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August 19, 2011
It’s the end of an era for the Cubs. Tom Ricketts, public face of the Ricketts family trust that bought the team in 2009, announced this morning that general manager Jim Hendry had “stepped down,” which left out the little detail that he was given a bit of a shove first. It’s become increasingly clear that the Cubs have needed a new direction for many years, and now they certainly are going in a new direction.
Nobody will accuse Hendry of being the world’s greatest GM, but he is perhaps taking more than his fair share of the blame from Cubs fans. Ricketts was careful to avoid turning Hendry into a scapegoat, praising him for his work and dedication. Today’s press conference shed some new light on the baffling behavior of the Cubs this past month; Hendry was informed of the decision to move on back on the 22nd of July, just over a week before the trade deadline. He was asked to stay on to finish signing the team’s amateur draft picks, and he agreed. This explains the inactivity of a man nicknamed “Trader Jim” for his wheeling and dealing ways; taking a laissez faire approach gives his successor more freedom.
Explaining it doesn’t necessarily remove the frustration entirely—if a trade package for someone like Marlon Byrd or Matt Garza was out there, it should have been taken. But while that’s a cautionary note about how Ricketts operates, it shouldn’t be a mark against Hendry, who agreed to stick around under what must have been difficult circumstances for him. At his farewell presser, Hendry was on the verge of tears on a number of occasions. When asked what he was going to do next, he said simply:
Well, I will, you know, hopefully be a better dad. I got two great kids, you know, need to spend more time with them. It’s such a consuming profession that I don’t think until the music stops you sometimes realize what went by. So I got to do a little better job there at home. And then I’ll just kind of gather myself. I’ve done nothing but be really consumed by the Cubs for a long time, sometimes to a fault, probably. Probably my enthusiasm a few years back and aggressiveness to try to finally knock that door down probably led to a couple of decisions I shouldn’t have made that ended up being not good for the organization and certainly didn’t turn into more wins.
I think that’s an appropriate epitaph for the Hendry years. Nobody could question the man’s dedication to the Cubs; one of his most famous acts as GM was signing free agent pitcher Ted Lilly while he was in the hospital getting ready for an angioplasty. He presided over some of the best Cubs teams of the Tribune era, both in terms of record and reaching the playoffs. It’s disappointing—to both Cubs fans and to Hendry himself—that none of those appearances turned into a World Series win and that there weren’t more of them, but a full accounting of his tenure has to include his successes as well as his failures.
In order to understand the Cubs going forward, it’s also important to understand the conditions Hendry had to work under. We call them general managers, but I think it’s instructive to think of them as field generals. They are given objectives and resources to achieve them. They set strategy, they give input to their higher-ups, and they execute the plans. But they don’t come up with the goals or, ultimately, decide what resources will be at hand to achieve those goals. This is not to say that criticism of a general manager is off-limits or to excuse a GM’s faults as the responsibility of management, but at the end of the day, a general manager is a functionary. Some are better than others, of course, but in the final accounting, an owner is responsible for what transpires.
Since 1982, Cubs ownership had been the Tribune Company, whose primary business was in newspapers, radio, and television. The Cubs’ relationship with the Tribune Company has not been wholly detrimental; one could argue that their relationship with the Tribune-owned WGN stations, both radio and television, was a substantial contributor to the large, national fanbase the Cubs currently enjoy.
Still, the Tribune Company primarily prized the Cubs for the content they could provide to their media empire rather than as a desirable asset in their own right. In a sense, Tribune did what teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have done—made the team sign friendly TV contracts as a way to shift profits outside of the purview of MLB’s revenue sharing and to another business they controlled. Unlike the Steinbrenners of the world, though, Tribune always viewed the broadcasting, not the ballclub, as their primary business. As a result, the Cubs fell into a state of neglect until the Tribune Company had no choice but to try and turn the franchise around.
Hendry had already been GM for a few years at this point, having taken over the reins from Andy MacPhail, who moved upstairs to become the president and CEO. The role of president has, until recently, meant more to the Cubs than it might have to other teams. Because nobody in the Tribune knew or perhaps cared about the day-to-day operations of the baseball team, the president would fulfill much of the role an owner might in another organization—setting goals, giving the GM approval, etc. The president still would have to go hat-in-hand to his bosses at Tribune if anything required significant money, of course, but in terms of baseball ops, they had a lot of power. So let’s look at the leadership Hendry had during his tenure.
