Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
THE BOSS Guest Columnist
2003-06-09 08:49
by Alex Belth


Guest Columnist

It's easy to lose perspective on the antics of George Steinbrenner as a Yankee fan, but Christian Ruzich, The Cub Reporter has a clear view of Steinbrenner's strengths, as he details in this article customed-fit for Bronx Banter.

I wish George Steinbrenner owned the Cubs.
Over the last few months, baseball fans have seen what appears to be a throwback to the old days of George Steinbrenner, back when he was Boss George, the firin'est owner in baseball. When I was a kid, it seemed like Steinbrenner was in the news almost every day. There he was hiring a guy to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield; there he was firing Billy Martin, and hiring him again, and re-firing him; there he was in a Miller Lite commercial with Billy, making fun of the situation; there's he was, feuding with Jerry Reinsdorf ("How do you know when Steinbrenner is lying? His lips are moving"). Steinbrenner had been a constant presence in the New York tabloids for years. During the Joe Torre era, he seemed to recede a bit -- maybe winning shuts him up -- but recently he's come out with both barrels blazing. So now we get to hear that he isn't happy about the way Katy Feeney drew up the interleague schedule, and that he wants Jose Contreras in the starting rotation instead of Jeff Weaver, and that he thinks Derek Jeter spends too much time partying and not enough time concentrating on baseball but still thinks he'd make a good captain.
You know what? Good. I wish that stuff was showing up on the back page of the Chicago Sun-Times instead of the New York Post. I look at the Yankees and I see what the Cubs could have been: a team whose owner has deep pockets and isn't afraid to spend that money on the team, who actually gets excited about the team, and who does things that he thinks will make them better. He's not always right, but he's always trying, which is a lot more than can be said for Cubs ownership for the last, oh, seventy years.
A few years ago, George Castle wrote a book called The Million-to-One Team: Why the Chicago Cubs Haven't Won a Pennant Since 1945. Obviously, there's no one reason why the Cubs are pushing a century without a World Championship, but Castle posited that one of the main reasons was that ownership that didn't care. When Bill Wrigley died in 1932, his son P.K. promised him he would never sell the team. But, that didn't mean he wanted to run it. He was much more concerned about the gum company, and saw the Cubs as a good way to advertise his gum. Still, he ran the team from 1934 until his death in 1977. During those 43 years, he:
* Dragged his feet on setting up a farm system
* Waited until six years after Jackie Robinson's debut to integrate
* Turned down numerous offers to sell the team, including at least one attempt by Bill Veeck, son of Bill Wrigley's long-time friend, citing his deathbed promise to his father.
* Came up with the College of Coaches "innovation"
* OK'ed the trade of Lou Brock to the Cardinals for Ernie Broglio, et. al.
He did do a couple of things right over the years -- in the '50s, he encouraged radio and television broadcasts of games at a time when most owners were fighting them, and in 1966 he hired Leo Durocher, who promptly put an end to 20 straight losing seasons. But I would ascribe those successes to the "blind squirrel" theory rather than to any sort of baseball acumen. Besides, Leo didn't actually win anything, proving that just because nice guys finish last doesn't mean that bad guys finish first. By the time P.K. died the Cubs had gone 31 years without a pennant. Four years later, his son, unhampered by any sort of deathbed promise, sold the team to The Tribune Company.
The Cubs were not the first team to be owned by a large corporation (even the Yankees spent some time owned by CBS before Steinbrenner rescued them), but their purchase by TribCo certainly foreshadowed the current wave of corporate ownership. Tribune looked at the Cubs as cheap content for their WGN TV station, which was showing up on cable systems all over the country. They talked up the team on WGN Radio and in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. With the exception of the hiring of Dallas Green, however, they did very little to improve the team.
They did lots of things to improve the amount of money the team brought in, though, like installing lights and skyboxes. After the '84 division title, they ended the decades-old practice of selling bleacher seats on the day of the game. This was how I became a Cubs fan, by the way; back in the '70s, when the Cubs sucked, the adults in my life would head downtown about 2 o'clock, pick up a $5 bleacher ticket, and we would spend the rest of the afternoon happily watching the Cubs lose under the sun at the Friendly Confines. Now, in order to get a bleacher seat, you have to hang out on Waveland and buy one from a scalper for five times face value. Recently, they've done such charming things as putting up screens to block the view from the rooftops across the street and setting up a shell company to scalp their own tickets and pocket the proceeds.
And yet, not much of this extra money ended up on the field. Or, when it did, it went to people like Larry Bowa and Dave Smith, and (famously) not to people like Greg Maddux. Yes, they signed Andre Dawson, but only after he presented them with a blank check which they filled out for less than he had made the year before. They were pretty quiet on the free agent front through the '80s and '90s, and with the exception of Maddux, they weren't cranking out many prospects, either. Net result for the Trib Era: Two division championships, one wildcard, five winning seasons. It wasn't until lifelong baseball man Andy MacPhail came on the scene, and TribCo actually threw some money at the scouting and farm systems, that the Cubs started acting like what they are: one of the most popular franchises in baseball, playing in one of the most revered stadiums in sports, owned by one of the largest media conglomerates in the world.
Steinbrenner, on the other hand, has spent the last thirty years dishing out money like he was Montgomery Brewster. Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Rickey, Dave Winfield -- Steinbrenner opened his wallet for all of them. Later years saw the arrival of Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill, David Cone, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Jason Giambi. Plus, they were able to outbid everyone else for Orlando Hernandez, Alfonso Soriano and Hideki Matsui from the far-flung countries of the East (Hideki Irabu and Jose Contreras too, of course, but we're accentuating the positive here). But at the same time, they developed homegrown players like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada. Net result for the Steinbrenner Era: six World Championships, three AL pennants, and only five losing seasons.
All of this spending and winning has made the Yankees the poster children for What Is Wrong With Baseball, of course. According to Bud Selig, the Yankees are why there is no competitive balance in baseball. The fact that George Steinbrenner has all this money, and isn't afraid to spend it, is held up by the nattering nabobs as proof that baseball is broken, and can't be fixed without revenue sharing/luxury tax/the Yankees giving Mariano Rivera to the Brewers. I don't buy it for a second. Yes, Steinbrenner has a lot of money. TribCo has as much money as Steinbrenner, if not more. So does Fox, and Peter Angelos, and look how well their teams have done. Steinbrenner not only has the money, he isn't afraid to spend it, and he is smart enough to hire smart people to run his team. For some reason, those last two things get lost when The End of Baseball As We Know It gets discussed.
Steinbrenner wants to win, and he does what it takes to do so. Plus, he brings all the excitement of a loaded pistol with a hair trigger being passed around by a bunch of speed freaks. Admit it, Yankee fans: weren't you just a little bit pleased when he started showing up in the papers again? I know I was, although my pleasure was dampened by a sense that I may never see this sort of stuff in Chicago (and maybe, with writers like Jay Mariotti and Rick Telander around, that's a good thing). But I'd gladly deal with all that uncertainty and day-to-day craziness if it meant I have the privilege of following a team that gave itself every opportunity to win.

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