Back to Florida – St. Petersburg

April’s Lost Weekend

I had to find way my way back to Florida.

My first trip to Florida was early in my summer’s thirty stadium journey. I’d been to Spring Training, Opening Day in D.C and the Jackie Robinson Celebration in Philadelphia. Two ballparks down, twenty-eight to go, and I felt the pressure to stay on schedule.

I worried that if I missed a stop, I wouldn’t be able to find a way to get back to that ballpark. Of course, if I didn’t go back, I’d fail in my attempt to visit all the ballparks in one season.

On Friday the 19th, just a couple of days after I returned from Philadelphia, I took an early morning flight to Miami. I was going to see the Marlins that night.

That night went as planned, although I felt a little tired and a little out of it. On the other hand, I started early that morning. I should feel tired.

When I woke on Saturday morning, things had changed. Tired and dizzy, I wondered if I could make the three-hour drive to St. Petersburg. I soldiered on and started to drive to St. Petersburg. However, an hour north of the city, I realized I couldn’t go on.

I slowly drove back to a hotel near the Miami Airport and, all the time, feeling defeated and doubtful. Would there be a way to get back to St. Petersburg? Would I be able to get to all the stadiums?

I slept the rest of the day until the next afternoon, and then the somewhat defeated Nomad flew home.

I knew that I had to find my way back to Florida.

Going Home

Over the summer, I revisited my past haunts. In August, I walked through the Bronx neighborhood where I was born, and my extended family lived. The following week, I went to Fenway. Mrs. Nomad and I have fond memories of our visits there when we lived in New England. Earlier in the summer, Nomad the Younger and I drove by the house where we lived in St. Louis. Then we drove by the office I worked in, near where she went to daycare. Finally, I went to Cleveland, where my father lived, and we saw so many games together before he died.

Now I was in St. Petersburg, where we lived when I was young.

We moved to St. Petersburg when I was five. At the time, we were a family of four. The year after we moved, a new baby brother arrived. Eighteen months later, another brother came.

Mets World Champions
Bettman Archive

I went to elementary and middle school in St. Petersburg. It’s where I played little league baseball and went to spring training games at Al Lang Field with my father. I remember sitting in Mr. Wilson’s Earth Science class in 1969 when they announced that the Mets were World Champions. The Mets were the closest thing I knew to a “home team” since they trained in St. Pete. Of course, I was from New York, so winning reaffirmed my home town pride for my birthplace and newly adopted home town.

I was yearning to visit where I spent some of my formative years. Where I experienced the sixties, the Civil Rights Movement, too many televised assassinations, men walking on the moon, and a war that I had yet to understand.

I was intrigued to go back.

Central Avenue to Al Lang Field

Since I arrived late on Friday night, September 6th, I only had the early part of Saturday to experience St. Petersburg. I couldn’t do more because I was going to the game on Saturday night and flying home on Sunday.

In the fifty or so years since we left St. Pete, the city has experienced a resurgence.

”Fueling the city’s vibrancy is a robust art community and a craft beer scene that continues to bubble and brew. ‘God’s waiting room’ as it was once known, is more like a heavenly rave these days, with downtown bursting on weekend nights with music and street life.”

Janet K. Keeler 1
Al Lang Field
Al Lang Field Then…..
St. Petersburg Time- Fred Victorin via The Historical Images Outlet

Central Avenue is one of these resurgent areas and just a few blocks north of Tropicana Field. It was a short walk for me since I was staying just a block south of the stadium.

Al Lang Field
Al Lang Field Now….

I walked down Central, past eclectic restaurants, bars, and art galleries until I was surprised to see signs for Al Lang Stadium. I turned right on 1st Street and there it was, now refurbished as a soccer stadium. It didn’t look like I remembered it, some fifty-odd years ago, yet I fondly remembered going there with my father.

Lou Brock
CMG Worldwide

In those days, the powerful Cardinals trained in St. Petersburg, winning three pennants and two World Series. I was used to seeing great players like Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, and Roger Maris.

My little walk turned into a hot, sweaty, 5-mile hike. When I finally got back to my hotel, I showered, rested, and got ready for the night’s baseball.

How the Rays Came to St. Petersburg

The Stalking Horse

“St. Petersburg had become a stalking horse.”

Jonah Keri 2

In 1997, the Tampa Bay community formed the Pinellas Sports Authority to build a stadium and acquire a team. In the early eighties, before building the stadium, they made unsuccessful efforts to buy the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers. Finally, in 1986 the St. Petersburg City Council agreed to build Tropicana Field without any promise of securing a franchise. It was a risky gamble that paid off. In 1995, MLB awarded the city an expansion team.3 The “Devil Rays” started play at Tropicana Field in 1998. Twelve long years after the vote to fund the stadium.

Acquiring the expansion Devil Rays was anything but easy. Instead, it was a difficult and frustrating, almost two-decade slog. Many teams used the threat to move to St. Petersburg to obtain lucrative new stadium deals in their home cities. The Twins, Rangers, Mariners, White Sox, Giants, and A’s all negotiated with the Sports Authority. Only the A’s, failed in their attempt to get a new stadium in their home city. 4

The White Sox and the Giants came the closest to moving to St. Petersburg. Each ultimately failed.

The White Sox – Sorry, No Deal

In the early 1980s, new White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn wanted to replace aging Comiskey Field. However, the state would not finance the effort. So the team made plans to leave for Florida. 5 In 1988, they agreed to bring the White Sox to Florida.

Tom Nickens Photo

However, Illinois Governor Jim Thompson wouldn’t let the White Sox leave. On June 30th, with a midnight deadline looming, he ceaselessly negotiated and lobbied with state legislators to keep the White Sox in Chicago. Approaching midnight and without enough votes to pass the necessary legislation, Thompson took the extraordinary step and had the statehouse clocks stopped. The bill passed after midnight. 6

Meanwhile, in Florida, where fans who were already buying Florida White Sox t-shirts, the frustration was palpable.

The White Sox now play in “a soulless, modern object stuck in the middle of parking lot.”7 called Guaranteed Rate Field. Interestingly, this is also an apt description for Tropicana Field.

The Giants – Sorry, No Deal – Again

After their White Sox heartbreak, St. Petersburg tried to win one of the expansion franchises awarded in 1991. Unfortunately, in a surprise last-minute decision, MLB selected Miami, instead of St. Petersburg as expected. It was another heartbreaking loss.

The next year, St. Petersburg turned its attention to San Francisco, who wanted to leave cold and windy Candlestick Park. Similar to the White Sox’s situation, the Giants could not get public support for a new ballpark. 8

In August, Giants’ owner Bob Lurie agreed to sell the team to future Rays’ owner Vincent Naimoli. Naimoli would, in turn, move the team to St. Petersburg.9

Neither Major League Baseball, Giants fans, or Mayor Willie Brown wanted the Giants to leave San Francisco. Everyone’s preference was to find a local owner who would keep the Giants in San Francisco. Finally, in November, Peter Magowan agreed to purchase the team and keep them in San Francisco. In turn, the owners voted against the Florida deal. With a final bit of frustration for St. Petersburg, Magowan’s offer was $11 million less than Naimoli’s. 10

Naimoli, as well as city and state government officials, understandably believed that the process was unfair. A series of lawsuits and a congressional investigation followed. These actions likely helped their cause. In 1995, MLB awarded St. Petersburg its franchise when they expanded again.11

The Giants moved into their beautiful ballpark overlooking San Francisco Bay in 2000.

The Trop’s Esthetics

“……Unfortunately, the Rays have the worst home park in MLB to which to draw those folks. It’s an absolute dump. It’s horribly located, poorly lit, utterly lacking in both charm and intelligent design.”

Matt Trueblood 12

Tropicana Field was almost ten years old when the Devil Rays started to play in 1998. During those years, it remained empty, with occasional sporting events – tennis, arena football, and hockey – and concerts.13 In the meantime, ballpark design changed drastically. New ballparks followed the retro style trend began when the Orioles opened Camden Yards in 1992 to rave reviews.

Even if done well, The Trop’s utilitarian design would dissatisfy baseball fans who enjoyed the charm of these new ballparks. Frankly, it’s the kind of stadium that I loathe. It’s an all-purpose, domed stadium that has few outstanding features other than they play baseball inside.

My first-row seat in the “lower box,” on the aisle just above the field level seats was disappointing. The seat was almost as uncomfortably cramped as my small seat at 107-year-old Fenway Park. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much legroom either. To make matters worse, my view was blocked by the raised railing in front of the aisle.

Considering that my ticket cost $70, I can understand why fans have second thoughts about going to the Trop. It can be an expensive and uncomfortable experience.

The Rays Attendance Problem

The Rays have an extreme attendance problem.

Tampa Bay ranked last or next to last in American League attendance in seventeen of their twenty-two seasons. However, their continued weak attendance isn’t a function of the team’s poor play. In five of the last twelve years, they finished first or second and appeared in the playoffs. In 2009, the year the Rays played in the World Series, Sadly, their attendance ranked eleventh out of fourteen teams. 14

Baseball attendance for both teams in Florida is so bad that many wonder if professional baseball can exist there. For example, in the last two seasons, their attendance ranked 29th and 30th in the major leagues.

What’s Wrong With Florida Baseball?

The poor state of Florida baseball surprises people since it is one of the two states that host spring training. However, many of the fans who attend the “Grapefruit League” are on vacation and not Florida residents. They are not there during the season. 15

Other issues affecting attendance are:

Vince Naimoli
Collier/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • Florida fans are transient, many move there from other parts of the country. Baseball fans bring their original allegiances with them. So while there may be baseball fans in Florida, only a small proportion are Marlins or Rays fans. 16
  • To a certain extent, the teams have not been competitive. The Marlins’ last playoff appearance was in 2003. Although the Rays made the playoffs in five of the previous twelve years, their first ten years were awful.
  • Bad ownership is another problem. Vince Naimoli, the Rays’ first owner, created “a perception he was more interested in making money than winning.”17 In so doing, the Rays had a poor chance of gaining a popular following. 18 Moreover, South Florida fans considered long time Marlins’ owner Jeffery Loria, only somewhat more favorably than Fidel Castro. 19

It’s Hard to Get to The Trop

“It all boils down to the worst-kept secret in Tampa Bay sports, Tropicana Field was built on the wrong side of the bay.”

Noah Pransky 20
Howard Frankland Bridge
Tampa Bay Times

Tropicana Field is roughly a twenty-mile drive across the bay from the Tampa International Airport. However, what should be a 20-minute drive over the Howard Frankland Bridge on interstate 275 can take much longer, due to congestion on these roads.

Moreover, the Airport is on Tampa’s west side, far from the populated areas north and east of the city. 21 Traveling from those areas can take much longer.

“Fan out to population centers east of Tampa—Hillsborough County’s fast-growing Brandon, for example—and you could be looking at two-plus hours, coming and going, to see a Rays game on a weeknight. Northern bedroom communities face similar hair-pulling commutes. Greater Orlando’s two million-plus residents are theoretically within range, with a ninety-minute jaunt from its southwestern suburbs to the ballpark on paper—but that trip is an exercise in vehicular masochism for those who dare chance it during rush hour.”

Jonah Keri 22

Locating a new ballpark in Tampa makes a lot of sense. However, it’s hard to see how St. Petersburg would agree to the move, and they hold the Rays’ lease at the Trop through 2027.

