Preparing for the Playoffs: Cleveland's Bob DiBiasio talks to Let's Go Tribe about attendance, ownership, and why the 2013 Indians deserve every fan's support

Bob Dibiasio - Cleveland Indians

It was one of those foul line drives that can hurt someone. A Houston Astros left-handed hitter sent it back into the lower bowl at Progressive Field, and most of the fans in the way were at least smart enough to scatter. The ball was on a vapor trail toward one of the seats when a woman -- maybe 55 years old -- jumped up and snagged it with a glove that she must have been futilely hauling to ballgames for years, waiting for a moment like this.

The crowd went appropriately berserk for her effort. Sitting four rows behind her and a couple of sections away was Bob DiBiasio, the Cleveland Indians' longtime Senior Vice President of Public Affairs. And while DiBiasio praised the woman's catch, what caught his attention was what happened next.

"That ball was screaming into the seats and the people behind her were scattering because they knew they were going to get smoked," DiBiasio recalled. "So everyone in the section went nuts. Those cheers lasted for like two full batters. It was incredible. And when the inning's over, the people around her told her to look down at the field, because Nick Swisher stood in front of the dugout, trying to get her attention. Nick just stood there and tipped his cap to her when she saw him."

The moment passed quickly, but DiBiasio views it as an enormously significant one for a team struggling to draw fans. "To me, those are the things that this team has done to really warm itself up to the fan base. They do that little extra to reach out to the fans. They say, 'We know you're here. You matter. Thank you.'"

DiBiasio set aside some time to talk to Let's Go Tribe on a beautiful maelstrom of a morning: it was an Ubaldo Day and playoff tickets were on sale and the organization was hoping to sell the remaining regular-season tickets and then were those committee meetings and playoff planning and budgeting and...

And no one was complaining. Certainly not DiBiasio, a Lakewood native who has spent the last 25 years in the Tribe's front office. He grew up rooting for the club he helps promote. It's no surprise that DiBiasio has been loyal to the Dolan family -- his employers, after all -- but he said that fans might not realize that the Dolans are longtime fans, too.

"They're Clevelanders," DiBiasio told us. "Paul Dolan is our president and he's here every day. Larry Dolan and his wife have a winter home, but they're here all summer long, and they're at 99 percent of the games. They've loved this team their whole lives. They understand the mindset of these fans. They were season-ticket holders before they became owners."

Even still, the Dolans have drawn the opprobrium of a fanbase more interested in the near-catatonic Cleveland Browns. When it comes to showing up at the stadium, Indians fans have largely ignored the town's one winning team. I asked DiBiasio if there was something about the Dolans that might surprise the common fan who seems to blame everything on the Tribe's owners, from poor attendance to flat tires to the loss of an hour's sleep for Daylight Savings Time.

"They consistently spend beyond revenues," DiBiasio said. "They really do. Given what other cities have had to endure, decades of losing baseball, we have an ownership that has provided what we think is pretty competitive baseball."

Here is the most ominous part of the nagging conversation about Cleveland attendance: It's terrible this year, it was terrible when the team was terrible, and it was terrible during and directly after their playoff run in 2007. The stadium was largely empty for most that year, during which the Tribe won 96 games. After coming within a game of the World Series, the conventional wisdom held that finally, fans would come back.

They did not. Attendance was even worse in 2008.

"Yeah, that surprised a lot of us," DiBiasio admitted. "To go from rebuilding in 2002 to 93 wines in 2005, then 96 wins in 2007, we thought we had built the faith back into the franchise. Only having three years when you dip? So yeah, it was a little disappointing in '08. But the reality of who we are as a town plays a real factor. The economics plays a huge role in whether people can sustain having season tickets. That played a major role, we believe."

Then he seemed to shrug and said, "Let's put it this way. If there was one simple answer, we'd fix it."

