Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Owner Fan or Owner Winner?

By R.A. Monaco
August 24, 2011

In the 1980’s baseball entered a new age—it became big business. Entrepreneurs like Phil Wrigley one at a time were being replaced by corporate entities like the Tribune Company, which owned not only the Cubs but television station WGN and the Chicago Tribune. Similarly, teams like the Angels, once owned by Gene Autry and the Dodgers, formerly owned by the O’Malley family come to mind too.

On into the 90’s the synergy of possibilities of corporate ownership, the brass ring of strategic tax maneuvers and media rights were just too golden an opportunity for Corporate America, so it seemed. Corporations like The Walt Disney Company which owned the ABC broadcast television network and cable television network, ESPN purchased the Angles. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, owner of the Fox network (which also owns broadcast rights to MLB games) too had discovered nirvana, or so they thought and purchased the Dodgers.

Players, now free to go to the highest bidder, all had agents to do their negotiating, sophisticated men who could talk to the general manager on equal—and sometimes superior—footing. With the establishment of the big corporation-agent relationship, the players no longer had a personal relationship with the ball club. Owners like William Wrigley and Tom Yawkey in Boston had known every player personally and treated some of them as sons. Paternalism has since died in this new system era. As player compensation grew, team executives increasingly stopped seeing their performers as people. Kids have stopped trading bubblegum cards and began only to look at the value of the cards and the team owners in kind see only the cost of their players. It’s probably true these days that fans identify more with their home team broadcaster than the players themselves.

More and more the owners became disillusioned and bitter with how much they’ve had to pay the players—worse they’ve vented their self-inflicted frustrations onto the public. Owners continue to dangle millions of dollars in front of free agents, and after the player accepts the money, the owner begins grumbling that the player is getting too much money. Who put the cannon to these owner’s heads--do sports writers ever ask?

The most important skill in the new age of bank account competition and fungible free agency is to know whom to pay and keep happy and whom to discard—submit your resumes’ at Clark and Addison. The Cubs, have consistently over the years allowed their brightest stars, including potential Hall of Famers Lee Smith, Greg Maddux, Andre Dawson, Rafael Palmeiro and Rick Sutcliffe to get away.

Last year, the Cubs farm system included pitcher Chris Archer, shortstop Jak-Ju Lee, and outfielder Brandon Guyer who were all traded to Tampa Bay in the Matt Garza deal. While Matt Garza threw seven scoreless innings against a treacherous Cardinals line-up on Saturday to record his sixth win of the year, it’s hard not to flinch when we reflect on former Cubs that got away.

The Matt Garza trade hurt the depth of the Cubs’ minor league system to be sure, but that isn’t to say that the trade was a bad one either. According to Marc Hulet, who contributes scouting reports on MLB prospects and is considered one of the 100 most influential Canadians in Baseball thinks that the Cubs have some good lower-level depth. Jim Hendry was a player development guy and there is every reason to think that, while thin, there’s some decent talent to start building on for the next Cubs’ GM.

Commissioner, Bud Selig, 29 other teams and baseball fans around the world are about to find out if Cubs owner, Tom Ricketts is secure enough in his baseball acumen to sort through the dogma of organizational baseball and recognize who the up-and-comers are in the MLB potential GM pool. The stakes are large, 103 years and counting. Now, the question to be answered is whether Tom Ricketts can do his own thinking-- this is major league competition, he's not just an owner he's on the team. My suggestion, if I'm allowed another is to avoid being enamored with “industry experts” and think outside the box.

If the fate of the Cubs is going to change Tom Rickets must graduate from being an owner-fan to an owner-winner. Being a winner in the major league baseball arena isn’t only about money or what “industry experts” tell you--in baseball, more than commonly understood, instincts matter.

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