Commentary

First-place Cleveland Indians? Oh my!

The longer the Tribe stays competitive, the better the game of baseball will be

Originally Published: April 21, 2011
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Cleveland Rocks! Cleveland Rocks!

And Bud Selig couldn't be happier. At least, he should be happy, because baseball needs this. Badly.

I love what's happening in Cleveland. We're less than a month into the season, but the franchise that allowed itself to be spoofed in the baseball classic -- yes, classic!  "Major League" is making us forget about the underachieving Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres and Minnesota Twins, not to mention slumping sluggers Albert Pujols and Carl Crawford. And the Seattle Mariners.

[+] EnlargeIndians Celebrate
AP Photo/Tony DejakCloser Chris Perez, center, and the Indians have had plenty to celebrate so far this season.

The Indians are the best story in baseball. At 12-5, they are tied with the Colorado Rockies for the best record in the game and sit atop the American League Central. They'd won four straight before Tuesday's 5-4 loss to baseball's other surprise team, the Kansas City Royals.

They're doing it with hitting -- second in the majors in scoring (90 runs), fifth in on-base percentage (.338), seventh in slugging percentage (.425) and eighth in team batting average (.268).

They're doing it with pitching -- first in quality starts (13) and walks and hits per inning (1.13), second in BAA (.218) and seventh in ERA (3.26)

And they're doing it with a cast that is almost as colorful as Ricky Vaughn, Pedro Cerrano, Roger Dorn, Willie Mays Hayes and the rest of their hilarious cinematic counterparts.

"It's early, yes," new Indians manager Manny Acta told MLB.com earlier this week, prior to the start of the series with the second-place Royals. "But I don't care. I'm happy."

He added: "This is good for baseball. This is the way it should be."

Correction: The way it has to be.

As a business, baseball is on a bit of a hot streak of its own. Last season, 73 million fans tripped the turnstiles and overall revenues increase 4 percent to $6.1 billion, according to Forbes.com. Moreover, the average franchise is worth more than ever, $523 million.

[+] Enlarge Grady Sizemore
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesGrady Sizemore is back and, perhaps, better than ever.

Yet everyone knows baseball simply doesn't compete anymore with the NFL or the NBA when it comes to being cool and featuring stars your kids want to be. That battle is done -- lost in part due to the steroid era and to the slow, steady essence of baseball's being.

No matter what Pujols (the non-slumping version), Crawford (ditto), Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, Derek Jeter or even baseball's hottest player -- Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki -- do on the field, they will never be as "American Idol"-hot as Kobe, LeBron or Derrick Rose. Nor will they create the kind of highlights the above-average NBA player creates every night.

I'll bet you can recall more spectacular Blake Griffin dunks (and here's all 214 of them from this season) than memorable plays in the field made by [fill in any MLB player here].

In baseball, there are no hip monikers like Superman, The Kid, Melo, D-Wade or even CP3.

No rapper-moguls in the owner's box.

No Kardashian wives or girlfriends.

It's time for baseball to stop trying to be America's Pastime and embrace being Middle America's Pastime.

Yeah, those kids listen to Cee Lo, Gaga, Jeremih and Waka Flocka Flame, too.

And they wear Kevin Durant's jersey.

Manny Acta
AP Photo/Mark DuncanWhat to do when even the Nationals don't want you? If you're Manny Acta, you start over in Cleveland.

But more than likely, they'll also cheer (and maybe even idolize) the likes of Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Michael Brantley and other less-than-humongous-market heroes in places such as Kansas City, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Oakland and even Seattle.

Consider Cleveland's new "Major League" cast:

• There's a plethora of young arms led by 26-year-old Justin Masterson, strikeout specialist Fausto Carmona (27), Josh Tomlin (26) and newcomer Jeanmar Gomez (23), who was elevated from the minors on Monday and took the hill Tuesday night in place of injured starter Mitch Talbot. (Alas, Gomez lasted only 4 1/3 innings, giving up nine hits and five runs.)

• There's the fear-no-one closer. Chris Perez, 25, has five saves and a 0.00 ERA (not a typo); he's gone 26 innings without allowing a run (dating back to last season), the longest stretch in the majors.

• There's the grizzled designated hitter. Hafner, 33, is hitting .346 with four home runs, nine RBIs and an OBP of .407 (no burning incense required).

• There's the popular returning veteran star. Three-time All-Star Sizemore, 27, missed all but 33 games last season with a left-knee injury. He returned to the lineup on Sunday and promptly hit a critical home run to help lead the Tribe to a 4-2 win over Baltimore.

• There's the young, eager-to-please rising star. In 15 games as the Indians' leadoff hitter, center fielder Brantley, 23, hit .328, had six RBIs and a .400 OBP. Upon Sizemore's return, he moved into the No. 7 spot, without a peep of complaining.

• And finally, there's even the cast-off manager. Dumped two seasons ago by the Washington Nationals (of all teams), Acta is now the toast of Cleveland as he grooms and guides this eclectic bunch with an Opening Day payroll ($61.2 million) that ranked 26th among the 30 major league teams.

[+] EnlargeTravis Hafner
AP Photo/Mark DuncanTravis Hafner gives the Indians some veteran leadership.

Sure, embracing Middle America's Pastime is counterintuitive to the popular theory that baseball can still be the "it" game if it only nurtures and promotes more of its stars, speeds up the pace for the ADD generation, and features T. I., Kanye and Katy Perry in a music video to raise its Q-rating among Generations Y and soon Z. Oh, and make sure the World Series includes either New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago (fat chance) or Los Angeles to boost ratings.

But small-market thinking doesn't have to be small-minded thinking. And as the Indians and Royals are showing so far -- and as the defending World Series-champion San Francisco Giants demonstrated last year -- it can also mean winning.

Winning by allowing young, homegrown talent to rise and flourish, and remain at home as Twins catcher Joe Mauer did when he signed a very big-market eight-year, $84 million contract extension last May.

Teams such as the Indians and Royals will ultimately have to follow suit and be willing to pay their hometown stars.

Middle America baseball: You can stay home again.

That's a game baseball can win.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

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