Athletics Nation honcho Tyler Bleszinski (a.k.a. Blez) put up his annual Billy Beane interview yesterday, and as usual it’s a treat. Fortunately, this offseason’s conversation was more occupied by what the team did instead of looking to the future. It’s a good read.
Once you’re done with that, contrast that conversation with one held with Mark “not Rincon” Shapiro and conducted by Fox Sports Ohio’s Pat McManaman. The 2012 edition of the Indians spent the first half of the season at or a few games within first place, only to sink like they wore cement shoes after the All Star Break. Their last winning season was in 2007, when the team went to the ALCS and squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Red Sox. Back then the team was well-stocked with quality youth in the field (Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Victor Martinez, Ryan Garko, Franklin Gutierrez) and studs on the mound (C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona Roberto Hernandez, Jake Westbrook). If the team could get over the hump, the malaise of the early 2000’s would give way to a resurgence, perhaps reminiscent of the mid-90’s clubs that dominated the AL Central. Instead, the team traded both Sabathia and Lee as they neared free agency, later traded Gutierrez, Martinez and Peralta while Sizemore and Hernandez were beset with injuries. It’s not a unique script. The A’s fortunes during that period played out much the same way, with Eric Chavez and Justin Duchscherer constantly rotating between the DL and the active roster, and Bobby Crosby simply not panning out after a RoY season. Poor yields on trades kept both teams from successfully rebuilding. It’s a script all revenue-poor teams have to follow, often with a boom season being illusory instead of trendsetting. Poor teams can afford to make fewer mistakes. Rich teams can afford to have Barry Zito suck for more than half of his contract until he redeems himself as a 4th starter. In Cleveland or Oakland, Zito’s contract is a pair of cement shoes.
That the Indians haven’t won the Series since the Truman administration is well-known. Not even a successful movie franchise has lifted the curse or healed the Cleveland fan’s psyche. No, it’s not as long as the Cubs’ endless suffering, but at least Chicago’s had other teams win in the meantime. The annual disappointment properly frames a snippet of the discussion between McManaman and Shapiro, as they talk about lagging attendance and the business side of the Indians. Shapiro was promoted to Indians president after the 2010 season, so he has his hands in more than just personnel work, now the task of GM Mark Antonetti.
Q: Is there a perception problem in town?
A: The biggest perception issue is probably the simplest one, which is we’re still to some extent always viewed in the backdrop of those ‘90s teams, when in reality that was a completely different business model. Those (Indians) teams were literally the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Dodgers. We were top five in payroll, as high as three. And our revenues generated that.
So I think there’s that general public sentiment that, ‘Hey if you win enough people will come.’ But that’s not necessarily true. We had a unique set of circumstances.
There was a new ballpark. That’s a huge multiplier. We hadn’t won in 40 years. That’s a multiplier. There was no football team in town. That magnified our revenues. The one that gets overlooked a lot is the industry was coming off a strike, so all of our revenues were amplified because all the other teams’ revenues were significantly tamped down at that point. So ours were amplified. Our spending power was amplified on the free agent market. And the city was economically in a better place. There were four Fortune 500 companies that were here that are no longer here.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? While the A’s didn’t have a new ballpark, they and the Coliseum Commission teamed up to make improvements to the Coliseum that made it arguably the best ballpark in the majors in the late 80’s. They were able to do this because the Raiders fled the stadium for Los Angeles. Wally Haas had the immediately competitive BillyBall teams of the early 80’s, then a rebuilding period, followed by the powerhouse Bash Brothers teams, during which Haas was a profligate spender. Dick Jacobs didn’t time the Indians’ rise to occur with Art Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore, but he sure took advantage of it. The Indians cashed in big by not having a major sport competitor in their midst other than the somewhat interesting Cavaliers. Like the A’s Moneyball era, the Indians’ run lasted about seven years. Among the Once the Browns were reconstituted via expansion, the novelty at Jacobs Field started to wear off and the more Clevelanders could turn their attention to an expansion team that, by nature of expansion, was doomed to struggle for several years. Like Haas, Jacobs and his brother David sold the Indians as the era was ending, and as a football team returned. In the twelve years since, the Indians have been above .500 three times and went to the playoffs once, that 2007 season. As long as Mike Ilitch and Jerry Reinsdorf own rivals in the division, they’ll always have more revenue and spend more than the Indians, just as the Rangers and Angels will in the West.
