What ‘sustainable success’ really means

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We live in a time in which Major League Baseball front offices are increasingly cutting payroll and are seemingly happy to be “competitive” while eschewing — and sometimes even fearing — taking shots at being truly great. As we’ve discussed a lot around here over the past couple of years, a number of buzzwords — and tortured justifications for low payroll — spin out of that philosophy.

“Financial flexibility” is one we’ve had a lot of fun with. And to be sure, there are way more ridiculous ones. But there’s one you hear more often than all the others lately. Indeed, I can’t remember the last press conference from an owner or head of baseball operations that didn’t nod to it. What is it?

“Sustainable Success.” 

If you want to see it in action, look no further than yesterday’s introductory press conference of new Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom. Both he and team president Sam Kennedy used the term on multiple occasions when referring to the future goals of the Boston Red Sox.

In front office speak “sustainable success” does not mean “sustained on-the-field success” in the form of trying to win every single season. The “sustainable” refers to “financial sustainability,” making the term “sustainable success” mean “success on the field only so long as the team finances remain within our pre-set parameters.”

Which, hey, how can that be unreasonable? No business — and baseball teams are businesses — wants to win at any cost. Coke no doubt would love to finally vanquish Pepsi for good, but if they did at the cost of bankrupting the company, well, that’d be bad. Similarly, baseball teams no doubt want to win the World Series, but they don’t want to do it if it means the club is forced out of business itself.

Except, there’s one problem here: there is absolutely no reason to believe that any team would be at risk of that if they actually spent money on players and truly attempted to compete for championships every year.

Part of this is structural: the Astros and Nationals are each trying to defeat the other right now, but they are not Coke and Pepsi. They are part of the same larger business concern, they depend on each other’s survival and they and their 28 counterparts have a host of rules and business arrangements in which they work to prop each other up in various ways and in which they seek to share the wealth. Between that, a governmentally-bestowed and protected monopoly and the existence of massive public subsidies for their operations in the form of taxpayer-funded ballparks, the sort of competition at play here is very different than the sort of competition Coke faces vis-a-vis Pepsi. In turn, that renders the notion that we should talk about baseball teams’ need for “success within reasonable parameters” in the same way we do every other business nonsensical.

But the even bigger part of this is that there is no reason to believe any level of “going for it” on the part of a baseball team’s front office actually imperils the financial health of a baseball team, thereby requiring “sustainable” remedies.

Major League Baseball and its clubs have simply failed — and, frankly, have never really tried – to establish that their viability or even their profitability is truly at risk if they try harder to win. Every team that slashes payroll or embarks on a rebuild says that it was necessary because they were on an unsustainable path, but unlike Coke and Pepsi, who release financial reports on the regular, baseball economics are almost completely opaque. Teams claim they are on precarious financial footing, but never do they provide evidence of it.

Meanwhile, the financial evidence we do see contradicts claims of unsustainability.

League revenues break new records every year. Franchise values have skyrocketed. Broadcast deals grow ever higher. The personal net worth of every single owner increases and smart, savvy businessmen jockey to buy-in to ownership groups, even to get a minority interest. Expenses — in the form of player salaries — remain flat.

Two teams have declared bankruptcy in the last ten years: the Texas Rangers in 2010 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011. Each bankruptcy involved unique circumstances involving much more than the team’s simple assets vs. its liabilities, each resulted in the teams being sold at a windfall price, each old owner walked away richer than he had been before and each team went on to far greater financial and on-the-field success than they had been experiencing at the time of the filing. Which is to say: owning a baseball team is an almost idiot-proof business proposition, and even when idiots get involved they come out of it better off at the other end.

None of which is to say that it’s impossible that a team and its owner could become financially imperiled. It’s merely to say that, in the modern world of Major League Baseball, it simply hasn’t happened and no one has made a cogent, evidence-based case that it is likely.

Yet, when the front office executives speak about the need for “sustainability,” we are all expected to nod and agree that it’s crazy and irresponsible to spend money on good players past some arbitrarily established level. We are expected to assume that the intent and goal of the front office and team ownership is the same as ours as fans and that they are chasing wins rather than mere profits. We are expected to do all of this, by the way, with a complete and utter dearth of actual information on which to base a reasoned conclusion of what is sustainable and what is not. We are expected to accept that their ratios all check out without ever being shown the denominator.

A month ago the Red Sox announced that they will be slashing payroll and will either be actively unloading star players, letting them walk away or not pursuing new star players in a quest to get below Major League Baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax threshold. Yesterday, Chaim Bloom and Sam Kennedy talked about how it’s the team’s goal  to “have sustained long-term success and compete for championships year in and year out.” These two concepts are not just not unrelated, they are absolutely and necessarily linked.

The larger context makes that abundantly clear.

