With the Cleveland Indians ticketed to their first World Series since 1997, it’s my inclination as a Pittsburgher to be a little bit jealous. It is Cleveland, after all. If Pittsburgh can claim the moniker of The City of Champions, its Midwestern mate, located two hours west on I-76, represents the antithesis. LeBron James and the Cavaliers changed that when they won the NBA championship this past summer and the Indians, who took the American League Central crown with 94 wins and have carved their way through the playoffs with relative ease, are in a position to turn “The Mistake by the Lake” into “The City of Champions: West.”
Of course, this isn’t a Cleveland-centric blog. So why am I wasting all of this time talking about the Indians? To say that the Pirates could learn some things from the Indians would be trite. This Indians team is great, but the playoffs are filled with randomness. Could the ’16 Indians beat last year’s 98-win Pirates team in a seven-game series? Who knows? Who cares? It’s because the prospect of winning two major championships in a single year is unprecedented in Cleveland and, logically, probably should whip the small sports town into frenzy. But the Indians aren’t exactly the rousing, phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes story that the Cavs represented this past postseason. Where the wide-open arms of LeBron welcome people to the city, the Indians struggle to fill the bleachers at Progressive Field.
For the 2016 season, the Indians drew 1,591,667 people to their ballpark. That number is low: 28th in the league above only lowly Tampa Bay (1.29 million) and Oakland (1.52 million). That’s less than the Pirates drew in 2010, despite those Buccos winning only 57 games. Progressive Field’s lack of attendance can be explained economically. Only two MLB markets have experienced population decline since 2010: Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Part of the Indians’ problem is that their season overlaps with the understandably more popular Cavaliers’ season and their first half attendance figures, particularly during the Cavs’ playoff run, show that. There are also other things to consider such as the city’s geography (the Cuyahoga River splits the city and Lake Erie prevents northern expansion), economy (shifting from blue collar to healthcare jobs), and the ballpark itself (perfectly fine, but unremarkable).
|1||2016||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||94||67||1||Progressive Field||1,591,667||19,650||13th of 15|
|2||2015||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||81||80||3||Progressive Field||1,388,905||17,361||14th of 15|
|3||2014||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||85||77||3||Progressive Field||1,437,393||17,746||15th of 15|
|4||2013||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||92||70||2||Lost ALWC (1-0)||Progressive Field||1,572,926||19,419||14th of 15|
|5||2012||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||68||94||4||Progressive Field||1,603,596||19,797||13th of 14|
|6||2011||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||80||82||2||Progressive Field||1,840,835||22,726||9th of 14|
|7||2010||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||69||93||4||Progressive Field||1,391,644||17,181||14th of 14|
|8||2009||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||65||97||4||Progressive Field||1,766,242||21,805||13th of 14|
|9||2008||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||81||81||3||Progressive Field||2,169,760||26,787||9th of 14|
|10||2007||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||96||66||1||Lost ALCS (4-3)||Jacobs Field & Miller Park||2,275,912||28,449||10th of 14|
|11||2006||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||78||84||4||Jacobs Field||1,997,995||24,667||11th of 14|
|12||2005||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||93||69||2||Jacobs Field||2,013,763||24,861||12th of 14|
|13||2004||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||80||82||3||Jacobs Field||1,814,401||22,400||12th of 14|
|14||2003||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||68||94||4||Jacobs Field||1,730,002||21,358||12th of 14|
|15||2002||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||74||88||3||Jacobs Field||2,616,940||32,308||5th of 14|
|16||2001||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||91||71||1||Lost LDS (3-2)||Jacobs Field||3,175,523||39,694||3rd of 14|
|17||2000||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||90||72||2||Jacobs Field||3,456,278||42,670||1st of 14|
|18||1999||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||97||65||1||Lost LDS (3-2)||Jacobs Field||3,468,456||42,820||1st of 14|
|19||1998||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||89||73||1||Lost ALCS (4-2)||Jacobs Field||3,467,299||42,806||2nd of 14|
|20||1997||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||86||75||1||Lost WS (4-3)||Jacobs Field||3,404,750||42,034||2nd of 14|
|21||1996||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||99||62||1||Lost LDS (3-1)||Jacobs Field||3,318,174||41,477||2nd of 14|
|22||1995||Cleveland Indians||AL Central||100||44||1||Lost WS (4-2)||Jacobs Field||2,842,745||39,483||2nd of 14|
But even though local television ratings remain high, the Indians’ attendance problem persists. Following the team’s peak from the mid-‘90s to the early-‘00s, where the team recorded seven straight winning seasons and won the American League pennant twice, there has been a distinct downturn in attendance. Cleveland had not traditionally been a strong baseball town, but during its heyday a decade ago they were routinely drawing upwards of three million people per season. That’s a Yankees-esque figure.
