Tribe Happenings: "What if" the Indians...
Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…
I have never been a fan of the Indians “what if” campaign they bombarded people with on TV and over the radio the past two seasons. It is a campaign that came to prominence at the beginning of the 2011 season when they were got off to a fast 30-15 start, but since then the results have been mediocre at best and left a lot to be desired to wonder “what if” when it comes to the Indians winning anything.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the approach of the commercials which was about making connections to the game and the team. That is exactly the approach that they need to take with marketing the team to the fans because when it gets down to it the game of baseball is all about connections. That connection that goes beyond team and fan, but with dad and son or daughter, and the way the game becomes so ingrained into your daily life over a six to seven month period from late February to late September (and hopefully into late October).
But I just never liked the “what if” tagline.
As someone who has followed the Indians since the late 70s, I have witnessed several cheesy campaigns over the years. I still remember going to opening day in 1985 with my dad and hearing the new team anthem and “Tribe ’85, this is my team” tagline for that season. They reworked Michael Stanley’s “This is my town” tune into that tagline and he even sung it live on opening day. Bottom line, I hope the Indians continue with the feel and approach of their ad campaigns, but thankfully it appears the “what if” tagline has been put to rest.
I just always disliked the “what if” campaign simply because the first thoughts that came to my mind when that question was proposed at the end of every commercial were not always very positive ones. Instead of thinking, hey, what if they can win this year, I was often left with thinking about the past.
If you think about it and look back on Indians history over the last 20-25 years, there are certainly a lot of “what if” scenarios. There have been some good moments during that timeframe, but the for the most part they have been few and far in between the bad ones. Here are a few moments in Tribe history over the years that make you wonder “what if” things would have gone differently:
What if the Gateway project was never approved? It is possible that had “Issue 2” never passed in the May 1990 primary to approve funding for the project that the Indians may no longer be in Cleveland today. Wayne Huizenga had just announced his intentions in March 1990 to pursue an expansion franchise in Miami and was later awarded what eventually became the Florida Marlins in June of 1991. That team could have been the Indians via relocation, or the Indians could have always moved to Tampa Bay a few years later.
What if there was no lockout in 1994? The lockout hurt a lot of teams for several years after it until about 1998, which helped the Indians operate as a big market both because of their attendance but also because the bigger markets were still recovering from the lockout. One could argue that of all the teams, the lockout benefitted the Indians the most and it was a big reason why they were able to compete financially with so many of the “big boys” for a few years after it.
What if the Browns never moved? If the Browns were still in town from 1996-1998 I often wonder what the attendance would have been like. The Indians got the full attention of the Cleveland fan base from 1996-1998 and they made good on it with winning teams that were exciting to see. I think 1996 would have been what it was, but starting in 1997 or 1998 the attendance would have started to decline but still been very good, but they would have never come close to 455 straight sellouts.
What if the Indians had traded for Randy Johnson? I can remember it almost like yesterday. In the days before information was at your fingertips thanks to smartphones and social media sites like Twitter, the only show that mattered on trade deadline night when it came to breaking trade rumors and information was ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight”. If you wanted all the rumors and news about deals going down at the last second, you turned in to listen to all the stuff that Peter Gammons had to share. On July 31st, 1998 the Indians were this close to landing Randy Johnson in a trade from the Seattle Mariners only to be outbid at the last second by the Houston Astros. I still believe had they been able to land Johnson that year they would have had the final piece to beat the Yankees in the ALCS that season and win the World Series.
What if Dick Jacobs never sold the team? Dick Jacobs sold the team at the height of their success during the 1999 season and officially handed the keys over to the Dolan family after that season. He was an astute businessman and saw where things were heading with the team from a revenue standpoint and with the financial disparity in the league growing at a rapid pace. I don’t suspect payrolls would have been much different over the past decade had Jacobs or his successor after his death owned the team, but I think given his past success as an owner it would have taken a lot of heat and attention away from ownership and the team payrolls.
What if the Indians never traded Brandon Phillips? A lot of people know that I have been a big supporter of former GM and current President Mark Shapiro over the years, and I still am, but this to me was one of his worst decisions ever as a GM. Granted, Phillips was a lot less mature back then, but they made the decision based on emotion and did not give him another chance with the big league club after his disastrous rookie campaign in 2003. All he has done in seven seasons with the Reds since the trade is make two All Star teams, win three Gold Gloves (and probably a fourth this year), and hit an average of .280 with 20 HR, 80 RBI, 20 stolen bases, and .775 OPS each season with the Reds.
What if the Indians did not choke that last week of the 2005 season? A lot of people discard the 2005 season as an unsuccessful season in Shapiro’s reign as GM, but I greatly disagree. That was arguably the most talented team they had during his tenure, and is one of the all-time best Indians’ teams in the history of the franchise. Yes, they did not make the playoffs, but that was more because of failings from their manager as the team severely underperformed during former manager Eric Wedge’s tenure. That season the Indians had the best pitching staff in the American League (3rd overall in MLB) with a lockdown bullpen and very good starting staff, and also were ranked 4th in hitting in the American League (7th overall in MLB).
