Hey Forbes Stick to Business, or the Flat Tax

Sweet Spot economics expert Larry (from IIATMS) shot me a quick email this afternoon passing along

Forbes Magazine’s recently released team valuations for Major League Baseball. Larry has written extensively about the Rays and the economic conditions MLB has created that limit the Rays’ ability to succeed. Go read his stuff at IIATMS, it’s awesome.

There is a lot of information in the Forbes valuation but, I can’t take any of it seriously for two reasons.

1. Forbes went beyond its area of expertise to expound on the Rays’ potential on-field success for this season. Apparently, parsing through Forbes’ logic, Carl Crawford was the reason the Rays won 2008-2010 and his departure means the team will lose and move. (This conclusion is ironically in a story that features a photo of Evan Longoria, who is and has been better than Crawford.)

2. Forbes couldn’t even be bothered to use the Rays’ “new” logo. I put quotes on new because the logo is more than 3 years old.

Blow-It.com

The First Hall of Famer in the club.

The Blow-It.com fraternity gets a little more prestigious this morning with the addition of Hall of Famer Tracy Ringolsby.

Ringolsby spent tens of minutes researching and writing this piece for Fox Sports.

His two most-entertaining arguments:

1. “The franchise has drawn 2 million only once — the inaugural season of 1998.”

No one showed up to see the stinkers Vince put on the field from 1998-2007! The outrage! Anyone that wouldn’t plunk down $150 to see Ryan Rupe and Jason Tyner clearly doesn’t appreciate baseball and doesn’t deserve a team.

2. “As Rays players reach free agency, they become members of the Tampa Bay alumni club. If the ticket-buying public doesn’t care, why should ownership?”

The Rays can’t afford to pay free agents because they don’t sell tickets! The only reason people don’t buy tickets is because they are ungrateful neophytes who don’t know how to spend their money! There is no other way to measure fan interest beside ticket sales! (What’s that? The Rays had great local TV ratings but attendance numbers were crushed by the economy — which was hit this market harder than others — and a bad stadium? Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! To quote the great Homer Simpson: “Facts schmacts. Facts can be used to prove anything that is even remotely true.”)

Hey. Tracy. There is a whole world outside of baseball that, amazingly, actually affects the game.

By the way, sweet cowboy hat.

Rob Neyer inducts John Romano into the club.

John Romano has the latest doomsday [ok, I agree that adjective was too strong so I dropped it. Ain’t the internet grand?] off-season scenario in today’s St. Pete Times. He writes:

 

Trust me John, this hurts me more than it hurts you.

Which is precisely how they will proceed going into next week’s winter meetings in Orlando. They will look for the perfect deal. They will try to find the perfect player on the margins. They will operate as if a pennant is still within reach.

And if that doesn’t work, they should be willing to go in a completely different direction.

The baseball winter meeting is one of those non-news events that news organizations have to make into a big deal because there isn’t anything else newsworthy going on (kind of like NFL training camp and “best shape of his career” day at the start of spring training). We have been suffering through two months of rumors and speculation and, finally, all the big players are going to be in the same hotel for a few days so, let’s make it seem like the only relevant off-season action happens in six days.

The winter meetings are a chance to sign some guys, but they aren’t the only chance. So, John, your false urgency have earned you a membership in the Blow-It.com fraternity.

I’d write more but our illustrious Sweet Spot leader Rob Neyer beat me to the punch:

Sorry, but I don’t see that happening because I think the guys who run the organization are just too bloody smart to reach Opening Day without putting a roster together that’s capable of winning 90 games. And if you can win 90, you can win — by dint of luck or acumen — 95, and get into the playoffs.

Teaching Peter Golenbock why [Big] apples are not [Tropicana] oranges.

Peter Golenbock is an important author. Just ask him and he will tell you just how important he is.

(I once shared a pre-game meal with Mr. Golenbock in media dining. The next day, when I said hello to him, he said “oh, you probably recognize me from ESPN Classic.” Seriously. I just ate with him 24 hours earlier.)

Mr. Golenbock has descended from whichever ivory tower he is currently hanging out in to compare the Rays to the Brooklyn Dodgers in the most recent issue of Creative Loafing. (Note to CL. Publishing poorly researched stories in a desperate attempt to make some waves is what landed you in Chapter 11 earlier this year. Maybe it is time for a different editorial philosophy…no?).

