THE GAME: INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S POWER BROKERS by Jon Pessah

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(Miller Park, Milwaukee, WI; the monument to Bud Selig’s rule as Commissioner of Baseball)

When I picked up a copy of THE GAME: INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S POWER BROKERS by Jon Pessah I expected an exploration of the world of baseball between 1992 and 2010 from financial and labor perspectives.  What I read encompasses those general themes, but the book also evolved into a prolonged discussion of Bud Selig and George Steinbrenner’s roles in baseball during that time period, and bringing with it an excellent reporter’s knowledge of baseball and the personalities involved. I soon developed an intense distaste for Selig, who was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and the “acting” commissioner of baseball at the same time, a direct conflict of interest; and a greater understanding of Steinbrenner, and a degree of empathy for his at times, outrageous behavior.

The year 1992 can be considered a “watershed” year in the history of major league baseball.  The owners were at war with each other, the owners were also at war with the players through their labor union, and the steroid era was just emerging.  Pessah raises the question; did Bud Selig save baseball, as the former Commissioner of Baseball would like everyone to believe.  After reading Pessah’s account I agree with his conclusions that Selig did more to hurt the game he supposedly loved, and his actions were driven by his own selfish agenda and led to some of the most hypocritical actions and statements that I have ever been exposed to.  Bud Selig has one belief, what is best for Bud Selig.  When it came to his role as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, that belief centered on improving the value of his franchise no matter who he hurt or used by reorienting baseball’s financial structure to meet his needs.

(Bud Selig, Former Commissioner of Baseball)

Unhappy with the settlement with the players union in 1990 because of what he perceived to be the actions of then Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent, Selig worked assiduously to have him removed and have himself appointed as “acting” commissioner.  Once this was achieved Selig would be in charge of negotiating a new contract with his adversary, Donald Fehr, the head of the players union.  The Brewers team debt stood at $35 million in 1990 and throughout the period it would quadruple, if not more.  For Selig, a new stadium was needed to replace the antiquated Milwaukee County Stadium to help pay down his debt.  The problem was who would finance the cost of this project.  As Pessah’s research will prove Selig would blackmail localities into having public funding for stadiums or they could lose their teams to franchise relocation or contraction (having the league fold their franchises).   Selig was envious of large market teams with extensive resources because of cable television contracts and other marketing advantages, as a result he sought to pillage those teams through revenue sharing, a salary cap, and possibly, a luxury tax.  His target was George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees and a few other franchises.  What was most disingenuous, is that when revenue sharing was eventually implemented, many of the small market teams took the millions of dollars they received, supposedly designated for player development and procurement to make their teams more competitive, and devoted the money to their own profits.  In Selig’s case he paid down his debt, and at the same time reduced his payroll.  In the case of billionaire owner, Carl Polhand of the Minnesota Twins, he just pocketed the money.

(George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees)

The first part of the book analyzes the steps that led to the cancelling of the last month of the 1994 baseball season and the World Series.  In meticulous fashion Pessah describes the positions of the owners and the player’s union.  What seems abundantly clear is no matter how many times Selig downplayed the idea that the owners wanted a strike, the evidence reflects the opposite.  After Selig arranged his coup against Vincent, he also engineered a change in baseball’s voting structure to allow small market teams like the Brewers to veto any settlement with the players they did not like.  Pessah places the onus of the strike and the possible use of replacement players on Selig and his supporters, and less so on the player’s union head, Donald Fehr.  Along the way the author integrates the story of Don Mattingly, the Yankee first basement who had never been to the post season and whose body was slowly giving way to father time.  When Selig ended the season, the Yankees were in first place and were on the road to a possible World Series appearance for the first time since 1981, and it seemed Mattingly’s last chance may have been passed by.  Pessah explores Steinbrenner and other owner’s roles as well as Fehr and the union in intricate detail.  What one concludes as a settlement is finally reached is that Selig is correct that financial changes needed to be implemented, but other issues facing baseball, like steroids were ignored because for Selig “the homeruns” that resulted from the use of steroids were good for baseball’s bottom line.  As a result he and the owners turned a blind eye to the problem.

Selig’s methods are a major focus of the book.  How he arranges for the Montreal Expos to be purchased by Major League Baseball for $120 million and its sale for over $400 million to a group that moves it to Washington, DC is priceless.  Further, his manipulation of the Florida Marlins situation reflects his duplicitousness as he arranges for the former owner of the Expos, Jeffrey Loria to buy the Marlins when he cannot really affords to do so.  Another example is how Selig arranges for John Henry to purchase the Boston Red Sox who he hopes will create a small market mentality more to his liking in Beantown.  Selig did not overlook the needs of his own team, managed by his daughter Wendy while he was commissioner, a team that was $148.7 million in debt.  Amazingly, by the 2007 baseball season that debt has been reduced to $30 million.  Eventually Selig would sell the Brewers for $200 million based on revenue sharing and Miller Park, the stadium that was publicly financed by the residents of Milwaukee.  In addition, by 2009 Selig earned a salary of $18 million a year, and by his retirement year he had a net worth of over $200 million, not including the $35-40 million he will collect from baseball as a Commissioner Emeritus, not bad for an owner of a small market team that at one time was hemorrhaging from debt.

