Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For If You Want Ricketts to Be More Like Steinbrenner

After the news of George Steinbrenner's death this morning, there has been more than one proposal on Twitter that Tom Ricketts take a lesson from Steinbrenner on how to run a baseball team.  I guess my feelings depend on whether you want him to take lessons from the Steinbrenner of the first 17 years that took over the Yankees in 1973 and ruled like a dictator until getting banned for life in 1990 or the Steinbrenner of the last 17 years after being reinstated from his ban in 1993.

1973 Steinbrenner systematically destroyed the legacy of the Yankees and was one of the most hated owners by a team's own fan base this side of Michael McCaskey and Bill Wirtz.  In his maniacal need to be the best, he repeatedly lacked the patience necessary to build a baseball team correctly and led to overpriced free agent signings and trades of promising talent for established players that didn't work out.

Cubs fans bitch about how Dontrelle Willis was included in a deal for Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca, how Jon Garland was traded for Matt Karchner, or how a pre-steroid Rafael Palmeiro was basically traded for Mitch Williams.  In the eighties alone, the Yankees traded away Al Leiter, Doug Drabek, Jose Rijo, Willie McGee, Fred McGriff and Jay Buhner for "proven talent" that ended up getting the Yankees zero playoff appearances from 1982 to 1994.  That might sound like a cakewalk to Cubs fans, but that might as well be a 102 year drought to fans of the team that featured twenty World Series titles before he took over.

I've seen disposable razors last longer than some of Steinbrenner's managers and general managers and that kind of turnover is going to take its toll on an organization, and it did.  There is a reason SNL had a skit that involved Steinbrenner selling Slim Fast alongside dictators like Idi Amin.  There is a reason that the skit where he was a store manager that didn't have a taste for firing people is one of the most hilarious and cutting skits of all time on SNL (and I give Steinbrenner a lot of credit for appearing in those two skits).  There is a reason the Steinbrenner caricature on Seinfeld was such a ridiculous blowhard.  This is one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld that sums it up:

It got to the point where I started to feel bad for my relatives who were Yankees fans.  I remember talking to my Uncle Dave on my first visit to Yankee Stadium he was being cautiously optimistic about the young core of players they had in Andy Pettite, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada that was supplemented by solid veterans like Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez.  He said he was really glad that the Yankees were finally "being smart" about developing their own players and using free agency to plug holes instead of trying to build a whole team that way.

When the Yankees were playing the Braves in the 1996 World Series, God help me, I was actually rooting for the Yankees.  I didn't hate Greg Maddux for leaving the Cubs, but I would be damned if I was going to root for the team that was winning division title after division title with him in the rotation with two other potential Hall of Famers.  That is how far the Yankees had fallen. They were sympathetic characters up against the big bad machine that was the defending World Champion Atlanta Braves.

The whole reason for the renaissance was that Steinbrenner was forcibly removed from the equation in 1990 when he was banned for paying a gambler to dig up information to use against Dave Winfield in one of his legendary feuds with his star players and managers.  Without George's meddling, Gene Michael and his assistants, including Brian Cashman were freer to manage the roster appropriately and it still took five years to return to the post-season in 1995.

Luckily, when Steinbrenner returned, he didn't meddle quite as openly.  He obviously had standards that were high and he held people accountable (Buck Showalter got the gate after their first playoff appearance in 14 years), but he was a bit more restrained.  The money for free agents was always there and I'm sure he still had plenty of input in the acquisition of guys like Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens onto otherwise already loaded teams, but you didn't see a pillaging of the farm system in a pursuit of proven talent.

I have no information to prove this, but I have always believed that the Cubs would have found a way to trade Sammy Sosa for a young Alfonso Soriano and additional players with the former Steinbrenner.  As it was, the Cubs couldn't get the new and improved Steinbrenner and the Yankees to bite on a rich enough bounty of prospects, Sosa remained a Cub, and he entered a death spiral shortly after.

Also keep in mind that Steinbrenner knew how to drive revenues.  Sure the Cubs have a higher average ticket price than the Yankees, but the Cubs also have (for reasons passing understanding) more inherent demand for tickets.  If the Yankees could have gotten away with charging $70 for the bleacher seats at Yankee Stadium, you can bet your butt they would have.  The difference is that Yankee fans would spit at you if you tried to get them to pay $70 for a seat 400 feet away from the plate to see a team that was under .500.  If Steinbrenner owned the Cubs and had won five World Series since 1996, Cubs bleacher seats would probably be around the $200 range and there would be corporate logos plastered all over that ballpark.

So, Steinbrenner was obviously a man who was larger than life as he turned the Yankees from a team he bought for about $10 million into a team worth something like $1.6 billion.  He revolutionized how baseball is viewed on the team's own cable network.  He was probably the single biggest reason that free agent salaries (and player salaries in general) spiked up as dramatically as they did during his tenure.  He returned the Yankees to the greatness that their fans love and fans of other teams hate.  He was, in the end, a great owner.

That is the owner that I want Tom Ricketts to be.  Bold, tough, strong, and allowing the baseball people he hires to do their thing.  He needs to hold them accountable and not talk about how disappointing seasons are to him and his family and that no one could have foreseen the problems.  That kind of talk would have made both the former and the latter versions of George Steinbrenner fire somebody just out of principle.


Uncle Dave said...

Well said Tim, there were 2 Steinbrenners, and while the first did more to change baseball, the second was the one who built up the team to be what he wanted most, a team that could and should win the whole shooting match any year.

Adam said...

Great perspective, Tim. It's funny, I think for every person who wants an owner like Steinbrenner forgetting about his early years, there's another Cubs fan who hates him more for all the winning he did in the last 15 years or so.

Aisle 424 said...

I don't think the Cubs fans who hate Steinbrenner have to worry about Ricketts being like him. Steinbrenner was just a big personality and it wasn't an act.

Check out this post from a couple of years ago at WV23:


Tom doesn't have that and that's not necessarily a bad thing. He needs to find his own way as an owner, but he also has to stop finding excuses for the poor play on the field in an effort to save lagging ticket sales.

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