I had the pleasure of attending a Tribe Town Hall luncheon today at Progressive Field. Indians’ President Mark Shapiro was the featured speaker for a group of 100 or so fans that are active in the local social media space. The event was held at the Terrace Club in Left Field at beautiful Progressive Field and the Indians put out a spectacular buffet lunch for those in attendance.
Mr. Shapiro began the session with a brief “State-of-the-Indians” address telling us the organization’s goals for the ball club were “to win the World Series”. When he opened it up to questions, I got things started by asking the first one, asking if the team was able to successfully meet the World Series championship goal given the constraints with which they have to work (low attendance and a tight payroll in comparison to big market teams and even those in our own Division). He replied with a resounding ‘yes’ and said that anything can happen in a shortened, playoff season evidenced by the team’s performance in the 2007 playoffs. He said the challenge is mostly to make the playoffs and, beginning in 2012, one additional team from each League qualifies for post-season play.
With one exception, the questions asked during the 90 minute Q&A session were professional. I thought one tweeter was out of line with some juvenile commentary related to the college draft, but Mark handled him with complete professionalism.
Many questions focused on the costs of attending games, but I thought that Mark was spot on with comparisons to entertainment at other local venues (museums, movie theaters, amusement parks) and mentions of the things the team has started doing recently (allowing bottled water into the park).
Mark gave a resounding ‘no’ in response to a question about Manny Ramirez and whether there was a possibility that he could return to the ball club this year. Citing his age as the primary reason, you also have to believe they want no part of the zoo that accompanies Ramirez wherever he goes.
When the topic of attendance came up, Mark cited the mathematical challenges of getting good attendance at games during a year when they are starting from such a small (8,500) season-ticket base. This requires a lot of walk-up ticket sales to get to decent attendance for individual games. Selling 12,000 walk-ups is an incredibly difficult task and that only gets you to 20,000 fans which is still not good. The team has tried several things to increase the season ticket base, including focusing the off-season press caravan on Cleveland last year. In year’s past the team would drive to surrounding cities (Youngstown, Toledo, Columbus) but Mark felt that they were overlooking Cleveland and wanted to focus more of their efforts locally this year.
The organization is also looking at ways to continue to keep Progressive Field relevant for fans of all ages. He cited the emergence of social media and text messaging as things that were not around when the ballpark was constructed in the early 90s. The infrastructure to deliver good experiences for that were not in place and so they are working on this. They also realize they will never again need the large number of suites and cited the new Yankee Stadium’s mere 65 suites as an example. So they are looking at ways to repurpose those suites and, in fact, did so this year with the new Kids’ Clubhouse in the right field area.
This was not all about business and marketing, however. There were plenty of questions about the current players, too. Mark cited Closer Chris Perez and 2B Jason Kipnis as particularly deserving of an invitation to the AllStar game, but said the plethora of great second basemen ahead of Kipnis would probably prevent that from happening this year. Additionally, Travis Hafner was mentioned as someone that plays well when healthy, but his inability to do that and his hefty contract make things difficult on the club.
The most intense reaction I saw today was in response to a question about all of the one-year deals the Indians have with players. Mark blasted headline writers for the newspapers as being lazy and not doing their homework since the reality is that the team has many of these players locked up for 6 years due to how ball clubs retain rights over players with little major league experience. So he was not concerned with those one year deals and the team has, in fact, begun extending some key players (Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana are examples) to long-term deals.
When asked what needed to happen for the team to make the playoffs this year, Mark said some combination of better play from some players and a return to good health of others. He did not rule out a return of Grady Sizemore or Roberto Heredia (formerly Fausto Carmona) and said that the low attendance this year would NOT affect the team’s ability to do anything before the trading deadline. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the team to take on a player with a $13M contract either.
At the beginning of the season, he thought it would take 93-95 wins to claim the Central Division title. Now, he said, it may take only 90-91. But he is a believer that we can do it with the team that we have right now.
I applaud Mr. Shapiro for his candor in answering our questions today. In fact, as they were bringing a microphone over to me for the first question, he quipped ‘always be leery of answering a question from a guy wearing the uniform’ – I had a jersey on. When I replied “Sorry, but I can’t play left field very well anymore’ he said “you can’t be much worse than what we’ve had out there”. That got a huge laugh from the room and really put everyone at ease.
Thanks to Mark, Anne Keegan and the Indians organization for putting on such a great event today. Go Tribe!