Monday, July 19, 2010

If George Steinbrenner had owned the Mets

Ever since George Steinbrenner passed away, Squawker Lisa has been goading me into admitting that I wish that he had owned the Mets. And over the last few days, I've come close to going over to the dark side. Then I thought about the events of 20 years ago.

We are coming up on the 20th anniversary of when Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball for the second time. On July 30, 1990, Commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner for life for giving gambler Howie Spira $40,000 to gather dirt on one of his star players, Dave Winfield. (The ban was lifted in 1993.)

It's bad enough that Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball not once, but twice, for serious misdeeds that would taint anyone's reputation. But the specific part of the anniversary I am remembering is the reaction of fans at Yankee Stadium when they learned of the Steinbrenner ban.

They cheered.

At the time, Steinbrenner was not generally seen as a winner, but as a meddling owner whose bizarre methods were PREVENTING his team from winning.

Many of the tributes to Steinbrenner over the last few days have been along the lines of, sure he could be a difficult person, but all he wanted to do was win, and he won more than anyone.

But in 1990, the Mets had just as many titles as the Yankees over the previous two decades or so - two. Steinbrenner's Yankees had won the town away from the Mets in the mid-to-late '70s, but the Mets had won it back in the mid-eighties.

Here are some other stats from 1990:

  • The Mets won 91 games and finished second. It was the seventh straight year the Mets finished first or second in the NL East. The Yankees won 67 games, finishing seventh and last in the AL East.
  • The Mets drew 2,732,745, while the Yankees' attendance was 2,006,436.
  • The Mets even had a higher payroll than the Yankees, $21,922,834 to $21,312,318.

(all numbers from

So in 1990, Steinbrenner was seen by many Yankee fans as someone who had won in the past, but was no longer a winner. Kind of like how Squawker Lisa sees Joe Torre today.

I watched Ken Burns' "Baseball" a few months ago, and it was strange to see how this documentary, which came out in 1994, dismissed Steinbrenner as someone who had ruined the Yankees.

Obviously, the Yankees' and Mets' fortunes diverged dramatically after 1990. And while the Yankee turnaround did not begin until after Steinbrenner was temporarily out of the picture, he was the active owner for all subsequent titles except for 2009.

But too many of the tributes to Steinbrenner have justified the earlier, win-at-all-costs-no-matter-much-of-a-jerk-I-am Boss with the overall record, when most of the titles came after Steinbrenner had mellowed at least somewhat. Steinbrenner's baseball people had started putting the pieces together for another dynasty. And once he returned, he held on to those pieces.

By 2004, Yankee fans were chanting, "We love George." Of course they did, after four titles and six World Series in the previous eight years. Winning changes everything. But Steinbrenner had also changed.

The closest I ever came to stop rooting for one of my teams because of a specific person was when the Knicks got Latrell Sprewell. Then Sprewell didn't choke anyone while in New York and the Knicks went to the finals in 1999, and I was referring to him as Spree.

The Isiah Thomas years were kind of like the M. Donald Grant years of the late '70s. You held your nose and waited for them to pass.

James Dolan is willing to spend crazy amounts of money to field winning teams. But he's failed miserably and is derided as a buffoon.

Imagine if LeBron James had told Jim Gray, "I'm taking my talents to Broadway." The New York media would be hailing LeBron as a winner who was willing to accept the challenge of the biggest stage. And Dolan would be cast in a much different light, as an owner willing to do whatever it takes to win.

Most people attacking LeBron and the Miami Heat would be ecstatic if James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were on their team.

So I'm not going to say that I would never have rooted for the Mets if Steinbrenner had owned the team. I'm not a big Woody Johnson fan, and while I do like Rex Ryan, I wish he would tone it down a little bit, but as a frustrated Jet fan, I'm more excited about the team than I have been in years, and it doesn't bother me that in other cities, they are becoming a team to hate.

Just as I couldn't care less that other cities didn't like the 1986 Mets.

Instead of wishing that Steinbrenner had owned the Mets, I wish that the Mets always had owners who put winning first. Even if the Yankees have more money, the Mets have plenty of money themselves, and the same opportunities in the New York market.

But even in 2006, when the team seemed headed to the World Series, the Mets were reluctant at first to eat Kaz Matsui's contract. While the Mets may need Luis Castillo in the short term, it would be great if they were willing to just let him go in the offseason if they came up with a better alternative.

I'm not convinced that the Mets should eat Oliver Perez' contract, since anyone with Scott Boras as an agent could be trying to force his way out of town. Imagine if Ollie, still young and with a healthy arm, latched on with Dave Duncan and the Cardinals, or even the Yankees, and reached his great potential, even if briefly.

What's really annoying is hearing how the Mets may be willing to take on payroll now, when they were unwilling to pick up that starting pitcher that everyone agreed they needed in the offseason.

I'm still angry over how the Mets got rid of Billy Wagner to save a few million dollars, giving up the chance to get two first-round draft choices. Chris Carter is far from an equivalent return. Those draft choices went to Boston instead. Boston is a team that is willing to spend to develop a farm system. The Red Sox have been decimated by injuries this season, but unlike the 2009 Mets, they have had enough pieces in their system to continue to contend.

Unlike the Mets, the Red Sox are willing to go over slot to sign draft picks. Even when the Mets draft a Boras client first as they did this year, they generally cut costs with the rest of the draft. If there is anything that would make me wish that someone like Steinbrenner owned the Mets, it's this big-market team being unwilling to go over slot.

But in the end, winning forgives everything. There have been times over the last few years when I thought that Omar Minaya, Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel knew what they were doing. And I praised ownership for doing what it takes to win.

So I hope it's not too hypocritical of me to say that, while I'm glad that Steinbrenner did not own the Mets, I would have been happy with his results over the last 37 years.


Jonmouk71 said...

Squawker Jon like most Met fans don't wish that Steinbrenner owned their team.....but they do wish that Steinbrenner had been successful in buying the Indians in 1971. The Yankees would have been stuck with the CBS-Mike Burke-Ralph Houk troika with just enough money for the Curt Blefary-John Callison-Jim Ray Harts of the world - good enough for 5th place in the AL East. In this Met fan fantasy world, Donald Grant wouldn't have traded The Franchise for five stiffs either.

Uncle Mike said...

It is amazing just how different New York baseball was 20 years ago. It's also, to again use a word Met fans like, amazing to see just how far back a Met fan has to go to make it true that the Mets were the superior team -- or even, to use a word common to college sports, the superior program.

One thing is for sure: If George Steinbrenner had owned the New York Mets, he would not have allowed M. Donald Grant to be so penurious. Maybe George would have played Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan -- and their wives -- off each other, but he wouldn't have put Grant in the position do that simply to save a few thousand bucks. Grant would have been fired as a man of little imagination.

Not that Seaver would have been much help to the Mets in the years he was in Cincinnati, as I pointed out in a previous post on my own blog.

In fact, I've started another blog, a what-if site called Otherwise Sports, and did this piece on what would have happened if Vernon Stouffer hadn't spent too much time in his own frozen-foods factory, freezing his brain, and denying George the right to buy his hometown team:

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