It's time for Dolan to sell the Indians

I've been a baseball fan since I was four years old.

I followed it so much so that, at five, I could tell you what team any player played for, which used to amuse my parents' friends (the only one they got me on was Sam Malone - those 80's tricksters). The first game I remember was in 1987 at Municipal Stadium. We had season tickets and I loved every minute of it. The Indians lost 101 games that year, and I didn't care. I loved Indians baseball and I wanted to be there no matter what.

Maybe that's why I have never understood why most people didn't support the Indians - until now.

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 - $323 million - was the most ever paid for a baseball team. Dick Jacobs, who, along with his brother David, paid $36 million 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 the previous week. ''I don't think I'll suffer from seller's remorse.''

The Indians core had pretty much topped out after losing in the first round to Boston in the 1999 American League Division Series. Going into Dolan's first season as owner in 2000 they had no true ace and their best starting pitchers - Chuck Finley (37), Dave Burba (33), and Nagy (33) were aging. The team's young stud - Bartolo Colon - was moving closer 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 (32) were close to free agency. Travis Fryman (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 (28) 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.

In Dick Jacobs last year as owner the Indians payroll was $73.2 million in 1999. In any year prior to that as owner Jacobs never had a payroll that touched even $60 million, so he clearly took an all-in approach in his last season as owner.

In 2000 the payroll was increased to $75.8 million, which was Dolan's first year as owner. They did not make the playoffs. Feeling the Indians were still a World Series contender, in 2001 he upped the payroll to $91.9 million - easily the highest in team history.

That offseason between the 2000 and 2001 season was a crazy one for the Indians. With an aging team Dolan didn't go for a rebuild - he went for another shot at the Series. He offered Manny Ramirez at least eight years, $20 million per year - a total of $160 million - possibly even more. Manny chose Boston.

After losing out on Manny, the Indians contingent of Dolan and GM John Hard (who was going into his final year as GM) 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 first 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 million payroll in 2000, were up to $125 million in 2002 (and $150 million in 2003). The 2nd highest payroll in 2000 was $88 million (Angels). Seven teams would eclipse that number by 2002. MLB was quickly becoming the "have's" and the "have-not's".

After stripping the team of almost all of its stars and identity before and during the 2002 season, 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, but they rebounded again in 2007. The Indians won 96 games, led the majors 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:

Average Game Attendance

(MLB rank in parentheses)

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 an average of 3,782 more fans a game (306,342 full season attendance boost).

The dwindling fan support didn't stop the Indians from trying to lock up their young core. They signed Grady Sizemore to a six year extension in 2006. They signed Jake Westbrook for three years, $33 million in April of 2007. Travis Hafner was locked up for four years, $57 million at the 2007 All-Star Break.

After such a successful 2007 campaign, the 2008 season quickly unraveled as the team was ravaged by injuries. Victor Martinez played in 73 games, Hafner 57 games, Westbrook 5 games, and Casey Blake 94 games. 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 offer from the Indians of $18 million per year, a contract that would have made him the highest paid player in team history. They decided to deal Sabathia. Fans turned away from the Indians, as the Tribe finished 22nd in attendance (27,122 average attendance).

Despite the poor numbers they addressed their most pressing weakness - closer - heading into 2009 by signing Kerry Wood for two years, $20 million. The payroll was at $82 million, 15th highest in MLB. Unfortunately they 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 were now facing another tough reality - two of their stars were off of the field more than on it, one had turned into a head case, 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 avaerage per game, good for 25th in MLB.

They traded Cliff 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 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.

Dolan's biggest mistake is he has largely been absent from the public eye. He doesn't do many interviews. He doesn't make public appearances to fans. As a result, an image has been created - that of a cheap owner who does not care about the fans or the team - and he has done nothing through public relations to change that. He still hasn't.

Dolan and the Indians took one more shot at winning over fans in 2011. The team was in contention, so Dolan okayed a deal to send away the Indians' best pitching prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez - viewed as a potential ace. The Indians still faded, the attendance still didn't improve (22,726 average, 24th in MLB), and the deal was largely viewed as a mistake.

With Dolan and Antonetti both feeling the heat from that unsuccessful deal and from the fans to do something big, they failed to significantly improve the team. This past offseason 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 million. They picked up Fausto Carmona's option, only to see his scandal take place weeks later. Sizemore and Carmona...errr...Roberto 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 average per game. 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 for 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 for 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 of the Indians.

Fans who don't trust him no matter what, don't come out to the ballpark. In turn, Dolan keeps payrolls no higher than $75 million or so 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 happening again is unlikely.

Of course, the main problem, should Dolan 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. The fanbase has lost complete faith in ownership, and the only thing at this point which could bring a speckle of hope for Indians fans is the arrival of a new owner to make them believe again.

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.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.


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