The Neighborhood Around Tropicana Field Has Few Residents

If the Rays can’t draw enough people from Tampa and its outlying areas, they need to attract fans from the surrounding communities. However, that is also problematic, since few live near the stadium.

”Only 19% of Tampa Bay residents live within a thirty-minute drive of the Trop—by far the smallest percentage of any MLB market. Seattle, with roughly the same population base, counts two and a half times as many residents in a half-hour driving radius. Every market smaller than Tampa Bay counts at least half its residents within thirty minutes of the ballpark.”

Jonah Keri 23

The Trop sits in the on 66 acres of land 24 surrounded by nine vast parking lots and bordered by two highways. As such, it is the antithesis of a neighborhood ballpark where fans patronize businesses that closely surround the park. Instead, fans park their cars, walk into the stadium and after the game, get back in their cars and drive home.

The barriers created by the parking lots and highways inhibits the Trop from helping the local economy. One study suggested that that the stadium generates no more than $10 million of economic impact in the community that surrounds it.25

The Rays Success

“The Rays have no fan base to speak of, play in a dump and are stuck in a division with the two biggest spenders around. Yet somehow, they put up 90 wins in 2018, equal to or more than 20 other teams.”

Paul Ladewski 26

I, for one, am fascinated by how the Rays stay competitive.

In 2004, Stuart Sternberg purchased a 48% share of the currently named “Devil Rays.” The following year, he became the managing partner and started to make long, overdue organizational changes. Over the next few years, the team would change their name – the “Devil Rays” became the “Rays,” their uniforms, and, most importantly, their philosophy.

Rays
Stuart Sternberg
Money Inc.

The new philosophy came with members of the Front Office staff that Sternberg brought into the organization. Sternberg and Team President, Matthew Silverman met at Goldman Sachs when they worked as investment bankers. Twenty-eight-year old Andrew Friedman, the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, was an analyst at Bears Sterns and MidMark Capital. 27

Although all three are baseball fans, their skills in evaluating investment opportunities dominated their baseball strategy.

“Though their backgrounds were somewhat different, all three men shared an ability to recognize value in a company and to pull off successful deals.”

Jonah Keri28

Positive Arbitrage

“To Friedman, every trade, signing, and draft pick was part of a greater process. The Rays searched for ways to create situations of, as Friedman called it, “positive arbitrage.” In financial markets, arbitrage refers to the concept of simultaneously buying one asset and selling another, where the asset you’re buying is cheaper than the one you’re selling;”

Jonah Keri 29
Andrew Friedman
Getty Images

Even though Friedman is now the Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations, the Rays seem to have continued the philosophy that he, Sternberg, and Silverman introduced. 30

The Rays use analytics and data to find the players that other teams don’t want. At the same time, they trade players whose value is peaking, but they cannot afford. In so doing, they get maximum return.

They also offer recommendations as to ways the players should change their game to be more successful.

“While 29 other teams thought Charlie Morton was too old (he’s 35) or too fragile (he never had exceeded 172 innings) or too risky (give me age, give me brittleness, don’t give me both), the Rays were smitten. He set career highs in starts (33), innings (194⅔) and strikeouts (240). He should finish third in AL Cy Young voting. His five innings in the wild-card game allowed home runs from Diaz, Tommy Pham and Garcia — two others cast out by their teams — to stand up.”

Jeff Passon 31

“The Envy of Baseball”

“The ability of the Rays to consistently find ways to field competitive teams in the face of long odds has made their front office the envy of baseball. It has also caused the franchise to lose many of its top executives.”

John Perrotto 32

A short list of the executives that started with the Rays and have moved on to other teams includes:

Friedman became the President of Baseball Operations with the Dodgers in 2014

Chaim Bloom
Tampa Bay Rays Web Site
  • Chaim Bloom, the Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, became the Boston Red Sox Head of Baseball Operations in October 2019.
  • James Click, the Vice President of Baseball Operations, succeeded Bloom but then became the Houston Astros General Manager in February.
  • Rocco Baldelli won the Manager of the Year award with the Minnesota Twins last year. Previously, he was a Rays player and held a series of coaching and front office positions with the organization.
  • Charlie Montoya managed the Rays Triple Rays affiliate for years. He then became their major league third base and then bench coach. In 2018 he was hired to manage the Toronto Blue Jays

”We have great organizational leadership, strong faith in our ability to regenerate, and we have supreme confidence in the men and women who will be stepping up into their newfound opportunities and responsibilities. That is the Rays way. It is who we are, it is what we do.”

Stuart Sternberg 33

Saturday Night at The Trop

“More Cowbell?”

I dealt with my cramped seats but found the cowbells annoying as hell. The cowbells were inspired by the famous Saturday Night Live Sketch, with Will Farrell and Christopher Walken. It’s the sketch that reimagines the Blue Oyster Cult “Don’t Fear the Reaper” recording session. As the band plays, Farrell bangs his cowbell wildly, Walken, frequently interrupts, and demands “more cowbell!”

Sternberg thought it would be a good idea to distribute cowbells to the fans, have them make as much noise as possible, and gain a home field advantage. It became a “thing” and they still do it. 34 I hated it.

Pure Rays Fashion – The Curious Case of Travis d”Arnaud

Other than said cowbells, I enjoyed the game.

Anthony Kay made his first major league start with the Blue Jays after a mid-season trade with the Mets. In exchange, the Mets received talented, veteran pitcher, Marcus Stroman. Kay had an excellent debut, striking out eight in five and two-thirds innings. When he left the game, he was ahead and left the game with a one-run lead.

However, the Rays came back, in pure Rays fashion thanks to another ex-Met, Travis d’Arnaud.

Rays
Travs d’Arnaud
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In December, the Mets tendered d’Arnaud a $3.5 million contract even though he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. However, they released him in May when d’Arnaud had trouble with his timing at the plate.

Travis left with his $3.5 million and promptly signed with the Dodgers. However, the Dodgers promptly traded d’Arnaud to the Rays for cash considerations. That’s when he started to play well. Statistically, d’Arnaud’s performance was similar to Mets catcher Wilson Ramos.35 The Rays and possibly Dodgers saw something in d’Arnaud that the Mets did not.

In tonight’s game, d’Arnaud singled and scored the tying run in the seventh inning. Later, he hit a sacrifice fly that scored what would be the winning run.

In true Rays fashion, they picked up d’Arnaud, a guy that the Mets didn’t want, and paid him $428.6 thousand. Conversely, The Mets paid Wilson Ramos, d’Arnaud’s replacement, $7.5 million. The Ray’s won 96 games and went to the playoffs, the Mets won 86 games and went home. In the offseason, d’Arnaud signed a two-year $16 million deal with the Braves.36

Also, in true Rays fashion, there weren’t enough fans to start a wave in the eighth inning.

Home

I flew home on Sunday and got ready for my last big trip of the season. It would be two weeks through Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Denver, Phoenix, and Detroit. The end was near, but I had a long way to go.

Meanwhile, I was happy that I got back to Florida, and saw the quirky Rays play in their odd ballpark. I still can’t handle the cowbells, though.

Continue ReadingBack to Florida – St. Petersburg

Promises, Promises – Miller & Comiskey

After our three day Wrigley Field sojourn, Mrs. Nomad and I visited Milwaukee’s Miller Park and Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field. If you go, to either expect the standard visuals presented in various forms and quality. There are statues, retired numbers, some brick, good food, and baseball.

Milwaukee’s Miller Park

Miller Park

I enjoyed Miller Park – and rank it relatively high on my list of favorite ballparks. It’s the kind of ballpark I would be happy to live near so that I could go often. It’s easy to get to, comfortable to sit in, the food and beer are plentiful, all in all, a lot of fun. Then, of course, there is the tailgating.

Tailgating

Only 17 of 30 ballparks allow some sort of tailgating. However, of those, four don’t allow alcohol, and I’m not sure it’s really tailgating without beer. Others have restrictions as to where one can tailgate and if open flame/ charcoal is allowed. However, at least four ballparks not only encourage your tailgating event, but they will also cater it.

Late afternoon tailgating before the game

Then there are places like Wrigley that allow tailgating, but why would you miss the fun in the surrounding neighborhoods. Others like Coors and Camden Yards don’t allow tailgating, but the great activities around the stadium offset the loss.

With that said, Milwaukee is known as the best:

Finally, an MLB organization and ballpark that not only permits tailgating before games but openly encourages it! It’s been stated that Miller Park is one of the, if not the best, greatest places to tailgate in all of baseball. The tailgating rules are pretty simple: parking lots open 3 hours before game time, tailgating ends 30 minutes after the game starts, it’s permitted in all lots (except for Logan and Front Office), no open flames are allowed but you’re able to use gas/propane or self-contained charcoal grills, and of course all tailgating activities must coincide with the law.

Baseball Tailgating – A Quick Guide for Pregaming This Summer 1

History – Statues

Hammerin’ Hank outside Miller Park

Statues of the Brewers’ most celebrated players, broadcasters and executives surround Miller Park. Hank Aaron, albeit a nominal Brewer, but Milwaukee legend is there. Nearby, stand Hall of Fame members shortstop Robin Yount, and former owner and MLB commissioner Bud Selig. I appreciate statues at ballparks. It’s nice to see the players that I respected so much when I was growing up honored and remembered this way.

Selig has a mixed reputation. Some fans appreciate his work to reinvigorate the game after the 1994’s player strike. In those years, he played an instrumental role in returning baseball to financial stability and profitability. However, others criticize him for failing to stop the widespread use of steroids that ultimately marred the game.

Mr. and Mrs. Nomad in the “front row” with Bob Ueker

If Selig is controversial, Hall of Fame announcer Bob Uecker is not. Everyone loves Bob Uecker, and he has two statues, one inside the stadium and one outside. The one inside memorializes his Miller Lite commercial, where he assumed his seat “must be in the front row.” Uecker’s humor, genius, and respect for the game is evident in his Hall of Fame induction speech.

An exceptional addition to Miller Park is a space that commemorates the workers who built the ballpark. I don’t remember another ballpark that so significantly gives credit to the people whose work the fans enjoy each game. It’s made more poignant by the statue named “Teamwork” that memorializes the three workers who died in an accident during construction.

Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field

Readers of my blog know the value I place on the whole baseball experience. It’s not just about the team, but about the style and personality of the park. I’m interested in the fan experience, the setting, the food, and beer.

Guaranteed Rate Field’s main entrance

In this context, it’s unfortunate that Guaranteed Rate Field is a sterile suburban ballpark stuck in the middle of urban South Chicago. Not surprisingly, it has none of the neighborhood appeal that its crosstown rival – Wrigley Field – does. Of course, Wrigley is hard to compete with, but the “retro” ballparks built after Guaranteed Rate Field also have much more charm.

It’s not that the White Sox don’t try. Guaranteed Rate Field is just not special even if they offer the requisite statues, a plethora of food and drink choices and other amenities that fans expect.

Guaranteed Rate Field is a disliked, suburban ballpark wedged into an urban area. It’s also the last ballpark built before the Orioles revolutionized baseball when they opened Orioles Park at Camden Yards. As such, it is the last of the pre-retro “dinosaurs.” Unfortunately, the White Sox ignored a revolutionary and better design for “New Comiskey.” If built, it might have usurped Baltimore’s retro ballpark revolution.

