The Chairmain knows his team's fans are no fools.
Speaking to reporters in Glendale yesterday, Jerry Reinsdorf retold the now infamous story of the two paths GM Ken Williams presented him for the 2011 season: go young or go crazy and how he signed off on the risky "All In" strategy.
Now, I don't think Kenny was ever all that serious about a full-on rebuilding because a.) it's just not his style and b.) the Sox have one of the single worst farm systems in baseball, so rebuilding would be a slow, painful process, without a clear light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, they could have amassed some draft picks from losing Paulie (not AJ- the Sox didn't and wouldn't have offered him arbitration), and they could have picked a few good prospects by trading John Danks or Gavin Floyd.
But fans wouldn't have shown up much to watch what Reinsdorf called "a worse team with a lower payroll." So, noticing his sagging attendance, he threw down the proverbial gauntlet and expanded the payroll by $30 million to bring in a winner, much to the delight of his GM and his fans. James Fegan, for example, sings his praises today at White Sox Observer.
That payroll expansion is gutsy enough. But what really impresses me about Reinsdorf's interview is his honesty and realism. While in the past he (or his ever guilt-tripping GM) would have laid down some line about how the onus is now on the fans to show up to justify his decision. He did not do that here:
“We put the risk on ourselves. We put the monkey on our backs. We’re spending the money. We never expected people to go wild and buy tickets like mad. We know we have to prove that we’ve got a team worthy of winning the division. If we do, I think we’ll draw better."
Perfect summation of the situation.
In his article, author Chis "the Ranger" Rongey noted that there hasn't yet been a spike in ticket sales, which are about the same as 2010's, but that Reinsdorf's goal is to draw between 2.6 to 2.8 million fans. That is a relatively reasonable goal... if the team wins. Attendance has declined in each of the last four years, and one more uninspiring, losing season might have been enough to send attendance figures back to the dark empty-blue-seat days of the early '00s.
|2006||2.95 mil||Post-World Series euphoria|
|2007||2.68||End of the World Series hangover|
Barring a complete and utter disaster, that trend should end this year. Based fan excitement and the ownership commitment shown in the payroll increase, even a marginally-competitive Sox team should see an uptick from last year and draw north of 2.3 million this year, provided they don't turn in a Pittsburgh Pirates-like first half.
However, getting from there to 2.8 million will only happen if they are vetted winners. Not pretenders getting by in a so-so division. Not a .500 team looking for the spark. Real winners.
The good news is the foundation is in place for a rapid fan response.
In the past, Sox fan have been slow to respond to unexpected early-season success, instead taking an attitude of "Prove it to us first, then maybe we'll come." However, all the effort and money put into making this team a real contender and the lofty expectations from the get-go have bought this team some goodwill and serious credibility. I believe Sox fans will be quicker to respond to a fast start than usual, when skepticism and ambivalence about fluke-y teams is more prevalent.
Winning always puts more butts in the seats no matter what, but I think that process will happen faster this year, provided the team gets off to a good April and May. Jerry and Kenny have won that benefit of the doubt. If this team comes out smokin', there will be fans in the seats by the end of May and early June. If they stay hot and turn in a 90+ win season, 2.6 million fans is very realistic. Always important, the April performance of this club is even more crucial this year.
On the flip side, if this team gets out of the gate extremely slow, things are going to be even uglier than last year. A rerun of '09 and '10 collapses amid expectations would leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth, and there will be no more second chances. The team won't win, fans won't come, and with financial losses on the line Jerry will be forced to decide whether to cut bait or stick with the loser. If he cuts bait, get ready for some anti-climatic endings to the Sox careers of some World Series heroes. If he sticks with it, can we really expect the same "All In" effort in 2012? Probably not. This year is the test-risk.
Bottom line: the Sox better win. Early and often.
Interestingly, if the team gets off to an average start, the toughest decision yet will come. Despite all the rhetoric, Kenny and Jerry aren't really, truly "All In" yet. That final shove might come in July, when a good-but-not-great Sox team might need one big acquisition to put them over the top and make them World Serious. Will Jerry be "pot-committed" and authorize a further expansion of the already maxed-out payroll, realizing it would be stupid to come this far and just get an 83-win team? Or will he evaluate it as throwing good money after bad, going to far over the line?
That will be the true Degree All-In moment.