Sunday, January 31, 2010

New Face of the Cleveland Indians: A Proposal

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Cleveland--[A letter to Bob DiBiasio, Cleveland Indians Vice President of Public Relations on October 7, 2009]

I am writing all the members of the Cleveland Indians front office as a lifelong fan, but more importantly, a design student with a proposal. This off-season there will undoubtedly be changes made to the club and I strongly feel an image overhaul could compliment the youth movement for the 2010 season; one that will usher in a new coaching staff and showcase the new core of Sizemore, Choo, and Cabrera. This is their time to ditch the same logo that decades of losing sported 25 years ago.

Let me first start by stating my background is in architecture, with a Bachelor’s Degree from Kent State University. I played baseball at Kent for three seasons and am now 23, in my second year of grad school. I am pursuing a dual-degree MBA and Master's of Architecture with graduation in May. While taking a Marketing Strategy course I wrote a thesis on the brand identity of professional sports franchises. I looked at the case study of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays "exorcising" their demons by dropping "Devil", but specifically focused on the 2002 Anaheim Angels. They switched back to the traditional red color and "A" logo. It ushered in not only a new wardrobe but an entire mindset transition. The Mike Scioscia era is now synonymous with winning in red, and the navy pinstripe days of Jim Edmonds were forced to be forgotten. Unfortunately, this is the case currently in Cleveland. The Victor Martinez, Cliff Lee era is gone. Help the fans move forward with a change of uniforms. Otherwise, we will always ask ourselves why those players still are not in them.

A spike in winning percentage can obviously come from offseason acquisitions, but you cannot discount the power of the other moves (i.e. hosting an All-Star Game, changing an image, or moving to a new ballpark like New Busch Stadium and Jacobs Field). We all know the big-budget free agents will never be signed by the Tribe and Progressive Field is not going anywhere for 50 more years, so why not try something else?

I live and die with the Cleveland Indians. I attended 11 games last season in a year that we were all but mathematically eliminated by May. My friends and I waited through the 3 hour delay in the freezing rain in this year’s home opener, which ousted the snow we sat in two years ago. My fanhood can never be questioned.

The attached proposal is something I want to be taken seriously. My motivation is taking a page from the city of Pittsburgh, of all places. They have a great system in place by uniting their sports franchises by a single color palette. This has also been done more recently—and lesser known—in Seattle with their NFL and MLS teams. The Seattle Sounders have tried to capture football fans into futbol fans by sharing the Seahawk green. For Cleveland, this could bring casual Cavs fans on the Tribe band wagon and vice versa. They can push each other to get that first championship in decades. Merchandising can be done at either the Q or Progressive and promotions could showcase the other team.

As you will notice the jersey colors shift so that red has now become Cavs “wine” with the gold accents. My second alteration is simple. It is the reason there are still unhappy Native Americans throughout the world still flooding blogs and probably also your mailbag every day. It is the reason I have to maneuver around protestors at the Home Opener every season. I love Chief Wahoo, do not get me wrong. I was devastated when he was shrunk on the caps after the 2002 season. At the same time, I agree that he needs an overhaul. Taking a page from the Angels, going back to the glory days of the past helps. The ’48 Wahoo is way over-the-top with stereotypical features, but at least the skin color is not red and he won a World Championship. The Cavs secondary color makes a nice color for a new Wahoo, updated to still have the smile and eyes fans are accustomed to, but looking more distinguished and realistic. We have to remember the Indians name should honor the culture, not mock it.

I fully understand that this would spell a giant sunk cost of changing merchandise. It would also make many fans disappointed. It would date 10 shirts in my closet, my Indians jersey, two of my hats, and my bullpen jacket. I validate it by saying that the stock for throwbacks is huge. Look at sometime. They are selling the Coop Collection of hats from the mid-to-late 90s and kids my age are gobbling up hats like the D-Backs in white like crazy. The current Wahoo would never be forgotten, and will show up in the stands regardless.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Part II: "You Would Have Been a Duck"

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--It was well chronicled in my last article that even the word "Pittsburgh" does not sit well with sports fans in Cleveland. But this second chapter is not about football, the Steelers or anything of the sort. Rather, this installment targets a phenomenon (the exception to the rule) that allows a certain breed of Pittsburgh fans to walk around Ohio without ridicule. My name is Ross Clites, and I am an Ohio resident
and a Penguins fan.

