...But There Is No Joy In Cleveland

No professional baseball franchise has defined futility as well as the Cleveland Indians. On opening day several years ago, cynical attendees walked around Cleveland Stadium carrying a sign: "Wait Till Next Year."

Now, though, for the first time in 35 years, the Indians have a shot at winning their division. Are Cleveland fans elated? Not with a players' strike looming. "It's the ultimate bummer," says native Clevelander Janice L. Eaton, 42, who was 2 the last time the Indians made it to the World Series.

It's a bummer, too, for the Indians' owner. Fans have been flocking to the team's brand-new, 42,800-seat downtown stadium: The club logged its 27th straight sellout on Aug. 3. Better yet, swelling attendance, combined with some shrewd fiscal management, has vastly improved the Tribe's financial performance. The club isn't making figures available, but after years of losses, it expects to end this year in the black--if there's no strike. And the once-ailing team is probably worth over $100 million today, a welcome improvement for Richard E. Jacobs, 69, the shopping-mall developer who bought the club in 1986 for about $35 million.

Players argue that the Indians' success shows that small-market cities can do just fine without the salary cap that owners want. "If they can manage correctly like in Cleveland...[owners] can put a competitive team on the field and make money doing it," says Indians pitcher and team union representative Charles Nagy. Team management counters that the Tribe won't make much even without a strike and won't be able to compete long-term with better-funded franchises. "We have to pay New York prices for the players, but we don't have New York revenues," says E. Dennis Lehman, executive vice-president of business operations for the team.

FAT COFFERS. The Indians don't pay New York prices for many players.

Indeed, Jacobs has insisted for years that his club can't afford to pay players the salaries that are offered by big-city teams reaping millions from lucrative local television contracts. Instead, he slashed the team's payroll to a major-league low of $9 million in 1992. Meanwhile, Jacobs signed promising young players to multiyear contracts.

The moves paid off. Jacobs' salaries remain relatively low, at $28 million, vs. $52.1 million for the major league-topping Atlanta Braves. Nonetheless, the team is in contention for the American League Central Division lead. And with so many key players locked into long-term deals, the Indians should be competitive for years to come.

How about the club's coffers? Without a strike, attendance is likely to hit a record 3.1 million this year. The club should haul in $34 million from ticket sales, enough to meet its player payroll. The Indians' new stadium, Jacobs Field, has a lot to do with the team's fiscal turnaround. A county tax on tobacco and alcohol helped finance the $171 million ballpark. Besides helping to draw fans, the downtown park gives the club a bigger slice of revenues, including at least $1.5 million annually in stadium advertising revenue, vs. the $25,000 that management made at the old baseball park. Indians' management notes, though, that its costs are up substantially, too, since they run the stadium.

But a strike could cause Jacobs to finish another year in the red. And the Indians' players could lose their chance at a pennant. Neither prospect has made either side any less resolute about a walkout. Oh, well. Wait till next year.

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