What if Joel Skinner had not held up Lofton rounding third? To this day I still do not know what Joel Skinner was thinking in Game 7 of the ALCS when he held Lofton at third base on a ball down the line that he would have easily scored on. The series was actually lost before that, but that is the defining image of a very disappointing playoff series loss for the Indians. The 2007 season was yet another lost opportunity for the Indians to come away as World Series champions. I still feel that of all the Indians success in the 90s, while the 1995 and 1997 teams were the obvious best chance to finally win a world championship, the next two best chances were in 2005 and 2007. Those were two very good teams and one of them should have won a World Series.
What if the Indians had never traded Sabathia and Lee? This is something out of the Indians control as there is no way in today’s financial landscape of the game that they could keep one let along two CY Young award winners heading into free agency. It is the unfortunate reality of a game that is not fair for the mid to smaller market teams. Had this system been in place decades earlier, the likes of Bob Feller and other Indians’ greats of the past would have spent six to eight seasons in Cleveland before finishing up the prime and twilight of their careers with teams like the Yankees or Dodgers. But even while I know and accept all of this, it is still hard to get over. Pitching wins championships and when you have not one but two top of the rotation studs and have to let them go, that’s a tough thing to get over and move on from.
So you see? This is why I am glad the “what if” campaign is (hopefully) over. It just evokes too many bad memories and wonderment of how much things could have turned out better for the Indians from time to time.
Sarbaugh named to Francona’s staff
Another name has been announced as part of new manager Terry Francona’s staff. While no formal announcement has yet been made by the team, earlier in the week the Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes reported the hiring and I have since confirmed that Mike Sarbaugh has been named to the first base and infield coaching post. He replaces Steve Smith who is taking a break from coaching this season in order to spend more time with his family.
Sarbaugh, 45, just finished his third straight season as manager of Triple-A Columbus and 23rd season overall with the Indians as a player and coach (5 seasons as a player, 18 as a coach). He was named the 2011 International League Manager of the Year, was named the Baseball America Manager of the Year in 2010, was named the Eastern League Manager of the Year in 2009, and was named the Carolina League Manager of the Year in 2007. In nine seasons as a minor league manager from 2004-2012 he never had a losing season and compiled a career record of 697-511 (.577), and in seven of those seasons his team made it to the playoffs and won an impressive five league titles. He won a title in 2004 in his managerial debut with short season Single-A Mahoning Valley, in 2006 with High-A Kinston, in 2009 with Double-A Akron, and in 2010 and 2011 with Triple-A Columbus.
The hiring of Sarbaugh does not come as much of a surprise as his success as a manager and coach in the Indians’ system has been highly regarded not only from within the organization, but by other teams as well. It is not just the win-loss record and the success in the playoffs that has been so impressive, but the way he communicates and connects with his players has been exemplary. On top of that he is very knowledgeable and has a really good feel for the game. Over his tenure as a coach I have rarely heard a bad word said about him by a player or staff member, and he has been nothing but respectful and fair to the media over the years.
It is a well-deserved promotion that in a way rewards Sarbaugh for being a good soldier in the organization for so long, but mostly because he is a perfect match for Francona’s new staff as he brings a strong rapport with most of the players since he has had a great many of them in Columbus the past three seasons. There is arguably no one who knows the players on the 40-man roster better than Sarbaugh as he has coached so many of them, some of which he has coached for more than one season.
Sarbaugh had Vinnie Pestano and Carlos Santana in 2009 at Akron and in 2010 at Columbus, had Jason Kipnis at the end of 2010 and most of 2011 at Columbus, had Lonnie Chisenhall in 2011 and 2012 at Columbus, had Zach McAllister in Columbus from 2010-2012, and had Michael Brantley in 2010 at Columbus. Those are six core players right there, not to mention a host of other players like Cord Phelps, Dave Huff, Corey Kluber, Jeanmar Gomez, Matt LaPorta, Russ Canzler, Ezequiel Carrera and many more he has managed in Columbus over the past three seasons.
Bottom line, Sarbaugh is walking into a situation where he already knows the players, knows what makes them tick, and more importantly has been a part of their success in the minors. He helps bridge the gap and serve as a human encyclopedia to Francona and his new staff members as they get to know all of the players. The challenge for him is adapting to the big leagues where the focus is much more on winning and results compared to the minors where the focus is mostly on development.
With Sarbaugh in tow the Indians now have three coaches named to Francona’s staff as Sandy Alomar Jr. and Brad Mills have also been named to the staff. The Indians still need to fill the pitching, hitting, third base, and bullpen coach roles. Sarbaugh is the only one who is for sure on the staff and whose role is known since Alomar could still leave his bench coach post he has agreed to if he is offered a manager job elsewhere, and Mills’ exact role is unknown at this time.
