The Mariners are not the Indians
A series of digressions and random musings on the topic by a severely jet-lagged author
The M’s business-side leadership has said that they don’t want to be Cleveland, a team that tore down dramatically, saw attendence decline dramatically, and only now has recovered. This is not particular news, as they’ve said many times before that their goal is to remain competitive. And you almost never hear a front-office type of any stripe, be it GM or President, say that a season’s lost.
However, this distaste for Cleveland and their rebuilding comes more from a fear of declining revenues than of on-field success. Cleveland hasn’t done so badly for itself.
2001: Won the division, went 91-71.
2002: They get a new GM, who makes one final go at it but the team fails, dropping to 74-88. The teardown begins.
2003: Year two of the teardown, things get worse. 68-94.
2004: Things start to turn around, and they go 80-82.
2005: They miss the playoffs by a couple of games, finishing 93-69.
The Indians, like the Mariners, started their rebuilding with little help from the farm system, having expended many outstanding prospects in the 1994-2001 contention runs. It took them two years before they got back to .500 and three before they contended again.
If the Mariners pulled that off and started to fight for division titles in 2007, that wouldn’t be that bad at all. Many teams have endured much longer and more painful rebuilding, drawn out into hopelessness. What are they afraid of, then? From baseballreference and ESPN:
2001: 91-71. Attendance: 3,175,523 (3rd out of 14)
2002: 74-88. Attendance: 2,616,940 (5th out of 14)
2003: 68-94. Attendance: 1,730,002 (12th out of 14)
2004: 80-82. Attendance: 1,814,401 (12th out of 14)
2005: 93-69. Attendance: 1,973,185 (12th out of 14)
That’s what scares them: the possibility that a couple of bad years will turn the fan base off, and winning won’t bring fans back. This year’s Indians barely drew better than the 1993 Indians that played in Cleveland Stadium.
After that, they moved to Jacobs Field, had good seasons and started to draw better.
There’s a maxim floating out there that attendance goes up the year after success, but that’s not always true, and there so many other factors at play that it’s almost meaningless. We may see the Indians draw a lot better next year, for instance. They sold out that last series against the White Sox, for instance, and 25 thousand went to the mid-season Devil Rays series before that. They generally drew more the deeper into the season they went.
But back to the comparison. The Mariners, unlike the Indians, have not suffered the same decline:
2003, last contending year: 3,268,509 (2nd out of 14)
2004, first bad year: 2,940,731 (3rd out of 14)
2005, second bad year: 2,689,529 (4th out of 14)
Starting from similar points, the Mariners have seen a drop of only ~600k, while the Indians during their fall were down 1.5 million.
It’s true that the Mariners have a newer stadium, but that shouldn’t reassure them. Other teams with new stadiums have seen them go empty when the on-field product stinks. The novelty doesn’t last long. The Indians, for example, moved into a great park in 1994 (especially compared to the competition of the time), had a winning team, it was a great place to be, and people kept coming out for eight years.
The Mariners moved into Safeco Field in mid-1999. There’s been enough time for the new-stadium smell to waft away. As long as the crowds are good, and they’ve been great, especially in the summer, the atmosphere’s family-friendly, people keep turning out, and the money flows in, but what they must worry about is the steady erosion in turnstile counts (which they don’t release). At some point, and no one knows where that is, the feeling of being out with the crowd goes away, and then the stragglers leave too.
Safeco Field isn’t a better place to see a game than Pittsburgh’s stadium, and they only drew 23,000 a game. Cincinnati, in a new park, almost got 24,000 to their games. That’s not just market size, either — Pittsburg’s got well over two million people, and Cincinnati might squeak over that as well if you took a census today. In both cases, though, those franchises weren’t doing anything when they got the stadium and didn’t do anything of note afterwards.
The Indians may be the best example for looking at the Mariners even if they got their new toy much earlier: they’re a team that was winning from the mid-90s, moved into a new stadium, and continued to win.
What’s interesting, then, is why. Why haven’t Seattle fans found other things to do in the same way Cleveland has?
It’s not a difference in population. Cleveland, like Seattle, is often perceived as a small-market team, but is only smaller by about 500,000 people.
There’s some difference in approach, but it would be hard to say that the Mariners have not lost the same kind of key, fan-favorite players the Indians have, both through free agency and in trades for players who can contribute in the future. The Mariners, by having more money, have been able to spend heavily on high-profile free agents, but can that be that huge of a difference in keeping butts in seats? Are Seattle summer nights that much more pleasant?
I don’t know, and neither does Howard Lincoln or Chuck Armstrong. This must scare them: there’s no good reason to to be assured that fans will be around much longer, and a lot of evidence they’ve been lucky to continue to see great crowds. They may see dramatic declines even if they get back to 80 wins this season. The only thing they can know will keep the turnstiles moving and the money flowing is to win, and win now.
And this brings me to another difference between the Indians and the Mariners. The Indians, through years of careful construction starting with that failed first year, go into 2006 with their front office secure and a lot of flexibility in deciding what they want to do next.
Bavasi, by contrast, will be given some amount of money this off-season. Could be $20, 25 million, maybe much more or it might be, as the Times reports, orders to cut half the budget and sell a kidney. It comes with a high goal: he needs to get the team fighting for a pennant, worst to first, or they’ll likely fire him. He knows this. He also knows that given the team in front of him, spending that on 5 random third-tier free agents at $4m a piece isn’t going to get the team there. It’ll take trades, weird players, crazy cheap gambles, and if it fails, well, he was going to get canned anyway.
It’ll be interesting.
If the M’s were the Indians, we could at least look forward to respectability this year. The club’s fear of losing its fan base may drive it to success, and it may doom them to being expensive and bad for a long time.