KANSAS CITY — Winning has a way of making you forget what’s bothering you. If you’re a Mets or a Royals fan getting hyped for tonight’s first pitch, it’s probably making you forget just how miserable your team’s owners have made you over the years.
Neither Mets owners Fred Wilpon nor Royals owner David Glass are quite as loathed as, say, Jeff Loria is down in Miami, but they certainly have given fans of their teams headaches at times. The Wilpons — the team is owned by the family and run by Fred’s son Jeff — have been embroiled in financial scandal and, to some degree, personal scandal. Both the Wilpons and Glass have been accused of being penny-pinchers at times and not without good reason. Both have been enriched at the expense of taxpayer-subsidized stadium construction and improvement, much to the chagrin of those taxpayers and folks who don’t think billionaires are owed charity.
But one of them will be hoisting up a World Series trophy some time between this Saturday and next Wednesday. Why? Mostly because they either learned from their mistakes or, at the very least, hired some whip smart baseball people who were able to work around them.
David Glass took over as Royals chairman in September 1993, shortly after the death of founding owner Ewing Kauffman. Pursuant to Kauffman’s succession plan, the team was offered for sale to Kansas City interests with the proceeds set to go to charity. There were years of limbo in which Glass attempted to sell the team and he eventually found a buyer in a group headed by Miles Prentice and which included local sports heroes like Tom Watson and Buck O’Neil. That group got rejected because Prentice wasn’t seen as someone who would toe Bud Selig’s line. Glass, the former CEO of Wal-Mart, eventually bought the team himself and has been its principle owner since 2000, always toeing Selig’s line, for all of the good and the bad that entailed.
Glass’ stewardship and then ownership of the Royals coincided with the Royals’ longest stretch of futility in franchise history, punctuated by four seasons in the space of five in which the team lost 100 games or more. If Kauffman had lived or Prentice took over that losing may have happened all the same, but Royals fans blamed Glass. And there was good reason to. He hired a series of inept executives to run the team on the cheap and allowed a franchise which was once considered to be the class of the American League to wither. Scouting operations were curtailed, international operations were cut and the team was seemingly run with an eye toward year-by-year profitability as opposed to winning or long term health. Over those same years the value of the team, like every other team, skyrocketed. Glass paid less than $100 million for the Royals in 2000. They are now worth hundreds of millions.
In 2006 Glass hired Dayton Moore away from the Braves and, at Moore’s instance, began to rebuild the organization rather than just operate it. It took some time, but Moore’s efforts — and Glass’ seemingly hands-off approach — paid dividends. Those scouting and international operations were restored and, over time, Glass has bumped the payroll up to a more respectable level. While, as I noted above, winning makes people forget what’s bothering them, it’s worth noting that Glass’ hire of Moore is specifically what led to the winning. These days, Royals fans have stopped complaining about Glass for the most part. He’s now like most other owners: easy to dislike if you fixate on any one thing, but easy to forget if the team is doing well. And it’s doing very, very well.
The Wilpons are a bit more complicated a case. Fred Wilpon, a real estate magnate by trade, started out with a one percent stake in the team back in 1980, expanding his stake to a 50/50 share with Nelson Doubleday in 1986 following a contentious reorganization of the club’s ownership group. Even when he only had one percent, however, he was no silent partner. Wilpon served as president and CEO of the team between 1980 to 2002 at which time he purchased the remaining 50% from Doubleday. Doubleday and Wilpon hated one another for a number of reasons. For our purposes here, it’s enough to say that Wilpon, a close ally of Bud Selig, was a far more hands-on owner than Doubleday and was cut from a very different sort of ownership cloth.
None of which would likely have mattered if all things were equal. New York baseball fans are no strangers to hands-on owners, and such an approach is not a necessary impediment to winning. Wilpon certainly loves baseball and has never seen his team as a mere investment, and fans usually like that in an owner. But all things haven’t been equal, and Wilpon’s friendship and investment with the now-incarcerated Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff changed everything.
The Wilpons invested some half a billion dollars with Madoff and, despite steady (fraudulent) returns over the years, they lost hundreds of millions of dollars. This led to a crazy spree of loans and cutbacks, all of which has caused the Wilpons to run the Mets as if it were some small-market outfit as opposed to a club in the nation’s largest media market. A club which owns its own cable company, no less. Cutting the payroll hurt the Mets, resulting in six straight seasons with fewer than 80 wins since the Madoff scandal broke. That, combined with some notable collapses and a handful of bad P.R. moments made the Wilpons a favorite target of the winning-is-everything New York tabloids and Mets fans alike. Not unreasonably, it should be noted.
But while the Wilpons can’t be excused for getting in bed with Madoff (note: if an investment looks too good to be true, it probably is) and while acting like a low-revenue team in big money New York is never going to win you allies, they have made the best of their own self-inflicted wounds. Mostly by having the good sense to get out of the way of GM Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins as they executed a long-term plan to build the farm system and the club. Maybe Alderson could’ve done it more quickly if he had a decent payroll to work with, but it’s also likely the case that Alderson — who was running the A’s with a “Moneyball”-style philosophy before Billy Beane was — wouldn’t have been hired if the Mets didn’t need to cut costs. Either way, the Mets have developed an amazing stable of young pitchers and several good position players which now have their fans justifiably excited again.
Should Glass and the Wilpons get credit for what Dayton Moore and Sandy Alderson were able to do? Not really. Or at least not any more than any executive should get credit for the accomplishments of the people they hire. But baseball history is rotten with teams that went nowhere due to bad owners making bad decisions and kneecapping their baseball operations department though either meddling or parsimony or both. That Glass and the Wilpons have managed to get the heck out of the way and to allow the Mets and Royals to get out of that particular historical pile is worth noting.
And, for the next week and a half or so, maybe even worth forgetting.