Yes, the owner.
Yes, that owner. David Glass. The Wal-Mart guy. The cheapskate, meddling, know-nothing owner with the equally meddlesome son.
Or should I say, the owner who used to be a cheapskate, who used to be meddling, who used to know nothing, and who used to let his son interfere with baseball operations.
Two months ago, the Detroit Tigers made the boldest move of the offseason, trading their top two prospects (Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin) and four other players to the Florida Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The Tigers were drenched with universal praise, and those plaudits landed first on their owner, Mike Ilitch, for entrusting general manager Dave Dombrowski to make such a bold deal, and for signing off on the increased payroll that the deal required. The sentiment was expressed by many writers that Ilitch was one of the best owners in baseball.
If you look at the events of just the last two years, you’d be hard-pressed to argue. Only six weeks before the Tigers had traded two other prospects to land Edgar Renteria. The Tigers were able to draft Maybin and Miller in the first place because they were willing to spend significantly over slot (and risk the ire of the Commissioner’s office) to sign them. The Tigers also left a tack on Bud Selig’s chair by using the 26th pick in the 2007 draft on the consensus #2 player available, Rick Porcello, and acceding to his demand for $7 million.
The Tigers went to the World Series in 2006, they finished just out of the playoffs in 2007, they have a fearsome lineup, a pair of lightning arms in the rotation in Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, a productive farm system (albeit one that’s been mined clear of prospects this winter), one of the most-respected GMs in the game, and an owner whose main contributions to his team are to let his people do their jobs and open his checkbook when they ask him to.
Two years ago, if you had suggested that Mike Ilitch was one of the game’s best owners, you would have been either laughed out of the room, beaten to a pulp, or incarcerated.
Mike Ilitch purchased the Detroit Tigers from fellow pizza baron Tom Monaghan at the end of the 1992 season. Let’s take a look at how the Tigers fared over the next 13 years, shall we?
In 1993, the Tigers had their last gasp with an offense filled with old guys that stood at the plate waiting for either a pitch they could drive, or ball four. Tony Phillips. Mickey Tettleton. Cecil Fielder. Rob Deer. Kirk Gibson. Throw in the 2030 Veterans Committee Hall of Famers, Trammell and Whitaker, and the young Travis Fryman (who, at the end of that season, looked like a good Hall of Fame bet himself), and you had an offense that was slow, boring, and scored runs by the bushel. A weak pitching staff held them down to 85 wins, but they drew 765 walks and scored 899 runs, both totals the most by any team in 40 years. (This really doesn’t have anything to do with my point; I just loved that team, and felt compelled to mention them.)
In 1994, they finished under .500 at 53-62. In 1995, they finished 60-84, and Mike Moore went 5-15 with a 7.53 ERA. The worst was yet to come. Sparky
In 1996, the Tigers lost 109 games, the most in baseball in 17 years, and the most by a non-expansion team since 1952. The team gave up 1103 runs, the most in American League history. Todd Van Poppel joined the team in August and allowed 51 runs in 36 innings for the Tigers, which I only bring up because two of those starts came against the Royals. In the first one, he allowed three runs in six innings. In the next, he threw a complete-game shutout. Yeah, the Royals were pretty bad then as well.
The team improved the next year all the way to 79-83, and the Tigers were convinced the worst was over, they were a team on their way up, next stop was first place. Then they lost 97 games in 1998, and at the end of the year traded Luis Gonzalez to
Then things got really bad. Justin Thompson got hurt. The farm system dried up. They traded six guys to the Texas Rangers for Juan Gonzalez (and our good buddy Gregg Zaun, who was traded to KC without ever playing for the Tigers). They then offered Gonzalez a 7-year, $140 million contract that Gonzalez, showing the wisdom for which he would later earn great acclaim, turned down.
The Tigers bounced back to 79-83 again in 2000, then amazingly saw their record drop by at least 10 games for each of the next three years. They lost 96 games in 2001, 106 games in 2002, and 119 games in 2003, the most losses in American League history. Royals fans remember 2003 fondly as the year the Royals were in first place for four months and finished over .500 for the only time in the last 12 years. We couldn’t have done it without the Tigers: KC went 14-5 against
And you thought David Glass had a bad resume?
At the end of the 2003 season, Mike Ilitch had a case for being on the short list of the worst baseball owners of all time, not the best. But a funny thing happened: he changed. He had already changed, in fact. He stopped being cheap – he had seen how the money he spent on his beloved Red Wings came back to him with interest. He stopped meddling in baseball decisions, and he had hired one of the best baseball men in the business, Dave Dombrowski, to run his team.
What happened next I’ve documented here. Suffice it to say, the Tigers have since made one of the most impressive franchise turnarounds in the game’s history.
David Glass, in the spring of 2005 – about the time he had announced that Allard Baird’s time as GM was over but before he remembered to actually fire him – was regarded much the way Mike Ilitch was a few years before. And like Ilitch, Glass finally figured out (or had it drilled into his head by the near-riot in his team's fan base) that the way to run a successful baseball team is the same way you run a successful business in other pursuits: hire the right people, let them do their jobs, stay out of their way.
Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski. Glass hired Dayton Moore.
Dombrowski rebuilt the franchise from its foundation, made some incredibly shrewd trades, was aggressive in free agency, and built the team into a perennial contender. Ilitch allowed him to do so by staying out of the sports columns, and authorizing a substantial increase in both payroll and the scouting budget.
It’s too early to say if
Owners, like players, have good years and bad years. Glass’s friend Drayton McLane was a terrible owner when he first purchased the Houston Astros – he spent big money on Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell almost immediately, then after a year wanted to release them before his baseball people reportedly told him that, sir, uh, actually those long-term contracts are guaranteed.
Then McLane backed off, stayed out of his people’s way, let them spend his money, and the Biggio/Bagwell/Berkman/Oswalt Astros went to six playoffs and a World Series in nine years. Now McLane is back to being Mr. Cheapo, the Commissioner’s pet, who refuses to spend money in the draft or internationally, while he simultaneously refuses to believe that his team needs to rebuild, scapegoating a fine GM (Tim Purpura) and hamstringing new GM Ed Wade. Predictably the Astros appear to be at the start of a very dark period – they may well have the worst record in baseball by 2009 or 2010.
Glass could go bad as quickly as he went good. But for now, I hope all Royals fans support me in wishing the new Glass all the best. Let’s hope that he has a splendid view of the game from the owner’s box. Just so long as he stays out of the general manager’s box.