Promises, Promises

So we had two more good days at two more ballparks. For me, it was the end of a long stretch of baseball infused travel. In ten days, I went to three cities, four ballparks, and eight games. I started in Minnesota, flew to Chicago, made the short drive to Milwaukee and returned to Chicago the next day.

White Sox retired numbers

What intrigued me on the last leg of the long trip was the story of these stadiums’ origins. As I’ve written in other posts the history of ballparks reveals many of the issues facing the game. In this case, the stories include public funding controversies, damaging naming rights, disloyal franchises, and non-competitive behavior (aka “tanking“). The basic question is – what is a franchise’s responsibility to its fans?

Miller Park’s Promises

Milwaukee County Stadium

Interestingly, Milwaukee’s County Stadium was the first stadium financed entirely with public funds. 2 Milwaukee built it in 1950 to attract a major league team back to Milwaukee. I say “back to Milwaukee” since the Brewers were a charter member of the American League in 1901. However, after only one year, they moved to St. Louis and became the Browns due to a lack of support. The Brewers remained in Milwaukee as a minor league team, through 1952. The next year, they moved to Toledo 3 when the Braves relocated from Boston and started to play at County Stadium. 4

Miller Park’s Wall of Honor

When County Stadium opened, it started a trend where public funding was responsible for about 75% of all new stadium costs. This trend was in part due to “widespread urban renewal policies” that made funds available. It’s success also established the practice of using tax dollars to build stadiums to fund private, professional teams. However, public financing correlated with the plethora of multi-purpose and ultimately boring stadiums.5 Municipalities wanted to get the most for their money and thus funded stadiums appropriate for many purposes.

County Stadium was revolutionary in more ways than just its funding. More importantly, it was the first stop in baseball’s westward expansion. When the Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, they drew record crowds and demonstrated the profitability of moving west. 6 The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants soon followed their example and headed for California.

Enter the Brewers

Unfortunately, although very popular and successful, the Braves stayed in Milwaukee for only thirteen years. They moved to Atlanta before the 1966 season because they wanted the benefits of a broader TV market. However, Milwaukee was not without a home team for long. In 1970, future baseball commissioner Bud Selig brought a franchise to Milwaukee when he purchased the bankrupt Seattle Pilots. When they moved, the Pilots revived Milwaukee’s traditional name, the Brewers.

Robin Yount

For the next 31 years, the Brewers played relatively mediocre baseball at County Stadium. They finished second or higher only four times with only one World Series, losing to the Cardinals in 1982.7 That loss was a sad event for Mrs. Nomad, who spent some of her formative years in Wisconsin.

After they lost the Series, the Brewers returned to mediocrity, finishing out of the running more years than not. Significantly, they endured eight consecutive losing seasons before they moved into Miller Park. 8

From a business point of view, the team’s attendance was also mediocre. During this period, the Brewers finished eighth or lower in attendance 23 out of the 31 years at County Stadium. Average attendance was an unimpressive 1.4 million per year. 9 As a result, the team lost money throughout the 1990s and accumulated most of what would become a $110 million debt.10

Miller Park’s Controversial Funding

Thus, by the mid-1990s, the Brewers were not competitive, financially unstable, and played in an outdated stadium. Moreover, County Stadium lacked many profitable amenities, especially luxury boxes.11 As such, Selig sought public funding to replace the aging County Stadium.

Allan “Bud” Selig

Selig argued that the new stadium would generate the revenue needed to increase payroll and field a competitive team.12 The new stadium funding plan was extremely controversial. Future governor, then County Executive Scott Walker declared it was “the most polarized issue he ever dealt with as a state legislator, even more so than abortion or gun control.” 13

The most controversial part of the financing bill was a one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax imposed in Milwaukee County and its four surrounding counties. George Petak, the Republican legislator who cast the deciding vote, was recalled the following year.14 Further funding came from the nearby Miller Brewing Company that purchased naming rights over twenty years for $40 million.15

The stadium tax will finally end in 2020 after raising $600 million over twenty-four years to offset the initial $160 million debt. 16

Broken Promises

Imagine the fans’ dismay when the Brewers moved into their beautiful new ballpark but reneged on their promise to field a competitive team. In the first 18 years at Miller Park, the Brewers finished above third place in their division only three times. They made the playoffs just twice. 17

What happened? Due to their massive debt, poor drafts and acquisitions, the Brewers were a troubled franchise when Miller Park opened.18 Likely, more so than anyone predicted. To improve, they started a drastic rebuild, which resulted in years of losses. In their first six years at Miller, The Brewers finished in the bottom half of their division five times. In that period, their best finish was third.

Additionally, as befits a rebuild, they dramatically reduced salaries. Over that period, the Brewers’ salaries were between 25 and 60% below MLB’s per team average.

The fans’ disappointment was palpable:

‘They have a massive credibility problem that will be difficult if they don’t come clean with the people who helped build the stadium,’ said Assembly Speaker John Gard. ‘That credibility problem is with the people they’re trying to convince to take money out of their pockets to go to Miller Park.

Pat Borzi – BASEBALL; In Milwaukee, a Bookkeeping Brouhaha 19

Resurgence, “Tanking,” and Resurgence

After the rebuild, the salaries stabilized at just below the per-team average, and the team’s performance improved. Though 2012, the Brewers tended to finish in the top half of their division and made the playoffs twice. However, in 2013, they finished fourth and stagnated through the 2015 season. That year they hired Houston’s Assistant General Manager, David Stearns, to become their new GM.20 Houston was famous for its “tanking” methodology. Sterns started another rebuild. In the years between 2015 through 2017, their salary levels plummeted to roughly 50 to 60% below the MLB average. Meanwhile, they lost games at a rapid pace while they rebuilt their farm system.21

In 2017, they emerged from their rebuild extremely competitive, making the playoffs twice. In 2018, they were only one victory away from the World Series.22 The team acquired future MVP, Christian Yellich via a trade with Miami in 2018 and he promptly won the MVP award. At this time, they expect success with controllable salaries to continue. 23

Interestingly, the fans seem to have grown accustomed to the Brewers’ up and down performance. Attendance has exceeded 2.5 million fans in twelve out of the last thirteen years.

Maybe, Selig’s initial promise is finally coming true.

Of course, business is business, and “Miller Field” will take a name in line with their new sponsor, American Family Insurance, in 2021.24

Chicago’s Comiskey Field – err Guaranteed Rate Field

Aging Comiskey

In contrast to Milwaukee’s experience with the Braves, the White Sox have always been loyal to Chicago. They were charter members of the American League 25, using the name that originated with the crosstown Cubs – “White Stockings.” During most of that time, Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South Side was their home. 26

Charles Comiskey

In the mid-1980s, new owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn started discussing replacing their aging stadium. They planned to build a publicly financed stadium in suburban Addison about 25 miles away from Comiskey. Addison was their choice because marketing studies indicated that they should cultivate their high-income fan base in the western suburbs.27

The plan called for a suburban stadium because Reinsdorf was “enamored with Royals Stadium in Kansas City.” The initial design for Chicago was similar to Kansas City:

There’s a modern “intergalactic” feel to both designs. You see the vertical circulation ramps positioned in close to the same spots, the long-span upper decks. The outfield light banks look surprisingly alike. You see the symmetrical dimension, the rounded edges, and the slivers of green beyond the outfield fencing.

Dayn Perry – The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history 28
The stadium, viewed from the approach from the Red Line.

However, when Addison’s voters denied the funding proposal, other cities expressed interest in hosting the White Sox. Naturally, Reinsdorf and Einhorn were happy to listen to the offers. 29

The 11th Hour Deal

Tom Nickens Photo

Denver, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and especially Tampa expressed interest in the team. Tampa was already building a new stadium (now Tropicana Field – where the Rays play) to attract a franchise. The White Sox were so close to agreeing to move that they sold “Florida White Sox” t-shirts and hats in Tampa. 30

In an “11th hour deal,” the Illinois State Legislature agreed to fund the new ballpark. As part of the deal, the White Sox agreed to build the new park next to the original Comiskey Park. 31 However, Reinsdorf and Einhorn used the threat to the move to Tampa to extract amicable terms.

By the time it was all done, the White Sox had secured a clause that allowed them to pay no rent at all if they failed to sell a certain number of tickets. According to a 2011 Crain’s Chicago Business story, the team didn’t pay any rent at all for the first 18 years. Only when they renegotiated the lease in 2008 did the White Sox begin paying the IFSA (Illinois Sports Facilities Authority), and even then, their rent was one of the lowest in baseball.

Dayn Perry – The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history 32

Design Issues

Ultimately, they built a suburban park in an urban setting. 33 “A soulless, modern object stuck in the middle of parking lot.” 34

Charm, intimacy, and the idea of weaving the stadium into the fabric of its surroundings — all the things the retro parks have come to represent — were not high on the agenda of the White Sox or the agency that built Comiskey, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.

Blair Kamin – 10 years later, Comiskey still has a bad reputation” 35
Harold Baines

The ballpark opened with these issues:

  • Field-level seats were too far from the playing field. In 2001 the club added additional seats “along the foul lines and beyond the dugouts.”36
  • Similarly, bullpens created a “moat” between the outfield walls and the seats behind them. The team added more seats there in 2001 and thus created a “much needed” sense of theater.37
  • The outfield walls were too deep. In one of their many remodels, the Sox moved them closer to home plate. 38
  • Worst of all, the too steep, upper deck was too high and too far from the field. Its odd design was an attempt to avoid the overhang from the upper deck blocking the view from below. In later years, the team removed about 8,000 seats, and the original roof was replaced to make the upper deck a bit more comfortable. 39

“Site Driven” vs. “Program Driven” Stadiums

Interestingly, there was an initial revolutionary plan for the new stadium that might have changed the game as Camden Yards did a year later. Unfortunately, that stadium was never built.

A young architect named Phillip Bess became enamored with the stadiums built between 1900 and 1923, “from Shibe to Yankees.” 40 What interested him most was that the surrounding neighborhoods constrained their size. Additionally, they were an integral part of the neighborhood and adopted the neighborhood’s charm. For example, consider how the available area influences Fenway Park’s shape. The short left field and the Green Monster are a result of the neighborhood’s constraints.

Armour Field Design
Philip Bess/AfterBurnham.com

Bess felt that the suburban, multi-purpose stadiums were boring because they were “program-driven.” Since space was virtually unlimited, designers could easily include all of the owners’ requirements. In contrast, the older stadiums were “site-driven.” They could add only as many of the owner’s needs as the site’s size would allow. The resulting ballparks had unique dimensions, shapes, and character. Interestingly, in many of the retro stadiums, the available area is not a constraint, and thus their charm is “more affectation than necessity.”

Armour Field Design
Philip Bess/AfterBurnham.com

Additionally, the retro parks tend to have large footprints and anchor downtown entertainment districts. As such, vast parking lots create a barrier between the nearby neighborhoods that surround the ballpark. In so doing, the parking lots diminish the economic advantages that the ballpark could bring to the surrounding area.

Armour Park – The Neighborhood Ballpark

In contrast to the future retro stadiums, Bess created and presented a plan for “Armour Park” that fit into the area used by Comiskey Park. It was a real neighborhood park integral to the surrounding area.41

Armour Field Design
Philip Bess/AfterBurnham.com

Armour Field would express, in arresting physicality, Bess’ hopeful thesis: ‘I realized that baseball fans were a kind of community,’ he said. ‘And the thought occurred to me that you can make this argument about buildings as a form of community and make that point by using baseball parks and advance the larger idea.’