And that leads me to wonder: What happens if 2014 is like 2008? What happens if the team wins, then wins some more... but the fans just don't return? "Well, I don't know if there is a specific answer to that," DiBiasio replied. "We can't answer that until we see it in play and we can react to it." One thing seems certain: 2014 will tell us a lot about whether the Cleveland Indians can expect to draw even a league-average attendance anymore.

But that isn't getting the organization down. Not in the midst of this magical run. DiBiasio touched on how different it feels when September baseball is nervous baseball, and fans are shouting to one another on the street, and the ticket office is buzzing throughout the crisp fall mornings and afternoons. We talked about playoff ticket sales and Danny Salazar and Ubaldo and more. A transcript of our conversation is below.

LGT: Playoffs look likely now. What has to happen at Progressive Field to get the park and the organization ready for a playoff series?

BD: This is actually, for most organizations, one of the busiest times of the year whether you're involved in the postseason or not. You're planning your next season, putting budgets together, business plans. You have to do that so the general manager has a feel for what's available as we go into the offseason. The added layer of postseason makes it a very busy time. The postseason is a real thick, three-ring binder. Postseason meetings start in mid-August when you have a sense that your team has a chance to play in October. So all the departments get together, with meetings jam-packed. For us, Andrew Miller, a senior VP, is the man in charge of our postseason committee. He's the one who walks through all the various issues that you would think about. The media issues, the sponsorships, broadcasting, ticket sales. Getting the ballpark ready for national broadcasts, satellite trucks. It's a major deal, as it should be.

LGT: It's got to feel different down at the ballpark during a playoff run.

BD: It does. It's a beautiful fall day. Not a cloud in the sky. There are people walking around the neighborhood already, coming in and out buying tickets. There's nothing better than this time of year when you wake up in the morning and you can not wait for game time.

LGT: How are playoff ticket sales going? (Note: This question was asked Tuesday morning.)

BD: Tickets are moving pretty good. They're brisk. They're not sold out yet. We haven't sold out the wildcard game yet. We're getting close to that. All we offered were the potential wildcard game on October 2nd, and two American League Division Series games. There are still seats available, but they're going at a very steady pace.

LGT: How nervous is the organization every time Salazar goes out there? His stuff is so filthy, and he's so valuable that I wonder if the entire front office holds their breath when he goes out there.

BD: I don't think we are. We're just in love with this kid. We have this sense of anticipation and excitement when it's his turn. There's no holding breath at all. As a matter of fact, he went a little bit longer in his last start. They extended him a little bit. I don't think anyone's holding their breath. There's an extra bounce in our step when he takes the mound, because there's the specter of potential -- he gives you that as a front-end-of-the-rotation kind of guy.

LGT: Fans would have given away Ubaldo for a bucket of balls in April. Now, they want Ubaldo starting the first game of a playoff series. How rewarding has it been for the organization to see that?

BD: It's a prime example of hard work. That's why I think everybody's loving what he is all about. It's been nothing but work in the bullpen, video, constant dialog with his coaches, getting him to be confident and understanding he doesn't have to throw 98 miles an hour. He's been more than steady. He's been outstanding. These are huge games with Ubaldo and Danny Salazar taking the mound.

LGT: The last time this team was in the playoffs was 2007. The conventional wisdom was that even though attendance was weak in 2007, we would see a surge in attendance in 2008, but the reality was that attendance went down. Did that surprise you?

BD: Yeah, it did. It surprised a lot of us. In 2005 we won 93 games and missed the playoffs by one game. In 2006, we stubbed our toe a little bit, got injured, but we still were around an 80-win team. Then in 2007, we win 96 games and tie the Boston Red Sox for most wins in the league. It's not like we snuck in or anything. We were at the very top, then got one win away from the World Series. To go 2002, [200]3, and [200]4, then very quickly get back to 93 wins, we thought we had built the faith back into the franchise. Only having three years when you dip? Then you win 93 games, then to 96 games? So yeah, it was a little disappointing in '08. But the reality of we are as a town plays a real factor. The economics plays a huge role in whether people can sustain having season tickets. That played a major role, we believe.