(Donald Fehr, Head of the Major League Baseball Players Union who fought Selig’s hypocracy for years)

Pessah’s narrative includes a discussion of events taking place outside of baseball, and Congress is a major candidate for his sarcasm.  Different Congressional committees and their politicians will use labor issues and the steroid epidemic throughout the period under discussion, grandstanding about the national pastime and making threats to take away baseball’s anti-trust exemption.   At the same time they avoid dealing with issues relating to Hurricane Katrina, the lack of proper body armor for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crisis over Abu Ghraib, and numerous other issues.  It seems reasonable to assume that the money that the owners are donating to Congressional campaigns bears fruit.  The reader is provided transcripts of Congressional hearings, National Labor Relations Board decisions, intimate conversations among owners, as well as the inner workings of the union.  These details are enlightening as we learn of Yankee General Manager, Brian Cashman’s distaste for the arrogance he sees in Joe Torre, George W. Bush’s hope to be Commissioner of Baseball, the inner workings of the Steinbrenner family, and many other interesting items.  I assume that Pessah has worked his sources well and he is presenting an accurate account, however, a degree of footnoting might assuage my historian’s sensitivities, though I compliment him on his excellent bibliography and the names of those interviewed.

(Baseball’s steroid greats, from left to right: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, and Barry Bonds)

The narrative makes for an excellent read for baseball fans and the public in general who lived through the events and relationships described.  Pessah spares nothing in discussing the BALCO scandal and Barry Bonds, the Mitchell Commission and Report that Selig created to help clear his own guilt about how he handled, or better, did not handle the growing steroid scandal in baseball.  The “bash brothers,” Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, and many others make their appearances as authors or witnesses before Congressional committees.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the book reflects the human frailties of all involved as the reader is taken from one contract negotiation to the next, in addition to each scandal or blight on baseball’s reputation.  Pessah’s account is almost encyclopedic as his subject matter evolves over two decades.  It seems to me as an avid baseball fan he does not miss much and to his credit, his honesty in reporting is a highlight that readers should cherish.  THE GAME is more than a baseball book, it is a story of greed, power, and manipulation that in many instances gives our nation’s pastime a black eye.  But as most baseball fans realize once spring training arrives after a long winter, they are willing to forgive and forget the actions of the likes of Bud Selig.

BASEBALL MAVERICK: HOW SANDY ALDERSON REVOLUTIONIZED BASEBALL AND REVIVED THE METS by Steve Kettmann

(Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets…brings back memories of Ebbetts Field)

When Sandy Alderson agreed to become general manager of the New York Mets in 2010 he was somewhat aware of their financial situation.  He was cognizant of their ownership involvement with the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal, but not the depth of their financial losses.  Believing that accepting the job was a career challenge, plus it would bring joy to his father who lived in Florida, Alderson accepted the position.  What Alderson did not know was that the Wilpon family, who owned the Mets invested over $500 million dollars with Madoff and counted on a constant 10% return to run the team.  Once the scandal broke that money was gone, and they no longer had the funds to pay off the debt from their 2002 purchase of the team from Nelson Doubleday, Jr.  The team was in such bad shape that baseball commissioner, Bud Selig agreed to an immediate short term loan of $25 million so the team could meet payroll expenses, and convinced Alderson to take over as general manager.  On top of that one of the trustees involved with the Madoff investigation sued the Wilpons for being “willfully blind” in dealing with the “Ponzi master” for $300 million.  The suit was finally settled on March 20, 2012, for $162 million, in addition the Mets had lost $70 million in the 2011 season.  When Alderson came aboard the Mets had reduced their payroll from $140 to $85 million in one year, the highest percentage salary reduction in baseball history.  This is what Alderson had to deal with during his first few years at the helm.  The debacle that had encompassed the Mets and Alderson’s plan to restore confidence in the team as well as rebuilding their baseball operation is told in Steve Kettmann’s new book, BASEBALL MAVERICK: HOW SANDY ALDERSON REVOLUTIONIZED BASEBALL AND REVIVED THE METS.  The book is not your typical sports narrative.  It is more of an intellectual biography of Alderson where the author weaves the Mets’ general manager’s life story that saw him as a Dartmouth and Harvard Law graduate, a Marine officer in Vietnam, in addition to his baseball successes as he applied his analytical, “moneyball” approach to rescue the franchise.

The reader gains insights into Alderson’s personality and approach to organization during his tour in Vietnam, when he goes over the head of his commanding officer who passed him over for a position because he had once disagreed with a decision that involved the constant rotation of company commanders in his unit.  As a Marine, normally this was not acceptable behavior.  However, in this case, Alderson used a seldom employed Marine tradition for officers and “requested mast,” the right to go over the head of a commanding officer to the regimental commander, who in this case was Colonel P.X. Kelley, Commander of the First Marines, a formidable figure who would later become the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Kelly agreed with Alderson and gave him a plum position in intelligence.  Following a description of Alderson’s eight month tour in Vietnam, Kettman traces his journey from a law office in San Francisco, his education as a baseball administrative novice, to his present position.