Dayn Perry – The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history

Additionally, it had unique dimensions required to fit into the existing space:

That would be perhaps the most compelling set of outfield distances and angles in all of MLB today (400 feet to center, 421 to the alleys, 388 to the first turn in the outfield, and 283 down the lines). Indeed, the “shotgun house” layout bears a great of similarity to the dear, departed, singular Polo Grounds. That deep outfield and those short foul lines are distinctive in a genuine way, as they’re necessary in order to fit the park within those neighborhood constraints.

Dayn Perry – The White Sox ballpark in Chicago that never was and could have changed history

Unfortunately, decision-makers did not seriously consider Armour Park’s plan.

Had they adopted the plan, the resulting ballpark that opened the year before Orioles Park may have revolutionized the sport in a different way. Future ballparks could have been both neighborhood oriented and “retro” in appearance.

Armour Field Design
Philip Bess/AfterBurnham.com

White Sox Performance In The New Park

So what did the taxpayers get from their investment? Fans want their teams to play exciting, meaningful games. They want their team to win. It follows that if they invest their tax dollars to support the team, they expect to see results on the field.

Carlton Fisk

In contrast to the Brewers’ early experience at Miller Park, the White Sox were on an upswing during their first years at New Comiskey. They finished second in the Central Division in their last year at Old Comiskey. Over the next 15 years, they never finished lower than third and finished first or second twelve times. Moreover, they won their first world championship in 88 years in 2004. 42

Billy Pierce

Throughout these successful years, their fans were likely happy since their salaries were competitive and consistent with MLB averages. Interestingly, the White Sox payroll grew in the years after their championship as they tried to keep their key players. Unfortunately, as their salaries grew, they started to finish lower in the standings. Beginning in 2013, the team reduced payroll dramatically as they began another drastic rebuild – they began to “tank.” 43

As of this writing, the White Sox now potent farm system is producing excellent young payers. They are augmenting these players with free agent acquisitions, and the future looks bright.

What About The Fans?

When I started my journey, I assumed I could produce a blog post for each ballpark as I visited them. I’d let my readers experience my adventure as it happened. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, the season is long over and I’m still writing.

I only focus on my delays as a way to explain why I can include mid-January events in this piece. As I finish this piece about threats, tanking and broken promises, baseball focuses on the events in Houston and Boston.

As you know, the Astros and Red Sox cheated in their championship seasons of 2017 and 2018. They used video equipment to steal the opposing team’s signs and then relayed them to their hitters. Houston fired its suspended general manager and manager – Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch. Boston fired manager Alex Cora but we still don’t know the length of his suspension. The Mets fired their new manager but former Astro, Carlos Beltran even though he escaped the commissioner’s punishment.

In the future, I’ll write pieces about some of the subjects brought to light by this scan-dal. What is the appropriate use of technology in baseball – and in life? Why is there so much moral ambiguity in social media? After all, how can they suspend AJ Hinch for only a year if they suspended Pete Rose for a lifetime? After all, doesn’t every-one cheat? Hasn’t sign stealing been around forever? What about foreign substances? And don’t get me started on PEDs.

Tainted Championships and Disappointments

Today, I just want to focus on the fans. The fans in Houston who waited so long for a championship and now have a tainted one. In Boston, they waited 86 years for their championship. Then they won four – however, the last one is also tainted by cheating. In New York and Los Angeles, the fans think the championship trophies should be theirs. I disagree but understand their disappointment.

Fans live and die by their teams. In Milwaukee, they paid dearly to watch their team lose and owners make a lot of money. They already lost one team and didn’t want to lose another. In Chicago, the fans dealt stoically with one losing season after another. Only to have new owners threaten to move their team to Tampa.

The fans deserve better.

A week after I returned from Chicago, I spent a weekend in New York watching the Yankees play the Red Sox. I wrote about the travesty of New Yankee Stadium after I returned. The baseball world lost something special when the Yankees demolished the original stadium. Some fans were disappointed.
After that, I was off to Boston’s Fenway Park. The fans are proud that the place still stands even if it is a bit uncomfortable. The team found other ways to disappoint.

Continue ReadingPromises, Promises – Miller & Comiskey

“Someday the Orioles Will Deserve Camden Yards”

Historic Camden Yards

There is a statue of young George Herman Ruth, Jr., at the intersection of Eutaw and West Camden Streets. He is looking toward the sky and dreaming of greatness. Behind the statue called “Babe’s Dream” is Baltimore’s revolutionary Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The ballpark abuts “Pigtown,” the historic neighborhood where “The Babe” was born. Ruth’s father ran a saloon located near what is now Oriole Park’s centerfield. When the stadium was under construction, the team asked archeologists to survey the area to see if there were any artifacts. They found a few bottles and dishes, but nothing noteworthy.1

Ruth’s birthplace – now a museum – is just a few blocks from the ballpark. The house is small, clean, and orderly. If one did not know better, they would assume that it was a happy home. It wasn’t happy, and neither is the current day Oriole Park.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is a revolutionary ballpark distinguished by many unique elements. However, its beauty unsuccessfully camouflages many of the Orioles and baseball’s problems.

The Babe

The romanticized version of Ruth’s life is like the story of his statue in front of Oriole Park suggests. It’s the story of the always hopeful boy who perseveres through life’s challenging obstacles to realize his dreams of baseball greatness. At St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, young George meets Brother Mathias, who teaches him baseball. From there, he on his way to fame and fortune.

Babe’s birthplace.

Ruth’s childhood was far more traumatic than the romantic legend suggests. His parent’s troubled marriage ended in divorce with allegations of his mother’s infidelity. His father was an alcoholic. George Jr., the eldest of seven children, felt that his parents blamed him for the loss of the five siblings that died in infancy. The family was poor and relocated often.

Young George Jr. (back row center) at St. Mary’s.
Baltimore Sun

George Jr.’s relegation to St. Mary’s was akin to parental abandonment. He rarely saw his parents after he moved there. Life at the school was harsh. Food was rationed, all activities were controlled, he slept in a large dorm with little privacy. These experiences colored the rest of the young George’s life.2

Ruth’s Rosary that he carried all his life.

Ruth was America’s first and possibly greatest sports celebrity. The poor kid from Baltimore set extraordinary baseball records and commanded record salaries. However, a realistic view is that his outward gregarious behavior hid a sad and somewhat lost existence. Ruth was a womanizer, likely alcoholic, and died an old man at the young age of 53. Moreover, despite his legendary career, he never garnered the respect needed to realize his dream of managing a major league team.

Eutaw Street and Statues

Just past the “Babe’s Dream” statue is a gate that leads to Eutaw Street. This section of the busy street became a pedestrian thoroughfare that runs between the 120-year-old Baltimore & Ohio Warehouse and the outfield when the ballpark opened. On game days, the Orioles restrict Eutaw to ticketed fans who frequent the many eateries, including former Orioles great Blog Powell’s “Boog’s BBQ” and the souvenir stands. When the Orioles are not in town, the street is open to all pedestrians.

I visited Oriole Park at the end of May with an old friend, Joel, and his wife, Jennifer. I had been to the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum a few weeks earlier, during my Jackie Robinson Day trip to Philadelphia. Jennifer, Joel, and I enjoyed Boog’s Barbecue, explored the area, and had a great time.

Later we walked behind center field to Legends Park, a courtyard and picnic area that was added on the park’s twentieth anniversary to honor six Orioles greats who helped the team dominate baseball for almost two decades. In it, there are statues of manager, Earl Weaver and players Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken, Jr.

Eutaw Street on game day.

Unfortunately, those glory days were a long time ago. But for a brief period, the baseball in Baltimore was better than almost anywhere else.

Cal Ripken Jr. in Legend’s Park

The Orioles

Origins

There have been teams named the Orioles in Baltimore since 1894. From 1894 to 1953 they were mainly a minor league club that played in the International League. However, for a short period, from 1914 to 1916 the Orioles joined the upstart Federal League as it tried to become a third major league. 3

Babe signs his contract with the Orioles, Jack Dunn is on his left.

Famously, the local 19-year old kid named George Herman Ruth, Jr. joined the team in 1914. Since Ruth was so young, Jack Dunn, the team’s owner, had to become his legal guardian to complete the contract. Due to Ruth’s youth, lack of experience, and round face, his Orioles teammates referred to him as “Jack’s newest babe. Ruth was from then on known as “Babe Ruth,” and the rest is history. 4 Ruth was sold to the Boston Red Sox later that year.

When the Federal League folded in 1916, the Orioles rejoined the International League where they played until 1953. In 1954, the historically bad but major league moved to Baltimore and became took the team’s name. The minor league Orioles moved to Richmond and became the Richmond Virginians. 5

The St. Louis Browns

Bill Veeck, Jr.
Look Magazine

The Browns were a losing franchise best known for surprising behavior, especially when Bill Veeck owned the team. In the early 1950s, Veeck used a series of promotional stunts to draw fans to the ballpark. Most memorable was in 1951 when he hired the very small Eddie Gaedel to appear as a pinch hitter. To further the comedy, Gaedel, who was only 3 feet 7 inches tall, wore uniform number “1/8.” As expected, Gaedel walked on four pitches, all high.

Eddie Gaedel
AP Photo

Another time, Veeck held “Grandstand Managers Day,” where fans held placards to vote on the manager’s decision.

Grandstand Managers Day

During World War II – before Veeck bought the team – there was such a shortage of players that the Browns needed to employ a one-armed outfielder named Pete Gray. The previous year the Browns won their only pennant, an example of the weak competition caused by the war.

Pete Grey

Although the Browns played in St. Louis for half a century starting in 1902, by the 1950s, they faced the same issues that the Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants did. None could compete with the more popular teams that they shared their cities with and needed new homes. Specifically, the Browns could not profitably exist in St. Louis with the more popular Cardinals. Veeck’s first choice was to relocate to Milwaukee, but American League owners denied the proposal. The baseball establishment didn’t like Veeck and thought that denying his move would force him out of baseball. The team’s move to Baltimore was contingent on the disliked Veeck’s agreement to sell his controlling interest in the organization. 6

Orioles Opening Day Parade, 1954
Clarence B. Garrett – Baltimore Sun

The Oriole Way

”The winning tradition, by the reckoning of baseball executives who were running the team in the glory days, that came to be known as The Oriole Way – a code phrase for a coherent philosophy of evaluating and training the players, an insistence upon the highest standards of professionalism and the shrewd scouting and consistent development of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of blossoming stars in the organization’s farm system”

Bruce Buursma – “Whatever Happened to ‘the Oriole Way’?” 7
Frank Robinson statue in Legend’s Park

Under new ownership and management, the lowly & sometimes whimsical Browns transitioned into a powerhouse in Baltimore. The resurgence started with their philosophy referred to as the “Oriole Way” that entailed superior scouting and player development. Adhering to this philosophy, the Orioles stocked their farm system with the young talent that drove their future success. Then in 1965, they traded one of these players, their former Rookie of the Year, Milt Pappas to Cincinnati for established slugger Frank Robinson. Although the trade wasn’t quite as bad as people remember, many still refer to it as one of the worst in history.8

In his first year with the Orioles, Robinson won the Triple Crown, became the first man to win the MVP in each league, and led the team to their first World Championship.9 More wins would follow. Between 1966 and 1983, the Orioles won seven division titles, six pennants, and three world championships. Moreover, they won at least 90 games 16 times, had only one losing season, and held the best record in the majors. 10

Fall From Grace

Although the Orioles of the 1960s and 70s were successful on the field, they were only a breakeven investment for their owner, Jeff C. Hoffeberger. The Orioles simply couldn’t compete for the city’s affections with the more popular football team, the Baltimore Colts. However, since Hoffeberger was the head of the National Brewing Company, there were other financial rewards. While the team did not generate a great return, they were “an excellent promotional vehicle to sell beer.” 11 However, when Carling Brewery bought the company in 1976, the Orioles promotional capabilities were no longer needed.