Golenbock’s comparison is based on the fact that Brooklyn Dodgers played in Brooklyn and Stu Sternberg grew up in Brooklyn and, well, not much else.

Attention Rays fans. Do. Not. Drink. The. Kool-Aid.

 

This is not a repeat of the Dodgers’ story for two GIGANTIC reasons:

The markets the Rays are rumored to be heading to are not Los Angeles; and
Bill Foster is not Robert Moses.
According to Golenbock the Rays have considered a move to “Charlotte, San Antonio, Sacramento, Las Vegas, or if [Sternberg] could, northern New Jersey, or in a perfect world, Brooklyn.” That, somehow, is akin to the Dodgers decision to be the first Major League Baseball team in the nation’s second-biggest city and the first Major League Baseball team in ALL OF CALIFORNIA. Sounds about the same right? I mean, Charlotte has never had a team.

Tell me why local leaders should be scared of Charlotte, San Antonio, Sacramento or Vegas? Those are all markets that are similar to the Tampa Bay. They are named as potential locations for the Rays because the Rays can’t credibly threaten to move without identifying some place they could, in theory, go. When O’Malley threatened to move, he could hold Los Angeles over New York’s head. Stu is stuck with the bustling metropolis of San Antonio or forclosure-ridden Vegas. Those are not threats that strike fear in the hearts of men.

More importantly, the struggle between Walter O’Malley and Robert Moses was a clash of the titans. O’Malley was one of baseball’s most powerful and wealthy owners. Moses, in case you have never heard of him, is one of the top-5 most powerful political leaders in the history of this country (excluding Presidents). If you don’t believe me, read Robert Caro’s 1200-page tome on Moses titled The Power Broker. O’Malley and Moses shaped the City of New York and were not accustomed to opposition. There was simply no way that either O’Malley or Moses was going to compromise simply because neither of them ever compromised. They both had to win because their entire future in the City of New York was built upon their unbending power. Plus, both O’Malley and Moses were holding guns. Moses had full authority over O’Malley’s request for a stadium and O’Malley had a real option to re-locate in Los Angeles. That deal could not happen without one man blinking. And neither man had eyelids.

Stu Sternberg is a finance-geek and Bill Foster is the mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida. Hardly a confrontation that will be remembered in the annals of history. (Why else do you think Creative Loafing is the only paper willing to print this?) Sternberg is, by his very nature, a dealmaker. Foster, has no leverage. You don’t have to be a professional mediator to see that this is a situation full of bluster that will ultimately end in compromise. Neither guy can afford to call the other’s bluff because they have no alternatives.

Peter Golenbock, however, sees beyond our obvious read on the situation. And, if you don’t see it, that only proves you aren’t as smart as Peter Golenbock. I mean, just ask him, he’ll tell you just as soon as he is finished with ESPN Classic.

*By the way, I think Peter Golenbock is the most distinguished inductee in the Blow-it.com fraternity…

Edwin and Josh: The Two Sides of BJ Upton

Among Andrew Friedman’s many talents in building the Rays, perhaps none is more important than his instinct to cut bait. I like to compare the Rays to the Indians. In 2007, Cleveland was a strike away from the World Series. Then, they promptly locked up the entire team, casting aside the possibility that luck had any role, and have been stuck in neutral.

Friedman, on the other hand, has dispensed key cogs along the Rays run. The moves were rarely popular but, have generally seemed to make the club better. All of this came rushing back to me last night when Edwin Jackson faced Josh Hamilton. (How that particular feat ever occurred in a World Series is tough for 2006 Mark to imagine).

Friedman is not perfect and, perhaps his biggest gaffe as GM was exposing Hamilton to the Rule V draft before figuring out whether he could play. Friedman ultimately dumped Jackson as well but not before he gave Jackson every opportunity to make himself a franchise cornerstone ahead of what we now know is a really really talented group of young starting pitchers.

Edwin and Josh are good reminders as the Rays face their biggest offseason decision: BJ. How do you solve a problem like Upton?

During September, I told Larry Behrendt at IIATMS that BJ Upton was the most frustrating player I have ever followed because, his flashes of brilliance make his long stretches of mediocrity seem almost spiteful. BJ can be both Josh Hamilton and Edwin Jackson in the same game. Has he arrived or is he still full of potential?

