Cautionary Tale For The Phils

(Reprinted from July 17, 2011 Inquirer)
By Frank Fitzpatrick
 Inquirer Staff Writer

CLEVELAND - The Indians sat in first place when, on the cool and pleasant evening of June 20, they opened a series with the Colorado Rockies at Progressive Field.

Despite the good record and weather, and even though interleague play typically produces a crowd bump, Northern Ohio's tortured sports fans were unmoved. The Indians, then last in baseball attendance, drew just 15,224 spectators to the 8-7 loss.

Perhaps Clevelanders suspected the success was a first-half illusion. Maybe it was the recession, the lakeside city's continuing economic misfortunes, or the bitter aftertaste of LeBron James' messy departure.

Whatever, one thing is certain here these days - those heady times when Indians tickets were among the hottest in sports were, like the original Cleveland Browns, long gone and not likely to return.

Though Philadelphia is a larger city and market, it might be wise for the Phillies to heed the Indians' cautionary tale, to learn from this old franchise's transformation from hot to ho-hum.

While the Indians might linger in the 2011 American League Central race, their climb back to consistency on the field and at the box office figures to be long and steep. Along with Toronto and Baltimore, two other franchises where long periods of sustained excellence have been replaced by mediocrity, Cleveland has shown that once a franchise stumbles, regaining competitive balance isn't easy.

And, as difficult as it may be to imagine now, this unprecedented Phillies run of sellouts  and postseason appearances  will end someday too.

When it does, will the transition back to respectability be quick and smooth or, as is the case here, slow and painful?

Fourteen months after the ballpark then known as Jacobs Field opened on the fringes of this weary downtown, the Indians sold out for a June 12, 1995, game with the Baltimore Orioles.

For the next 454 games - until an April 4, 2001, matchup with the White Sox - there would not be an empty seat. If the Phillies are to match that sellout streak of 455, they will have to fill Citizens Bank Park for the rest of this season and for 2012, 2013, 2014, and into 2015.

"I don't think people know just how hard that is," said Bob DiBiasio, the Indians' senior vice president for public affairs. "It had never happened before. To sell out 455 games in a row? That's astounding."

What precipitated it was, in DiBiasio's words, "a perfect convergence of events."

The economy, heated by the boom, was boiling in 1995. The stadium was new. The long-neglected downtown, buoyed by the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum that same year, had a new appeal. The fans' hunger for a winner was intense. And the novelty of it all was magnetic.

"It seemed like everyone wanted to be in downtown Cleveland and especially at an Indians game," said Roberto Alomar, the newly elected Hall of Famer who was a Cleveland second baseman in the late 1990s.

Those powerful Indians teams monopolized the city's sports interest. The NFL's Browns had abandoned Cleveland in 1995. Their namesake replacements wouldn't debut until 1999. The NBA's Cavaliers weren't contenders. And there was no NHL team.

"The people here had no one but us to cheer for," DiBiasio said.

That wasn't hard for them. Mike Hargrove's '95 club had a ball-mashing appeal, with such sluggers as Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Belle. Those Indians went 100-44 and reached the postseason for the first time in 41 years, before losing to Atlanta in the World Series.

Suddenly Indians tickets were hot. They got even hotter when the club, which hadn't won a Series since 1948, made it to another in '97, losing Game 7 in extra innings to Florida.

New restaurants and bars flourished near the ballpark. The Indians hired more stadium workers, and their front-office staff, trimmed after the move to Jacobs Field, grew larger.

"But no team can sustain that kind of thing forever," said DiBiasio. "Sooner or later it had to end."

The curtain began to fall on this Indians renaissance in 2001.

Hargrove's 2000 firing alienated many fans. Charlie Manuel's 2001 club won another division title - the Tribe's sixth in seven years - but fell to Seattle in the divisional series that October. The sellout streak had ended that April.

"Even though we won again in '01, the casual fans were beginning to fall to the sides," DiBiasio said. "Then once you start to stumble, it's hard to stop."

Off the field, there were more discouraging trends.

"All the things that had worked in our favor in the '90s started going in reverse," DiBiasio said.

The downtown surge sparked by the Indians and the rock museum petered out. Companies such as OfficeMax and National City Bank abandoned the city.

Cleveland's population was aging and, according to federal census data, declining faster than any city's but Detroit's, slipping 17 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The Indians' payroll took a hit. Fifth highest in baseball in 2001, it dropped to 25th in just two years. Ramirez left after the 2000 season. Alomar went after 2001, Thome after 2002.

By the start of 2011, Cleveland's $49 million payroll was the lowest in baseball. Season tickets, which had topped 26,000 during the team's heyday, were down to 8,000, DiBiasio said.

Many of the bars and restaurants near the ballpark had folded. The club's workforce was trimmed. Team marketers, who had the easiest job in baseball, had to work twice as hard.

And for many fans, long-simmering frustration over the city's 47-year championship drought has turned to apathy.

"The fans [in Cleveland]," Alomar said, "they've been stomped on. They were crushed when the Indians lost those World Series, especially in '97. The Browns have not been good. Then there was the whole thing with LeBron."

Early in the 2011 season, the Indians, employing players they got in trades for stars such as Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, and Victor Martinez, had the curious distinction of having baseball's best record and worst attendance.

As the weather has improved, so have their crowds. The Indians have fallen out of first place, but their average attendance has jumped to just over 21,000 fans a game, pushing them from 30th to 26th in baseball.

Still, it's a long way from yearly attendance of 3.4 million. And despite the encouraging first half, the factors that conspired to create the Indians' great '90s crowds and teams won't be - can't be - duplicated soon.

"The operating situations aren't the same [as in the '90s], and the city isn't the same either," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said earlier this season. "We can't look at ourselves through the lens of the '90s."

When the inevitable drop-off in crowds and wins happens in Philadelphia, it likely won't be as precipitous as Cleveland's decline. While Cleveland is now the 45th most populous U.S. city and its TV market - coupled with Akron's - is No. 17, Philly ranks Nos. 5 and 4, respectively, in those categories.

But baseball is cyclical, and once the Phillies express stops rolling, it might not be so easy to get back to speed. When the casual fans depart, they're difficult to recapture.

"You'll always have your hard-core fans," DiBiasio said. "But the casual fans, well, I guess that's why they're called casual."


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