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Commentary: Indians betting Edwin Encarnacion signing will help on the field ... and in the stands

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    New Indians slugger Edwin Encarnacion hits a solo home run during the American League Division Series this past season for the Blue Jays. The Indians are hoping Encarnacion's signing will not only lead to a World Series title but also a boost in attendance. AP FILE

    AP

Chicks dig the long ball.

So much so that the Indians are betting on it, and they’re hoping the chicks will bring their dudes to the ballpark this summer to watch the Indians’ new slugger, Edwin Encarnacion, hit a bunch of long balls.

Lots and lots of chicks, with lots and lots of dudes, watching lots and lots of home runs. That’s the plan. You in?

The Indians hope so.

In signing Encarnacion, a home run and RBI machine, to the biggest contract in franchise history, the Indians are counting on a major spike in attendance. Not a bump. Not a surge, not a swell.

A spike.

From way down here to way up there. In one year.

Maybe not like the good old days in the mid to late-1990s when the Indians — I am not making this up — sold out entire seasons before the first pitch was even thrown. That was the case when, as preposterous as it sounds now, the Indians set a then-major league record with 455 consecutive sellouts. From June 12, 1995, to April 2, 2001, you couldn’t get into the joint.

In 1999 the Indians drew a franchise-record 3,468,460, which is over half a million more than the Indians drew in 2014 and 2015 COMBINED.

Those were the days, my friend.

These days, not so much.

But if ever a team, a town and a time seemed ripe for the rekindling of a baseball love affair, it’s this team, this town and this time.

The Indians are already the American League champions. They have the best pitching staff in the league, led by a Cy Young Award-winner. They have the best bullpen in the league, led by an unhittable, wipeout left-hander. They have an electric, charismatic budding superstar shortstop, who in his first full season in the majors established himself as the best all-around player in the game at his position.

They have a Hall of Fame-bound manager who has molded a team of indefatigable scrappers, with the grit and mental toughness to win a pennant and advance to the seventh game of the World Series, despite an injury-riddled rotation and the year-long absence of their best hitter.

And now they’ve added the top slugger on the free agent market, long-ball virtuoso Edwin Encarnacion.

The Indians had to go deep into the vault to get the deal done. And then they had to go a little deeper than that.

The icing on the cake, the dealmaker, as it were, was an attendance clause included in the three-year, $60 million contract. Simply put: the more people come to the ballpark, the more Encarnacion gets paid.

According to FOXSports’ Ken Rosenthal, Encarnacion will get five incremental $150,000 bonuses for attendance plateaus between 2 million and 2.75 million. If the Indians go over 3 million — something they haven’t done since 2001 — Encarnacion would get an additional $250,000, for a potential maximum attendance bonus figure of $1 million.

In 2016 the Indians drew just 1,591,667, the third lowest in the majors, so there’s a lot of field here to plow.

Working in the Indians’ favor, in addition to the marketability of being AL champs with an appealing, star-studded roster, is that their biggest attendance years came during the aforementioned period beginning in 1995, when the Browns did not exist.

They barely do now.

The Browns have finally bumbled their way into irrelevancy, seemingly forfeiting the market, for the time being, to the Indians and Cavs.

At their season-ending press conference, for example, Browns officials told the media that the team “made tremendous progress this year,” while the next day owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam sent letters to season ticket holders apologizing for the team’s historically hideous 1-15 record, the worst in franchise history.

If that’s the competition for the discretionary income of the market’s sports fans, the Indians are in a good place.

Which is not to say it’s clear sailing for the Indians, who for the last several years have had attendance figures that would seem to stamp them as irrelevant within their own market.

Make no mistake about it. The 2017 season is a big year for the Indians on the field, but perhaps an even bigger one for them off it. Can THEY become relevant again? Not just postseason relevant, but relevant from April through September?

The ballpark has been enhanced, and so has the team that plays there. But there are no guarantees. The last two times the Indians reached the postseason, 2007 and 2013, their attendance went down the following year.

So 2017 will be a test case. After all the thrills of 2016, and the potential for even more thrills this year, a major increase in attendance would seem merited.

The Indians are betting as much with the Encarnacion contract.

But if they’re wrong, the fairly asked question would be an ominous one:

If not now, when?

Contact Jim Ingraham at 329-7135 or jingraham4@gmail.com. Follow him @Jim_Ingraham on Twitter.



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