33), and Nagy (33) were aging. The team's young stud - Bartolo Colon - was moving closer to free agency and was due for a huge payday. The team's other young "stud" - Jaret Wright - had fallen from grace.

The storied offense was also reaching a difficult time. Kenny Lofton (33) and Roberto Alomar (32) were close to free agency. Travis Fryman (31) only had a good year or two left. David Justice (34) and Sandy Alomar Jr. (34) weren't getting any younger either. Most of all, Manny Ramirez (28) was in the final year of his contract and was making it clear he planned to sign with whoever offered the most money. 

At the same time, the Browns - Cleveland's one true sports love - were back in town. 

Larry Dolan was walking into an absolute mess. 

In Dick Jacobs last year as owner the Indians payroll was $73.2 million in 1999. In any year prior to that as owner Jacobs never had a payroll that touched even $60 million, so he clearly took an all-in approach in his last season as owner.

In 2000 the payroll was increased to $75.8 million, which was Dolan's first year as owner. They did not make the playoffs. Feeling the Indians were still a World Series contender, in 2001 he upped the payroll to $91.9 million - easily the highest in team history.

That offseason between the 2000 and 2001 season was a crazy one for the Indians.  With an aging team Dolan didn't go for a rebuild - he went for another shot at the Series. He offered Manny Ramirez at least eight years, $20 million per year - a total of $160 million - possibly even more. Manny chose Boston.

After losing out on Manny, the Indians contingent of Dolan and GM John Hard (who was going into his final year as GM) went out and signed Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks to help alleviate the loss of Ramirez. It brought the Indians a division title, but after they lost in the first round again, it was clear that changes would be needed. They began a rebuild in 2002.

At the same time spending around baseball was getting out of control. The Yankees, who had a $92 million payroll in 2000, were up to $125 million in 2002 (and $150 million in 2003). The 2nd highest payroll in 2000 was $88 million (Angels). Seven teams would eclipse that number by 2002. MLB was quickly becoming the "have's" and the "have-not's".

After stripping the team of almost all of its stars and identity before and during the 2002 season, the Indians rebuild almost came to fruition in 2005 when the team won 93 games. Unfortunately, they missed the playoffs by two games.

The next season the Indians disappointed finishing below .500, but they rebounded again in 2007. The Indians won 96 games, led the majors in comeback, walk-off victories, won the division title, and were one game away from the World Series. They had the Cy Young Award winner, four All-Stars, and an exciting young team.

The problem was that the fans had never really come back since the team of 90's heroes was disbanded:

Average Game Attendance
(MLB rank in parentheses)

2001: 39,694 (4th)
2002: 32,307 (12th)
2003: 21,358 (21st)
2004: 22,400 (22nd)
2005: 24,861 (25th)
2006: 24,666 (25th)
2007: 28,448 (21st)

To review, the 2007 Indians won 18 more games than the 2006 team, the division title, and were one game away from the World Series (the 2006 team finished 4th in the Division) - and only drew an average of 3,782 more fans a game (306,342 full season attendance boost). 

The dwindling fan support didn't stop the Indians from trying to lock up their young core. They signed Grady Sizemore to a six year extension in 2006. They signed Jake Westbrook for three years, $33 million in April of 2007. Travis Hafner was locked up for four years, $57 million at the 2007 All-Star Break. 

After such a successful 2007 campaign, the 2008 season quickly unraveled as the team was ravaged by injuries. Victor Martinez played in 73 games, Hafner 57 games, Westbrook 5 games, and Casey Blake 94 games. Fan support was also down despite the excitement of 2007.

They also were faced with a tough decision regarding C.C. Sabathia who not only struggled early, but also immediately declined a four year offer from the Indians of $18 million per year, a contract that would have made him the highest paid player in team history. They decided to deal Sabathia. Fans turned away from the Indians, as the Tribe finished 22nd in attendance (27,122 average attendance). 

