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September 12, 2003

6-4-3

Know Loss

by Gary Huckabay

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Last week, I laid out a reading list for new and potential GMs. This week, I want to draw attention to another excellent book, one with a slightly different viewpoint, but with a number of important and actionable concepts. Bear with me during this lengthy quote...

"Micromanagement is risk free as long as you have the power to assign blame to the innocent. If your galactic incompetence ends up micromanaging a perfectly good project into swamp, blame the closest employee for not "speaking up" sooner."
--Dogbert, nee Scott Adams, Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook
Which, of course, brings me to Peter Ueberroth.

It never fails to amaze me that people who demonstrate incompetence on a massive, majestic scale actually gain credibility, either within their own organization, or in an entirely new arena, where they're given approximately the same responsibilities which they bungled so horribly in the first place. In case you missed it, former Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who had positioned himself as a responsible, proven leader running a dignified campaign in the Hunter Thompson-inspired California Gubernatorial Race, dropped out of that race on Tuesday, leaving the field wide open for the remaining "candidates."

Ueberroth had received remarkably favorable press, and had hit the talk show circuit up and down the state, during which he was lauded as the guy who brought the Olympics to the big time, and, naturally, as a dignified and successful commissioner of baseball.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I don't want to review Ueberroth's performance as the Director of the Los Angeles Olympic Committee, or whatever that group was called. I'm not qualified to do it, and I have this underlying belief that introducing corporate sponsorship to sports in 1984 was neither (a) novel, nor (b) avoidable, and that Ueberroth pretty much got credit for riding the wave, not unlike a dot-com CEO in late-1999. That's not a good start, nor is it particularly relevant or interesting. Instead, let's take a walk through the Ueberroth Epoch in Major League Baseball. Join me, won't you?

Ueberroth was elected to a five year term as Commissioner before the start of the 1984 season. He replaced the estimable Bowie Kuhn just after the end of the season in 1984, and took over a game that had a history of acrimonious labor/management relations, and two major problems, at least as far as ownership was concerned. First, the league had an image problem due to the perception that a sizable number of players had drug problems. Second, and more importantly, salaries had grown dramatically out of control as the free market for talent matured. Salaries in 1977 had averaged just over $75,000 annually, and had nearly quadrupled in six short years, to $292,000 in 1983.

Ueberroth's first major action as commissioner had nothing to do with either of the two big issues facing the game. Instead, in Spring Training 1985, Ueberroth countermanded a decision by previous Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and reinstated two players who had been banned from organized baseball. The two players? Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Kuhn had banned them from baseball because they had each accepted positions as greeters with East Coast casinos, and Kuhn believed that there should not be even the slightest hint of a connection between baseball and gambling. Ueberroth disagreed, and reinstated the popular and successful ballplayers.

Ueberroth's brightest spot as Commissioner was during the Spring of 1986, when he meted out significant penalties to a group of players who admitted drug use. The players were given a choice of penalties, which included lifetime drug testing, and two and a half weeks of community service, or a year's suspension. There has been some debate over whether or not the punishment was an effective deterrent; some believe it was effective in deterring drug use, others argue it simply prevented others from coming forward. Either way, the game's image did improve after the initial spate of bad publicity that went along with the very public drug trials and admissions of drug use.

Ueberroth had an uncanny ability to fit right in with baseball's enlightened approach to labor/management relations. In August of 1985, players struck for two days, and the net effect of the stoppage was to increase the minimum salary by $20,000, and the retention of arbitration. More famously, Ueberroth advised the owners to violate a clause of the CBA that was there because the owners insisted on it--the clause preventing collusion on the part of players or owners.

Collusion was an incredibly dumb idea, and MLB's inept, ham-handed execution of it was downright embarrassing. After the 1984 season, 57% of eligible free agents left their teams for somewhere new. After the 1985 season, with full and obvious communication going on between owners, that number dropped to 12%-- four out of 33 players moving around, with 19 of the 29 who didn't move signing only one year deals. Smooth. This is the managerial equivalent of not having enough on the ball to slip the broken plate into the middle of the stack when you're babysitting, or choosing the Martian Intervention Excuse over "My Dog Ate It" when confronted about your missing history homework.

Not surprisingly, the players filed a grievance as was their right under the CBA, and the owners had to pony up $280,000,000 in compensatory damages. To put that in perspective, that's about one-and-a-half times the combined profit for all MLB clubs combined--in 1990. (Financial World Estimate, from Doug Pappas' Business of Baseball Pages.) Naturally, the damage wasn't limited to mere financial considerations. This behavior, led and sanctioned by Ueberroth, further poisoned the relationship between owners and players, and the atmosphere of distrust remains today.

So, let's sum up the performance of the recently departed "grownup candidate" for California Governor during his tenure in the Commissioner's Office...

  • Overruled a previous commissioner's aggressive act to keep gambling and baseball starkly separate. The two players were, after all, tremendously popular, and it's not as if any other popular baseball figures could ever see this as selective enforcement of the rules, right?
  • Stepped up enforcement of baseball's anti-drug stance, in order to clean up the image of the game.
  • Advised owners to violate an agreement they had entered into, costing the owners many times the potential gains of their actions, and poisoning labor relations between the players and owners for years to come.

Ueberroth was, on balance, an ineffective and provincial commissioner. He had bad ideas, implemented them poorly, and demonstrated no understanding of the systemic nature of the problems and opportunities presented to him, nor any ability to even keep ownership from diverging and losing their direction. For all the criticism that Bud Selig gets, he's actually done a good job as Commissioner. Whether you like the policies he's pursued or not, he's been successful in pursuing them, something that can't be said about Ueberroth's fumbled regime.

What does it say about the California Gubernatorial Recall that makes the public mourn the loss of a candidate whose track record makes Bud Selig look like Caesar Augustus? Forget I asked. I have to live here.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

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