Northeast Ohio might be ready to fall back in love with the Indians.
Of late, fans complained that as soon as they found a player who grabbed their hearts, he was gone, too expensive to keep when he reached his potential. For years the Indians seemed like a farm system for the league’s big spenders.
Now they have a core of young players locked up for at least two more seasons. They have a lineup of overachievers, who even with a roster crippled by injuries believed they had a chance until the final out. They make up for whoever is missing with hustle, with sweat, with faith in each other.
Francisco Lindor, who pulls off miraculous defensive plays and finishes them with a dazzling smile. Jose Ramirez, who runs so hard down the first-base line that his helmet flies off, prompting Tribe general manager Mike Chernoff to joke that he needs a chinstrap next season. Carlos Santana, who thrived in an experiment in the leadoff spot and hit a career-high 34 home runs, then volunteered to make his second career appearance in left field in Game 5 of the World Series. Jason Kipnis, who regularly lashes doubles and slides head-first into second base.
They might be no-names to the rest of America, but in reaching Game 7 of the World Series before falling to the Chicago Cubs, they proved to be captivating heroes.
Perhaps now fans will come to see them more often at Progressive Field.
In 2016, the Indians’ average attendance of 19,650 ranked 28th out of 30 teams, ahead of only the Oakland Athletics (18,784) and Tampa Bay Rays (15,878). And that average included 11 dollar dog nights and 13 fireworks nights (some of which overlapped).
Going into the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox, some observers feared the Indians wouldn’t sell out the home games. Available tickets were gone in 45 minutes. For the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, it took 20 minutes, for the World Series 15 minutes.
Their opponents for all three series lived within driving distance. But there were other signs the Indians are catching on.
Three World Series watch parties at Progressive Field drew a total of 67,218.
Television rating were through the roof, with the Indians’ broadcasts on Fox Sports Ohio up 45 percent for the season. According to the personal finance web site WalletHub.com, the Indians had the sixth-highest television ratings in Major League Baseball despite being in the No. 19 media market in the majors. Game 7 of the World Series on Fox drew 40 million viewers, making it the most-watched baseball game in 25 years.
There might never be another 455 consecutive sellouts, the major league record the Indians established from 1995-2001, when they won six consecutive division titles and twice went to the World Series. (The Red Sox surpassed that number in 2008 and extended the string to 820, the longest in major sports, before it ended in 2013.)
But Chernoff and Indians President Chris Antonetti believe the Indians are reconnecting with their fans.
Antonetti said when he walked around the city, those who approached him brought up more than the playoff games. They mentioned the 2-1, 19-inning victory at Toronto on July 1 or the 1-0, 10-inning victory at home against the Detroit Tigers on Sept. 17 when Carlos Carrasco suffered a broken hand in the first inning. He said of the two games he cited, one came in a conversation with a 20-something follower, the other with an older gentleman.
Chernoff got wind of the growing bond from his father Mark, vice president of programming at WFAN radio in New York, during their monthly games of catch. (If necessary, the two keep alive their tradition since Mike’s childhood in grocery store or airport parking lots around the country.)
“Some of the stories I heard were about families reconnecting over this,” Chernoff said in a wrap-up press conference on Friday at Progressive Field. “Whether it was people that live in Cleveland or people externally that have some tie to Cleveland, we felt a lot of people reconnecting to this team.
“The support we saw throughout the second half, the support we saw in the postseason, we saw images of Progressive Field when we were in Chicago of the watch parties, it was incredible. That’s what we hope resonates with fans. That’s what’s given us a lot of pride in some ways, in feeling that reconnection back to the team.”
The fact that Antonetti said postseason revenue should help the Indians increase their payroll, which ranked 26th in the majors according to ESPN.com, could help lure fans back to the ballpark.
Perhaps it will boost the Indians’ ability to keep free agents Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis, who hit the biggest home run in franchise history to tie Game 7 of the World Series in the eighth inning.
The effect of the Indians’ playoff run, coming four months after the Cavaliers’ NBA title, could extend outside Northeast Ohio. It might not just be those in the Buckeye State who are drunk on championship elixir. With Cleveland’s reputation enhanced by the Republican National Convention and the NBA Finals, the Indians could draw out-of-towners who enjoy annual baseball trips.
Now that the Cubs have ended their 108-year curse, perhaps the nation will latch onto the Indians, whose 68-year drought is now the longest among North American franchises in the four major sports.
Everyone loves an underdog. And with the exciting young players the Indians have collected, players who aren’t leaving any time soon, there’s a lot to love.