BJ is replaceable defensively and can be improved offensively from within the system. Combine that with an arbitration-fueled raise and this seems like the perfect winter for BJ to order some packing boxes.

But, the risk in moving BJ is that he turns into Josh Hamilton. What if September BJ Upton is the real thing? What if that was the tipping point we have waited for so patiently? That player, who hit .333/.432./606 with 9 steals and 5 bombs, is a potential MVP. After all BJ has put us through, I cannot stomach watching him star for someone else. Watching Hamilton do it is hard enough.

But BJ is just a career .257 hitter, who has struck out (851) more than twice as often as he has walked (385). And, despite brief flashes of power, he is just a career .416 slugger. Those are pretty mediocre numbers for a franchise building block. So, extending BJ means many more summers of sizzle without steak.

That is the Edwin Jackson route. There is a reason 78 franchises have employed Jackson in the last 6 months. He has tons of potential. He is just unable to access it. Do we really want to be BJ Upton’s only employer? Shouldn’t someone else share in this risk?

That leaves Andrew Friedman at a crossroads. He is simultaneously staring at Edwin Jackson and Josh Hamilton. Here’s hoping his advanced analysis can distinguish between the two. I am certainly glad I am not in his chair this winter.

Maybe We Should Vaporize Conventional Thinking

I was going to duck Stu Sternberg’s recent comments about the state of the organization but, several folks have asked for my opinion both in the comments and by email so, I am happy to at least think about what Stu said rather than brushing it aside.

Let me start by saying that I am not angry at Stu and I don’t think you should be either.

Stu made his comments in the clubhouse after an elimination game. He was upset just like the rest of us. When I get mad at the Rays after a frustrating loss, I say silly things too. Only, when I say them, it is just my wife that hears them. She makes fun of me (“right, because now you don’t think Zobrist can play”), I take it back, the world goes on. I think it is a natural reaction. The difference between Stu and me (in this single scenario, because there are a lot of other differences, for example, I am much better looking) is that my wife doesn’t work for a cable news network. In 2011, public figures do not have the luxury of speaking extemporaneously. So, I’ll give him some rope and chalk the tone of the comments up to his frustration with the outcome of the game.

Second — and get ready because this is a bitter pill — we shouldn’t be angry at him because, in a lot of ways, he’s right. The Rays situation is currently unworkable.

There are a lot of legitimate reasons that we are not selling out the Trop. We have discussed them all at length and none of them have to do with fan loyalty. I think this club has some of the most loyal fans in the game and I have been consistently impressed by the high level of conversation we’ve had here this summer. But, we have to be honest and at least admit that there is a problem for the Rays economically, regardless of the cause. No business can function on declining revenue and that is just what the Rays are being asked to do. Maybe Stu made his point inartfully. (I have to believe he’d like another shot at it without the emotion of a season ending loss). But his point is solid.

Think about it. If we cannot get people to the Trop because of the economy, and its location, and the infancy of the club, and there is no sign of an economic revival, or a new ballpark, or deep club loyalty in the near future, then the situation is unworkable. The problems, regardless of their cause, do not seem to have good solutions. Yes, we are unlucky that such a remarkable run of success hit right in the middle of the worst American economy of our lives. But it is not unreasonable for Stu, as a business owner, to be frustrated by that reality. More importantly, despite what you might read in the newspapers, Stu doesn’t have any moral or civic obligation to keep funding a financially unworkable endeavor.

I think the sting of all this comes from Stu’s tone. He’s a successful guy that saw what he thought to be low-hanging fruit. He saw a team in a solid market with a poor public image. Of course some investment in the ballpark, investment in the community, investment in the fans, and investment in the on-field product would automatically equal a sold-out house every night. He did his end, but didn’t get the result he expected. That’s frustrating and he lashed out.

In the end, though, I think Stu and his team missed the bigger picture. It’s not baseball that can’t work in Tampa Bay. It’s the current Major League Baseball business model that can’t work.

We love the game. But, in a sprawling community that is filled with active, outdoor-oriented people, you can’t build your revenue model on corporate sales (we have no Fortune 500 headquarters), television revenue, and ticket revenue. You can’t just take the business plan for the Yankees, Red Sox, or Cubs, cross out the names and write in your own. Those markets are fundamentally different.

I think this has been the only real failure of the Stu era. For all his creativity in marketing, public relations, and baseball operations, he has been decidedly conventional in his business operations.

