Their long-term future is secured. With Thursday’s announcement that Cleveland’s baseball franchise has renewed its lease at Progressive Field through 2036, any question or rumor about the teams future moving outside of the corner of Carnegie and Ontario has been put to rest.
While that news is reflective of the team’s location for now and in the future, it is also a reflection of the Dolan family’s continued commitment to keeping their team in the city of Cleveland. Currently in their 22nd season in possession of the team, the Dolans have become the longest tenured owners in the history of the franchise. This is a role that has seen a lot of ups and downs, and ownership has certainly taken a considerable amount of criticism during their time at the helm. Truthfully, some of that criticism is warranted. There have been certain financial limitations that the team has become beholden to during the Dolans’ ownership. At face value, this is their reputation; hamstringing a quality baseball team with their financial limitations. However, is that reputation warranted?
Naturally, some of this is relative to opinion. There are a myriad of ways to gauge quality ownership. Stability is one, for instance. The Dolans have this in spades. Not only are they the longest tenured ownership group in the history of the team, but the people they have hired to run their business are among the most qualified and respected in the industry. Admittedly, this isn’t all the Dolan family’s doing. A direct line can be drawn from previous owner Richard Jacobs’s hiring of Team President Hank Peters and current Team President Chris Antonetti. Antonetti was hired by Mark Shapiro, who was hired by John Hart, who was hired by Peters. A mere 4 degrees of separation are the difference between past and present. Additionally, Shapiro was so well thought of that he was poached by the Toronto Blue Jays to become their own Team President. In certain circles, he was even considered for MLB Commissioner when the job was open less than a decade ago.
The positive reputation that permeates the front office is also part of what drew long-time manager Terry Francona to town. He wanted to work with Shapiro, Antonetti and their staff. Clearly, this organization is highly respected around baseball. While the Dolans didn’t begin that stability and reputation, they have upheld it. They have done one of the most important things possible in terms of leadership. They’ve known what they don’t know and in turn trusted and empowered qualified experts.
Stability isn’t the only measure, of course, and baseball isn’t like most businesses. Naturally, the priority of a business is making money (more on that later), but for the sports industry, it is of course also about success on the field.
If you measure success by winning games, then the Dolans measure up fairly well. Since their purchase of the Indians in 2000, the Indians are the 9th winningest team in Major League Baseball. That’s not exactly top of the mountain, but it is among the top third of the league and better than any other team in the American League’s Central Division. A winning percentage of .517 over the course of their ownership is also quite comparable to the .520 mark put together by their Gateway District roommate Cleveland Cavaliers under current owner Dan Gilbert. It is also significantly better than the .308 winning percentage put together by the Browns under Jimmy Haslem’s reign.
But perhaps comparing to Cleveland’s other teams in different sports isn’t fair. Instead, let’s compare the Dolans to the Indians previous ownership. The team has been in sixteen different sets of hands over the course of its 121 year history. In doing some math (disclaimer, exact dates on when the team changed hands aren’t perfect. Records are an estimation, but any error should be a matter of a few games and negligable) of those 16 owners, the Dolans’ rank 6th overall in winning percentage. However, some of those better owner records come from significantly smaller samples of time. Only five individuals have been purveyor of Cleveland baseball for more than a decade. Of those 5, the Dolans have the second best winning percentage with only Alva Bradley (1927-1946) performing better at the helm of the team.
Of course, all of this talk about winning percentage is solely factoring in regular season games. There is nothing about post-season involved in this discussion. But it is important to remember that post-season success can’t come without regular season success first. Regular season success does matter. Building on this point, Major League Baseball’s extended regular season is a great proving ground for baseball teams- perhaps even a better determinant of who is best than any playoff system.
Still, its not like the Dolan-owned Indians have been especially poor when it comes to playoff success. This iteration of team ownership has just as many World Series appearances as any other: one. Additionally, the two team owners that won the World Series weren’t owners for very long. Jim Dunn owned the Indians for a total of 7 years before passing away and turning over ownership to his estate. His ownership included the 1920 World Series Champions. Bill Veeck owned the team for a mere 3 and a half seasons. They were eventful seasons though that saw the integration of the American League under his ownership and the 1948 World Championship.
And ultimately, this is the real sin of the Dolan family. They haven’t been lucky enough to win the big one. Winning cures all, but a certain special kind of winning is the true magic elixir. Paraphrased from the movie Moneyball, if you don’t win the last game of the season then nothing else matters. The Dolans have never been able to win the last game of the season. This leads to fan frustration. What is interesting though is how that frustration manifests itself- the payroll discussion.
Its really easy to forget that the largest payroll in Indians history actually came under the Dolan ownership. The highest payroll figure in team history came in 2018 at $143.4 million In 2001, the Indians payroll stood at just under $93.5 million as well, which obviously isn’t as high at face value, but when adjusted for inflation also comes in at $143.4 million (and was also the 5th highest in baseball at the time). The Jacobs ownership, often what the Dolans are compared to, never hit either of these marks in their time as team owners even with inflation taken into account.
The truth of the matter is that the Dolan ownership committed the highest payroll in team history in 2018 while ranking 21st in MLB in attendance. They did this while being a mere three years removed from ballpark renovations that were privately funded and with a mere season between them and their most recent World Series appearance. This is the crux of the Dolans’ ownership. They have been great about cultivating stability and hiring qualified individuals that have brought upon winning baseball. They have not been great at marketing their successes or getting public support on their side despite how well they have run their organization. This has a cyclical effect. As long as fan outlook is poor, payroll increases mean overextending team finances. When they spend more money, they don’t make a return on their investment causing them to cease over-spending. This just leads to a more infuriated fan-base.
Genuinely, it appears that most fans’ frustration then manifests itself in complaints about the Dolans not spending how they should. This claim is questionable. We have evidence of them spending (new & old, although responsibly, when the time and opportunity are right. Maybe more importantly, spending money doesn’t correlate directly to effort or will to win. You also can’t buy World Series titles.
But that’s just the thing. While the fans’ anger manifests itself in complaints about spending, perhaps what is really afoot is an underlying frustration after having gotten so close but not quite reaching the precipice of greatness. No other team in the game can say they’ve come within 1 out of a World Series title twice in their team history (at least none that I can think of). For the Indians, it has happened just in my lifetime.
That’s plenty of reason to be frustrated, but there’s also plenty of reason to be encouraged. In that same lifetime, the Indians have made more post-season appearances and the same number of World Series appearances as they had in their entire previous history. This wouldn’t have happened without the stability of the Dolan (and Jacobs) ownership.
So, while the ultimate success for this ownership has never come and that can be understandably held against them, success in some other way feels certain under the ownership of the Dolan family. They continue to empower the people that deliver that success. Unless that changes, its only a matter of time before catharsis. Maybe at that point this debate can be put to rest.
Feature Image: Call to the Pen