By Bruce Hooley
Indians President Mark Shapiro probably thought he got away with a startling gaffe, but very little of what’s said these days goes unchallenged, even if it takes a week.
That’s how long it’s been since Shapiro’s interview on More Sports with Les Levine aired on Time Warner Cable’s Northeast Ohio Network.
Levine, a long-time Cleveland sports broadcaster, taped an interview with Shapiro which aired on Nov. 20. Typically, the program features live calls from viewers, but on this occasion Shapiro only fielded emails sent to Levine when he promoted the interview the day before.
Time Warner declined to make available Shapiro’s initial comments, but there is no dispute from anyone involved about Shapiro’s answer to a critical emailer, who asked why they should renew their season tickets for 2013.
Shapiro told the emailer that if their only reason for purchasing was to see the Indians win, “Don’t come.”
No business owner, or executive, should ever approach telling their customers to stay away. The Indians certainly can’t afford that dismissive attitude given their dismal home attendance last season.
Shapiro, when contacted yesterday, clarified his stance, but largely defended his comment to the disgruntled season-ticket holder.
“I told him if the sole reason, the only reason, for renewing is predicated on us winning, then they shouldn’t come,” Shapiro said. “I stand by that. Baseball has to mean more than just being a fan when you win.
“No where are we spending more of our time, more of our energy or more money in trying to win. We all understand that the single-most important thing in baseball is winning and losing. But we are always going to have cycles to when we can win.”
This is a familiar refrain, tiresome to Indians’ fans.
Call it the, Small-Market, Can’t-Sign-or-Retain-Marquee-Free-Agent Blues, and no one sings it with more regularity than Shapiro, the Dolan ownership’s articulate front man.
The Indians grouse privately about fans’ allegiance to the Browns, and how the Tribe has won more recently and more prolifically than the comedy act which has played out for 14 seasons down on the Lakefront.
While that double standard might be unfair, it nevertheless exists, and no amount of Indians’ whining will change it.
The Browns are the city’s and the region’s first love. The Indians cannot count on the same fan loyalty to fill their stadium, even if they win more than the Browns.
Why do fans love the Browns more than they love the Indians?
Because they do.
Shapiro has as much chance of changing that mindset as he does selling 20- and 30-something ticket-buyers on the same romanticized notion of baseball that captivated him long ago.
Shapiro grew up in the 1970s, a simpler time when little boys fell asleep listening to scratchy broadcasts of far-flung games on 50,000-watt, AM radio signals that brought Herb Score, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell or Bob Prince into America’s bedrooms.
In that era, NFL highlights from Sunday afternoon aired for the first time nationally the following Saturday, in a one-hour special produced by NFL Films.
There was no ESPN SportsCenter, no Internet, no video games, no Netflix, no cable television, no multi-plex at the mall and, in fact, no mall.
Baseball fans waited breathlessly for their copy of The Sporting News to show up in the mail so they could dirty their hands with newsprint reading box scores at least a week old.
Shapiro fell in love with baseball when taken to Baltimore Orioles games by his father, Ron, one of the game’s most-successful agent-attorneys ever, whose client list ranges from Hall-of-Famer Brooks Robinson in the 1970s to Joe Mauer today.
“I used to love hanging over the rail, trying to get Brooks Robinson’s autograph,” Shapiro said. “I don’t remember if those Oriole teams won or not.”
Starting in 1973, when Shapiro turned six years old, the Orioles – who won two World Series and lost two more from 1966-71 – won their division four times and split two more World Series by the time Shapiro turned 17.
Even if it’s true that all Shapiro remembers from that era is the experience of going to Memorial Stadium, good for him. But those memories belong in his own personal time capsule, not as the backbone of any Indians’ marketing campaign or among talking points for damage control with dissatisfied customers.
Shapiro wants fans to love the game as much as he does. He wants them to love it for the parent-child memories it can forge, the simple pleasure of a mid-summer night spent at the ballpark, the fun of Friday fireworks shows and bobblehead giveaways and hot-dog mascot races.
“That has to be a part of why you come to games,” Shapiro said. “Even the best teams lose 62 times in a season. If you base your decision to come to the game on whether we win or lose, don’t come. You’re missing out. You’re missing out on what baseball is all about, and I’m fine with that.
“I don’t begrudge our fans for not coming. That portion which won’t come if we don’t win, I’m OK with that. I don’t call them front-runners or fair-weather fans. I’m confident we will win them back, but I feel sorry for them because they’re missing out on some of what makes baseball special.”
Therein lies the basis for the Indians’ fall-back marketing campaign last season. After fans tired of, “What if….,” the team’s acknowledgement that winning the division would be so much dumb luck, the focus shifted to, “It’s just an old ball, really….,” which played on fans’ childhood memories of getting a foul ball at their first MLB game.
Asked what the Indians will attempt to sell this year, Shapiro said: “We will sell the effort we are making to win and the good players we have. (We’ll sell) that we’re trying to put a winning team on the field. There are times we feel stronger about that than others.”
Do the Indians believe 2013 is of those “cycles” Shapiro spoke of, when winning is possible?
Right now, it’s too soon to tell, with the roster the team will take to spring training still incomplete.
“I know there is a group of our fans who are angry and bitter,” Shapiro said. “I expect that. I appreciate that. We’re working hard to win them back.”
Does he regret telling that season-ticket holder critical of the Tribe’s recent efforts, “Don’t come.”
“I’m sure I could have re-stated it differently,” Shapiro said. “I was definitely not happy with my response at the time. But if they listened to what I had to say in context, hopefully they will know the overall message I intended to convey.”
Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR. He is the author of, “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.”
Email Bruce firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Bruce on Twitter @bhoolz
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