This is the first installment in a 12-part series.
Larry Dolan purchased the Cleveland Indians in 2000 for $323 million dollars; for his trouble, he has watched the Indians advance to the playoffs just twice, a sharp contrast to the five consecutive playoff appearances that preceded his purchase of the team. On the surface, Mr. Dolan appears to be a near perfect fit for the ownership of the club: born in Cleveland Heights, he graduated from St. Ignatius and has lived and worked in northern Ohio for the majority of his adult life. At the very least, it's clear that Dolan purchased the Indians not simply because he wanted to own a baseball team but because he wanted to own a baseball team in Ohio. I'm sure no one needs to be reminded that this is an exceedingly salient point in any discussion of small-market ownership.
Despite these marks on the positive side of the ledger, it's time to take everyone to task. It's now been nine years of the Dolan Era and the returns have hardly been encouraging. Is it time to fire Larry Dolan?
- We sent a rational human being to do a raving lunatic's job.
Dolan is, by all accounts, a highly capable lawyer and businessman of high intelligence. I'm sure he can adequately perform some rudimentary risk analysis and I'm also relateively sure he can balance a bank book. That is, frankly, a bad thing. In baseball's current economic climate, which is not yet on trial, the owner of a small market team can only guarantee his team's success by behaving in ways that are wholly financially irrational. If Dolan wants to compete more than twice every decade, he ought to give up the ghost on this measured approach that he and Shapiro are peddling and go out and purchase a handful of all-stars. There's no guarantee that you'll win a world series but there's always a chance that you'll get a chance to rip the heart out of a squad of hometown stars from some sleepy hamlet.
An entire organization has been infected with the disease of ferociously wrong-headed loyalty and it came from the top.
Fans of the Cleveland Indians' became acclimated to immediate success throughout the late 1990's. The perception is that nearly every signing or trade that the Peters/Hart era executed returned immediate dividends and there's more than a grain of truth to that. It's easy to say that the previous regime was blessed with some luck at the beginning and were able to parlay that into financial flexibility at the end. It might be more accurate to say that Peters and Hart showed Dolan, and everyone else, exactly how perfect a front office had to be in order to build a winner in a place like Cleveland. You can't whiff in trades, free agency or the draft, at least not very often. As soon as it became clear that Shapiro had holes in his swing (namely free agent position players and the draft) Dolan should've been making moves to suck Shapiro's knoweldge out of his skull and replace him. If your GM isn't near perfect at the beginning of a small market rebuild then you simply can't build a consistent winner and Shapiro was imperfect from the beginning, evidenced by the Alomar trade and the draft classes in 2001 (supposedly Shapiro's handiwork), 2002 and 2003.
Fine, though, it's understandable to give Shapiro, a holdover from the Hart regime, a number of free passes at the beginning of his tenure. Indeed, this loyalty seemed to be rewarded when the Indians burst onto the scene in 2005, exactly ten years after the last great Cleveland dynasty had emerged. However, the Indians' inability to consistently contend since that point (the late, great team of 2007 notwithstanding), all while everyone involved in the Cleveland front office and coaching staff seemingly stood around and told each other how great a job they were doing, has become simply unpalatable. Now, just four years on from what should've been the return of winning baseball to the shores of Erie, the Indians are entering another rebuilding process, largely because Dolan was so loyal to Shapiro and his methodologies that the GM was infused with the hubris to not make changes when things weren't working.
Perhaps Shapiro deserved Dolan's loyalty all along but the confidence in him created a culture in which everyone seemed totally confident in everyone else: Shapiro was supremely confident in Eric Wedge, Eric Wedge was supremely confident in David Dellucci and ESPN pundits were supremely confident that the Indians were contenders. The only person who didn't inspire confidence was Luis Isaac but, no worries, Chuck Hernandez made everyone feel supremely confident, again.
- Attempts were made to create stability above all else, a foundation on which the Indians can't afford to build.
There has been a grave miscalculation on the part of both Dolan and Shapiro as to just how small the margin of error is for a small market team in this era of baseball as opposed to any other and just how agile the organization must be in order to compete. The values that the Indians have adhered to since Dolan's purchase and that were assumedly coming from the top, things like stability and loyalty to both players and coaches, are the values of an old guard, old money breed of baseball. They are the sorts of things that the Yankees and Red Sox can talk about a lot because they don't have to worry about outfoxing the Yankees and Red Sox.
The Indians ought to have been more willing to be impulsive and even rash, to take bigger risks, whether they be firing a manager fifteen games into a season or deficit spending more significantly in order to patch over the holes in the 2006, 2008 or 2009 rosters or paying Ozzie Guillen a bunch of money to come to town or finally sitting David Dellucci down for good or having five games a year where tickets only cost a dollar. The only chance to consistently compete on the field or at the box office without matching Boston's payroll is to be so far ahead of the curve as to be pushing the boundaries of what is even socially acceptable. I understand that doesn't sound like a particularly rational approach or like a particularly appealing business model but this is the world into which Dolan purchased.
When you try to run a highly professional/stable organization, it makes it unacceptable to do something that might come across as unfair or somehow uncouth. This has never been better exemplified than by the outrage that local columnists expressed over the firing of Luis Isaac; Hoynes et al were just parroting what Dolan's regime had told them about the importance of a guy like Luis Isaac, of the human element, of keeping your friends close. In reality, moves like firing Luis Isaac ought to have been routine; the Indians should've been doing things far more incomprehensible every season, things that bloggers couldn't get their heads around, to the point that local columnists wouldn't express anything but a shrug over Isaac's dismissal and perhaps a comment to others in the press box: "What are they doing in there?" Dolan should've been cultivating a culture of mad scientists not one of polo shirts, pleated khakis and fanny packs.
To distill: Mr. Dolan, the perception of your team by both fans, analysts and industry professionals is one of steady-handedness, nearly computerized decision making and a maddening level of dittoheading surrounding terms like professionalism, integrity and loyalty. In short, it appears that you tried to run what amounts to a mom and pop operation like a Fortune 500 company. That's not going to work. If you're bringing a knife to a gunfight, the only way you win is if everyone else thinks you're insane. You're the Continental Army not the British: don't you get that?