There are many theories as to why Pittsburgh hockey fans do not catch as much grief as their football counterparts. The knee-jerk reaction of most is to claim the NHL rivals the WNBA in popularity. Buying into the "hockey as a second-tier sport theory" shortchanges the fans of the region. Frankly, I feel the Rust Belt is home to the most die-hard of hockey fans anywhere.

The real reason why there is a pass bestowed to Penguins fans is the same that is granted to every Cavs fans sitting at a bar in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. You may not like this person. You may see it as toeing the line of offending your local interests, but there are really no grounds to make a big scene. Rules are rules: if your city is not represented in all the major market sports, then anything you lack is fair game.

The problem with this rule is that Ohio now has a team. Stealing a line from
Major League, "If you haven't noticed, and attendance figures show you haven't," Columbus has had a team since 2000. This puts me in an uncomfortable spot. Though fictional, it is not unlike Coach Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) leading his Ducks against the childhood team he played for. The title of this article is a quote from that first Mighty Ducks movie. Patriarch of the Minnesota-based PeeWee League, Hans (Joss Ackland) tells Coach Bombay that if he were growing up in the current time, "The district lines have been redrafted. You would have been a Duck."

If I were growing up in the current time, I would undoubtedly be a Blue Jackets fan. Even though I lived in the heart of Penguins country for 12 years of my youth, Ohio has always contained my interests. It is the home of my parents and grandparents; I grew up with Buckeyes football, Indians baseball, and was almost destined to attend Kent State--the alma mater of countless relatives.

Subsequently, I carried a feeling of guilt when I went to Nationwide Arena for Penguins vs. Blue Jackets in November. It was uncomfortable sitting in a crowd that contained more Pens fans than those for the home team. If it were a presidential election, the Blue Jackets lost the popular vote in their home state. The poor Blue Jackets had a perfect storm working against them. It was the first game the Penguins played in the state of Ohio since 2006. With the scarce availability for Mellon Arena tickets this was the first chance for the Ohio Penguins followers to see their team, perhaps ever. Furthermore, the distance from Pittsburgh to Columbus was not great enough to keep the Pennsylvanians from traveling with their team. Lastly, as discussed in Part I, there is a bad mix of Pittsburgh fans and winning that really brings them out of the wood work. Even if the game were in Edmonton, because the Pens won the Cup last season, a large contingency of "lifelong fans" would have been present. To top it all off, the Penguins wore their alternate baby blue uniforms, reserved solely for home games. The Blue Jackets were forced to wear road jerseys on their home ice.

I was happy to exit with a shoot-out win and a great overall game. However, I left the arena honestly feeling sympathetic towards Columbus fans. They have a fantastic hockey-only facility in a revitalized part of town. But how can they compete?

They do dodge one bullet by calling the Western Conference home. It is the same reason why a group of Indians fans has never been caught up in a bar brawl for saying something derogatory to Pirates fans; the success of one rarely comes at the expense of the other. That, and the fact the Pirates and Indians both have terrible prospectives. What could they fight over, least valuable third baseman? I digress. That article will come at a later date.

But still, the Blue Jackets are the baby in the League, which is an uphill battle in itself. I know several Columbus residents that have their hockey love rooted deep for someone else. Businesses give their employees tickets to the games--no different than any other town or sporting event--but employees will only go to the game where Columbus is playing their favorite team. That is the current state of Columbus hockey.

