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The DeWitt Reality

Happy New Year! And welcome to another ambitious, hopeful, and wildly speculative season of baseball blogging at your friendly neighborhood Cards ‘N Stuff. The 2009 season is already shaping up to be…well…interesting. Tony La Russa is in the final year of his contract, Luddy et al are due big paydays (assuming good ’09 campaigns), and both Adam Kennedy and Joel Pineiro are scheduled for departure (not that I hate the guys, but I don’t think anyone will weep over their absence). What am I most excited about, though? Well…aside from the hopeful return of Carp (which, I’m pretty sure is everyone’s favorite ’09 tidbit)…I’m more than a bit intrigued by the pending outfield situation. Between those who are here, those who are recovering, and those who are yet to come, the Cardinals’ outfield situation is incredibly top-heavy. Watching it shake down should be fun and – at times – a little heartbreaking (I love Schu, but we all know he’s trade bait). And who isn’t excited about the all but assured debut of Colby “Razzle Dazzle” Rasmus???? Bring it on, 2009!!

But…before the fresh new baseball season kicks off, it just wouldn’t be Cardinals baseball without a bit of ownership criticism. So, I hereby officially kickoff the 2009 Cards ‘N Stuff blogging season with this brief look at the tension between St. Louis Cardinals fans and the organization’s primary owner, Bill DeWitt (not so fondly referred to as “DeWallett”).

Recently, Bill DeWitt spoke out about what he perceives as unfair criticism aimed at his handling of the Cardinals’ payroll (http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/sports/columnists.nsf/berniemiklasz/story/1DA31EA834F08E848625753300141B90?OpenDocument). Cards fans are sick and tired of the front office’s annual, monthly, and weekly suggestions that payroll will increase (or at least benefit from increased flexibility). We grow weary of the “low hanging fruit” approach by the front office (really…what the hell was Mo thinkin’ using THAT catch phrase in this fan climate???). And it sounds like ol’ Billy has finally grown weary of…well…us and all our pesky opinions.  But what’s the real problem, here? Where’s the disconnect between the fans and ownership? Are we doomed to curse one another in our sleep for all baseball eternity??? Well…you’re on your own with the last one, but I might be able to help with the first two…

What part of “business investment” do we not understand?
I believe part of the problem is a disconnect in priorities. As Cardinals fans, all we want is a successful team we can be proud of each year. Sure, we want the team to make money, but only so far as it directly contributes to priority number one. If you said to us, “The Cardinals are going to win the World Series, but they’ll go bankrupt doing it and have to start from scratch the following year,” most of us – in our darkest, most secret moments of Yankee envy – would say, “Welcome to my humble abode, Mr. Sabathia!” DeWitt, on the other hand, sees things differently.

If you ask Bill DeWitt what’s more important – winning a World Series or making a profit – his answer would be “Show me the money!” Understand this…that HAS to be his answer. He represents a group of investors that demand that approach. I’m not excusing it, mind you…but we must understand his position. Bill DeWitt is not – cannot be – a fan first and an owner second. He must be an owner first and a fan second – if there’s room in the budget. If he runs the St. Louis Cardinals like you and I do our fantasy football teams (go for broke ’cause we’re redraftin’ next year anyways!), his investment group would either pull out or slap him around like little Johnny in the woodshed. Expecting him to act and think like a rabid fan is ludicrous. It can’t happen. But let’s not give the man a free pass, either…

It’s baseball – not Wall Street, Mr. DeWitt!
One thing I sincerely believe is that baseball does not exist to make anyone money. It is a game – a glorious game – played by children for fun. It should, however, make money for one purpose and one purpose alone – to support itself. In its most perfect form, Major League Baseball would be a non-profit organization. It’s purpose would be to bring joy to the millions of fans around the world and provide a place for the game’s best to come together and compete for the sheer joy of playing their favorite childhood game. Does that mean baseball would not have the huge T.V. contracts, the multi-million dollar salaries, or the $8 beer with a mass-produced $6 hot dog? Sadly, no…because those things have become necessary…for the most part. Let me digress for a moment…

Baseball is not the only game on the block. I remember having a discussion with my older brother about the former (and long gone) success of our high school football team. Why was it once so great but now so fallen? His answer was simple. “Because your best athletes are walkin’ the halls.” For the most part, he was right. High School Football in the 90’s was nothing like High School Football of yester-year. Students didn’t care anymore. The status and excitement historically attached to a football player had become easily transferableto any other “fad” sport like basketball or soccer – if a sport was necessary at all! Youth soccer initiatives now recruited early as part of a nation-wide program to grow soccer in America. Michael Jordan ushered in a new “be like Mike” era in American basketball. And more and more mothers grew weary of “that horribly barbaric sport” known as football. The result – a much smaller pool of talent to choose from and a decrease in the overall talent level on the field.