Despite the poor numbers they addressed their most pressing weakness - closer - heading into 2009 by signing Kerry Wood for two years, $20 million. The payroll was at $82 million, 15th highest in MLB. Unfortunately they were once again hit by injuries to Sizemore, Martinez, and Hafner, and Kerry Wood was average.  The Indians, as a team, were a huge disappointment.

The Indians were now facing another tough reality - two of their stars were off of the field more than on it, one had turned into a head case, one was approaching free agency, and their staff ace, two years away from free agency, had already turned away any attempts by the Indians to extend his contract. Attendance was also way down again - 22,492 avaerage per game, good for 25th in MLB. 

They traded Cliff Lee and Martinez that summer. The fans - those who remained anyhow - were gone…this time for good. They didn't trust Larry Dolan. They didn't relate to him. To them, he had not only let their 90's heroes leave, but also had let the Cleveland Indians as they knew them go away. 

Was this fair? Absolutely not.

Larry Dolan tried to spend, but couldn't keep up with the New York's, Los Angeles', and Boston's of the game. He had tried to put a winning team on the field by locking up young, core players - the same strategy used by John Hart in the 90's. Hart's core turned into Hall of Famers, Shapiro's turned into disappointments.

Dolan's biggest mistake is he has largely been absent from the public eye. He doesn't do many interviews. He doesn't make public appearances to fans. As a result, an image has been created - that of a cheap owner who does not care about the fans or the team - and he has done nothing through public relations to change that. He still hasn't.

Dolan and the Indians took one more shot at winning over fans in 2011.  The team was in contention, so Dolan okayed a deal to send away the Indians' best pitching prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez - viewed as a potential ace. The Indians still faded, the attendance still didn't improve (22,726 average, 24th in MLB), and the deal was largely viewed as a mistake.

With Dolan and Antonetti both feeling the heat from that unsuccessful deal and from the fans to do something big, they failed to significantly improve the team. This past offseason they balked at giving three years to Josh Willingham due to injury concerns. They passed on making a significant offer to Michael Cuddyer. They were also afraid that Grady Sizemore, finally deemed 100%, would rebound elsewhere, and gave him $5 million. They picked up Fausto Carmona's option, only to see his scandal take place weeks later.  Sizemore and Carmona...errr...Roberto Hernandez have yet to play a game for the Indians this season. They also signed Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon, both better suited for bench roles.

This all brings us to today.

The team has fallen off, again. The team's "window" is closing soon. Attendance is a pathetic 30th in MLB - 20,846 average per game. And nothing Larry Dolan does, short of winning a World Series (as evidenced by 2007), will be good enough for the fans to give even average support for this team. 

Larry Dolan isn't a perfect owner, but he's not a terrible one either. He cares about the team and seems like a good enough person. His two biggest mistakes have been buying the team for far too much and failing to relate to the fan base. 

But this will be a vicious cycle as long as he is the owner of the Indians.

Fans who don't trust him no matter what, don't come out to the ballpark. In turn, Dolan keeps payrolls no higher than $75 million or so as an attempt to stay out of the red. The team competes in "windows" while young players are under team control, supplementing the roster with one year free agent deals to low-cost veterans. They must hope lightning strikes as it almost did in 2007. The chances of that happening again is unlikely. 

Of course, the main problem, should Dolan choose to sell, is finding a buyer. With a mid-sized market and poor fan support, it might be difficult. Dan Gilbert would be a great fit, but there's no guarantee MLB would allow him to own a team.  

But it's time for Dolan to try. The fanbase has lost complete faith in ownership, and the only thing at this point which could bring a speckle of hope for Indians fans is the arrival of a new owner to make them believe again.

He doesn't deserve the treatment he receives and Cleveland deserves a winning baseball team. Sometimes it's better for both parties to move on. It's why Larry Dolan needs to sell the Cleveland Indians.