Banking on converts is highly unlikely. The team needs a new generation of fans devoid of team affiliation. Like you hear so many politicians say: it is up to the children. It is up to the locals to create a conducive environment for new recruits. Fox Sports Ohio does televise games and the Columbus Post-Dispatch does cover the team quite well (mainly because it has a vested financial interest). Now, they finally have a playoff appearance to build upon. Eventually, the team will fully win over this state.

I may not give up my love for the Penguins anytime soon, but it will make me proud to hear my children are Blue Jackets fans. After all, I would have been one.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Part I: "Still Hate You"

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--Northeast Ohio has a Pittsburgh Steelers fan infestation. It is one that Ohioans spray for every Spring, but by Winter the Black and Gold are popping up in droves. I will grant you that the two cities are just over 100 miles from each other, but the issue remains a major concern for locals.

Cleveland and Pittsburgh mirror each other in size of industrial job loss, but very little in the world of sport. The blue-collar, mid-market towns have never been able to correlate their athletic successes to truly make the cities rivals. Sure, Steelers vs. Browns is
the game for every Cleveland fan. However, this reaction is merely masking hatred as rivalry.

Ever since the NFL reformatted to four-team divisions, the AFC North has emerged as the most cantankerous division. Any given game, matching two divisional teams, could be marketed a rivalry game. Cleveland hates Baltimore because they stole their team. Cincinnati and Cleveland make for a compelling in-state rivalry. Based on an Ohio-Pennsylvania distaste, Cleveland and Cincinnati both claim Pittsburgh to be their rival. The Steelers contingency refuses to buy into either of these notions. Instead, Pittsburgh faithful believe their true rivals are Baltimore because, in its short history, the series has had the greatest divisional implications.

The denial of Cleveland as a rival does not sit well with fans. It is the ultimate slap in the face--at any level or any sport. No college basketball fan wants to hear the Cameron Crazies chant "Not our rivals!" They might as well say, "We are flattered that you put us on a pedestal as your top competition and thus a good team, but we think you are insignificant scum. If the schedule did not make us play every year, we would not think or care about you whatsoever."

The hardest part of this article was making an argument for the two teams being rivals. The overall series record is 60-56, which sounds like the two teams have been the NFL equivilent of Yankees-Red Sox. In reality, it has played out more like a decade-by-decade David-Goliath. The two cannot seem to be any good simultaneously:

50s: Browns 16 wins, Steelers 4; 1960s: Browns 15 wins, Steelers 5; 1970s: Steelers 15 wins, Browns 5;

Browns 12 wins, Steelers 8; 1990s: Steelers 10 wins, Browns 5; 2000s: Steelers 18 wins, Browns 3.

The recent good times the Steelers have experienced are directly proportional to those the Browns had in their hay day. What goes around will surely come back around. If the two teams can swap 15-win decades back-to-back like they did from the 1960s to 1970s, it is not out of the realm of possibility to see the Browns own this new decade. Just do not expect both teams to share simultaneous solid records and be competing for the division crown year after year. History has told us otherwise.

To be fair to recent lopsided figures, the Browns are a ten year-old franchise. It is tough to compete for fans with a franchise that has six Super Bowl rings. For a period of time, kids growing up in Cleveland had no local NFL team to root for. If you lived in the Cleveland area and 1996 happened to be your formative year for favorite sport team selection, then you receive a pass on not being a current Browns fan. Beyond this weak exemption, local Browns fans feel betrayed by their neighbors who seemingly picked the fashionable team going right now.

This feeling of local betrayal is mole hill compared to the Mount Everest of issues that Browns fans have with Pittsburgh Steelers fans--wherever they like to call home.

The infestation that has taken hold in Northeast Ohio has featured a influx of Steelers merchandise with the crease still in the sleeves. Until 2005, the Steelers had not raised the Lombardi Trophy since 1979. During that gap in Championships I regionally observed and/or associated myself with many people who I will call NFL Switzerland. As far as anyone could tell they had no affiliation with the sport, no favorite, no outward appearance of caring one way or the other. Suddenly, the modern Steelers return to grace and these friends, family members, and even the passer-by are jockeying for position of Steelers Fan Club President.