LGT: I confess to feeling frustrated with many Indians fans who incessantly blame Dolan for, well, just about everything. Tell me something about the Dolans that the average fan probably doesn't know, but would appreciate finding out.

To me, those are the things that this team has done to really warm itself up to the fan base. They do that little extra to reach out to the fans. They say, "We know you're here. You matter. Thank you."


BD: They consistently spend beyond revenues. They really do. Their consistency is deficit-spending. Given what other cities have had to endure, decades of losing baseball, we have an ownership that has provided what we think is pretty competitive baseball. The last couple years have been really frustrating, because we've been a first-place team for four months, then couldn't get it done. I'm not sure that's a product of dollars and sense, or just not getting it done baseball-wise. So we made some trades and signings to make sure we're a six-month winner this season. I think fans may not truly understand that they spend beyond revenues consistently. Not many businesses are willing to do that. They establish a tremendous culture, allowing the people they hire to do their jobs that are required of them, and for that reason there is a lot of stability in this franchise.

LGT: What, in your view, is the number one reason that fans aren't turning out in big numbers? What do you say to fans who want the Dolans out?

BD: They're Clevelanders. Paul Dolan is our president and he's here every day. Larry Dolan and his wife have a winter home, but they're here all summer long, and they're at 99 percent of the games. They've lived this team their whole lives. They understand the mindset of these fans. They were season-ticket holders before they became owners. They understand what's up, and they know what it takes. There are so many of us in this franchise who are lifelong Clevelanders, and we grew up with this team. They sense the disappointment about attendance, just like many fans do. But there are realities involved in that. We understand that.

Let's put it this way, Evan: If there was one simple answer, we'd fix it.

The energy in this ballpark has been phenomenal, and the numbers haven't been equal to what there was in the mid-90s, but I think that's an unfair barometer. We're not the same town or same circumstances as fifteen years ago.

LGT: If this team continues to contend, and attendance remains low -- in other words, if 2014 looks like 2008, with no bounce after a playoff run, should we be concerned about the long-term viability of the franchise?

BD: Well, I don't know if there is a specific answer to that. We can't answer that until we see it in play and we can react to it. We'll be surprised if there isn't an increase in attendance next year, but so far, the renewal rate for season tickets is very high. That's all we can go on right now because we aren't selling new season tickets for next year yet. So the only barometer by which that question can be measured at the moment is that people are renewing their seats and are happy with what they're seeing.

LGT: I find sports talk radio to be bad for your health. Can you stomach sports talk radio in Cleveland, which continues to be dominated by talk about the Browns instead of focusing on the team that's winning?

BD: [DiBiasio preferred not to answer that question, other than saying]: It's our job to make sure that people care about us. Watch on TV, listen on the radio, buy tickets, come to the ballpark -- it's our job to generate that interest. The Browns are just another obstacle you face when you're marketing your product. Maybe obstacle is too harsh a word, but there are variables you have to play against, and Browns mania is one of them. But it's our job to overcome all that, put a product on the field, make it entertaining, and we think we've done that.

LGT: What is your favorite off-field story from the 2013 Indians?

BD: The Swishers move to Westlake, and all of a sudden they're the new neighbors on the block that happen to be a star baseball player. He plays catch with the kids in the neighborhood. Most of our guys do that stuff. And you've got to love The Goon Squad, the bench guys getting together and rallying around each other, creating t-shirts for themselves.

And here's a little thing the other day. There was a woman there, sitting there and snared a line drive of a foul ball. I was four rows behind her in another section. That ball was screaming into the seats and the people behind her were scattering because they knew they were going to get smoked. And this lady jumped up and snared this line drive across her body -- she brought her glove to the game! Everyone in the section around her went nuts. The cheers lasted for like two batters, it was incredible. And when the inning's over, the people around her told her to look down at the field, because Nick Swisher stood in front of the dugout. Nick just stood there and tipped his cap to her. To me, those are the things that this team has done to really warm itself up to the fan base. They do that little extra to reach out to the fans. They say, "We know you're here. You matter. Thank you."

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