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June 26, 2000

A Tragedy in Cleveland

When Big Markets Collapse

by Craig Elsten

"[Oakland GM Billy] Beane likes to say competing against big-market clubs like the Yankees and Indians and Rangers is 'like using bows and arrows against smart bombs.'" -- Bob Klapisch, ESPN.com, May 12, 2000.

"So what's the problem here? ... First off, Cleveland is just the No. 13 media market in the U.S., which makes it tough for the Indians to compete financially with the big boys." -- Rob Neyer, ESPN.com, June 23, 2000.

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Here on a windy summer day just off the Erie River, long-time Cleveland native Steve Hatch is selling apples for a quarter in front of a boarded-up skyscraper. "Just six weeks ago, I had a lucrative job in a thriving metropolis," the lanky 31-year-old bemoaned. "Then, overnight, everybody left and all the businesses closed. It's like a ghost town." The sudden collapse of the Cleveland market has residents here scrounging just to make ends meet.

Local perturbations of the economy are not unusual, but even seasoned economists are surprised with the magnitude of the shock that has hit Cleveland in the last two months. "I remember the depression that hit Chicago in the summer of 1997," said analyst Greg Mendelsohn, "but that came in gradually over the course of three years. I've never seen anything like this, with a large market becoming a small market in just a few weeks. It's like an asteroid hit."

Experts say that the Cleveland Panic of 2000 is just another manifestation of the problem of sportswriter-caused runs. "Just as day traders can bid a stock up or down $20 in a matter of minutes, and currency traders can cause a massive devaluation in Southeast Asia, all it takes is a few sportswriters seeking to rationalize a baseball team's failure and an entire city's economy crashes like Carney Lansford making a play on a ground ball three steps to his left," a highly-placed administration source noted.

In this case, the Cleveland Indians, long the dominant team in the AL Central, have slipped deep into second place. They may not even make the playoffs this year, despite the purchase of Chuck Finley and the sixth-largest payroll in the major leagues. The team has been racked by injuries, most recently its star right fielder, Manny Ramirez. "Chuck Finley won 18 games in 1990 and 1991. Who would have thought he would be 5-5 a scant nine years later at the age of 37? He won all those games against the Yankees back when the Bronx was a small market, and we figured his pitching would have a sort of a plastic memory," Hatch noted ruefully.

Sportswriters fear a paradigm shift that challenges the conventional wisdom that a team can only succeed if it's in a large market. Immediately, they seek to redefine where those markets are. "Because you can't print anything on the Internet unless it's 100% true, these conglomerate media concerns like Time Warner and Disney take drastic measures to ensure that the lowliest reporter's throw-away comment is accurate," said Mendelsohn. "Property values in Dallas dropped 10% after Ruben Mateo went on the DL."

The 1990s saw Toronto, Boston, Anaheim, Miami and even Cincinnati go through the gyrations caused when sportswriters redefine a large market as a small market and vice versa. New York residents are beginning to be nervous with recent Yankee and Met failures, and many are seeking refuge with relatives in St. Louis and Phoenix. It is suspected that the Federal Reserve Board is behind the Yankees' move to trade for Juan Gonzalez in an effort to avoid nationwide economic consequences in an election year should the unthinkable happen.

But such intervention comes too late for people like Steve Hatch, who can only look back at the Carlos Baerga glory years. "No matter how good the Indians were, we kept losing to larger markets like Atlanta or Florida or Boston. I guess we were bound to become a small market eventually."

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