Last week, in an interview with Les Levine that has since gone viral, Shapiro said the following, in response to a question posed to him about why a particular fan should renew his season tickets, given the team’s ostensible inability to compete:
If you base your decision to come to the game on whether we win or lose, don’t come. You’re missing out. You’re missing out on what baseball is all about, and I’m fine with that.
So, he’s gonna try that honesty thing out full-bore, huh? I should have made it clear in those earlier pieces—perhaps in a footnote—that I….uh….I don’t work in PR. So…there’s that. Sorry Mark.
Look. I probably wouldn’t have worded it that way. But what he said ain’t exactly wrong, either. Baseball is a sport where even the best teams lose 60 games each season. If going to the ball game were all about seeing a win and tearing your hair out when they lose, NO ONE IN HER RIGHT MIND WOULD BUY SEASON TICKETS. It’s a guaranteed way to want to die, at least 60 times per year.
Shapiro’s point, and again, it’s one I largely agree with, is that we don’t go to baseball games strictly to see wins and lament losses. We go because going to ballpark is fun. And because baseball is awesome. And because of green grass and huge flags and cold beers and hot prospects and scorecards and mascots and a thousand other things that are fun about baseball. We hope they win. We wish the system was different. We believe, like almost every team except for a few, that if everything goes just right, we’ll have a chance to win our division.
So I actually don’t think what Shapiro said was so bad. I think he’d be wise, given his position, not to tell anyone to stay away from the ballpark, but the gist of his comment is fine. Baseball is more than wins and losses. I think Dan Gilbert says the same thing to his fan base. I think Jimmy Haslem will tell you the same thing about the Browns. Buy our tickets. We’re working on building a winner, but in the meantime, come. It’ll be fun.
I think if we’re all honest about this, the bigger issue here isn’t what was said, but who said it. There is an understandable and overflowing sense of frustration with Mark Shapiro in this town. He has now torn down two lovable teams and is well on his way to tearing down a decidedly less lovable one this winter. Cities don’t take kindly to watching their heroes shipped out of town—no matter the reasoning for it.
But even more than that, there is a sense that Shapiro—while smart enough and savvy enough to be fine baseball executive—doesn’t deserve another chance to rebuild this team. That’s just not how professional sports work: if you’re lucky, you get to guide a team through one rebuild (though as someone like Eric Mangini can attest, only if you’re lucky). You almost never get to do it more than once, and certainly not if one of your rebuilds looks as much like a failure as this current Indians one does.
It’s why, even though I can’t really think of who I’d want to run this team instead of Shapiro and Antonetti, that I still thought that after last season’s debacle it was time to move on from their stewardship. Not because they aren’t capable, but because they no longer offer a credible voice to most fans. No matter what they do (short of getting the Dolans to invest a loss in the franchise the way Illitch does in Detroit) they’ll be seen as trying to con fans into seeing a team that doesn’t deserve to be watched. No matter that most teams don’t compete for championships every year. No matter that baseball is inherently unfair economically. No matter that they proved themselves capable and competent more often than not. There is a sense among the fanbase that these guys have had their shot, and that they hoodwinked the city.
And because I didn’t see how the current front office could maintain a credible voice going forward, I was a bit shocked when the team seemed to double down on them this off-season. Terry Francona was brought aboard, with an out-clause in his contract tied to Shapiro and Antonetti’s continued employment. If they’re lucky, they’ll have to defend trading Chris Perez, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera to a city that will be wielding flaming pitchforks like you’ve never seen. And that’s if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky, they are unable to get sufficient value for those guys and they end up with no influx of talent as their two best players and charismatic closer walk in free agency over the next two years.
Were any of that to happen under new leadership, I don’t think most of us would bat an eye. After all, new leaders are typically given a grace period to reshape rosters and philosophies, to draft new talent and take their best hacks. But the fact that the same faces are going to be giving the same tired explanations that we’ve been hearing for 15 years now? That our organizational strategy is built around hoping to screw someone on a trade, get lucky in the draft, and compete for a few years on borrowed time?
I should be clear: that strategy outlined above is the right one to take. It’s the way that small market teams have to compete, and I think Shapiro is probably better at it than most. But listening to him stumble over himself trying to be honest about it is not helping anyone. He comes off as out-of-touch and insensitive. He comes off as antagonistic towards his fan base. He comes off as a prick, even when what he’s saying is mostly true.
So I’m pretty sure that this time around I have no more advice to offer the front office on their communication strategies. It’s pretty clear that, healthy or not, this has become about the messenger. People are mad at Shapiro and his front office. They don’t trust him. They find his continued employment objectionable—a sinecure for his willingness to walk the Dolan Company Line. He can bring them a World Series winning manager on a platter—a hire that only Shapiro could’ve made and one with whom no one could possibly take issue—and we’ll find a way to be pissed off about it. He can tell us a truth so obvious and mundane that it’s painful to deconstruct, but we’ll start flamewars over it.
He can look us in the eye and tell us that going to baseball games is fun. And we’ll disagree with him.
That’s a problem. And one I won’t pretend to be able to fix.