At least in Cleveland--when the city finally does win something--no one at the water cooler will have to ask, "Who was excited by the outcome of last night's game?" The heart is right there on the sleeve. In Cleveland the word "lifelong" is not thrown around casually before "fan." It is validated nearly everyday (even the off-seasons) by the jerseys, hats, ticket stubs, and bumper stickers that are displayed even after the hardest of losses. All I ask of other fan bases is the same.

Now that this generation of Steelers fans has two rings, they are set for the rest of their lives. My advice to them is simple: Hold onto that 2005 Championship t-shirt you bought only because your boyfriend likes the team, place it at the bottom of your dresser drawer, never take it out, and when the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2034 pretend like you were a true fan every step of the way during that 26 year drought. At this point, wear the shirt again. On second thought, buy a new one. It should be easy, you have done it before.
As for the Browns on-field performance, the goal should remain to beat the Steelers twice every season. This should not be because they are rivals, but because Cleveland needs the two divisional wins to get over the hump. If the team is ever to legitimize its presence in a cut-throat division, marking a successful season by solely beating the Steelers is not acceptable.

Look no further than the annual Ohio State-Michigan game--a true rivalry. A successful Michigan season may include a miraculous win over the Buckeyes, but it may not derail Ohio State from its goals. The Wolverines could still finish near the bottom of the league and Ohio State could still win the Big Ten title; battle lost, war won.

There is no reason to believe that the Steelers will not be back next year. The term "reigning champion" may only last for one season, but the mentality of being one does not fade from their players. Even the most fanatical Browns fan must respect this and give the team its due. It is up to the Browns to equal the intensity, as if they finished last season like champions. After all, the Browns players did celebrate the recent victory over Pittsburgh as if it was the Super Bowl. If successful, we may have a true rivalry on our hands.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kent State Basketball: Grooming NFL All-Pro Talent Since 2002

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--The NFL Pro Bowl makes its debut outside the island of Hawaii and for the first time will be sandwiched between the Conference Championship Games and the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for the players involved, the game will now become even more lackluster.

During the hot summer training camps and two-a-days, every NFL player validated the pain for a chance at playing in Miami for the top prize. The new format will parade top athletes as the under card to the only meaningful football left on the schedule. Yes, the game
is an honor, but how would you like to be the NFL's garnish to better present its title game? To those who are playing in both Championship weekend and the Pro Bowl, especially, it must feel like a Third Place Loser's Bracket Game where there is no joy from winning.

All while in Miami, Pro Bowl players will be flooded with the sights and sounds of the teams they failed to beat--a pleasant reminder that they could not get the job done. Along with those that have declined an invitation out of spite or injury, the biggest crime to spectators will be the absence of Super Bowl participants, mainly Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. At least the "powder puff" game in Hawaii in mid-February had incentives and the correct scheduling to get the best talent on the television screen. The result of the 2010 Pro Bowl is a water-downed roster, with too many people laying claims to being an All-Star. As of today, 31 drop-outs have rendered this a NFC vs. AFC Junior Varsity match up. This is where my main issue arises.

I understand that the NFL is creating a two-week buzz around one city, a mega event for fans to see the greats all in one place. However, the greats are quickly turning into the so-so's. Case and point: Vince Young did not start for his own team until week 7 and yet will represent the AFC. Pro Bowl: yes, All-Star: no. In essence, Young's career will be remembered for one more Pro Bowl than it should.

You have every right to say, "So what?" or "Who cares?" The answer is, "I care" and the reason is simple--I am a proud Kent State University alumnus.

Too many readers there is absolutely no correlation to what I just wrote. Let me explain.

