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The Cleveland Indians are doing it for themselves (with privately financed stadium fixes)

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Cleveland's new, privately financed renovations are a great reminder that baseball teams don't need your tax money.

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Progressive Field, Cleveland
Progressive Field, Cleveland
Getty Images

The Braves and Indians: Ancient rivals who share now-politically incorrect names but take highly divergent approaches to local politics. Having lost to the Atlanta Braves almost 20 seasons ago in the sixth and decisive game of the 1995 World Series, this week it appears at first glance that the Cleveland Indians were defeated by them again in an off-the-field contest of boardroom maneuvering and PAC-style glad-handing.

Back in November, the Braves announced they would leave Turner Field after 2016, move to the suburbs of Cobb County, and building a brand new park using at least $300 million in public funds from a county that is laying off teachers, and possibly $60 million in state tax credits. On Thursday, the Indians revealed that they're making a change too, upgrading the older Progressive Field entirely using private funds put up by the Dolan family (who own the club) and the stadium's food-service partner. So, congratulations Braves! You've won the great game of corporate welfare!

In the game of not screwing over your fanbase, however, the Indians are way ahead. Cleveland's plan, according to Let's Go Tribe's Jason Lukehart, is

  • To reduce the number of luxury boxes by converting them into a large-group space:
  • To move the bullpens off of the field and put them in the stands, where they will be surrounded by fans:
  • To open up sight lines so that downtown Cleveland is more visible beyond the outfield wall, and the field is more visible from the main entrance gate.
  • To expand the Kids Clubhouse
  • To create a new bar with indoor and outdoor seating down the right field line

And, most importantly...

  • To add a statue of Hall of Fame center fielder and first African-American in the American League, Larry Doby to the statues of Bob Feller and Jim Thome that are currently in the ballpark.

Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson

Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson(Getty Images)

The recognition of Doby is long overdue. Doby joined the Indians in 1947, just under three months after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers. The next year, he helped drive the Indians to their last world championship, hitting .301/.384/.490 with 14 homers in 499 plate appearances during the regular season, and .318/.375/.500 in the World Series. In 1954, he was again one of the best players in the American League (.272/.364/.484, 32 homers, 126 RBI) as he led the Indians to the best regular season record in history to that point. In parts of 10 seasons, he batted .286/.389/.500 in Cleveland (a 140 OPS+), with 215 homers. According to Baseball Reference's Play Index, he's one of the 10 most valuable hitters in Indians history, and was a true pioneer as both a player and as the second African-American manager in MLB history. While Jackie was first, and deserves every word of praise he ever received, Doby struggled just as hard to be accepted and never received the same devotion, accolades, and status Robinson earned. While Doby isn't here to appreciate the honor, having died in 2003, his statue will be a lasting tribute to everything he accomplished in the game.

Meanwhile, at a time when teams seem to be undertaking a conscious effort to make attending games more expensive and difficult for the average fan, every one of the Indians' changes is designed to improve fan experience and to make games more accessible to a wider variety of Clevelanders, and all of them will be accomplished without charging taxpayers a dime. Meanwhile, the Braves are moving away from their fanbase in Atlanta to a wealthier suburb to make a grab at the cash a shiny new ballpark might bring with it. Issues of demography raised by the move will go unremarked upon here, but they're real and not particularly subtle.

I'm not naïve enough to think that the Indians' decision means that we're in a new age of privately funded ballparks and stadium upgrades. After all, since the Giants proved it could be done in 2000 (with a $10 million tax credit and $80 million in local infrastructure upgrades), 11 other parks have been built using some combination of public and private funds.

Nevertheless, this is a strong blow to the argument that clubs cannot compete without public assistance. The Indians are the 24th most valuable franchise in the league, according to Forbes this spring, but even they could find a way to pay for the upgrades without sticking it to the rest of their city. They should be celebrated for that. They may have lost the game of corporate welfare, but they're winning at Life.