User Comments

August 14, 2012 - 9:35 PM EDT
Whoa. NESN and YES make much, much, MUCH more in revenue than STO for the Indians. Those along with the new Rangers, Angels, and a few other teams bring in well over $100M a year in revenue. STO is more around $20-30M a year in revenue, if that. It's a profitable network, but not a huge cash cow compared to the major RSN's for the bigger market teams.
August 14, 2012 - 7:02 PM EDT
A sob story over the Poor Dolan Family.
Why didn't you mention the $30 million annual profits from the Tribe?
Why didn't you mention the highly profitable operation of STO (that Forbes
called the network that YES and NESN try to equal in profits)?

Dolan, Inc. pays themselves enormous salaries (for doing what, exactly?) and still makes the highest profits in MLB. And you say the system is broken and Dolan cannot compete!.

August 14, 2012 - 6:21 PM EDT
Thank you all for the comments, I appreciate them all!
August 14, 2012 - 4:38 PM EDT
Good article, made me reconsider Dolan's responsibility in this fiasco. I think his reputation as owner has taken a big hit because of the inept Shapiro making terrible decisions.

The CC and Cliff Lee trades were awful and are a big reason why this team has descended so badly. Think about what the Indians gave up for Ubaldo and compare that with what we got back for TWO Cy Young winners. UNACCEPTABLE!

The Brandon Phillips trade, re-signing an oft-injured Sizemore, no offensive weapons at 1st base, 3rd base, or left field. The list goes on and on for Shapiro (and Antonetti as well)... Want to win the fans back? FIRE SHAPIRO
August 14, 2012 - 10:48 AM EDT
Really well-done article Steve. National-website-quality work. You've painted an unintentionally sympathetic picture of Dolan by simply laying out the facts and I think you've opened some eyes in doing so.

Note to Tony: This is the kind of writing that can bring IPI the national attention it deserves. Unemotional but heartfelt; insightful, objective.

Best piece of Indians writing I've seen this year.
August 14, 2012 - 10:13 AM EDT
Yes, Larry and Paul have lost the fan base. And yes, there would be great hope if there was a new owner. But I don't think they have to sell. If they got in front of some cameras and admitted that they had made mistakes and that they were willing to try a fresh approach that included a new front office, then I think the fans would grant them a fair amount of leeway to find success. They should have done that in 08 or 09, rather than promoting those clowns. But the could still do it.
August 14, 2012 - 9:59 AM EDT
Good article but I disagree with what you stated were Dolan's two biggest mistakes. The biggest mistake was not holding the people responsible for the poor team on the field accountable. Shapiro and Antonetti.

Why they still have a job here when their teams have only been above .500 twice in the last 11 years is a mystery to all Indian fans.