Cal Ripken Jr. – a bright spot in the 1990s.

Carling sold the team to Edward Bennett Williams in 1979 for $12 million. When Williams died in 1988, his family sold the team to junk bonds dealer, Eli Jacobs for $70 million. However, Jacobs encountered financial issues in 1991 and in 1993, declared bankruptcy. As a result, he sold the team to Peter Angelos, the team’s current owner, for $173 million.

Through the ownership changes, the Orioles lost their direction. Although they made the playoffs in 1997, 2012, 2104 & 2016, they’ve not won a championship since 1983. Over the years, they’ve lost their focus on the fundamentals they taught when they developed young players. The farm system is now one of the worst in baseball. Moreover, they’ve made bad trades and poor free agent acquisitions. Finally, they can’t compete financially with their more powerful division rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s difficult for them to attract and keep good talent.

Non-competitive Behavior – “Tanking”

In 2019, the Orioles had a division worst 54 wins, 108 loss record. They finished 49 games behind the division-winning Yankees. In 2018, they were even worse, finishing with a record 47 and 115. They are firmly in the middle of a total rebuild, which some refer to as “tanking.”

“Tanking” is the now popular strategy where teams trade all their good players, don’t invest in new ones, and do everything they can to lose. Losing earns better draft choices. The goal is to amass a large group of good prospects who will help reset the team’s fortunes. Meanwhile, the owners save money from reduced payroll costs.

The model for successful tanking is the Houston Astros, who lost 300 games between 2011 and 2013. Their drafts started to pay off in 2015, and they won the World Series in 2017. 12

However, this non-competitive behavior is not good for the game. Baseball attendance has declined each year for the past five years, as many teams have adopted the Astros’ strategy. 13

Noncompetitive Behavior Doesn’t Work

Moreover, there is mounting evidence that the strategy does not work:

“The idea of trying to lose 100 to 115 games, while claiming it’s a long-term plan for glory, always has been a long-shot notion, seldom born out in actual baseball experience. Of the current 30 clubs, 20 in the past 50 years have not lost more than 200 games over consecutive seasons, at least not after you exclude their early expansion-team days. Yet those 20 teams have won 33 of the past 50 World Series, exactly the ratio you’d expect if there was no difference between having a Horror Era and never being truly awful at all.”

Thomas Boswell – “Tanking by MLB teams isn’t a strategy. It’s fan abuse” 14

So far, the strategy is certainly not working for the Orioles:

Brooks Robinson statue in Legend’s Park

“Rebuilds take time, but the Orioles have finished last in the A.L. East for three consecutive seasons and appear destined for a similar fate in 2020. There is some impact talent coming, but not a lot of it. The major-league roster has been almost entirely stripped of assets, and the remaining pieces are almost surely not going to net any impact talent in return.”

Jeff Wiser – “From the Outfield Grass: Orioles’ Tank Still Running On Fumes” 15

I’m sure Orioles fans long for the glory days when they watched so many winning teams. They remember fondly the 25 years between Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken, Jr’s rookie years when so many great players came through the team’s farm system.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

“Those who know the story best like to refer to the ballpark’s origin as the perfect convergence of people, circumstance and time. There was Lucchino, the team president, who wanted an old-style baseball park with modern amenities. There was Maryland governor and former Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer, who wanted to attract visitors and development to the city’s blighted inner harbor. There was a city and a fan base that had lost its NFL team, and thus was more willing than most to break the mold and fund a stadium that would host only one tenant.

Bill King – “Janet Marie Smith’s passion, personality and artistic eye helped redefine sports architecture” 16

While the Orioles’ dominance on the field was waning, they were revolutionizing baseball off of it.

By the early 1980s, it was clear that the Orioles needed a new stadium to ensure consistent attendance. The Orioles’ success in Baltimore was especially crucial to the city since its other professional teams had recently abandoned it. Their NBA franchise, The Baltimore Bullets, moved to Washington DC in 1974.17 Even more traumatic, the NFL Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984. Under the circumstances, “the loss of the Orioles would be a crushing blow to the pride of Baltimore, which would no longer be viewed as a ‘big league’ city and likely suffer economically.” 18

Throughout the decade, then-current owner Edward Bennet Williams negotiated with the city to garner support for the new stadium. Approvals and financing were in place when Williams died in 1988.

Larry Lucchino’s Vision

At the time, sports facilities were the multi-purpose variety. These stadiums could accommodate baseball, football, and other sporting and entertainment events. For example, the Toronto Blue Jays were about to open SkyDome, “a futuristic stadium with a retractable roof and a hotel overlooking the field” 19 when planning for Oriole Park began. Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg opened the year after SkyDome with somewhat similar features. While these facilities were efficient investments, they were boring and had little appeal.

New Comiskey Park was the next stadium planned to open after Tropicana Field and just a year before Oriole Park. Orioles president Larry Lucchino hated its design when HOK Sport, the architects for both the Chicago and Baltimore projects, showed him a model. Lucchino “tore the model apart,” since he considered it “antiseptic” and “undistinctive.”20

”We just ripped one piece out of it after another,” he said. “I said, ‘We don’t want this, we don’t want that.’ One of the architects said, ‘Larry, do you have any idea how much these models cost?’ I said, ‘No, but we’re trying to make a point.’”

Thom Loverro – “MLB’s unsung hero made ballparks fun again”21

Lucchino wanted something different. He wanted “an asymmetrical, old-style ballpark that took cues from its surroundings.” 22 In short, he wanted to recreate the old-time downtown ballparks, but with modern amenities.

Revolutionary Design

“Oriole Park is state-of-the-art, yet unique, traditional and intimate in design. It blends with the urban context of downtown Baltimore while taking its image from baseball parks built in the early 20th century. Steel, rather than concrete trusses, an arched brick facade, a sun roof over the gentle slope of the upper deck, an asymmetrical playing field, and natural grass turf are just some of the features that tie it to those magnificent big league ballparks built in the early 1900s. Ebbets Field (Brooklyn), Shibe Park (Philadelphia), Fenway Park (Boston), Crosley Field (Cincinnati), Forbes Field (Pittsburgh), Wrigley Field (Chicago), and The Polo Grounds (New York) were among the ballparks that served as powerful influences in the design of Oriole Park.

Orioles.com “Oriole Park/History

The result was a design that changed baseball history.

From the time that Oriole Park opened in 1992, 21 additional new parks opened. Most of these incorporate design elements that were popularized by Oriole Park. 23 Moreover, Lucchino and lead architect Janet Marie Smith supervised some of these other revolutionary projects. When Lucchino became president of the San Diego Padres, he hired Smith to work on the new Petco Park.

He then moved to the Boston Red Sox and was instrumental in the decision to remodel Fenway Park instead of replacing it. “Over the course of a decade they spent $285 million resurrecting a baseball landmark that had been given up for dead.” 24

It’s too bad, the Yankees didn’t follow their lead and remodel Yankee Stadium rather than replace it.

Repeatable Design Elements

Elements of Oriole Park’s design flow from ballpark to ballpark.

For example, Fenway Park’s concession area that connects to the enclosed Jersey Street is very similar to Eutaw Street. Similarly, these same features are found at St. Louis’s Ballpark Village and Atlanta’s Battery.

Coor’s Field’s “The Player”

Most of the new ballparks are either brick or stone, similar to Oriole Park. The bronze statue called “The Player” in front of Coors Field’s brick facade is very similar to Oriole Park’s “Babe’s Dream.”

Finally, Smith used the now iconic, 120-year-old Baltimore & Ohio Warehouse as the centerpiece of the park’s design.

“The thing about the warehouse: It’s real,” Smith said, extending both hands to make the point. “That’s one thing I love about having it here. It gave us a reference point that dictated virtually everything else — from the field dimension to the vertical scale of the building to the brick and the steel palate and the seat colors. … The warehouse, more than anything, was like our clue of what to do.

Bill King – “Janet Marie Smith’s passion, personality and artistic eye helped redefine sports architecture” 25
Oriole Park

Similarly, when Lucchino moved on to the Padres, he pushed for the new downtown ballpark. He decided that instead of demolishing the Western Metal Supply Co. Warehouse, it would be the cornerstone of the stadium. “This is what is going to make this ballpark special, this will make it unique. I don’t think this can be duplicated.” 26

Petco Park

“Someday the Orioles Will Deserve Camden Yards”

Camden Yards is historically located & exquisite. Most significantly, it’s a revolutionary structure. In so many ways, it is the model of all the ballparks built after it. It is one of the most beautiful ballparks in the country and one that all fans should visit at least once.

However, the Orioles are now a struggling team as a result of years of bad management and ownership. Moreover, their attempt at “tanking” is a baseball wide epidemic that is causing attendance to diminish. The glory of the park masks the problems with the team that calls it home.

On my way out of the park, I gave a silent nod to the statue of young Babe Ruth. Hope springs eternal, old baseball fans can dream little boys’ dreams, and as my friend, Joel says: “someday the Orioles will deserve Camden Yards.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Continue Reading“Someday the Orioles Will Deserve Camden Yards”

The House That George Built

Read more about the article The House That George Built
The Frieze

I saw three games at “New” Yankee Stadium, the so-called “House That George Built,” as my 19th ballpark of the summer. It wasn’t my first visit, Mrs. Nomad and I had been there once before, so I knew what the Stadium was like.

New and Old Stadiums – New on the Left
via www.digitalcentrality.com

I believe baseball stadiums are shrines to a team’s baseball legacy. Each game played in the park honors that legacy. The stadium itself is perhaps the most visible statement about a team’s respect for the past. Additionally, teams honor their greatest players with retired numbers and statues. SunTrust in Atlanta and Yankee Stadium have monument gardens, to name just two examples. Many teams have Hall of Fame areas in their stadiums that provide an important historical connection to the past for the fans of the future.

Amateur Fields Occupy the Original SIte

The original Yankee Stadium was the “Cathedral of Baseball.” So many vital events occurred at the original site, it’s sad that it was torn down. Amateur baseball fields across the street now occupy that site.

Building the replacement across the street was in my opinion, a tragic blunder. It’s inconceivable that the Yankees, an organization that says it values its legacy and traditions more than almost anything else, demolished the old stadium. Baseball deserved better.

The Yankees have broken a few of their other traditions as well.

The Yankees Legacy

From 1913 to 1922 the Yankees shared Manhattan’s Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants. Giants owner, Charles Stoneham and manager John McGraw found it frustrating that the upstart Yankees were a bigger draw than the World Champion Giants. 1 The Yankees had this kid named Babe Ruth who was in the process of revolutionizing baseball and sports celebrity. Stoneham and McGraw’s reaction to Ruth and the Yankees’ increasing popularity was to evict them after the 1922 season. The Yankees ownership always wanted a permanent home in the area and built their new stadium right across the Harlem River in the Bronx.

