Most Cleveland Indians fans hate the Dolans.
They’re cheap. They’re too hands off. They just don’t care enough.
We’ve heard all those complaints and more for nearly 20 years. And while there have been some bumps in the road, despite the constant complaining from the fan base, the Dolans have established themselves as the best owners in Cleveland. Here’s why:
Why It’s Not Jimmy Haslam
Do I really need to explain this one? Haslam can’t stay out of his own way. His career—both in football and outside of it—has been a train wreck since he bought the Browns in 2012.
In five seasons under Haslam the Browns have already blown through four different head coaches. They’ve drafted two different quarterbacks in the first round (Haslam is widely assumed to be the man behind the Manziel selection), and neither are currently on the team. They’ve had their GM suspended. And they’ve won a grand total of 19 games.
Haslam isn’t just the worst owner in Cleveland, he’s the worst in the NFL and possibly the worst current owner in all of pro sports.
Why It’s Not Dan Gilbert
A lot of people will disagree with me on this one because Gilbert has produced a championship. So I acknowledge that this is a difficult one to sell, but hear me out.
Gilbert is a good owner the same way George Steinbrenner was a good owner. But like Steinbrenner, Gilbert isn’t actually good at anything except spending his money. In fact, he often creates more problems then he solves (again, much like Steinbrenner).
With LeBron on the roster (and effectively calling all the shots) the team has won, but I would argue Gilbert’s only contribution is a willingness to spend money.
We’ve seen how Gilbert runs the franchise without LeBron, and it wasn’t pretty. His hirings ranged from bad (Mike Brown 2.0) to horrific (GM Chris Grant). They drafted Dion Waiters over Damian Lilliard. The very next year they owned the No. 1 pick and drafted Anthony Bennett over [insert literally any other player from that draft class].
LeBron agreed to return in spite of Gilbert, not because of him, and since rejoining the franchise we’ve barely heard from the owner.
It was always the same way with Steinbrenner. When the Yankees were bad in the 1980s, Steinbrenner was always in the headlines for firing coaches and meddling the daily affairs of the team. But once they finally hit on some draft picks and had a core to build around, Steinbrenner just stepped back and handed his checkbook to those who actually know how to run an organization.
I’ll certainly take an owner willing to spend money, but how long before Gilbert gets tired of not being involved and inserts himself back into the equation? Gilbert’s insistence on wining right now forced the Cavs to use up all their assets during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, which likely contributored to LeBron’s decision to leave. We’ll see that side of Gilbert again. I just hope he holds off until LeBron’s reign has ended.
Why The Dolans are Cleveland’s Best
1. They Hire Good People and Let Them Work
Technically, I’m not sure we can credit the Dolans with hiring anyone. They inherited John Hart, who handed it off to Mark Shapiro, who handed it off to Chris Antonetti and eventually Mike Chernoff.
Much like the Rooneys of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dolans believe that once you have intelligent people in place, you let them build the organization. Some issues might arise, but if you trust your leaders, you let them adjust and learn from mistakes.
Many Indians fans still blame the Dolans and Shapiro for the mid-2000s struggles. And it’s true, Shapiro is indirectly to blame for issues they had in the draft during that era. But after a few years of struggles, they adjusted, restructured the scouting department and have since dramatically improved their success rate, which we’re now seeing with Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Lonnie Chisenhall, etc.
The continuity in the Indians front office is unlike just about anything we’ve seen in a sports. The current front office is effectively the same one that’s been in place since Dick Jacobs hired veteran GM Hank Peters following the 1987 season. Peters laid the ground work for the team with an emphasis on building the farm system—he acquired Thome, Ramirez, Alomar, Baerga, Nagy, etc—and groomed Hart has his replacement.
When the Dolans took over the team in 1999, they could have overturned everything. Most owners would, at the very least, have blown it all up in 2002 when the team was rebuilding. But they recognized that there were intelligent baseball people running the organization, and they’ve allowed that group to continue controlling the opperation.
In 28 season under the Peters GM tree, the Indians have won 90 games in nine different seasons (not to mention nine playoffs trips and three pennants). In the previous 86 years of the Indians organization, they won 90 games just 10 times.
The Dolans deserve a ton of credit for recognizing what they had and allowing the front office to simply do their thing.
2. They Spend Money When it Will Produce Results
In the short term, we would obviously rather have an owner like Dick Jacobs who is willing to just spend whatever it takes to win and blow through his money in an effort to win a World Series before he dies.
But there’s a reason why those owners don’t last long.
Jacobs’ tenure only lasted from 1986 through 1999. It was fun, but he also left the Dolans with a complete mess to cleanup. He spent way too much money and encouraged the front office to go all in, forcing them to dismantle the elite farm system they had built through the 1990s.
The Dolans aren’t willing to just empty their bank account in an effort to win a title. They intend to stick around for the long haul, so they aren’t going to pour all their assets into a short-term run at a title. That’s frustrating at times, but in the long run we’re better off, especially since they are willing to increase their spending when the team is on the cusp of serious contention.
Midway through the 2016 season it became clear that the Indians were serious contenders, and the Dolans immediately stepped up. They approved of a spending increase to acquire Andrew Miller. And they followed that up this offseason with an even bigger increase with the addition of Edwin Encarnacion.
The Indians front office executives made this possible by selling the Dolans on a three year window.
The cornerstones of the franchise (Kipnis, Brantley, Kluber, etc) are all under contract through the 2019 season (and most have a team option for 2020). The front office created this window well in advanced by structuring those contracts to expire at the same time. And it made it an easy sell to the Dolans when the front office requested a spending increase.
So for the next three seasons, we can expect the team to operate like a legitimate contender. Don’t expect long-term contracts to free agents extending beyond that window, but the Dolans are willing to strike while the iron is hot and spend money when we’re on the verge of a World Series title.
When 2019 or 2020 rolls around and the Indians veterans begin to decline, we’ll likely enter a rebuilding phase. But don’t be discouraged. There’s no reason to expect the plans to change. This regime will still be around in some form and they’ll develop a new timetable and likely turn things around with the same plan of attack they used to build the current roster.
As long as the Dolans are around and the Hank Peters front office tree continues to grow, the Indians will never be far off from putting a playoff contender on the field.