It is going to sound like a contradiction of things written earlier, but the NFL Pro Bowl has mattered. What I should have said earlier was that being voted to play in the game
is an honor...on paper. For a football-stricken school like Kent, representatives in the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl are all we have to measure our value. The alumni of Texas do not need Vince Young to validate their program with another Pro Bowl selection. On the flip side, Kent State needs the publicity for recruiting and therefore needs the game to still mean something...on paper, at least. Saturating the league with Pro Bowl selections via injury and Super Bowl replacement players takes away the impact of Kent State graduates earning their spots.

Success in the NFL is despite Kent State, not courtesy of it. Players that move on to the next level have such a chip on the shoulder that they will not be denied success. This gives each and every student a strange sense of pride.

Kent State has grown accustomed to an embarrassing product, one better suited for the FCS (Division I-A). Two-time National Championship coach, Nick Saban, was a KSU safety in the 1970s, but never mentions playing, coaching, or even graduating from the school. One would assume the perfectionist does not want to associate himself with a losing program at any level. Filed in the laughable category of Kent State football is a picture of ESPN analyst and legendary coach, Lou Holtz--who has never weighed over 190 lbs., as a linebacker for Kent in 1956 and 1957.

The last time Kent State appeared in a college bowl game was in 1972. The MVP of that Tangerine Bowl was middle linebacker and future Pittsburgh Steelers legend, Jack Lambert. During his NFL career he was a 9-time Pro Bowl selection; his last appearance coming in 1983. It took the school 21 more years to find its second Pro Bowl player, and it come from the most unlikely of places.

The 2004 NFL Pro Bowl featured a second-year tight end by the name of Antonio Gates. He was two years removed from leading the Golden Flashes to a 30-win basketball season and an NCAA Elite 8 appearance as a power forward. The footnote to this success story is that Gates never once played for the Kent State football team before joining the San Diego Chargers. Since the '04 Pro Bowl there have been 11 total selections by former Kent State players. Six of these appearances were by Gates, three by James Harrison, and two by Josh Cribbs. In this same time span Kent State football has compiled a record of 24-46 despite the All-Pro talent. Pro Bowls: 11, Wins: 24. Laugh at that statistic; what else can you do?

Each of the three players has an amazing story of overcoming adversity and adapting to a new position. Cribbs was a quarterback during his Kent State career, but is now the all-purpose return specialist and Wildcat runner for the Cleveland Browns. His story pales in comparison to James Harrison, who went from Golden Flashes defensive lineman to undrafted scout team journeyman to Pittsburgh Steelers back-up linebacker to multiple Super Bowl winner to Defensive Player of the Year (2008).

Should New England Patriot and former Kent State quarterback, Julian Endelman, continue to live up to his early reputation as a mini Wes Welker, more Pro Bowl selections could be in the future.

Every one of these 11 Pro Bowl selections in the modern Kent State football era was not of the replacement variety. The spots on the roster were earned and each played, for it was an honor. Of the 31 drop-outs or no shows for this year's event, none of them are Harrison, Gates, or Cribbs. On Sunday, I may finally watch the Pro Bowl. It will mean something to me, because it means something to them.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2,510 > 2,509

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Cleveland--The National Football League has a curious definition for its "Total Yards" statistic. There are numerous ways that a football player can accumulate yardage, ask Cleveland Browns Renaissance Man, Josh Cribbs. However, Total Yards is defined as the "the total of net gain rushing yards and net gain receiving yards from forward passing. Runback yards are not included, as only yards from scrimmage are measured."

First off, the NFL brass should know not to use a term in its definition. Second, what kind of "total" excludes a statistic?

All this discussion on the terminology stems from the recent NFL awards being handed out. Tennessee Titans running back, Chris Johnson, rightfully took home the AP Offensive Player of the Year Award. Much was made of his record-breaking 2,509 Total Yards in validating the outcome of the vote. This statistic surpassed that of Marshall Faulk during his "Greatest Show on Turf" days of 1999.