Legends Hall at the New Stadium

The mammoth Yankee Stadium which people referred to as “The House That Ruth Built” opened at the start of the1923 season. For the next 85 years, Yankee Stadium was the center of the baseball universe. In that span, the Yankees won 39 pennants and 26 world championships. Great Yankee players like Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter thrilled the home town fans. Most of all, some very significant moments in baseball history happened there:

  • Ruth’s 60th home run
  • Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the earth” farewell
  • Roger Maris’ 61st home run
  • Don Larson’s World Series perfect game
  • Jackie Robinson stealing home in the World Series

Yankee Traditions

As The Yankees won championships, they codified a series of traditions. The Yankees have:2

  • worn their iconic white pinstripe uniforms since 1912, continuously since 1915 3
  • worn plain gray uniforms with block lettered “New York” since 1916, continuously since 1931
  • never worn names on the backs of their jerseys 4
  • worn the insignia with interlocked “NY” on their navy blue caps since 1923 and their chests since 1936
  • used the “bat in hat” logo since 1947
  • maintained some sort of Monument Park since 1932, when they built their first on-field one dedicated to Miller Huggins

Little Change Since1936
pictures via http://exhibits.baseballhalloffame.org/dressed_to_the_nines

Although the Yankees declare their pride for these traditions, over the years, they compromised some of them when they deemed it necessary. In my mind, it all comes back to George Steinbrenner and money.

If you sacrifice what you say is most important so that you can make more money than I would suggest it wasn’t that important in the first place. It’s easy to say tradition is vital if you don’t have to choose it over more money.

Sacrificing tradition for the sake of higher profits cheapens the Yankees brand.

George Steinbrenner

In 1973, George Steinbrenner led a group of investors in purchasing the then struggling Yankees and started a sometimes controversial resurgence. Steinbrenner was a bombastic owner, and the story of his turbulent tenure is well known. His philosophy was that winning the World Series was the only acceptable option for his Yankees. To do so, he spent millions on free agents, hired and fired managers, and won a few championships. However, his teams finished out of the running quite often. The myth of tradition and success continued.

The Myth of Steinbrenner Success

“I’m not a win-at-all-costs guy. Winning isn’t everything. It’s second to breathing.5

“I hate to lose. Hate, hate, hate to lose.” 6

– George Steinbrenner

The Yankees won their first pennant in 1921, their first World Series in 1923. Since then, they have won 40 pennants and 27 world championships. 7 It’s a stupendous achievement and one that the Yankee organization is entirely justified in being proud of. However, the pace of the championships slowed in the mid-1960s. It remained relatively slow throughout the Steinbrenner era.

Celebrating the Championships
via www.fansedge.com

Although Steinbrenner’s Yankees won seven world championships, most occurred in a short five-year span. The Yankees won four championships in the extraordinary period from 1996 to 2000. However, in the previous seventeen years, the Yankees did not win any championships. Similarly, in the following 18 years since 2000, the team has won only one championship.

Consider that in the ten years before I was born in 1957, the Yankees won nine pennants and seven world championships. They barely equaled this performance in the 45 years since Steinbrenner bought the team.

An 18-year-old Yankee fan who brags about the team’s legacy of twenty-seven championships has only experienced one of them. However, kids the same age in:

  • Boston experienced four championships
  • San Francisco saw three championships
  • St. Louis celebrated two championships
  • Eight other cities experienced one championship

Financial Success

Steinbrenner parlayed this exaggerated view of the Yankees on-field success into a fortune. The team is currently worth $4.6 Billion. “The value of the Yankees has compounded annually at 15% since a group led by George Steinbrenner paid $8.8 million for the team in 1973” 8

The Steinbrenner family also reaped a lot of money:

“Steinbrenner’s initial investment in the purchase of the team was just $168,000 (about $890,000 in today’s dollars) according to the L.A. Times, or about 1.9% of the total sale price. By the time Steinbrenner passed away in 2010, his stake in the team had grown to 57%. That share was passed on to his family, led by his sons Hank and Hal.”

“If the Steinbrenner family still owns 57% of the team, it is now worth more than $1.8 billion, or about 200,000% more than the elder Steinbrenner’s initial investment (considering inflation).”

Cork Gaines – Business Insider 9

The New Stadium

Why would a historically successful team that insists its traditions are sacrosanct decide to remove the centerpiece of that tradition? I’m going to suggest that those traditions aren’t as sacrosanct as the Yankees claim. It was easier to build across the street and demolish the existing structure. Moreover, doing so, generated the most significant financial return.

Were Physical Improvements Needed?

Yankee Stadium was falling apart, pieces of concrete were falling from its facade. A solution was necessary.

However, almost from the beginning of his tenure, Steinbrenner lobbied for public support to replace the Stadium. As a first step, the Yankees shared Shea Stadium with the Mets in 1973 and 1974 while they remodeled Yankee Stadium. 10

However, after the remodel, Steinbrenner kept pressuring New York for a new stadium. So much so, in the mid-1990s he threatened to move to New Jersey if the city didn’t support a new ballpark. 11 His initial stated concern was that the surrounding neighborhood was dangerous and depressed attendance.12 However, since the Yankees annual attendance has been between 3 and 4 million fans, since 1998, he needed another reason. 13

Greater Revenue

Luxury Legends Seats

The other stated needs were “greater revenue, additional parking and better access from highways.” The additional revenue would come from “entertainment attractions, retail shops, and restaurants.”14 Luxury boxes would add even more revenue. 15

My opinion is that 1974’s remodel wasn’t appropriate. Removing the famous frieze that hung from the rooftop and other design changes did not maintain the Stadium’s historical grandeur. Building the new Stadium that was more respectful of the original design was preferable.

However, the best option was to rebuild on the same site, to maintain (and re-establish) the historical connection.

Was Renovation or Replacement Possible?

The question is, was it possible to rebuild at the existing location or renovate the existing structure? Did they have to build a new stadium across the street?

To Steinbrenner, brand new was better than any reclamation project. The city presented plans to renovate the existing stadium. However, the sense from team officials was that the concept would likely not satisfy Steinbrenner.

“Can any structure or renovation ever satisfy the demands of the mid-’90s, consistent with other state-of-the-art facilities around the country?”

David Sussman, Yankees Executive Vice President and General Counsel 16

It was also easier and cheaper to build across the street.

To rebuild, they likely would have had to play at a different site for a year or two. That would inconvenience fans – especially season ticket holders – and risk revenue. They would also incur higher costs to lease a new park etc.

Renovation might allow games during construction but would inconvenience many and likely reduce revenue due to lower attendance. Moreover, the project would take longer to complete if they tried to use the Stadium as they renovated.

However, the Yankees couldn’t have it both ways. It’s contradictory to portray their organization as protectors of tradition yet tear down the real Yankee Stadium. Similarly, they can’t explain away the contradiction by complaining about costs. They are the wealthiest team in sports charged with protecting the sport’s grandest traditions. Costly renovations to preserve the sport’s legacy are part of the deal.

The House That George Built

The real debasement of the Yankee tradition is referring to the new Stadium as “The House That George Built.”17

Note that Steinbrenner’s picture looks out over the playing field at the new Stadium. In contrast, there are no similar pictures of any of the great Yankees players. The fans came to see Babe Ruth in 1923 and other great players after that. The fans never paid to see Steinbrenner or any other owner do anything. You can’t exchange Ruth for Steinbrenner and pretend you protect the Yankee tradition.

Steinbrenner Overlooks the Playing Field

One wonders if Steinbrenner also “considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth?”

Do The Yankees Honor Their Traditions?

The new Stadium is the most egregious example of the Yankees not protecting their traditions. However, while we’re on the subject, let’s discuss other ways where the Yankee commitment to tradition is wanting.

Retired Numbers

The Yankees reinforce the idea that they are more successful than other teams by having more retired numbers than any other team. There are currently 21 retired numbers for 22 players – they’ve retired the number 8 twice. 18 The bloated list of retired numbers cheapens the tradition by falsely elevating players into the pantheon of great Yankees.

Through the 1960s only four players: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle had their numbers retired. The team added three more numbers in the 1970s, representing Dickey, Berra, Whitey Ford, and Casey Stengel. After that, the Steinbrenner marketing approach went into action, and the team retired another 13 numbers.

Enhancing the Image With Retired Numbers

Many of the numbers retired in the Steinbrenner era honor some pretty good ballplayers; however, they were not all significant. Guys like former centerfielder Bernie Williams, pitchers Andy Pettitte and Ron Guidry, and catcher Jorge Posada don’t qualify. There are others as well – this article provides a good list.

In my mind, you need an exceptional reason to retire a player’s number if he is not already in Cooperstown. As such, Thurman Munson, the great catcher who died tragically in a mid-career plane accident, is undoubtedly deserving. Arguably, there are other ways to honor great players. For example, the Blue Jays list the names of their great players, but only retired the numbers of those elected to the Hall of Fame. Statues are another idea. For example, the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds have a series of these outside Busch Stadium. Frankly, most teams do.

Where’s Jackie Robinson’s Number?

The only number missing from the Yankees display of retired numbers is Jackie Robinson’s number 42. I have not visited any other ballpark that doesn’t include Jackie’s number displayed prominently.

Jackie’s Number Is Missing

I invite my readers to hypothesize about the missing number 42 as I would prefer not to speculate. However, please don’t suggest that not including his number has something to do with a conflict with Mariano Rivera’s retired number 42. Remember that they display two number 8’s.

Of course, there is a plaque honoring Jackie in Monument Garden. It’s the same size as most of the other players, which are roughly half the size of Steinbrenner’s.

Uniform Traditions

“but wearing a Yankee uniform represents tradition”

George Steinbrenner 19

“The Yankees love traditions; for example, with very few exceptions, the team’s uniforms—pinstripes, no names on the back of each players’ jersey—haven’t changed since the early 20th century”

Amy Pitt 20

The Yankees have been wearing the same – white, pinstripe home uniforms consistently since 1915. They first wore them in 1912. 21 Similarly, the Yankees started wearing plain gray road uniforms with the block “New York” letters on the front in 1916. Except for a short period between 1927 and 1930, they have done so ever since. 22

Jersey’s With Names On The Back

Most of all, they have never worn names on the back of their jerseys in their entire 116-year history. 23 The concept is that only the name on the front of the jersey is important. 24

On Sale at Yankee Stadium

While the no-name policy is the Yankee tradition, they still license Yankee merchandise with names on the back and sell these in Yankee Stadium. Why do so? I can only assume that it’s because the fans want them, and it thus increases sales.

The better approach is to sell only the unnamed version of the jerseys and if some fans want to debase this significant tradition of the team they love, let them. It’s a free world. There is no need to support or profit from the practice.

Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

In spite of my aversion and complaints about replacing Yankee Stadium in a new location, I did see three games there. Those that don’t know or care about the move across the street, might enjoy watching games there. So, what’s a visit like from my point of view? See my next post.

Continue ReadingThe House That George Built

Farewell to Citi Field

I ended my previous post about Citi Field saying that I couldn’t go back. As I was, sitting in this ballpark I love and watching the team that I have been a fan of for over 50 years, I realized, that it’s all a bit of a facade. Citi Field is a mere replica of Ebbets Field, located in Queens, not Brooklyn, and the home team is the Mets, not the Brooklyn Dodgers. The organization mimics a modern MLB club, the way its stadium mimics the great ballpark of Fred Wilpon (The Mets owner) dreams. So, I’m saying “Farewell to Citi Field” until things change.

