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Where are you, Indians fans? Your team’s in the playoff race

Cleveland just doesn't seem to believe in their Indians this year.

Is there any other conclusion to draw after Progressive Field drew just 9,794 fans on Monday for the game between the Tribe and the Royals? In recent seasons, a September series between Cleveland and Kansas City might not have much sizzle to it. But this matchup is arguably between two playoff contenders. 

Going into Monday's play, the Indians were only 1.5 games behind the Rays, tied with the Orioles, for the AL's second wild-card spot. In the AL Central, the Tribe is still alive, thanks to the Tigers playing a sluggish September thus far. Detroit lost, 5-1, to the White Sox on Monday while the Indians beat the Royals, 4-3. That put Cleveland 4.5 games behind the Tigers with 19 games remaining on the schedule. 

Judging from the standings, the Tribe looks like a team in contention. Meaningful baseball is being played in Cleveland for the first time since 2007, when the Indians won the AL Central by eight games over the Tigers. Yet from the turnout at the ballpark Monday night, you'd think this club is just playing out the string. 

As MLB.com's Jordan Bastian pointed out on Twitter, that crowd of 9,794 is a record-low at Progressive Field for a September or October regular season game. 

 

 

Were most people in Cleveland staying home to watch Monday Night Football? (Hey, I was excited to watch RGIII and the Eagles' new Chip Kelly offense too.)

Maybe Northern Ohio sports fans wanted to see some good football played after watching the Browns lose to the Dolphins, 23-10, on Sunday. Brandon Weeden threw three interceptions for a home crowd of 71,513 at FirstEnergy Stadium (that's a new name, right?). According to ESPN.com, that was the seventh-highest crowd during the NFL's opening weekend. 

That could get to the heart of it. Deep down, perhaps Cleveland is truly a football town. That wouldn't make the city much different from the rest of the country, it seems. It's a NFL world, and other sports are along for the ride. (That's a painful thing for a baseball writer to admit, but it's reality. As I mentioned above, I got caught up in the excitement of college and pro football as much as anyone over the weekend.) The community seems to identify deeply with the Browns, regardless of how they play. 

Ohio certainly seems to be a football state. Other than in Texas or Pennsylvania, is high school football any more important than it is in Ohio? I don't have any numbers to back that up. It's purely an outsider's observation, though I did spend most of my life in the neighboring, rival state of Michigan. 

It should probably also be mentioned that NFL games are typically played on Sundays and only once a week. It's a far different commitment for sports fans than one of 162 baseball games, played on a Monday night, after Labor Day when the kids are back in school and summer's over. 

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

So the Indians may be dealing with something far bigger than whether or not putting a good, playoff-contending club on the field will draw fans to the ballpark. This may be a steeper uphill climb than the team could have imagined.

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes writes, apathy among Tribe fans likely goes back to 2007. That division-winning team, which was one win away from the World Series, had a regular-season attendance of only 2.3 million fans. That ranked 21st in MLB. If there was any hope that the Indians would capitalize on that success with big box office, an 81-81 campaign the following season killed that buzz.

Even more damaging to fan interest was trading CC Sabathia to the Brewers a year after he won the AL Cy Young Award. The next season, Cleveland traded a Cy Young Award winner yet again, dealing Cliff Lee to the Phillies. According to Hoynes, Cleveland fans have a long memory and they haven't forgotten (nor forgiven, apparently) those two pitchers being traded. Making those deals even more painful is the fact that the prospects received in return never developed as hoped. 

Still, if you work in the Tribe's front office or are part of its ownership group, this has to be a frustrating development to face. 

The Indians put some money into this year's team. This isn't just a case of ownership throwing up its hands and ceding to the larger payrolls of the Tigers and White Sox in the AL Central. Yes, going into the season, Cleveland ranked 21st in MLB in team payroll, according to USA Today. But the team has also spent more on player salaries than it has in five years. 

Cleveland signed Nick Swisher to a four-year, $56 million contract. Michael Bourn inked a four-year, $48 million deal. Brett Myers got a one-year, $7 million contract. Mark Reynolds was signed to a one-year, $6 million deal, though he was eventually designated for assignment. Maybe that $6 million would have been better spent on a starting pitcher.

However, the point is that the team didn't just put a team full of less expensive prospects and aging veterans on the field. This, along with hiring Terry Francona as manager, was an attempt to compete with the Tigers in the AL Central and the rest of the league for a wild-card playoff bid. That effort hasn't been reflected in the stands. 

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Indians fans have had a hard time believing in their team. The second-half collapses of the past two years are still a strong memory. When I wrote in mid-May that Cleveland looked like a division title and playoff contender, many Tribe fans e-mailed me or found me on Twitter to say that they weren't sure this team was for real. What made this club any different from the ones that cratered in the second half during the previous two seasons?

Obviously, Tribe fans need to see that success actually occur before making that emotional investment. Going 4-15 against the Tigers this season, while being outscored by 50 runs (70 to 120) surely didn't help with that. 

That leaves us with a chicken-or-egg situation in Cleveland. Will fans come out to support a winner? Or does the team have to build a consistent contender — and not dismantle it — before the fans buy in?

In a separate article, Hoynes wonders how ownership will respond to this year's lackluster attendance. The team has more revenue, with the sale of SportsTime Ohio to FOX Sports providing an infusion of regional TV money. Additionally, MLB's new TV package gives every team a bigger slice of pie. So the money will be there. Yet the question is whether or not ownership wants to spend it if fans don't come out to support the local product. 

I'm certainly not saying what Cleveland fans should or shouldn't do with their disposable income. Believe me, I understand how expensive tickets can be and how much of an effort it can be to get out to the ballpark, especially on a weeknight. But less than 10,000 fans in September when the team is in the playoff race? Wow. 

The Indians do appear to be making a genuine effort to assemble a contender and compete for the postseason. That shouldn't be taken for granted. If the team ultimately decides not to spend money, Indians fans can't say the opportunity wasn't there to show they deserve otherwise. 

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, also covering baseball at The Outside Corner and pop culture for The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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