For example, I read somewhere that the Rays season-ticket base is about 20%-30% lower than most other teams (I can’t find the article so these numbers are coming from memory…I’ll update them if you can find it). That shortage matches, almost exactly, the percentage of season tickets that other teams sell to big corporations in their markets. Stu had to know that Tampa is the biggest American city without a Fortune 500 headquarters when he bought the team. But no one seems to be asking why he didn’t account for that in his plan. Why is he running the team as though there is population density around the park and corporate money in the system?

If we’re going to save this thing, it’s time for someone in the Rays business office to have a Moneyball idea about business modeling, rather than the bullpen. Perhaps that idea won’t get Brad Pitt to play you in a movie, but it might allow our grandchildren to see Major League Baseball in their community.

Did I invent a time machine?

My pre-coffee brain had a small freak-out session this morning while I was reading my morning newspaper. First, I saw a story about The Tampa Big Lebowski Festival and then a story about Contraction in Major League

Ken: “I am the walrus? I am the walrus Walter?”

Baseball. Any reasonably-sleep-deprived brain would understand those occurrences to mean that my house had somehow been sucked back to the late 1990s through some cosmic wormhole. Right?

I looked and looked and, when I realized there were no references to Monica Lewinsky anywhere in the front section, I was appeased that it was still 2011.

This contraction rumor, spurred by another half-hearted column from Ken Rosenthal, is apparently spreading.

Call me a skeptic but, I think it is interesting that the two teams “rumored” to be candidates for contraction are the only two teams in Major League Baseball stuck in bad ballparks. That can’t be a coincidence, right?

Just out of curiosity, Ken, remind me again which two franchises Bud targeted for contraction last time. Minnesota and Montreal you say? How’d that work out? They both got brand new ballparks? Hmm. Interesting, no?

Doesn’t it stand to reason that Major League Baseball might have dusted off that old playbook again in the hopes that it can spur Oakland and Tampa Bay to dedicate otherwise scarce public resources to a new ballyard? What’s that? You didn’t bother to answer because you don’t want to cut off your pipeline of leaked stories? Fair enough.

Major League Baseball is the only major professional sports league not currently facing a labor showdown. Why on earth would MLB waste its opportunity to capitalize on all the hate headed toward the NFL and NBA by contracting teams? Even Bud is smart enough to know that this isn’t the time for bad press or bad stories. No one is getting contracted. Book it.

Welcome to the Blow-it.com fraternity Ken. In honor of this weekend’s Lebowski festival, I rebuke you in the immortal words of Walter Sobchak “[Ken] you are like a child that walks into the middle of a movie and wants to know what is going on.”

The Skipper Speaks

Last night I attended an event graciously hosted by Homebanc and the guest of honor was Rays’ skipper Joe Maddon who took some questions from the crowd.

Incidentally, Joe Maddon is, without a doubt, the nicest man in baseball. He spoke to everyone in the room and answered every question he was asked without hesitation, caveat, or annoyance.

Joe shared three insights that bear repeating:

1. Despite his baseball-youth, Reid Brignac is mentally ready for a full-time big league gig. Maddon told a story from Brignac’s first call-up in 2008 in New York (Baseball Reference says it was July 9, 2008). Joe came to the mound late in the game to put on a defensive play and Brignac was laughing, chewing his gum, and taking in the scene totally unfazed by the raucous Yankee Stadium crowd. In Joe’s mind, that showed the Brignac believed he was ready and that confidence will translate into success in 2010.

2. Joe can’t decide whether to hit Manny behind Longo, to provide protection, or in front of Longo, because Manny’s OPS is second in all of baseball to Pujols.

3. LENIGAN — THIS ONE’S FOR YOU. Matt Joyce will ultimately be an everyday outfielder but, not on opening day. Maddon intends to ease him in against LHP by using him against reverse-split lefties (lefties that are harder on right-handed hitters than they are on left-handed hitters). In Maddon’s view, reverse-split lefties (particularly lefties that use a high-arm angle and rely heavily on a cutter — like Jon Lester, who Maddon specifically identified) give Joyce the opportunity to transfer his success against righties and Maddon hopes that success against reverse-split lefties will ultimately give Joyce confidence against more traditional lefties.

It’s just business.