For this next section 3rd grade level mathematics and 5th grade scientific displacement logic will be used. Chris Johnson logged 2,006 with the ball placed directly into his hands from the quarterback, post-snap. "Analysts" have been known to call these "rushing yards." In addition, the Titans back caught 50 forward passes in the air. The distance the ball travels in the air--starting at the line of scrimmage all the way to the point of completion--plus any extra yardage run after the catch is allegedly called "receiving yards." Chris Johnson also had some of these; 503 to be exact. Taking the 503 and the 2,006 is how the NFL arrived at the awarding of a record 2,509 "Total Yards."

Here is where things become grey in my mind. I will not deny that Chris Johnson has a record 2,509 "Offensive Yards," but they are hardly all-inclusive. Josh Cribbs had more all-purpose yards.

Those same third graders that were doing the computations for me earlier just informed me that Cribbs' 381 yards rushing and 135 yards receiving only total 516 yards, nearly 2,000 yards shy of Johnson.

Oh, I forgot to mention the 452 yards on punt returns and the 1,542 yards from kick-off returns. Factor those in, and Cribbs eclipses Johnson by a single yard (Chris Johnson did not have one punt or kick-off return all season) 2,510 to 2,509. Cribbs' total is also the fifth most regular season all-purpose yards in NFL history.

Call it "All-Purpose" or "Total Yards" or whatever you like, but neither stat is reflective of Josh Cribbs' value to his team. The Browns' offense ranked dead last in the League yet they won 5 games. He scored 6 touchdowns for a team that mustered only 25 all season. This is not too bad for a person that only accounted for 516 offensive "Total Yards" and is listed on only as a Wide Receiver. Without uncovering the stats, no one can fully appreciate all that he has done for a poor football team. Josh Cribbs' ability to switch field position
was their offense, and he should be compensated accordingly (finances and statistics).

On second thought, the best solution is to create a new statistic of all runs, catches, and any type of return and just name it after Josh Cribbs. The first step is to throw out the distance the ball travels in receiving yards, and bring in the more telling Yards After Catch (YAC). Doing this makes it the statistic to end all statistics; weeding out the men from the boys. It would encompass
yards a player runs with the ball in his hands. In simplistic 5th grade terms, "Over the course of 16 games, who can personally travel with the football the furthest?"

Of the 503 receiving yards Chris Johnson accumulated, 445 yards were after the catch. This brings his "Cribbs Stat" down to a final 2,451 yards. Cribbs' 80 YAC bring his self-titled stat down to a final 2,455. He still beats Johnson.

The elimination of the the ball flight from the receiving yards does cost Cribbs the 2009 title: Fred Jackson amassed 2,504 by virtue of recording zero receptions. Give Cribbs some bonus points and the crown for being a more well-rounded football player.
Put another way, Josh Cribbs traveled 1.39 miles--ball in hands and 11 opponents trying to bring him down. Anyway you slice it, Cribbs is a man's man and should be given his due for an underrated 2009 season.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Trade That Should Have Never Been

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Cleveland--In 1972 and again in 1974, Cleveland handed the New York Yankees a reliable corner infielder for them to build a decade-long dynasty. The moves dealt perennial All-Stars Craig Nettles and Cris Chambliss, respectively. In return, the Tribe accumulated five players that never really panned out. Despite the eventual value inequality of these 1970s transactions, neither comes close to Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn in 1960. That deal was so big that it carries its own Cleveland curse, book about said curse, and a Wikipedia site devoted solely to it. Even the youngest Tribe fans cite this as the worst trade in franchise history. By Cleveland management's account, it was "trading hamburger for steak." To Indians historians, the "steak" (reigning batting champion, Keunn) was overcooked and the "hamburger" (reigning home run champion, Colavito) was gourmet.

It is time for Cleveland to forget that deal, as the reevaluation of a 1997 deal has emerged a legitimate contender. On the verge of his Indians Hall of Fame induction, it is finally becoming apparent that Kenny Lofton should have never left the Tribe. His trade to Atlanta was the most devastating transaction in Indians history.