MacPhail, of course, comes from a long line of baseball executives and, at times, seemed more interested in doing business the old-fashioned way than in doing what was best for the Cubs. He was profiled by Sports Illustrated when he was still the golden boy who ran the Twins—rather than the man who presided over decades of Cub and Oriole mediocrity—and this quote pretty much sums up MacPhail’s philosophy:
"I don't think MacPhail believes winning a World Series and losing $10 million is a successful season," says Pat Reusse, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He's intrigued by the challenge of running a team with limited resources."
MacPhail might have been intrigued by the challenge, but Cubs fans who saw a Tribune company with many millions and no World Series wins were certainly disinterested. When MacPhail moved on to Baltimore, the Cubs turned to John McDonough, a marketing executive who knew a lot more about Beanie Babies than about baseball. His legacy is mixed. He kept attendance up during some pretty lean years for the team on the field, but he’s also the man to blame for the seventh-inning stretch guest conductors, which started off as a touching tribute to Harry Caray and has ended up as a way for a succession of increasingly annoying celebrities to plug their latest venture. When promoted to team president in 2006, he boldly proclaimed the goal was to win a World Series. The trouble is that his plan to win a World Series was to inject himself into the negotiations for Alfonso Soriano:
It also has been well documented that what drove the price so high had nothing to do with the baseball operations side of the team, nor Jim Hendry. It came directly from the top of an organization that was about to put the club up for sale and needed a quick-fix big splash in the free-agent market to make the product more attractive. Former Cubs president John McDonough admitted in 2007 he closed the deal himself, adding years and value to it.
So, you know, that turned out well.
After McDonough, the Cubs turned to Crane Kenney, a former Tribune general counsel who is still with the Cubs organization due to a desire to maintain continuity as the Ricketts took over. The Cubs are done maintaining continuity. Kenney remains aboard, but the new GM will report directly to Tom Ricketts, effectively cutting Kenney off from the decision-making process in terms of baseball operations. In his press conference, Ricketts explained the timing of the move:
As everyone here knows, we said day one was square one for everyone in the organization. And so we got to about the middle of last month, and I just felt it was time to move on, and as soon as I had made that decision along with the members of the board who are my siblings, I went to talk to Jim [Hendry] about it. … I think that if we had come in guns ablazing, changing everything on day one, I think the likelihood of making a mistake is much higher than it is having this year-and-a-half or two years of experience to help me think through what’s next for the baseball organization.
That’s the important takeaway from today’s announcement—not that Hendry is gone, but that Tom Ricketts and his fellow owners are starting to flex their muscles and exercise control of the team. And they have a plan:
Our focus will be on what we focused on the last couple years here, and that’s player development. We believe very strongly that the way to build consistent success in an organization is through identifying talented players, bringing them into the system and developing them into productive players at the major league level. … [The next GM will] have to share a commitment to player development. … We’ll look for guys that maybe have a stronger analytical background than we have here. … But I think we all have to keep that in perspective. The sabermetric stuff is important, but it’s just a piece. We’re not running the baseball organization by a computer model.
It’s too easy for those of us who care about the “sabermetric stuff” to focus on the “computer model” comment and ignore the rest. One of the vestiges of the Tribune era of management has been the lack of an infrastructure in the front office. The team had the smallest front office in MLB under the Tribune and has been slow to adopt any kind of advanced analysis. They brought on Ari Kaplan as the manager of statistical analysis, but by himself he’d be hard pressed to do the sort of things teams like the Rays and the Indians (much less the Red Sox or Yankees) are doing. The Ricketts are sending a signal today that they’re prepared to change this. For the first time in decades, the Cubs truly have leadership. It’s yet to be seen whether or not it’s good leadership, of course, but it’s an encouraging first step.
It's not one that's likely to be well-recieved by Cubs fans, some of whom likely have visions of Albert Pujols in their heads as we head towards the offseason. This is a Cubs team that is girding itself for a long rebuilding, not a quick fix. Cubs fans are tired of being patient, so fireworks are to be expected. But if the Ricketts can pull it off, they can give the city of Chicago something new: a Cubs team capable of the sort of sustained competativeness they need to break their World Series drought.