What does this have to do with the money-making side of baseball? Everything. Without the draw of big salaries, baseball simply wouldn’t have the ability to draw top-notch talent away from other sports willing to pay the big bucks. Baseball is not the only game in town. It must continuously sweeten the pot or many of the best athletes in American culture will choose different paths. Longer careers, bigger paychecks, and better overall health – those are the advantages baseball has over other sports. Reduce the paychecks, and you’re left with even longer careers that adversely affect the “better overall health” benefit.

What does all of THIS have to do with DeWitt and the Cardinals? It’s simple, really. As fans, we understand the money-making side of baseball is essential…but at what point does the method become the purpose? All of the money-making moves, budgetary restraints, and increased ticket prices have a higher purpose…building a better baseball team. You save money in order to spend it on the team in another way or at another time. Can you make a little money on the side? Sure! Otherwise, what motivation does a millionaire have to spend his hard-earned money on a children’s game? But what is threatening to happen here – what may have already happened – is the money the Cardinals are making and saving is being pocketed by DeWitt and the investors. DeWitt said the Cardinals are a unique organization due to their financial obligations related to a mostly self-financed operation (stadium, etc.). True…but they are also unique in that the Cardinals are run by an investment group instead of an individual (or public – like the Green Bay Packers) owner.

You know what the real benefit of George Steinbrenner was for the Yankees? The fact that all the Yankee money started and stopped with him. He didn’t have to satisfy a group of investors or hit a certain profitability mark. He was interested in one thing and one thing only – winning championships. Any money the Yankees made was fair game for reinvestment in the ball club. It wasn’t pocketed, marked as profit, or held back for possible future needs…it was risked, put on the line, spent in wildly hopeful and passionate obsession with a game.

Is that the way to run a business? Hell no…but it is the way to run a baseball team. Mr. DeWitt has forgotten he runs a baseball team that happens to be a business…not the other way around. As fans, we’ve put up with the increase in ticket sales, the ungodly price of beer/food, and the gradually decreasing availability of prime tickets. We’ve put up with it to the tune of consistent and repetitive record-breaking attendance!!! And all despite the fact that the average cost of attending a Cardinals game has dramatically increased. Now we want to see a return on OUR investment…and the only return we are interested in comes on the field.

Look…as fans, we know baseball has to make money…but we want it to make money for the greater purpose of producing a winning product on the field…not so it can line the pockets of some fat-cat investors. And, believe it or not, we DO understand that a good owner has to financially prepare for the future survival and prosperity of his team. We got that. Really. But the “here and now” – the reality of baseball economics – is not going away.

How do we solve the disconnect?
This is really pretty simple. The fans view the owner as a means to an end. He provides the money and financial management so the team can win. Owners view fans as a means as well. They provide the money and support so he – and his investors – can make a profit. That’s perfectly okay. Here’s the problem – when the owner becomes too public and too involved in baseball operations, the fans get angry.

Mr. DeWitt…just because we understand the reality of baseball economics doesn’t mean we like talking about it every damn day. Go away!!! In a perfect baseball world, I would barely know your name…and I would sure as hell never know what you looked like. You are Uncle Eddie that no one in the family likes to talk about. You’re the dark secret in the attic. Give us your money and go away…and in return, we’ll do the same and love you for it.

A final word – Mr. Dewitt, you MUST let your General Manager be a General Manager. Give him a budget, add to that a “flex” budget (for those high priced players with BIG on-field impact), and then step away and hold him accountable for his win/loss record. I never, never, ever want to hear a report about how Johnny Mo has to run a decision by you for financial approval after the budget has been finalized. Let him run your team. Let him go get the players he thinks he needs, and GET OUT OF THE WAY! Remove yourself from the process.

You are the owner…be the owner. Let your GM be the GM. And in the meantime, all of us will cease our role as auditors and revert to simply being fans again.

That’s all for today, groupies. I look forward to sharing a fresh, new season of Cardinals baseball with you.

GO CARDS!!!!

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