Trading "The Rock" may not have been a fan favorite, a la Victor Martinez in 2009, but it was an on-paper even agreement. It is hard to pick an immediate winner of the deal because neither Detroit nor Cleveland made the playoffs with Colavito or Kuenn on their rosters. The Indians finished the 1961 season with a 76-78 record, while the Tigers finished even worse at 71-78. Colavito was even traded back to the Indians in 1965, returning to All-Star form and finishing fifth in the AL MVP voting. Yet, it was the Tigers that won the World Series three years later. If there is any curse surrounding Rocky Colavito, it may be having him on your team, not trading him away.

This is why the Lofton deal was more detrimental. The combination of timing and quality of the team entering the season could not have been botched any worse. Leave it to Cleveland to bring two new egos into the clubhouse 8 days before the first game of the season.

A season after stealing an American League high 75 bases, the Indians felt Lofton was on the downswing of his career. After a poor Spring Training, General Manager, John Hart, pulled off a "blockbuster" deal. He shipped the five-time reigning AL stolen base leader and three-time reigning Gold Glove Award winner to the Braves. Scouts that said he could no longer get the job done in 1997 sure ate their words when Kenny Lofton was back in an Indians uniform stealing bases, ten years later.

With Lofton, the Cleveland Indians would have won the 1997 World Series. Period.

The proof is the same reason why he is going into the Indians Hall of Fame this year. He was the leader in the clubhouse and the staple at the top of the lineup. His departure may have added gaudy stats to the heart of the order, but it left Mike Hargrove scrambling to pencil the first name into the lineup card everyday.

Along with relief pitcher Alan Embree, Lofton, was exchanged for two-time All-Star and 1990 Rookie of the Year, David Justice, as well as his replacement in center field, Marquis Grissom.

Neither Marquis Grissom nor David Justice were the clubhouse glue that Lofton was. If they were, they would not have been shipped elsewhere after spending only 1 season and 3.5 seasons in Cleveland, respectively. While Justice may have signed for the money or Championship possibilities, Lofton always played for the city of Cleveland and its fans. There is no other reason to explain why he signed three different contracts with the Tribe during his career. If he was not the greatest clubhouse guy in recent memory, why else would the 2007 Indians sign the 40 year-old journeyman? Why else would the Indians offer Lofton a contract to come back in 1998 (a year after dealing him to Atlanta) if they were not acknowledging he was the missing piece.

Trades are often valued by who wins in the long run, misjudging how close a team was to a Championship before the deal. The Lofton deal
altered the flow of a team two years removed from a World Series appearance. Any trade should have brought in experience and expiring contracts, not youth. Most fans would give up 10 future All-Star seasons from an outgoing player to win a Championship in the one and only season with an incoming veteran.

Let's say Atlanta also threw in a 25 year-old Chipper Jones--to make it a six player deal. In exchange, the Indians would give up their 31 year-old third baseman, Matt Williams. Barring any additional transactions, the Indians would still be reaping the statistical benefits of that trade. Jones is still playing, while Williams retired seven seasons ago. However, the trade would still be labeled a loss if it did not mean a World Series ring in 1997. Coming into Spring Training the Indians were already there.

Reasons why it was
NOT the worst trade in Indians history:

Even without a prototypical lead off man in front of him, David Justice still knocked in 101 runs in 1997. Kenny Lofton could not have filled that gap. No one can argue that the t
he Indians had a definitive power shortage entering the 1997 season. They needed to replace the bats of the legendary Eddie Murray, who was dealt midseason in 1996 to Baltimore, and Albert Belle, who was a free agent signing of the White Sox.
If the team would have competed with its initial Spring Training roster for an entire season, the club would have scored one run less per game and perhaps missed the playoffs altogether. A deal had to be made. The 1997 Indians were never built on pitching; 68 regular season games saw Cleveland give up 6 or more runs. They needed to put up numbers in order to reach 85 wins.