NOTE: I’m quite aware that as I started writing this piece, and decided to publish it, the Mets started winning. As of Monday morning August 5th, the team is 15 and 6 since the All-Star break. They are firmly back in contention for a wild card spot in the playoffs. I still stand by my statements herein that the Mets organization and ownership is weak and needs to change.

Citi Field at Night

I love the team, bleed orange and blue, etc, but I can’t handle the owners’ mismanagement and poor decision making any longer. The problem is not that the Mets have finished under .500 eight out of the last ten years. 1 The sad fact is that Fred and Jeff Wilpon are horrible owners. They don’t seem to want to build a competitive organization focused on putting a great product on the field. The last two years have been especially troubling.

Credit Where Credit is Due

That’s not to say that the Mets front office has not had some successes. Quite the contrary, they drafted and developed last year’s Cy Young Award winner – and possible baseball’s best pitcher Jacob DeGrom. Additionally, the starting staff is also one of the best. The organization drafted or acquired in the minor leagues a good core of young players. These include Pete Alonso, this year’s Home Run Derby winner and possible Rookie of the Year and Jeff McNeil who is in contention to lead the majors in hitting.

The Mets will always be my team. I’ll read about them and watch them at home, but I can’t go to Citi Field until I see something positive from the organization.

The Problem Is… Leadership

Theo Epstein
slate.com

Consider two baseball executives, Jeff Wilpon, and Theo Epstein. Both Wilpon and Epstein became head of baseball operations for their respective teams in approximately 2002. Epstein was hired based on his talent and experience. Wilpon took over when his father bought the team with little ability and no experience.

In the approximately twenty years since they assumed their roles, Epstein broke the Boston Red Sox’s 96-year and the Chicago Cubs 110-year eras of futility. Meanwhile, Jeff may be considered one of the worst leaders in the game.

Jeff Wilpon

Jeff Wilpon
amazingavenue.com

Wilpon’s defenders could point out that the Mets have come close to winning a championship during Wilpon’s tenure. The Mets came especially close in 2015 when they went to the World Series. They also had winning teams from 2005 through 2008. However, his focus on short term success rather than consistent competitiveness is a strategy that often leads to failure and rarely to victory.

When Jeff was taking control of the Met’s operations, former owner Nelson Doubleday said:

”Mr. Jeff Wilpon has decided that he’s going to learn how to run a baseball team and take over at the end of the year… Run for the hills, boys. I think probably all those baseball people will bail… Jeff sits there by himself like he’s King Tut waiting for his camel.”

Nelson Doubleday 2

Joel Sherman quoted a baseball executive in 2010 as saying:

“Jeff is the problem with the organization, and he is never going to realize that. He cannot help himself. He has to be involved. He will never hire anyone who will not let him have major input. He will not hire anyone who does not run every personnel decision through him.”

Joel Sherman 3

The sense is that the Mets can’t attract good people to the organization because of Jeff Wilpon. The result is a series of bad decisions and an organization that is increasingly out of step with modern baseball.

The Problem is…Money

If baseball teams want to win, they either need to be very smart, spend money or both. Fred and Jeff Wilpon do not seem to be either. They make poor baseball decisions and do not invest in the team as they should. I’ll discuss the Mets bad decisions later. Let’s start with the fact that the Mets don’t spend enough money.

Payroll

Although the Mets 2019 payroll is approximately $160 million, it is currently ninth highest in the majors.4 Their payroll is approximately $70 million less than the World Champion Red Sox, $60 million less than the Yankees (in the same media market) and $50 million less than Epstein’s more successful Cubs.

Moreover, only about $96 million is devoted to the 25-man payroll – 15th highest in the major leagues. The spend the rest of the salaries on:

Injured players: The Mets spend roughly $39 million on injured players. They also adhere to the standard practice of insuring their players’ salaries. Thus 75% of the $39 million is reimbursed to the team. However, Instead of reinvesting the reimbursements in replacement players, the Wilpons keep the money. 5 “They saved money in player payroll and just pocketed it, continuing to let the fan base down.” 6

Retained Contracts: Salaries for players still on the Mets major league payroll who were released, traded or had their contracts bought out. The Mets rank fifth in the major leagues ($24.5 million), indicating that they make lousy player decisions.

Buried Contracts: Payments for players with major league contracts that play in the minor leagues. The Mets rank eighth highest in the majors ($8.5 million).

Team Value

The obvious question is, do the Wilpon’s have the resources to invest more in the team? The answer is a) yes they do and b) if they don’t why do they own the team? The Mets don’t report a complete picture of the team’s finances; however, the sense is that they are profitable. For example, they earned $54 million in income from Citi Field Operations in 2018. This amount was down from 2017 when they made $96 million.

Relative Team Values – In The National Baseball Hall of Fame

Moreover, the team’s growth in overall value is staggering. The Wilpon’s purchased the team in 2002 for $391 million and the Mets are now worth $2.3 billion.7

Interestingly, when the Wilpons bought the team, the Mets were second only to the Yankees as the most valuable team in baseball they now rank sixth. Other organizations, especially the Yankees, have appreciated faster than the Mets. For example, Epstein’s Cubs (in a market half the size of New York) is now worth more than the Mets. 8

There are many factors as to why the Yankees and Mets have not appreciated the way other organizations have, 9 However, it’s clear the Mets, although valuable, are falling behind more aggressive organizations.

The problem is that the Mets don’t invest the way they should and more importantly, they don’t maximize their investments. In today’s game, the best way to evaluate, select, and develop players is through analytics.

The Problem is…Missing the Analytics Revolution

The Tampa Bay Rays an unpopular team that plays in an even more unpopular stadium, exist in a much smaller market and spend much less than the Mets do. However, the Rays are one of the smartest organizations in baseball. They are currently in second place in their division and in contention for a playoff spot.

The Mets missed what I call the Analytics Revolution. As discussed in “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, the Oakland A’s in the early part of the century used data analysis to inform their decision making. Other teams soon followed. Now everyone (including the Mets) have an analytics component in their organization. However, some are stronger than the others.

The Rays, Astros, Dodgers, Indians, and Yankees are some of the teams I hear mentioned when analytics are discussed. I never hear the Mets mentioned. Their analytics staff is likely not as robust as others. Moreover, is their input respected?

Does it matter? Some will still argue that teams can do just as good with the old statistics and intuition, but those opinions are fading. When the best organizations in MLB and college are also the ones known for their analytic chops, it’s hard to argue that analytics don’t have an impact.

The Travis d’Arnaud Saga

Travis d’Arnaud
Anthony J. Causi – NY Post

As an example, Travis d’Arnaud was an oft-injured, catcher who never realized his potential with the Mets. They released him this year during spring training as he was rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery. Although not thoroughly explained, the sense was that Mets management was concerned about d’Arnaud’s poor performance and uncertain future. However, he is now doing well with the Rays.

Joel Sherman made these points:

“If we were making a list of organizations that have their act together, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay would be in the top five. If I ran the Mets — decidedly not in the top five — I would be asking my baseball operations what did well-run franchises see in d’Arnaud that we didn’t, particularly now that he has become a valuable piece for the Rays?”

Joel Sherman 10

“It is the largest Mets problem — the need to recognize their near-term success and failure is not about one or two moves, but the process to create thoroughness and consistency — plus the highest level of information from scouts, analytics, sports scientists, medical, psychological, etc. They should be digging down on the d’Arnaud progression and really coming to peace with how they made their determination every step of the way, and what the Dodgers and Rays saw that they did not.”

Joel Sherman 11

If you want to argue the point, read these books, and then we’ll talk:

Two Years of Bad Decisions

”The Mets are playing darts blindfolded.”

“The Mets are behaving like the Yankees used to; conversely the Yankees are behaving like the Mets should.”

Paul Hembekides 12

In the early 80s, the Yankees used to have the same “win now” mentality that the Mets do. The practice resulted in annual failures. They recovered through patient management, and later by becoming a leader in the analytics revolution. 13

Here are a series of poor decisions that stem from the issues outlined above.

Jeury’s Familia Trade

Familia in Oakland
nbcsports.com

The Mets traded Jeury’s Familia to Oakland before the July 2018 trade deadline. The transaction was expected since Familia was to become a free agent at the end of the season. Teams normally trade players in their so-called “walk year” so that they can get some compensation before the player leaves. However, the Mets handled the trade poorly and didn’t receive the compensation they should have. Keith Law remarked:

If the New York Mets are just going to trade their most valuable major league assets for salary relief, rather than to try to improve the club, then it’s time for MLB to step in and force the Wilpons to sell the team, just as the league did with Frank McCourt and the Dodgers.

Keith Law 14

For a franchise that operates in the largest market in the league to do this — and do so 10 days before the trade deadline rather than waiting for someone to offer a legitimate return — is embarrassing for the Mets and for Major League Baseball as a whole.

Keith Law 15

Hiring Mickey Callaway and Brodie Van Wagenen

Mickey Callaway
newsday.com

Before the 2017 season, Wilpon hired Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway to manage the team. Callaway was hired even though he had no experience in management, the National League and with the New York media. Mickey deserves better, but he is out of place and has failed in New York

Chaim Bloom Tampa Bay Rays Web Site

Last December, Wilpon hired player agent Brodie Van Wagenen as the new General Manager. In so doing he bypassed Chaim Bloom, the young but very experienced Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations with the Rays. The Rays are one of the best, analytic organizations in baseball. Hiring Bloom would start the transformation of the Mets into an organization that used data and analytics to inform its decisions.

Instead Van Wagenen was hired because he promised Wilpon that he could make the Mets win immediately. Van Wagenen has to date been a failure.

Brodie Van Wagenen and Jeff Wilpon
New York Daily News

The current practice in the major leagues is to focus on valuable young players and not use the more expensive, older players. In previous years, teams were willing to trade prospects for veterans. That trend is changing, teams value their prospects more so than ever and hold onto them. Bloom would have followed this strategy, Van Wagenen did the exact opposite. He made a series of deals that may have damaged the Mets for years.

Prospects For Cano

Robinson Cano
La Vida Baseball

He traded two young prospects and two existing players to Seattle for 36-year-old Robinson Cano and young Edwin Diaz. In so doing, acquiring Cano’s $25 million annual salary. Although the players traded offset some of the salary, the Mets are committed to paying Cano for five years. Moreover, Cano plays second base, and the Mets had Jeff McNeil, a promising younger player at second base. McNeil is now one of the leading hitters in the majors, while forced to play the outfield. Unfortunately, Cano has not hit well and has a limited range at second.

Other Older Players

In addition to adding the 36-year-old Cano, Van Wagenen signed:

  • 35-year-old infielder, but oft-injured Jed Lowrie to a two-year $20 million deal. Lowrie has not played the entire year due to injuries.
  • 31-year-old Wilson Ramos to a two- year $19 million deal. Ramos can hit, but his best days as a catcher are behind him.
  • The previously mentioned Jeury’s Familia is 29 and will end his three-year $30 million contract at the age of 32.
  • 33-year-old Todd Frazier was not acquired, by Van Wagenen, but is in the last year of his current contract.

