Mr. Ricketts, Stay Out of the Clubhouse

By Chris Rewers on Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The latest issue of Sports Illustrated arrived in the mailbox Wednesday and it included a short story about Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts.

"C'Mon Cubbies, Do the Math" by L. Jon Wertheim appears in the magazine's Scorecard section.

Much of the piece is a tired rehash of many of the Ricketts stories that have been told far too many times.

To wit:

* Ricketts hates the term "lovable losers."

* He fell in love with the Cubs while attending grad school at the University of Chicago in the 1980s.

* He met his wife, Cecilia, in the Wrigley Field centerfield bleachers (sigh!).

* He hired a nutrition consultant and banned junk food from clubhouse spreads.

The more interesting part of the story was the description of Ricketts as a math geek. He is described by Wertheim as a "data-driven 'quant guy'" who constantly is looking for inefficiencies and uses terms like "regression models" and "delta analysis."

His obsession with mathematical analysis, however, is not confined to the business end of the operation at Clark and Addison. He also thinks about game theory and has discussed his thoughts with Lou Piniella.

"Talk to Tom and you can tell he's real, you know, mathematical," Piniella, again master of the obvious, said.

I suppose Ricketts likens himself to a Billy Beane-type. But Beane, the Oakland Athletics general manager, played in the majors. And while Beane doesn't put total stock in what his scouts have to say, Moneyball author Michael Lewis explains that he does utilize input from his scouting system to complement his statistical analysis. Beane, despite his math geek traits, is still a baseball guy at heart.

Owners should leave baseball decisions to their baseball operations subordinates. When they don't, it can lead to disastrous results.

Exhibit A: White Sox owner Bill Veeck was in declining health after his team captured the 1959 American League pennant. He was desperate for another pennant to help drive up the value of the franchise and pressured his general manager, Hank Greenberg, to "win now."

Greenberg, under pressure from the edict, completely depleted a rich farm system by trading away prospects like Norm Cash, John Romano, Earl Battey, Don Mincher, and Johnny Callison for more experienced players in late 1959 and early 1960. The young talent flourished throughout the major leagues in the 1960s while the players who came in return - Minnie Minoso, Gene Freese, and Roy Sievers - were all in decline.

The trades triggered a prolonged White Sox malaise that caused a sharp drop in attendance and almost greased the skids for a franchise shift to Milwaukee in 1969 or Seattle in 1976.

Exhibits B and C: George Steinbrenner purchased the New York Yankees and Ted Turner bought the Atlanta Braves in the 1970s. Both were egomaniacs and loved the spotlight. They treated their teams as a child would treat a toy and constantly meddled in personnel decisions. Turner went as far as to make himself his team's manager for a day. Steinbrenner had some initial success with three pennants and a pair of world championships in his first six years of ownership. But until the 1990s, the operations of Steinbrenner and Turner were circuses.

Both owners assumed lower profiles in the 90s and let their baseball people do their thing. Their teams came to dominate the decade.

Exhibit D: The meddling of Tribune Company executive vice president John Madigan into baseball matters was one of the causes of Dallas Green's resignation as club president-general manager on Oct. 30, 1987.

Madigan, without a general manager, attended that fall's MLB GM meetings himself. It was like a baseball executive fantasy camp for the bean counter.

Jim Frey was hired as the new general manager later that offseason and was placed under the supervision of another meddling Trib exec, Don Grenesko. Green's departure could not have come at a worse time.

Green was hired in 1981 by the Trib because of the scouting and player development skills he exhibited in the Philadelphia Phillies organization in the 1970s. His 1984 NL East champion Cubs team was a veteran stopgap for an organization that produced the likes of Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer, Mark Grace, Rafael Palmeiro, Shawon Dunston, Dave Martinez, Jerome Walton, Dwight Smith, Joe Girardi, Damon Berryhill, and Les Lancaster later in the decade.

When Green departed, the organization was just starting to bear fruit. His farm system was largely responsible for the 1989 NL East title. And after Green's departure, that bumper crop was badly mismanaged. Frey and later his succesor, Larry Himes, cast off everybody but Grace with little to show in return.

And the once-fertile farm system experienced a drought as the Cubs drafted poorly throughout the Frey and Himes regimes.

So Mr. Ricketts, I beg you to please limit your statistical analysis to revenue streams, ballpark operations, etc. Let Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella handle the baseball side of the operation.

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