From purely statistical points of view, John Hart successfully plugged the offensive holes.
David Justice had an All-Star season in 1997, hitting 33 homers en route to the Silver Slugger Award and a .329 batting average. He even finished fifth in MVP voting. Defensively, Marquis Grissom patrolled the outfield as well as Lofton. He, too, was a reigning Gold Glove winner; capturing four straight in the National League. Grissom even took home the ALCS MVP Award. So how could it have been a mistake to bring these two players aboard?

Reasons why it was the worst trade in Indians history:

August 7, 1997 was the last day Marquis Grissom hit in the lead off spot. All told, he spent 84 games at the top of the lineup; not one during the playoffs. Meanwhile, Lofton spent 121 games in the lead off spot for a playoff team in Atlanta. Brian Giles, Omar Vizquel, and the newly signed Bip Roberts platooned during the stretch run and the postseason while Grissom fell to the ninth spot. A young Brian Giles did not have the eye, or the speed, to fit the job description. Bip Roberts was a utility infielder that would not ordinarily start, but Mike Hargrove was forced to play him at second base in order to have a stabilized lead off hitter. The goal was to use Vizquel only in case of emergency. His natural fit was that of the greatest two-hitter in Indians history.

Regardless of what Justice did offensively and Grissom did defensively, the trade took away the spearhead of the offensive attack. Bip Roberts and Marquis Grissom were each half a player, one matched Lofton's skill set offensively and the other on defense. The Indians essentially wasted a lineup spot by playing them both.
Kenny Lofton was the complete player. During that same season, he stole 27 bases, hit .333, had a .983 Fielding Percentage, and was named a National League All-Star.

The problem only magnified in the playoffs. Bip Roberts led off 14 of the 16 postseason games, but posted a minuscule .303 On-Base Percentage--a mere .150 in the ALCS. He scored only 4 runs and stole just 3 bases throughout all 16 games. For a season marked by outscoring the opponent, this was not productive enough from the lead off spot. As for
Justice, he hit .185 in the World Series with 8 strikeouts in the 7 games--a relative no show.

That is why the trade hurt the Indians. It had nothing to do with any of the four players involved in the deal; it gave Cleveland bench players more at-bats than they ever should have received. Thus, no apples to apples comparison of those traded can be made. John Hart would never say that Bip Roberts was as good as Kenny Lofton, for he never expected the two to be compared. Heading into the year, the two had very different roles for their teams; it was Grissom that was supposed to make Cleveland forget about Lofton. However, Grissom under achieved in the lead off spot and the Indians were left looking like they traded Lofton for a utility infielder.

The trade was not batting order compatible. History shows holes in the middle of the lineup can be filled with role players and September call-ups, but a lack of depth at the top is exposed immediately. Pure lead off hitters only come around franchises once every twenty years. The Indians had theirs and let him go. The trade gave certain bench players more at-bats than they ever should have.

If the Indians management were smart they should have dealt a young Richie Sexson or Brian Giles, with huge up-sides, to a rebuilding team in exchange for a proven veteran DH. They did not need to trade for a young talent like Justice from a contending team. There were free agents out there if the Tribe would have just spent the money. In December of 1996, the Indians could have signed free agent Moises Alou before Florida. That would have killed two birds with one stone, denying the eventual Champions their big bat. Instead of the Royals acquiring Jeff King and Jay Bell--and their combined 204 RBIs in 1997--from a rebuilding Pittsburgh club, it could have been the Indians.

Many Clevelanders look back on 1997 and wish Jose Mesa could have mustered just two more outs. It is easy, but unfair, to place the blame of an entire Series on that one inning. The emotion of having the goal within reach blurs the season-long issue: not enough pitching, no lead off man. The Championship might have been a comfortable victory with Lofton on the base paths. Perhaps Indians fans should remember 1997 as the year the Tribe made it all the way to the World Series despite not having their leader. The people would still sing the same "What if" song, but maybe to a different tune.

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