Then came the realization that all successful small market teams eventually become faced with: Good players quickly turn into expensive players. Steadily, Cleveland’s homegrown stars began to head to greener (green as in American currency) pastures. Albert Belle became baseball’s first $10 million player, signing with the White Sox in the winter of 1996. Manny Ramirez spurned the Indians to sign an eight-year, $160 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in 2000. Heroic slugger Jim Thome even found his way out of town, signing with the Philadelphia Phillies after the 2002 season.
By and large, the Indians did a pretty good job of extrapolating value for their departing pieces. Bartolo Colon netted them Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore from the Montreal Expos in 2002. Kenny Lofton was traded to the Atlanta Braves for David Justice and Marquis Grissom before he just re-signed with the Indians again a season later. And that’s not to mention the several Cy Young caliber seasons they enjoyed from C.C. Sabathia, who the Indians drafted with the 20th pick in the 1998 draft. In the last 21 years, the Indians have had eight losing seasons. That’s a brand of suffering that most teams in the league would happily endure.
Now here is where the Indians relate to the Pirates: Even though they have fielded decent teams with reasonable consistency, the Indians still have yet to rekindle the magic of those mid-‘90s teams. All it took was a lean year in 2002 combined with the departures of a few star players for the Indians to lose their fans’ trust and, as a result, attendance plummeted from 3,175,523 in 2001 to 2,616,940 in 2002 to 1,730,002 in 2003. The Indians’ gate has exceeded two million people just three times since 2002. They have earned winning records in each of the past four seasons, but have consistently been one of the worst draws in baseball.
The Pirates now find themselves in a similar situation to where the Indians were in 2002. Pittsburgh hasn’t yet had the prolonged success that Cleveland has, but their uninspired 2016 campaign sure feels like a similar tipping point. Three straight playoff appearances ignited a long dormant Pirates fan base. Now they’ve followed that up with a disappointing year. Disappointing not only because the Pirates didn’t win, but because the front office didn’t give them a chance. It’s telling that in a season where the Pirates resigned fan favorites Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli, and David Freese that the story at the end of the season remained that they were too cheap while acquiring pitching talent in the previous offseason (not to mention the ghost of Neil Walker). If you listen closely, you can hear the wheels start to fall off of the bandwagon.
This upcoming offseason will be significant for the Pirates. General manager Neal Huntington and company are going to have to find some starting pitching in a barren free agent market and they are probably going to do it without spending much money. Superstar center fielder and face of the franchise Andrew McCutchen is reportedly on the trading block following the worst season of his career. The Pirates entered the 2016 season with the makings of a strong core, and they’ll enter 2017 with the same, but the confidence that permeated during those three golden years appears to be dissipating.
It wasn’t long ago when serious Pirates fans, the ones who study the organization from the lowest minor league level to the top, anticipated that 2017 would be Pittsburgh’s year. It was scheduled to be the season where all of Huntington’s hoarded prospects came to fruition. And, for all we know, that still might happen. Jameson Taillon had a great rookie year, Josh Bell showed that he belongs in the major leagues, and Tyler Glasnow still throws in the high 90’s, even if he can’t consistently put the ball over the plate. Talent wise, the future isn’t bleak. But it certainly feels that way.
The Indians did not necessarily lose Cleveland because they were bad. They lost Cleveland because they weren’t willing to do any better. The competition for Pittsburgh’s entertainment dollar is fierce. Fans salivate for the Steelers in early summer. Hockey fans spent the past four months celebrating a Stanley Cup. At its best, Pittsburgh does a pretty good job pretending to be a baseball town for a few months out of the year. It’d behoove the Pirates to not give their casual fans any more reason to drop the act.