In total Van Wagenen committed the penny pitching Wilpons to paying $69 million over the next few years to players that most organizations wouldn’t consider because of their age. More importantly, Jeff Wilpon approved the deals.

Stop the Madness

There are many more examples, but why go on? Blog posts should be relatively short. I’m not the first to refer to the Mets organization as a “Dumpster Fire,” or a “shit show.” But that is what they are. Even if, as I write this post, The team has an outside shot at a wild card playoff appearance.

If I’ve learned anything in my travels this season, I can enjoy baseball anywhere and also follow the Mets. A trip to Citi Field requires flights and hotels as well as the ticket and food costs. For the same investment, I can go to Wrigley. It’s even less expensive to drive to Toronto, Cleveland or Pittsburgh. I can also take a vacation in say San Diego, which is a beautiful city and visit one of the best ballparks in the country. Not that I’m a fan of the Padres, but they are young, talented and exciting. I can enjoy a few days at Petco Park.

What I Want

I’m not going back to Citi Field until:

  • The Wilpons either sell or at least remove themselves from active management of the team.
  • The team increases their payroll so that they rank in the top five highest-spending teams in MLB. Can they win for less? Probably, but they have a lot of bad contracts to deal with, and it’s going to be expensive for the near future.
  • Build one of the most modern, analytic organizations in baseball. Let me hear just one time, “they should run their organization the way the Mets do,” and I’ll be back.

By doing so, the Mets will build around a core of talented young players that fans can enjoy, somewhat consistently over a series of years. They will also have a strong farm system that will consistently replenish the major league club.

I long for the day that the Mets organization transforms into a unit that I can support. When they do, I’ll be happy to visit Citi Field again. Until then, I’ll root for the team from afar. Lets Go Mets!!

One More Thing

If the Twins have a statue of Kent Hrbeck at Target Field, can’t we have a few with our great players? How about statues of Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Piazza, and David Wright along with the requisite Tom Seaver one that is in progress. They should retire their numbers as well.

Moreover, why is there is a statue of Hank Aaron in front of Milwaukee’s Miller Park and no mention of Willie Mays at Citi Field? After all, Aaron ended his brilliant career with the Brewers after spending the 1950s and early 1960s with the Milwaukee Braves. Mays did roughly the same thing with the Mets after playing for the New York and San Francisco Giants.

Just an idea, but why not create a monument garden between the Home Plate Gate and the train station across the way. Most fans would walk by it on the way to the Robinson Rotunda. Include statues of the players I mentioned, add Jackie Robinson and another with “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.” A real organization with owners that loved the team would do something like that.

My next stop was the All-Star Game…More fun, less angst.

Continue ReadingFarewell to Citi Field

The Business of Baseball – Part One

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“Baseball is too much of a sport to be called a business and too much business to be called a sport.”

Philip Wrigley1

Bryce Harper is now happily ensconced in Philadelphia – Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado have signed big deals. In reaction, the Angels are considering a $350 million contract that will make Mike Trout an Angel for life.2 Pardon the pun.

Thus ends a contentious offseason where some players signed epic deals. However, I’m leaving on my spring training trip, and there are still critical free agents without a home. Moreover, some players are so disgruntled that they are discussing striking when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) ends. I’m sure fans everywhere are wondering how millionaires could be so disgruntled.

So what gives?

I am a reasonably knowledgeable fan but have only a cursory understanding of the business issues at hand. So, I’ve decided to focus some of my attention and this summer’s blog posts on the current labor situation. In so doing, I hope to become better versed in the subject and so can you, if you want to.

To start, let me outline what I understand to be the issues that affect the current labor market situation. I’ll explore many of these in detail in later posts.

The Players Share of Baseball Revenues

Always remember that the players are the product. Fans don’t buy tickets to watch owners own or general managers manage. Fans want to see great players play. As such, the players should naturally expect to receive the lion’s share of MLB’s revenues.

These revenues continue to increase year over year. Total baseball related revenue in 2018 was a record $10.3 Billion. The sport has experienced dramatic revenue increases since 1992 when Bud Selig became commissioner. Revenue is up an inflation-adjusted 377%.3

However, the players’ share of these record revenues has decreased from 57.3% in 2015 to 54.2% in 2018. This rate may have accelerated since signing the latest CBA before the start of the 2017 season.4

Percentage of MLB + MiLB Player Compensation to Revenues

Why would payrolls decrease in a time of prosperity?

The disparity of Team Revenues

One argument is that some teams can pay higher salaries than others. Each team generates its income from ticket, concessions and merchandise sales. Significantly, each team receives different sums from their local TV and radio agreements. Thus, revenue per team is uneven, and only the higher earning teams can afford costly player salaries.

For example, in 2017, the top-earning team, the Yankees, generated $619 million in revenue. In contrast, the Athletics made the lowest revenue, $210 million. Median revenue was $281 million.5 Naturally, the A’s shouldn’t be expected to match the Yankees payroll.

2017 MLB Team Revenue

The disparity is likely a factor, but only to a certain degree. If it was the only cause, then we would see a correlation between revenue and payroll. However, it’s hard to see this pattern. Note what happens when rank the teams by their 2018 opening day payrolls, leaving the 2017 revenue in the chart.6

2018 Revenue and Payroll Comparison

While I expect some of these results, there is seemingly no correlation between revenue and payroll. As expected, the Red Sox earn a lot and pay a lot and the Athletics don’t. However, there are many teams that don’t spend what they could.

For instance, the Yankees earn the most but rank seventh in payroll, not first. Moreover, they don’t exceed the Red Sox by 50% as their revenue does. Also, their crosstown rival, the Mets rank seventh in revenue but twelfth in payroll. While the Braves and Phillies revenue is only slightly lower than the Mets, both rank in the bottom third of the payroll list.

Payrolls and Investment Strategies

Apparently, the teams’ investment strategies and philosophies are also a factor. Discussing this issue is one of the reasons I will consider this issue over a series of posts. There is a difference of opinion as to how one builds a competitive team.

In my mind, part of the question relates to the expected return on investment (ROI) from each payroll decision. Moreover, why does one own a baseball team anyway? Is team ownership that lucrative? Could they make more money faster if they invested in another industry or the stock market? From a purely financial perspective, the owners should be generating an ROI at a higher rate than other possible investments. If not, they have other reasons to be involved. Maybe they enjoy the sport, the challenge, and the competition.

However, those in the front office are instrumental in these decisions and are trying to build a career. To do so, they likely need to prove that they can be both successful and profitable.

The great Connie Mack owned and managed the Philadelphia Athletics for about fifty years. In that time, he built many winning teams and then promptly sold his players to generate profits. An example of his philosophy was this famous comment:

“It is more profitable for me to have a team that is in contention for most of the season but finishes about fourth. A team like that will draw well enough during the first part of the season to show a profit for the year, and you don’t have to give the players raises when they don’t win.” [7]

Connie Mack7

I’ll discuss these motivational issues in a later post.

Noncompetitive Behavior

It follows that a good reason to consider management’s motivation is the wonderful phenomena of “noncompetitive behavior.”

There is a saying, “If you can’t win ninety games, you should lose ninety.”8 Teams don’t face penalties for losing too many games, and thus, there can be value in fielding an inferior team.

This “noncompetitive behavior” comes in at least two forms. The first is “tanking,” when an organization deliberately fields an inferior product to save money and garner higher draft choices. The second is when the organization “manipulates service time” to delay a player’s free agency. In so doing, they force the player to earn less than they should. I discuss this behavior in a subsequent section.

Each strategy is unethical. Anyone admitting to doing either would face a fine from the league or a grievance from the players union. However, organizations tend to use these tactics, and each can depress the players’ earning potential.

“Tanking”

In the case of “tanking,” the team takes the position that there is no reason to invest in a losing proposition. For one reason or another, the team is not good enough to vie for a championship. In these cases, MLB’s rules enable management to avoid signing higher priced players. Teams are also allowed to trade high priced veterans for prospects. In so doing, the team amasses a large number of good, young prospects that will drive future success. It also saves its funds so it can invest in the later years when the team is ready to compete.

But is the strategy always unreasonable and unethical? For example, the Astros are infamous for tanking after Jim Crane purchased the team in 20119 and hired GM Jeff Luhnow. However, the Astros already stunk. They finished the season before the purchase with 56 wins and 106 losses. At that point, why not build a successful franchise from the ground up so they could become a consistent winner? Would signing a group of older, higher price veterans have led them to the Promised Land? 10

In my mind, there are a series of different types of organizations. There is the premium group that invests wisely in both their farm system and major league club. Others follow the same path but don’t spend as wisely. Still more are unwilling to invest as they could. Then there are those that take a step back to rebuild. Finally, there are likely teams that unethically take a step really far back and “tank.”

I’ll delve into the subject in future posts. However, it’s clear that there are teams that underinvest possibly to the point of being non-competitive. The result is that players have fewer opportunities to sign high-value contracts.

Baseball has Become a Very Efficient Marketplace

Thus, some of the reduction in salaries is due to the organizations’ practices and philosophies. However, the players need to realize that they are negotiating in a very efficient marketplace. Moreover, they benefitted from an inefficient market for a very long time.

The Business Dictionary defines an “efficient market” as:

“A market where all pertinent information is available to all participants at the same time, and where prices respond immediately to available information. Stock markets are considered the best examples of efficient markets.”11

Business Dictionary

“Moneyball” describes how Billy Beane built an outstanding Oakland A’s team by taking advantage of an inefficient market. Beane and his staff used statistical methods to successfully value and select players in ways that other teams did not. The A’s derived better information and thus won many games with a payroll lower than the competition.

It follows that before the “Moneyball Era,” the players benefitted from this inefficient market. At that time, baseball management used the wrong metrics to value players. These metrics included a pitcher’s total wins and earned run average (ERA). Similarly, they evaluate position players using batting average runs batted in (RBI) and errors made in the field. The disappointing result was that weaker than expected players signed contracts for more than they could justify by their performance.

In contrast, although teams use different ways to value players, the resulting estimates are very consistent. The teams no longer overpay for players. The market is efficient and somewhat rational.

Manipulating Service Time Under the CBA

However, from the players’ perspective, the current collective bargaining agreement exacerbates the market’s effects.

The agreement requires players to be under team control for six years and thus can’t take advantage of free agency. However, the team can manipulate the players so-called “service time” to eke out an additional year of control.

An organization manipulates service time by assigning a player to the minor leagues at the start of their rookie season. When it promotes the player a few weeks later, his rookie season doesn’t qualify as service time. This behavior forces the player to play another season under team control.

It follows that younger players can offset service time issues if they get to the “bigs” early. If they are major leaguers when they are 19 or 20, they can be free agents at 26 or so. In so doing, they are much more appropriate for the long term deals that Harper, Arenado, and Machado signed.

However, some teams like to evaluate and draft college players. Additionally, some players want to go to college. These college graduates may need a year or so in the minor leagues. Thus, they may not get to the majors until they are 23 or so. Add six or seven years of service time, and they will not be free agents until they are 30. At that age, they may not be considered worthy of a long-term deal.

The Dilemma

As I will discuss in future posts, the current system is rife with problems and inequities. On the management side, some individuals want to be successful but are committed to investing wisely. On the players’ side, it’s difficult to maneuver to that big payday which is more than frustrating. Thus their total share of revenue is decreasing, and they are not happy.

Watch this space.

Continue ReadingThe Business of Baseball – Part One