Leery on Lake Erie

Jason Epstein, in his post about the Indians, notes their low attendance. They’re in first place in the AL Central Division, so why aren’t Clevelanders flocking to Progressive Field? So asked Tribe closer Chris Pérez last weekend, sparking a week’s worth of commentary.

True, the prevailing mood in Cleveland about the Indians’ nice start is “Eh.” Should it be otherwise? This is a club, remember, that also had some nice finishes — in 1995, 1997, 2005, 2007 — but still failed to win the World Series. The last time they did win it, 1948, was before most Clevelanders were born.

They’ve earned their skepticism. It would be hard to overestimate the degree to which it has been reinforced in recent years by the loss of their back-to-back Cy Young Award winners, C. C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, to  (essentially) free agency. (The Indians traded them before their contracts were up.) Fans calling in to local sports-talk radio tended to blame the owner, Larry Dolan, for not spending money the club didn’t have.

The hosts got it, for the most part. They explained about salary caps, or the absence of them, and how it’s not unreasonable for MLB executives at 245 Park Avenue to want to see the best baseball talent concentrated in the biggest markets, where the industry can maximize its profits off, for example, the left arms of Sabatha and Lee. The cost of that plan is that MLB loses in places like Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but that’s a low price to pay for winning in New York and Boston.

In MLB, the correlation is strong between market size and on-field performance, which obviously correlates with revenue. (The St. Louis Cardinals are an outlier and a testament perhaps to the enduring genius of Branch Rickey, who as general manager in the 1920s and ’30s transformed the franchise into the jewel of the National League — unless you think that distinction belongs to the Dodgers, which Rickey imprinted during his general managership of them in the 1940s.) This is in marked contrast to other professional sports leagues, most notably the NFL, which consistently enables franchises in small cities to dominate. Pittsburgh and Green Bay come to mind.

Terry Pluto’s observations about the Indians and their fans are worth reading.

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