That is the main reason why Cle fans think Dolan doesn't care.
August 13, 2012 - 10:41 PM EDT
It was a very sad day when Paul Dolan and Mark Shapiro publicly blamed the Cleveland Indians Fan Base for all the miscalculations and poor trades the front office made. Even if that were a true statement, which it wasn't, you never bite the hand that feeds you, the paying customers.
You cannot alienate your paying customers then blame them for all the failures the front office produced. Then giving promotions and raise to those in charge who made this mess did not sit well with the fans who pay the freight.
Very poor judgement and public relations on the Dolan's part.
The damage has been done and is past the point of no return.
The Dolans will never again have the trust of the paying customers. You can't produce a bad product then blame the paying customer because they don't want to purchase your poor product. Simple business.
Northecious Otis
August 13, 2012 - 10:32 PM EDT
Larry Dolan not only made a major mistake in purchasing the Tribe, but putting his son Paul in charge was his downfall.
Paul in turn lost John Hart then he hire Shapiro who delivers horrible contract signings and trades. Then he can't find talented people who can draft players then he gets promoted and Antonetti is hired. None of these 3 people ever played competitive baseball at any level,so how could they be in charge of talent acquisition?
Paul Dolan needs to find another line of work and Shapiro Antonetti and Mirabelli all have to be relived of their jobs for poor performance.
Yes the Tribe is limited but with real baseball people in charge the Indians could build a team through smart drafting.
This philosophy now in place will not accomplish anything other than empty seats at the ballpark.
August 13, 2012 - 7:48 PM EDT
A very well written article that takes a pretty even look at what happened and what has to happen. Dolan is certainly not a great owner but Jacobs took him to the cleaners when buying the tribe. He also knew that sans cable revenue that the revenue had topped out. While Dolan has cable revenue he also has higher payrolls to deal with than Jacobs ever did and much smaller attendance. But you are right. He should sell. If he sign 4 players at $25 million each the fan base would still not trust him.
August 13, 2012 - 3:46 PM EDT
i agree with a lot of the points in this article and am also aware that realistically this is a very tough purchase and its extremely likely there will be no suitable buyers, maybe Dan Gilbert, but even he has agreed to run the indians at cost. what, as a fan, i do not like are all the sideshow gimmicks such as RTA free fare, party on the plaza, the lame what if commercials telling fans "what if you could will the team to victory?" the lame dollar dogs promotions, and the since cancelled snow days. just comes off really cheap and suckerish... i really think the front office also expects the fan base to grin and bear or even believe a lot of the nonsense they announce. love the article, and agree with the posts, just really disappointed with what has happened to this organization. the fans, city, and even the players deserve better, or at least some realstic expectations.
August 13, 2012 - 2:41 PM EDT
As a middle-aged fan who grew up when the O'neil's owned the franchise, I can only add this; It can get worse.

I'm frustrated with the Dolans as well. But if anything their clearest mistake was sticking with Shaprio & crew this long.

12 years into ownership and the only 2 seasons you had acceptable attendence were carry-over years from prior ownership - ownership that revived a dead franchise - and quite frankly EARNED every bit of the return they recieved.

I do fear that NORM has a point. That said - the attendence is the issue, really, that drives the ongoing handwringing as well as medocrity.

There is no way ANYONE - either on the field or in the front office - should feel secure at this point. EVERYONE FROM SHAPIRO ON DOWN SHOULD GET SACKED ...PERIOD.

The only person I have any sympathy for is Manny Acta - a good manager who got a swiss chese holed team to over produce for have a year the past two years.

August 13, 2012 - 9:49 AM EDT
Yeah, I'm kind of where Norm is on this. Right now buying the Indians is a losing proposition for a true businessman. Unfair economic climate, poor fan support, and a very questionable roster makeup. I still think the only chance Dolan has to sell the team would be to Dan Gilbert in the hopes he can be like Ilitch where he pumps money from a (hopefully) successful NBA franchise into his MLB team (I know Ilitich takes from his NHL team). As far as relocation goes, I don't believe there is a city out there that could support a MLB team. Most cities that could be possibilities would have the same economic issues and are already Triple-A baseball locations anyway.