Shapiro then delved into what it means to spend more.
Q: That was a decade and a half ago, really. Fifteen years. Do you think people, the general populace still judges in those terms?
A: I think it frames that very guttural reaction, like, “Hey, if you win it’s already been shown people will come.” That’s what you hear all the time.
Q: Do you believe that?
A: I think more people will come. But the challenge is 2.2 million instead of 1.6 million doesn’t change the way we operate. Even that extra 500,000, 600,000 people, even if that’s $10-to-15 more million in revenue a year . . . one win in free agency is $9 million. So you’re not going to change the context. Again, I don’t think people want to intellectualize baseball, and I don’t believe you should have to intellectualize baseball . . . and we’ve made a conscious decision in most of our interviews not to get into these topics and just stay positive and talk about what our aspirations are.
But that revenue swing between 1.5 million in attendance and 2.2 million in attendance . . . meaningful dollars but not dollars that will have us plan dramatically different.
Q: It wouldn’t change the amount of money spent?
A: It would change the amount of spent to 15 million dollars a year. What does that buy you in free agency? Very little. One and a half wins.
The A’s pulled in 1.6 million in attendance in 2012. At $25 per head, a rise to 2.2 million puts the A’s at an extra $15 million in revenue, the top range of Shapiro’s estimate – and that doesn’t account for costs so it will surely be lower than $15 million. While Shapiro doesn’t want to go too deep into the numbers, he knows what every front office knows: that the poor teams are hurt doubly by the current economic system. Aspiring to an $80 million payroll is great, yet it provides zero guarantees, enormous risk, and the cost per win in free agency (at least with WAR as the leading statistic) is so out of scale that it’s absolutely prudent to spend wisely in the short and long-term. It also puts the lie to the idea that if the A’s just win fans will come out, and that will save the team in Oakland. Something more fundamental has to change for the A’s to get to the point that they are no longer poor. As much as many in the pro-Oakland group want to believe that can happen in Oakland, I remain skeptical that it can. Just look at Bud Selig’s throwaway line when he was questioned by Bill Shaikin the other day.
Q: Do you believe a new ballpark in Oakland is feasible?
A: I don’t know. That is one of the things we are checking.
Oakland boosters have had three years to make the case that Oakland is feasible. I know the obstacles facing San Jose: the Giants’ territorial rights and a referendum. In Oakland, the challenge is much deeper and just as impossible to ignore. How much can revenues be expected to rise? $40 million? $60 million? What will make the franchise turn the corner in that city? How much is enough to compete regularly? After three years, Selig remains as unsure about Oakland as ever. After three years, you’d think he’d have the confidence to hammer out a deal the way David Stern did with Sacramento by bypassing ownership, or by having Bob DuPuy deal directly with a municipality as was done in Miami. The fact that Selig hasn’t should tell you something, and that something is not good. Selig claims that he’ll be guided by the “best interests in baseball”. From an emotional standpoint that should mean saving baseball in Oakland. Unfortunately, emotion and business generally aren’t compatible.
The A’s 2013 doesn’t look like the Indians’ 2008. They don’t have a bunch of pitchers that are about hit their sixth year. The roster is pretty well cost-controlled through 2015, allowing for flexibility in terms of offseason and midseason trades along with free agent signings. For the collective A’s fans’ sake, I hope that the team doesn’t regress as so many others have done. Otherwise Beane’s interview this time next year won’t read like this year’s, it’ll read like Shapiro’s.