I watched Tuesday night as the Minnesota Twins celebrated another division championship, a routine occurrence for this small-market powerhouse. In Game 163 of the ’09 season, they wrote a sad ending to what had been a feel-good story about the Detroit Tigers, a team that had invigorated a city whose can-do spirit had been battered.
Yet as I looked at Joe Mauer, Nick Punto, Joe Nathan and manager Ron Gardenhire jump up and down inside the Metrodome like little boys, I was struck by how much a team run on a shoestring can accomplish if it makes wise decisions. Seeing what the Twins had just done, I was reminded of what a disappointment the Indians have been.
In a city with a fan base that had proved long ago it would support a competitive ballclub, the Indians and their front office have given their fans one season after another of mostly mediocrity.
For instead of playing for division titles like the Twins, the Tribe has been playing to stay ahead of the Royals for the Central Division cellar. Such lousy performances don’t pack a ballpark or engender pride in a team, which explains the empty seats in June, July, August and September.
But why have the Indians, a 65-97 team with more resources than the Twins, been consistently mediocre and boring?
I think that’s a question the Dolan family, which owns the franchise, needs to answer. No doubt, the Dolans made a smart move in ridding the team of manager Eric Wedge. While it would be a mistake to question his integrity or his knowledge of baseball, Wedge never came across as much of a teacher, and for an organization that banks its future on young talent, a manager who can teach is essential to success.
That’s one of the differences between the Indians and the Twins, who may well not advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. But in "Gardy," they have a manager who will ensure the team plays smartly. A man who enjoys the teaching part of baseball, he’s been able to take young talent and mold it into quality Major Leaguers. Go up and down the team’s roster, and you will find players that benefited from Gardenhire’s tutoring.
Wedge always talked about playing “the game the right way,” but nothing his teams did showed his players had a grasp of what “the right way” was. His players were woefully weak defensively, made blunders on the bases, never learned to bunt, lacked speed and, though they hustled, didn’t play with a carefree air. They were a passionless bunch, playing the game as uptight as the colorless Wedge often looked.
I can’t blame Wedge, however, for all that went wrong with the Indians this season, because he might have done a better job had general manager Mark Shapiro given him better talent to mold.
Under Shapiro, the Tribe hasn’t hit with one of its top draft picks, a fact that points to an inability to judge talent and not necessarily to a bad manager.
A team wins with talent, and except for a couple of trades and a handful of low-round draft picks who have done well, Shapiro hasn’t stocked the cupboard, which makes success problematic for whomever he hires to succeed Wedge.
The next manager will stand as a referendum on Shapiro and on the bold promises he made years ago about winning championships.
His promises seem so hollow when you examine what the Twins have done in the past decade. They compete year after year even though their revenue streams flow at a trickle compared with the money Shapiro has to work with.
I hope Shapiro watched the game Tuesday. He can learn lessons from what he saw. He should remember that it’s not about how much a small-market team like the Indians spend; it’s about their ability to get the max out of the minimum.
The Twins do that well, which is why they have found their way into contention for division titles throughout the decade. While they might not be the Yankees or the Red Sox, the Twins aren’t the Indians either, which fans in Twin Cities can be thankful for as baseball continues there deep into October.