April 27, 2000
AL Central Notebook
Not too long ago, a panel of "baseball experts" were interviewed on WBEZ, Chicago's National Public Radio affiliate. All three sang the praises of what stadiums "do" that makes some teams more profitable than others. Bringing up Jacobs Field, they couldn't help but enthuse about how much money the mallpark makes for the Indians, which in turn makes them so much more competitive. The experts also talked about how innovative in-game entertainment, like the gimmicks Mike Veeck used to think up for the Devil Rays, was drawing folks into the ballpark.
It's easy to separate truth from this kind of Baby Boomer schmaltz about fuzzy visions of progress, defined as "so much different from when I was a kid at the ballpark." Veeck's oft-heralded gimmicks saw more people stay away from Tropicana than in the D-Rays' inaugural Veeck-less season. Floridians wisely anticipated a lousy team, and despite fixation on how much money the Rays spend to field a bad team, baseball is still about putting winning teams on the field, not expensive ones. The minor-league model of drawing fans with gimmicks might work when you're talking about people who are deciding whether to shell out a couple of bucks for a minor-league game, but at the major-league level, season-ticket holders want quality baseball for their money, not another Beanie Baby.
With lonely exceptions like the Big Green Machine of the 1970s, it's winning teams that draw fans. One caller to the panel of experts even dared say so, pointing out that the Minnesota Twins drew more than three million fans when they were good, and that even the Expos drew well when they were good. This only inspired the derisive expert snort that the Twins wouldn't make money these days drawing three million fans, because they wouldn't have a new stadium.
The notion that stadia have some sort of active power, that they fly in from outer space and land like a leftover special effect of Independence Day to swear allegiance and bestow untold riches on some happy, lucky owner is really starting to wear thin. As an organization, the Indians weren't stumbling around from one losing season to the next when all of a sudden a stadium came out of the blue and solved all their problems. Jacobs Field and the money it generates was the product of an organization that went on a mission of self-improvement on a strategic level.
The Jacobs brothers wooed local politicians while putting John Hart in charge of turning baseball operations around. The player development program that turned out Manny Ramirez and Bartolo Colon and Jim Thome wasn't dependent on Jacobs Field, it was dependent on building a good organization, which happened before the Tribe ever saw the new park. Now the Indians get to reap the financial reward of putting a good team on the field at a time when there are plenty of buyers for luxury boxes in a stadium that the team got taxpayers to build for them. But the money will only keep flowing as long as they field a good team that people will pay to see, as the two other mallparks in the American League Central illustrate.
The local flavor the panel of experts brought to the table really highlights a big blind spot: Comiskey II. In every sense of the word, the new Comiskey is a mallpark, laden with amenities, tasty concessions and more in-game entertainment than any sane human being--or hyperactive nine year-old--could sit through. By the standards of the day, attendance is lousy. It was pretty good early on, between the novelty of the thing and a solid team, but several years of a mediocre baseball, not to mention ticket prices disconnected from the laws of supply and demand, have depressed attendance.
Dozens of excuses are offered for why attendance is poor, why Comiskey II is kept from being the money-machine mallpark that is supposed to be its birthright. The most infamous is the steep upper deck that provides fans a better view of a hooting Jumbotron and the all-important mid-inning cartoons than the distant, diminutive action on the field. Unfortunately, demand for any seats in any section is far from high enough to make the upper deck an issue, unless you resent paying top dollar for seats with lousy sight lines in the over-microphoned lower deck.
Plenty of people complain about the neighborhood, but Bridgeport isn't a bad one by any stretch, and the projects that every minivan-driving family of four dreads are on the other side of the highway. In years gone by, players have whined that Sox fans aren't loyal, a theme already taken up this year by Jim Parque in an unfortunate rant. If anyone's ever seen a team draw fans by insulting them, I'd love to hear about it. Fortunately for the Sox, they quickly changed their tune, with some players begging fans to show up.
The newest mallpark in the division is in Detroit, and the happy few who have been to Comerica Park have said the appropriately nice things that get said about brand-new stadia before people get a sense of whether or not they really like it. And while it's still early, it appears that nobody is going to see the Tigers, new "money-making" stadium or not. For this, the Tigers reap the happy rewards of giving Randy Smith a job, which has in turn guaranteed that a poorly-run organization will field a bad team. Years after Smith is gone, somebody will make the Tigers a winning team and the fans will come, and whether or not he still owns the team, Mike Ilitch will wonder where all those people were in 2000.
Good organizations are the ones that have been placing baseball operations within strategic-level organizational planning so they can turn into outrageously lucrative entertainment machines. The Braves do it, and so do the Indians and the Yankees. Some teams seem to have some of the ingredients: maybe the Red Sox, maybe the Astros. None of those teams have somebody like Randy Smith running them into the ground, which is what's really important: as successful as several teams have been in extorting stadia from their local communities, in the end, the quality of the team is going to drive attendance: not a mallpark, and certainly not in-game entertainment.
This lesson is especially important for the two teams in the AL Central playing in "vintage" stadia (defined by using the criterion of whether or not it's older than the oldest can of food gathering dust in the back of my pantry). Between new old Royals owner David Glass and old old Twins owner Carl Pohlad, the basic mission for both the Royals and the Twins is the same: hire good executives to set up a productive player development system, keep the owner in the company of local politicos and out of the papers, and for God's sake, don't sign Mark Davis.
Last on the list should be building their own mallparks, because 90-loss teams have no more pull in the real world than they do on a baseball diamond.