  • Kennedy and Bloom said this on the one-year anniversary of the Red Sox winning their fourth World Series title in the space of 14 years;
  • They said this about a team that has made the postseason ten times in the past 15 years and which, a couple of anomalous stinker years here and there notwithstanding, has been such a strong and sustained contender for so long that the league’s other owners have built in rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that are pretty clearly aimed at neutralizing their on-field and financial success as much as possible;
  • They said this about a team that is either the first, second, or third most valuable property in Major League Baseball; and
  • They said this about a team whose owners created a sports and media empire on the back of its value and cash flow.

If that’s something that needs fixing — if that’s something that’s not an object example of “sustained success” — than words have no meaning. And if, in this context, those words don’t seem to make all that much sense, it’s worth asking why they are being deployed to begin with and what the true definition of “sustainable success” is to those who utter them.

Rutschman has five hits in opener, Orioles outlast Red Sox 10-9

Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON – The last time Adley Rutschman recalls feeling this level of emotion on a baseball field was playing in front of intimate, 5,000-seat crowds in college at Oregon State.

He trumped that experience at Fenway Park on Thursday in his first career opening day start.

“This blows that out of the water,” Rutschman said.

Rutschman became the first catcher in major league history with five hits in an opener, and the Baltimore Orioles survived a wild ninth inning to beat the Boston Red Sox 10-9.

“To have that close game in the ninth inning and the crowd get so loud. You kind of sit there and say, ‘This is pretty cool,’” said Rutschman, the top overall pick in the 2019 draft.

Rutschman – who debuted for the Orioles last May and quickly became indispensable to the young, resurgent club – homered in his first at-bat and finished 5-for-5 with a career-best four RBIs and a walk on a chilly day at Fenway Park, with a temperature of 38 degrees at first pitch.

Ramon Urias hit a two-run homer for Baltimore, which finished with 15 hits, nine walks and five stolen bases.

Kyle Gibson (1-0) allowed four runs and six hits over five-plus innings to earn his first opening-day victory since his 2021 All-Star season with Texas. Gibson gave up an RBI groundout in the first inning before retiring nine straight Red Sox hitters.

The Orioles nearly gave the game away in the ninth.

With Baltimore leading 10-7, closer Félix Bautista walked pinch-hitter Raimel Tapia. Alex Verdugo followed with a single and advanced to second on an error by center fielder Cedric Mullins.

Rafael Devers struck out. Justin Turner then reached on an infield single to third when Urias’ throw was wide, scoring Tapia. Masataka Yoshida grounded to shortstop Jorge Mateo, who stepped on second for the force but threw wildly to first, allowing Verdugo to score.

Bautista struck out Adam Duvall on three pitches to end it and earn the save.

The Orioles scored four runs in the fourth and three in the fifth to take an 8-2 lead. Baltimore led 10-4 before Bryan Baker allowed three runs in the eighth to give the Red Sox some hope.

The eighth could have been even better for the Red Sox had Devers, who led off the inning, not become the first player in major league history to strike out on a pitch clock violation. Devers was looking down and kicking debris off his cleats when umpire Lance Barksdale signaled a violation that resulted in strike three.

“There’s no excuse,” said Alex Cora, who dropped to 0-5 in opening-day games as Boston’s manager. “They know the rules.”

Boston offseason addition and two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber (0-1) struggled in his Fenway debut, surrendering five runs on six hits and four walks in 3 1/3 innings.

“Less than ideal,” Kluber said. “Didn’t turn out the way I would have hoped for.”


Red Sox: Christian Arroyo stayed in the game after taking an inadvertent cleat to the side of his head in the second inning. Arroyo was applying a tag to Rutschman at second base as he attempted to stretch out a single. Rutschman’s leg flipped over as he slid awkwardly. … LHP James Paxton was placed on the 15-day inured list (retroactive to March 27) with a strained right hamstring.


Rutschman, one of six Baltimore players making his first opening-day appearance, became the youngest Oriole to homer in his first opening-day at-bat since Cal Ripken Jr. in 1984.


The Orioles took advantage of MLB’s bigger bases – going from 15- to 18-inch squares – that are being used for the first time this season. Baltimore hadn’t stolen five bases in a game since last June 24 against the White Sox. Mullins and Jorge Mateo swiped two bags apiece, and Adam Frazier got a huge jump on his steal against reliever Ryan Brasier. There was nothing Boston catcher Reese McGuire could do to stop them and on the majority of Baltimore’s steals, he didn’t bother to throw.


Right-hander Kaleb Ort and Tapia earned Boston’s final two roster spots to open the season. Tapia got the nod over Jarren Duran, who was sent down to Triple-A Worcester. Ort pitched a scoreless sixth with one strikeout Thursday.


Orioles: RHP Dean Kremer will make is sixth career start against Boston when the three-game series resumes on Saturday. In 11 road starts last season, he went 5-3 with a 3.63 ERA.

Red Sox: LHP Chris Sale, who has pitched in only 11 games over the past three years due to injuries, is set to begin his seventh season in Boston.