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March 24, 2003

Breaking Balls

Owner for a Day (or Longer)

by Derek Zumsteg

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People sometimes ask Prospectus writers what we'd do if we had $500 million, and they're surprised when we say we wouldn't buy a baseball team. Gary would become a scratch golfer. Jonah would build his dream house, with a gigantic rotating wheel he could run in that would power the neighborhood. I may be one of only a few who'd actually try and buy a baseball team.

I've talked about this before as an exercise to show how to take advantage of baseball's economic system (in the first ever Breaking Balls column, no less). That column's mostly about how I'd be abusing the insane revenue sharing system. But seriously, beyond laughing all the way to the bank, what would I do as an enlightened and well-funded owner who had, for example, just taken over the Devil Rays?

Start from the top. The team's a lost cause right on the field, at least immediately. I invest in Billy Beane as GM if I can get him, Paul DePodesta if I can't, and then mine the next tier: the undervalued assistant GMs who toil in obscurity, who maybe have driven the only good decisions a bad organization's made in a while. From the top down, hire all the good front-office management minds I can, looking for people who can work together to build an organization that can compete year after year.

Then you get the big heads in a room and come up with a strategy, and you build everything from there. Manage stadium revenue, ticket sales, and advertising to maximize return on my investment. Imitate the Mariners in financial matters, as they're probably the best club in baseball at getting blood from stones. If we can't outsmart the up-and-running successful organizations right away, we'll act like them until we get there.

Then I'd invest in the organization, the players, and the fan base.

I fund scouting up the wazoo. I put my crack team on figuring out how to evaluate good scouts and hire them as fast as I can. As hard as this is to believe, many teams let an enormous amount of talent go entirely unscouted at the college level, even in Division I schools. But I don't want breadth of knowledge, I want depth. A first-round draft pick is not just an investment of a million-dollar signing bonus, it's spending an opportunity. In 1998 the Twins spent $2 million on Ryan Mills and a spot later, the Reds drafted Austin Kearns at #7 and paid him $1.95 million to sign. Other post-Kearns first-round studs from that draft include Sean Burroughs, Jeff Weaver, and C.C. Sabathia. I'm convinced that investment in superior scouting and the evaluation of past draft pick strategies would pay off hugely. I'd spend the money and try and improve the return on draft picks.

I fund the minor leagues generously. I want every one of my minor-league affiliates to have a nutritionist, I want my players eating well every day. For some players, the pre-game spread is peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches. I want these guys on a balanced diet for growing kids. Invest in quality conditioning equipment at every level. See if buying advanced pitching machines helps develop my hitters, and if they do, spend the money up and down the organization. Spend the money to hire and retain the best managers and coaches up and down the minor leagues.

That's not all. I'm going to get players the best medical care money can buy. I want the best trainers at every level of the organization. I want every player to get the best medical care they can get locally, and if that care sucks, I'll fly 'em somewhere else. And this goes beyond investment, it has to be organizational philosophy; I don't want a pitcher in my organization going down with a preventable injury, or have their mental toughness questioned when they complain about a shoulder twinge. I'm with Rick Peterson here--I want preventative MRIs on my pitchers. It's a couple hundred dollars in cost for developing healthy players who will repay the investment many times over. Unless, you know, I can't get a group rate and it turns out that they don't do a good job preventing injuries.

But aggressively care for players: If someone complains about a dead arm, I don't want them sent back out until they've had some rest and we're sure nothing's gone wrong.

To that end, I'm going to look into doing something revolutionary--paying players in the off-season. While the big bonus kids are well off, minor league salaries are so low that many players--most players, even--end up taking off-season jobs. Selling insurance, installing satellite televisions, whatever. What it means is that they have a hard time squeezing in ample training and conditioning, unless the team sends them to the AFL or other winter leagues. I'm generally anti-winter-league ball, because I think it wears down players needlessly, especially pitchers.

But take Mariners starter Ryan Franklin. Here's a guy who started doing off-season conditioning when he finally got paid enough that he didn't have to work bagging groceries in the off-season. And he came to spring training stronger, throwing a couple miles faster. What kind of an investment is that, really, to offer these guys room and board and a chance to hang out in some good-weather state and stay in good shape? At the very least, I'm going to talk to my now-crack medical staff, put together some pilot programs, see what works, and then expand on success.

And I haven't forgotten about the team's fans. I wrote about this last July, but teams, especially bad teams, should be building their fan base through cheer clubs. I want to run serious promotions to hook tomorrow's season ticket buyers--from impressionable tykes in all the way to college students. Similarly, I'm going to figure out how to educate casual fans and try and convert them into rabid ones. I don't know if that means I have to employ a team of writers or an advertising agency, but we'll find out what works.

If you're good enough to buy tickets to a game today, I'll personally deliver beer to your seats; whatever we've got to do to get people make the team part of their daily lives. Frequent-buyer discounts, free food with tickets--anyone with a good idea to build up a demoralized fan base many have written off is going to get an appointment with somebody, and we'll listen.

I'm sure, once I've started to sink my $500 million into my team, we'll start finding other places where investment might pay off. Taking over stadium concessions, heck, building a new stadium. Founding a superstation. But it's a great start, and anyone who wants to spot me the money, or have me take care of their money, should drop me a line.

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