(Sandy Alderson, General Manager of the NY Mets after a loss)

Alderson’s first step toward a career in baseball occurred when Roy Eisenhardt, an attorney in the firm that Alderson worked for asked him to oversee a major deal.  Eisenhardt’s father-in-law was Walter A. Haas, Jr. Chairman of Levi Strauss who wanted to purchase the Oakland A’s from Charley Finley and save the team for the Oakland area.  Along with Haas’s son, Wally, Alderson oversaw the purchase from the inimitable “Charlie O.” and the result was that he could not avoid being “bitten by the baseball bug.”   Kettman provides an ideological history of sabermetrics going back to Branch Rickey, who hired Allan Roth who developed the “on base percentage.”  Kettman next introduces, Eric Walker a young sabermatrician who prepared “The Oakland Athletics: A Quantitative Analysis by Mathematical Methods.”  Alderson hired Walker and their friendship would continue for years.  Oakland became Alderson’s baptism under fire as he employed his analytical or sabermetric approach to evaluating personnel and aspects of being a successful general manager.  Alderson’s baseball philosophy can be summed up as, “once you established a correlation between on-base percentage and slugging percentage with run production, then you also established a correlation between gross run production and win-loss percentage, and it became apparent that the best approach was on-high base percentage and hit the ball out of the ballpark, as opposed to batting average, as opposed to the hit-and-run and bunting.” (78)  Many baseball lifers had difficulty accepting “computerball,” but since Alderson was trained as a Marine military officer and a lawyer he had no difficulty adjusting.  If things made sense from an analytical and organizational perspective Alderson was on board.  Alderson applied this approach in Oakland and took Charlie Finley’s run down operation and turned the A’s into a World Series team between 1988 and 1990 under Tony La Russo, and winning it all by sweeping the San Francisco Giants in the “earthquake series” in 1989.

(Sandy Alderson, NY Mets general manager after a win)

Kettman explores a number of important issues in baseball apart from Alderson’s organizational successes.  The author provides insights into the life of a sportswriter.  The task of attending mostly boring baseball meetings, having your newspaper columns evaluated by how many “tweets” it generates, the lack of time to think and reflect on subjects they are investigating, and the rhythms of spring training are all described.  Kettman goes on to explain the controversy concerning steroids in baseball.  The issue created a great deal of controversy, particularly for the A’s since two of their best players, Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco, the “bash brothers” were users.  The question that Kettman asks was should someone as smart as Alderson have known about it, but with no testing, no punishment, and no official baseball PED policy, how could he be accountable.  Another interesting aspect of the book is the relationship between Alderson and Billy Beane, a former New York Mets prospect who finished an uneventful career in Oakland.  Beane became Alderson’s protégé and eventually he became assistant general manager in 1993.  Beane is described as a younger version of his mentor and when Alderson left the A’s, Beane took over complete control and if you have seen the film or read the book Moneyball, the relationship proved very successful.

Before taking over the Mets in 2010, Alderson did a stint with the San Diego Padres and worked with Major League baseball in the Dominican Republic to internationalize the game.  The book is essentially a case study in leadership and Alderson’s approach to restoring the Mets to prominence bears that out.  First, Kettman describes how Alderson constructed his organizational team.    Hiring two former general managers, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, and keeping John Ricco, the Mets assistant general manager reflects Alderson’s own personal security and his vision in employing individuals who have their own expertise in creating a superb front office.  Each had their own special talents that blended together nicely.  Their approach toward grooming younger players, signing free agents, dealing with player representatives, i.e.; Scott Boras and Jay Z, and creating a winning culture in the locker room should provide encouragement for despondent Mets’ fans for the future.

(Alderson during his tour of Vietnam)

Alderson’s approach in dealing with young players with great potential is fascinating.  Kettman uses Zach Wheeler, a young phenom that Alderson acquired in a trade for Carlos Beltran, Jacob deGrom, a former short stop who was National League rookie of the year in 2014, and Lucas Duda, who the Mets could not decide whether to trade or not, as case studies in how to develop players.  He explores when to promote a player to the major leagues, the burden placed on a young player who seemingly is seen as a major part of the future success of the franchise, how a young player deals with their own development, balancing fan expectations, handling a prospects first big league appearance, and how a young player adjusts to playing on the major league level, particularly with the distractions that playing in New York can bring.  In Wheeler’s case it worked well, until a few weeks ago when he succumbed to “Tommy John” surgery, for deGrom and Duda the 2015 season has begun very nicely.

Kettman analyzes how Alderson puts together a roster in conjunction with his staff as well as how they went about trades with other teams.  Currently, the Mets on the precipice of actually having a winning season.  If in the end the Mets finally become financially sound on the field and off, Alderson will be declared a “genius,” if not despite his past resume he will be roasted as a failure in the New York tabloids.  Overall, Kettman has delivered a strong “baseball book,” that has applications for leadership in other venues.  If you enjoy baseball and how a thoughtful and intelligent person goes about creating a winning culture for success, this book is a wonderful read.