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Cleveland Indians President Chris Antonetti: "Don't Count Us Out"

Indians President Chris Antonetti says his team has proven to be a "very resilient bunch"
Indians President Chris Antonetti says his team has proven to be a "very resilient bunch"
Indians President Chris Antonetti says his team has proven to be a "very resilient bunch"
Credit Amanda Rabinowitz / WKSU
Indians President Chris Antonetti says his team has proven to be a "very resilient bunch"

The Cleveland Indians are close to winning the American League Central division title for the first time since 2007. With the team preparing for the postseason, WKSU's Amanda Rabinowitz talked to Indians president Chris Antonetti about the season that’s been filled with surprises and adversity. 

The Indians season began in the spring with a lot of questions. The biggest one -- would All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley get back to playing following shoulder surgery in the off season? He never did. 

Now, with the team likely bound for the playoffs at the end of September, Antonetti says it's been a long road.  

"It's really an exciting time to be sitting here with an opportunity to secure a postseason," Antonetti says. "It's something we've worked for a really long time for. So I think reflecting back even to last offseason, this is what we planned for is to be in this position. So it's incredibly exciting."

Taking chances

In the off season, the Indians signed some veteran players they were hoping would have an impact. It was a gamble that paid off big. This season, Mike Napoli, 34, became the first Indians player to reach 30 home runs in a season since Grady Sizemore in 2008. He's also the first Indians hitter to reach 100 RBI  in a season since 2007. 

They also signed Rajai Davis. He spent 2014 and 2015 with Detroit. At age 37, he's the oldest player to steal 40 bases in a season since Ichiro Suzuki in 2011.  

"I think what we try to do at the end of each season and going in the offseason is identify players we think compliment the group we already have in place both on the field and in the clubhouse.," Antonetti says.

"Mike Napoli sets the tone for professionalism for how guys go about their work and for bringing everyone together. It's not uncommon to see Mike in the clubhouse playing cards with Jose Ramirez. They can't really speak to each other because Jose doesn't speak English and Mike doesn't speak Spanish, but that gives you some sense of how Mike can unify a group of people  and it's had a meaningful impact on our team."

A turnaround

Antonetti joined the Indians as an assistant in 1999, just as the Tribe's glory years were winding down. They've gone through some down years, but they're now marking their four season in a row with a winning record.

"There are cycles that teams go through," Antonetti says. "As I got here we were still in the midst of an incredible run. We were selling the ballpark out, our revenues were incredible. The rest of major league baseball's revenue weren't quite keeping pace. So we had these unique circumstances that allowed us to have that run of the mid-to-late '90's and early 2000's."

"But that dynamic was changing. By the time we got to 2000 and 2001, there were things going on both in the environment in Cleveland and within Major League Baseball and we saw the future a little bit different. And so it led to some difficult choices. What path are we going forward? Either a very long rebuild or make some difficult trade decisions and try to expedite that process and that's what we did, which led to the competitive teams that we had in 2005 and 2007. And then, after that period, we had another period of rebuilding that's brought us back to where we are today."

Working with a small payroll

The Indians have one of the lowest payrolls in the league, at around $84 million. By comparison, the L.A. Dodgers have the highest, at $227 million, according to ESPN.

"It's an incredible opportunity and a great challenge," Antonetti says. "And when we have that success and when we secure postseason berths and advance and hopefully win a World Series that will be incredibly fulfilling because we'll know we won't have done it maybe the easiest way and it will have taken an incredible group and collective effort to make that happen."

Overcoming injuries in the postseason

The Indians head into the postseason down a few key players. No. 2 starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco is out with a broken hand. Catcher Yan Gomes continues to struggle with injuries, along with starting pitcher Danny Salazar. 

"We try to focus on the guys that are here and I think one of the things [Manager} Terry Francona does exceedingly well is how to take advantage of those strengths to put the group that we have in a position to be successful. So we will spend some time thinking through strategies of how do we maximize our roster and the utilization of that roster."

Getting fans to the ballpark

The Indians struggle with one of the lowest attendance records in baseball, ranked 28th out of 30 teams, according to ESPN. 

"I think that we try to focus on are the things that we can control," Antonetti says. "Delivering a product and a team that's worthy of their support, which hopefully we've done now with our fourth consecutive season of playing winning baseball and this year having a chance to secure a postseason berth. And then doing it at an environment at Progressive Field that's a very welcoming environment and provides the type of amenities that our fans seek . I think with the investments that ownership has made in the ballpark over the the last few years and for anyone who's come down, they've provided incredibly positive feedback. The fan support's there. Our radio ratings, TV ratings are extraordinarily high and hopefully our attendance will follow."

Count them out? 

"I think I'll let our players actions speak for themselves and what they've proven to be is  a very resilient bunch."

Cleveland Indians President Chris Antonetti: "Don't Count Us Out"

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Cleveland Indians President Chris Antonetti: "Don't Count Us Out"
Cleveland Indians President Chris Antonetti: "Don't Count Us Out"