I swear that I intended for yesterday’s post on attendance to be my last word on the issue so that this space could re-focus itself on the ballclub.

But, this story just won’t die, thanks in part to David Price and Evan Longoria.

I worked up quite an angry sweat on the treadmill this morning while reading the opinions of Price and Longo. I was prepared to point out the ignorance of athletes demanding blind loyalty from fans without pledging their loyalty to the fans in return. I was even prepared to promise to buy season tickets just as soon as Price and Longo signed lifetime contracts with the Rays whose salary was gauged to economic conditions and not on-field performance.

But, the more I thought about it, the more my anger abated. Longoria and Price are children. Not children in age (although they are both young) but children in life experience. They have been pampered through an athlete-centric culture that has protected them from the realities of the outside world, in particular the business world.

This is not a critique of athlete-worship. I am merely pointing out that we insulate our athletes so they keep the bright-eyed innocence of children. All they have to think about is the game. That is part of the reason we turn to sports for entertainment. It is an escape from reality.

That escape, however, can rear its ugly head when the folks living inside the bubble attempt to analyze things outside the white lines. (See Schilling, Curt).

The fact of the matter is, neither Longoria nor Price have any reason to know the reality of sports business. They cannot comprehend that fans won’t come to the yard to see them play because they only equate on-field performance with attendance. I would guess that neither Longoria nor Price has bought a ticket to anything. For that matter, I’d bet that neither Longoria nor Price has ever sold anything.

Their complaints, of course, are naive. It is the equivalent of a restaurant complaining that customers are not filling tables even though the cook has been making great food. Eating out, like going to the ballgame, is not a necessity. Companies in the entertainment world need to find the right incentives to convince consumers to spend money they do not otherwise have to spend. The Rays are currently failing at this.

Instead of blaming management for poor business strategy, or looking to factors outside anyone’s control — like the economy, the children in the clubhouse blame the customers. That is understandable. Price, Longoria, and the rest of the Rays derive a significant portion of their own self-worth from the blind adoration of fans. Of course it feels personal to them. Someone needs to take them aside and explain, it’s not personal, it’s just business.

I’m so Excited

The Sweet Spot is running its first full Spring Training preview item today that will include a short paragraph on the player each blogger is most excited to see in 2012. Do you see my dilemma? How can you possibly pick just one player on this roster to be excited about?

I ultimately went with Joe because my non-sexual crush on him burst into an all out affair this week after he signed his extension and held one of the greatest open interviews in the history of sports yesterday on 620 WDAE. (During the interview I emailed my former boss the following “You already know this, but Joe’s a stud.”) If I write about Joe again, this blog is going to turn into his CV so, I’ll save the remaining thoughts I have about the skipper for another day.

I grappled with this decision for several days before writing the blurb I ultimately used. (I found out hours later about this ridiculous DJ Kitty mascot and immediately reconsidered making the person in charge of hiring and firing in the marketing department the player I was most excited to watch).

Here are the options I am excited about that were left on the proverbial cutting room floor:

  • Sean Rodriguez: I love this guy. Love him. There is something about him that gives you that “old ballplayer vibe.” I know, I know, that is not scientific in the least but, I sense it about SRod (He REALLY REALLY needs a better nickname too). Maybe it’s because he grew up in the game. Maybe it’s because he looks like he wears eye black to bed. But he just reeks of a guy that is going to play this game for 25 years. So, I am excited to see if this is the year he puts it together.
  • Matt Joyce: Sure we added Luke Scott and Carlos Pena and Jeff Keppinger. Sure we have an entire season of Desmond Jennings. Sure BJ will be in a contract year. None of that will matter for the Rays offense if Matt Joyce backslides. Call me an optimist, but I don’t think he will. I think Joe has a good book on Joyce and will continue to use him in situations where he can succeed. Besides, looking through our lineup, Matt is going to get a ton of good pitches.
  • Kyle Farnsworth: He was solid last year. And, if memory serves, had been solid the year before in Kansas City. So, maybe my unease isn’t justified. But who can forget the gas can that used his name and pitched for the Yankees and Cubs? If he reverts to that Farnsworth, we are going to have big matchup problems in the late innings.

Who’d I miss? (Besides the obvious. I mean, we’re all excited to see Evan Longoria walk from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. We’re all excited to see Matt Moore spin that breaking ball up there. We’re all excited to see BJ go back on a ball over his head.)