A non-repeat of Lovullo
It is also great to see Sarbaugh named to the big league staff as the organization ran the risk of losing his services like they did after the 2009 season with Torey Lovullo. Lovullo was in the organization for several years and managed their Triple-A Buffalo and Columbus teams for three straight seasons from 2007-2009, but not only was he passed over for the manager opening three years ago, once Manny Acta got the job he curiously was passed over to be a part of his big league coaching staff. I never quite understood the thinking there, and he obviously did as well left the organization and made a lateral move to the Red Sox to be their Triple-A Pawtucket manager for the 2010 season.
In the end, Lovullo’s decision to leave has worked out well for him. He went to Boston in 2010 and reunited with old friend John Farrell, a person he developed a good relationship over the years when both were in the Indians organization. Lovullo came into the Indians organization in 2001 as a roving coordinator and Farrell came in later that year as the Indians’ Director of Player Development.
You have to wonder if Farrell privately told Lovullo that if he came on board with the Red Sox that he would take him with him when he left for a manager’s job which was all but certain to happen in the not too distant future. That’s exactly what happened the next year as Farrell was named the manager of the Blue Jays after the 2010 season and he took Lovullo with him to be his first base and infield coach. Last week when Farrell got the Red Sox manager’s gig, he once again brought his good friend Lovullo with him, but this time as his bench coach.
Earlier this week Minor League Baseball recognized long time Indians’ coach, executive, coordinator and advisor Johnny Goryl by naming him the recipient of the Mike Coolbaugh Award. The award is presented to an individual who has shown an outstanding baseball work ethic, knowledge of the game and skill in mentoring young players on the field. Coolbaugh played in nearly 1,700 games in his Minor League Baseball career from 1990-2006 and was only 35 years old when he died after being hit in the neck by a line drive while coaching first base for Tulsa in a game at Arkansas on July 22, 2007.
“As large as an organization as Minor League Baseball is, it is an absolute honor to be selected for Mike’s award,” Goryl said in a prepared statement. “It was a very humbling and emotional experience for me when I heard the news, especially knowing how many other people are deserving of this honor. I want to accept this award on behalf of my three children, whose understanding of being without dad for all those years made, not only this career possible, but this award possible for me.”
Goryl just completed his 31st consecutive season in the Cleveland organization as a coach, executive, advisor or coordinator this past season. Overall, he has spent 62 consecutive seasons in professional baseball, having begun his career as an infielder in the Boston Braves organization in 1951.
In his current role, Goryl is responsible for advising Indians’ Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins and Field Coordinator Rob Leary regarding all departmental operations and philosophies. He began his stint with Cleveland in 1982, serving as the Tribe’s third base coach through the 1988 season. In 1989, Goryl moved into the club’s farm department as the Director of Minor League Operations. He also held the positions of Special Assistant Baseball Operations (1993-96); Infield Coach (1997-98); Defensive Coordinator (1999-2003); and Player Personnel Advisor (2004-11), before assuming his current role as Advisor to Player Development.
Few fans may know that Sarbaugh was an extra in the movie “Major League II”. At the time the movie was being shot he was playing for the Indians’ Double-A Canton-Akron affiliate, and played the part of the Red Sox shortstop during the spring training scenes. His 15 minutes of fame (or five seconds) occurs in the scene where he fields a grounder off the bat of Pedro Cerrano at shortstop and turns a double play. After the play he and Cerrano come face to face as they run off the field and Cerrano hugs him and tells him he made a good play. ... With the Giants up three games to none over the Tigers in the World Series, the Series will probably end early this week (maybe even today). The Indians have up until three days after the World Series to make decisions on player options for Travis Hafner, Roberto Hernandez, and Ubaldo Jimenez. They are expected to pick up Jimenez's option, but decline the options for Hafner and Hernandez.
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
About the lockout "What if", I still think that the 94 team would have gained crucial playoff experience that would have helped the 95 team win it all.
And what if the accident at Little Lake Nellie never happened and if Steve Olin could have closed out the 97 series instead of Jose Mesa?
1) i forget where i read it, but it was thought when the Indians put Chief Wahoo on the caps it was a sign that the team could move - IE no need to create new caps with a letter on it. (i think the city du jour at that point was Denver.)
2) i can remember the Randy Johnson rumors - and the final story i had heard (i think on espn) was that the Indians and Yankees were in the running for Johnson, until Hart found out the Seattle GM was playing both ends against the middle. He pulled out and apparently convinced the Yankees to pull out as well. Is this accurate?
3) Surprised you didn't add - What if the Indians traded for Pedro Martinez? The stories i had heard was that Hart talked to the Expos about him, and they wanted both Colon and Wright. Hart said no - some stories have it because he didn't want to deal both pitchers, but others had it because he knew Dick Jacobs didn't want to sign him long term.