And I kind of agree with Shy.....go with youth. With youth comes potential and excitement. Part of the fun of following the Indians in 92-93 was that they were young and building a great core that was fun to follow. THEN then added the vets, but the difference was they were vets in the twilight of their careers that were still performing/producing.
August 13, 2012 - 12:50 AM EDT
Actually you were too nice to Dolan. All he cares about is making money and hopefully come close to contending once in a while. While this FO has done that, the mismanagement of other areas (like drafts/public relations/signings) has been ignored. The public recognizes these short comings and are staying away. Let's face it, they are 9 games under .500 during a contention window, with no major injuries to explain it. Plus they don't seem to have any impact players at AAA or AA to help lift the team or serve as trade bait. Dolan does not need to sell, but he does need some fresh eyes in the front office.
August 12, 2012 - 10:24 PM EDT
Niece piece of writing, concise history of roster moves, payrolls, and attendance. I'm out here watching Oakland w 4 rookie starters, a 49mil payroll- lowest in the majors compete for the AL West division title. They also have the crappiest old stadium in the majors, but they're starting to pack it and they're making a few bucks. Lou Wolf and Billy Bean know how to work the window they get with low cost high performing players and continuously shuffle the deck so that anyone peeking in the window gets an exciting product to look at. Other teams like the Dbacks and Pirates also have lower payrolls than the Indians but have figured out how to remain vital and viable. The main reason the Indians attendance is stuck in low is that the product stinks. I don't think people bought into the product even with a winning record in the first half this year or last year for that matter because they knew it was an aberration that was destined to revert to what they saw coming out of Spring Training- the worst team in baseball, save perhaps the Astros. People will come out and watch a .500 team w Pomeranz, White, and Wright on the mound, but not with Derek Lowe, Wildbaldo, and Dan Wheeler on the mound and Johnny Damon , Aaron Cunningham, and Shelly Duncan in left field. They would rather see good young prospects learning and getting better, than cast-offs and old guys falling apart. Dolan doesn't know enough about the game to fix things. And as I have said ad nauseum, Chris Antonetti has the worst eye for players and worst instincts for trading and team building I have seen in any GM in Cleveland since Frank Lane. I would love to see Dolan keep the team and bring in somebody that really knows the game like John Farrell as GM and co-owner. Give him 10% in stock options that vest 2% per year for 5 yrs. I won't watch this product as long as Antonetti is running the show.
We the People
August 12, 2012 - 9:45 PM EDT

You know, Randy Lerner hand picked a new owner that wants to win, where money is no object and says that he will keep the team in Cleveland. Lerner did Cleveland a favor by doing that. Dolan can leave on a high note too if he does the same thing. A failure is Modell, who took the snake-in-grass-way out and left. Hand pick a guy who wants to win, in Cleveland, and your lasts actions will be remembered as just that Larry.

-We the People
August 12, 2012 - 9:24 PM EDT
I agree with the author of this article. Dolan is from Cleveland and grew up in the Feller/Doby/Paige/Boudreau/Wynn era. He wanted to build off of what Jacobs did, but MLB payrolls exploded. For example, All Star and future HOFer Cal Ripkin Jr was making a "mere" $6.3 MM when Dolan bought the Indians. That was alot for the time, but is a slightly above average bat/reliever in today's game. (Placido Palanco is making that amount of money this season.) I don't blame Dolan for buying a team that he loved growing up in a city that he loves, we all would do it if we had the means, but like the article (and Jacobs) said, ''There's a time to hold and a time to fold.''
August 12, 2012 - 7:47 PM EDT
Unfortunately Richard, it is not the obvious in this town.
August 12, 2012 - 7:32 PM EDT
And poor drafting to boot. The perfect storm.
August 12, 2012 - 5:37 PM EDT
Be careful what you wish for! No businessman is his right mind is going to buy a team for Cleveland, a city in the midst of downward trends across the board. and plan on making money. Why would even an idiot like Gilbert, one of the most inept NBA owners ever, think he could make money with the Indians in Cleveland?

Dolan makes money by selling the team to ownership who wants to relocate the franchise to a better location and Gilbert makes money because Cleveland will no longer have to support three professional franchises. Calling Cleveland mid-market is a joke. It is a small market and getting smaller and increasingly depressed financially. The truth is Cleveland is just like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St Louis, Kansas City and Milwaukee and cannot support NFL, NBA and MLB franchises.

Love my Indians but the handwriting is on the wall for Cleveland. Dolan is the last chance for a MLB franchise as far as I can see since he is the only one who can make money until the welfare checks from the other owners run out.
August 12, 2012 - 4:38 PM EDT
I don't mean to be insulting at all. But thanks for stating the obvious.
August 12, 2012 - 9:32 AM EDT
That was a great article. Many props!

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