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 - $320 M - was the most ever paid for a baseball team. Dick Jacobs, who, along with his brother David, paid $36 M 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 last week. ''I don't think I'll suffer from seller's remorse.''
The Indians core had pretty much topped out after losing in the 1st Round to Boston. They had no true ace, and their best SP's - Finley (37), Burba (33), and Nagy (33) were aging. The team's young stud - Bartolo Colon - was close 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 (34) were close to free agency. Travis Fryman - at 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 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.
The Indians payroll was $73.2 M in 1999. It was increased to $75.8 M in 2000, Dolan's first year as owner. Feeling the Indians were still a World Series contender, he upped the payroll in 2000 to $91.9 M - the highest in team history. The Indians didn't make the playoffs. That offseason, Dolan didn't go for a rebuild - he went for another shot at the Series. He offered Manny Ramirez at least 8 years, $20 M per year - a total of $160 M - possibly even more. (Note: Great read here for those who think the Indians just made a "PR offer"). Manny chose Boston. Dolan/Shapiro 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 1st 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 M payroll in 2000, were up to $125 M in 2002 (and $150 M in 2003). The 2nd highest payroll in 2000 was $88 M (Angels). Seven teams would eclipse that number by 2002. MLB was quickly becoming the "Have's" and the "Have-Not's".
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. They rebounded again in 2007. The Indians won 96 games, led the major 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:
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 3,782 more fans.
The dwindling fan support didn't stop the Indians from trying to lock up their young core. They signed Grady Sizemore to a 6 year extension in 2006. They signed Jake Westbrook for 3 years, $33 M in April of 2007. Travis Hafner was locked up for four years, $57 M at the 2007 All-Star Break.
That 2008 team was ravaged by injuries. Martinez played in 73 G, Hafner 57 G, Westbrook 5 G, and Blake 94 G. 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 starting offer from the Indians of $18 M per year. They decided to deal Sabathia. Fans turned away from the Indians, as the Tribe finished 22nd in attendance.
Despite the poor numbers, they addressed their most pressing weakness - closer - heading into 2009 by signing Kerry Wood for two years, $20 M. The payroll was at $82 M, 15th highest in MLB. The 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 as a whole were facing another tough reality - two of their stars were off of the field more than on it, one had turned into a headcase, 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, good for 25th in MLB.
They traded 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 had 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. His biggest mistake was that he was largely absent from the public eye. He didn't do many interviews. He didn't make public appearances to fans. His image was created - a cheap owner who didn't care about the fans or the team - and he did nothing through public relations to change that. He still hasn't.
He took one more shot at winning over fans in 2011 - the team was on fire and seriously contending, so Dolan OK'd a deal to send away the Indians' best pitching prospect for Ubaldo Jimenez - viewed as a potential ace. The Indians still faded, the attendance still didn't improve (22,726, 24th in MLB), and the deal was largely viewed as a mistake.
With he and Antonetti both feeling the heat from that failed deal and from the fans to do something big, they failed to significantly improve the team. 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 M. They picked up Fausto Carmona's option, only to see his scandal take place weeks later. Both Sizemore and Carmona..errr...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. 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 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 was 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. Fans, who don't trust him no matter what, don't come out. In turn, Dolan keeps payrolls no higher than $75 M 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 happened aren't likely.
Of course, the main problem - should they 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. 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.
-sgm405, realcavsfans.com 8/4/12