Baseball Blame Game
First, a disclosure: I was born and raised in Cleveland and have been a big fan of the Cleveland Indians my whole life. And as a Tribe fan, I appreciated how Indians’ General Manager John Hart built a nothing team into a contender in the 1990s. Never won the World Series, but under Hart the Indians got to the Series twice.
When I’ve interviewed Hart on various occasions, I’ve found him to be smart and friendly, an ex-jock who was not the usual clichéd doofus. Hart has an arrogant side, but it’s quite rare to find someone at the top of their game and in the media spotlight who doesn’t.
That being said, I was a little perplexed at how the sports media handled Hart’s supposedly voluntary resignation from the Texas Rangers last week. The media played the usual blame game, suggesting that the Rangers’ bad record under Hart was totally his fault.
But that oversimplification misses the mark. Blame should go to the top, and at the top of the Rangers organization is owner Tom Hicks. He sets the payroll and writes the checks. He is ultimately responsible for this team staying in the crapper all these years.
A baseball GM has three ways to develop talent. The first is bringing along young talent through a farm system, always a big crapshoot. The second way is to make trades that benefit your team. And the third and probably most important way is by signing free agents who have already proven themselves in the bigs.
In his first year in Arlington, Hicks had the wallet open, and Hart did sign a lot of free agents, though most of them didn’t work out. Blame Hart for that. But in the three years since, Hicks has closed up the wallet, and the Rangers haven’t been competitive on getting good free agent players, especially pitchers.
That means Hicks took a major tool out of Hart’s hand. Because baseball has limited revenue sharing, the amount of money a team spends on salaries – specifically free agents – translates directly into success. Look at this season: For the most part, the teams that made the playoffs are the ones that spent the money. Of the teams with the top six payrolls, four made the playoffs. Five out of the top 10 made it in as well. The only team that was not in the top half of the payroll ranking that made it to post-season was the San Diego Padres (they ranked 16 out of 30), and they had the worst record of the eight playoff teams.
The Rangers ranked 21st in payroll – in the bottom third. And at the press conference announcing Hart’s resignation, Hicks trotted out his usual misinformation. He talked about how teams like Cleveland and Oakland were models for the success of low-payroll teams and said that spending on players wasn’t a critical part of winning. He never mentioned that the low payroll A’s and Indians didn’t make the playoffs, but the ones that spent did.
The Rangers player payroll was about $55 million this year. Here’s what the team brought in: $46 million for local and national media rights, $42.5 million in ticket sales, $14.4 million in luxury suites, and about $5 million for parking. That’s close to $108 million in revenue, even before you add stadium naming rights, sponsorships, sales of team gear, and the pricey beers and hot dogs, which provide maybe another $20 million or $30 million.
Hicks has said the team was “marginally profitable” this year. Uh-oh – more misinformation. I don’t have the Rangers books in front of me – and I’m not an accountant – but it doesn’t take a ledger expert to come to the conclusion that the Rangers made a lot of money this past year.
It comes down to this: You gotta spend with the big boys to play with the big boys. That means signing expensive pitching, adding another high-priced hitting outfielder or two, and mixing them with the young guys.
I don’t think it really matters who the Rangers’ general manager is as long as Hicks keeps the wallet closed. He seems to be comfortable with having a losing team that makes some money. The fans keep showing up, so why bother putting a decent team on the field? That just cuts into the profits.
True, John Hart fumbled some trades, and the jury is still out on whether his drafts will ever produce star players. But blaming Hart is just a product of the Hicks misinformation machine. A carpenter can’t do his job if he can’t swing a decent hammer. Baseball GMs can’t produce good teams if they can’t wield a decent budget. John Hart had his hands tied during his time in Arlington, and Hicks was holding the rope. That’s where the blame should start and stop.