Tom Ricketts, Chairman of the Chicago Cubs, greets fans before the Opening Day game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Owning a major league baseball team can be fun. But taking over a losing franchise presents its own set of challenges. New owners need to tread carefully.
If you don't live in the San Francisco Bay Area, or follow the NBA, or read about sports on the internet (say what?), you might have missed the goings-on Monday night during halftime of the Minnesota Timberwolves-Golden State Warriors game at Oracle Arena.
The Warriors were retiring the number worn by Chris Mullin, the small forward-shooting guard who was the "M" in the "Run-T.M.C." offense that led the Warriors to five playoff appearances between 1987 and 1994. During the ceremony, Mullin gave a nice speech and the crowd showered him with thunderous applause. Then Warriors owner Joe Lacob took the microphone and this happened:
Boos. Loud and merciless boos. On a night dedicated to celebrating one of the best and most beloved Warriors since the team moved west from Philadelphia in 1962.
I've been thinking about the Lacob incident all week. I've also been thinking about a very different team owner-fan interaction I experienced two weeks ago during spring training in Arizona.
I attended the March 14 Brewers-Cubs game at Hohokam Park, the Cubs' spring-training home in Mesa. Baseball Nation's Cubs expert, Al Yellon, was also at that game, and I joined Al and his friends on the outfield grass for the middle innings. Around the sixth inning or so, a tall, thin, well-dressed man in a white oxford button-down shirt and sharply pressed khakis made his way through the crowd on the outfield berm. It was Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts.
There was no commotion. No boos, but no cheers. Just a lot of "Hi, Mr. Ricketts. May I take a photo with you?" and "May I have your autograph?" He kindly obliged everyone, patiently posing and smiling and signing in the very hot Arizona sun. He recognized Al immediately, came over to say hello and chatted for a few minutes. After Ricketts left, I told Al I was surprised to see Ricketts mingling with fans and spending time talking with a blogger who writes about the Cubs. Al responded with something like: he's been good about that.
The Warriors situation and the Cubs situation are different, of course. Different sports. Different team histories. Different prior owners. Different new owners. But there are also similarities. Decades of losing (many more decades for the Cubs). Questionable draft picks and trades. Very frustrated fans. New owners promising to turn things around, to commit the necessary resources, to make better personnel decisions, to bring back not just a winning culture, but a winning team.
So why did Lacob receive such a raucous and unrelenting shower of boos while Ricketts got smiles and handshakes and thank-yous?
I'd be lying if I said I really knew.
Sure, I'm a Warriors fan. I lived through the Chris Cohan years, when the prior owner pinched pennies, made bad decisions and hid from the fans. I listened as Joe Lacob took over as the Warriors new owner, promising more resources and a new approach. I watched as Lacob kept the existing GM, Larry Riley. I watched as Riley let Jeremy Lin go and make other questionable personnel moves. I watched the Warriors lose more games. It felt like Lacob's promise of a new direction was just that. A promise. And promises are made to be broken.
Then, two weeks ago, the Warriors traded fan-favorite Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut, a move that was seen by basketball experts as a good one for the Warriors in the long term. But fans were shocked and upset and probably didn't want to hear Lacob say, "We just hit a home run." So when the opportunity arose for fans to give Lacob some "feedback," they apparently took that opportunity, and then some.
Can Lacob turn the boos into cheers? I hope so, but really, I have no idea.
Which brings me back to Tom Ricketts.
Ricketts took over the Cubs in late 2009 after a long, drawn-out sale process. Cubs fans had high hopes for the direction Ricketts would take the team. He was a longtime fan himself, had a lot of money, and promised to return the Cubs to the win column. But, like Lacob, Ricketts made some early questionable moves. He raised ticket prices. He approved the hiring of Mike Quade as the team's manager. He stood behind longtime general manager Jim Hendry. And the losing continued. Cubs fans were frustrated. Very frustrated.
Things have started to change. Hendry and Quade are out. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and Dale Sveum are in. Epstein is overseeing a top-to-bottom review of the Cubs organization. Sveum is holding a bunting contest for all players in Cubs' spring camp. And while few expect the Cubs to have a winning season this year, fans greeted Ricketts with smiles and optimism.
Are there lessons to be learned? I'm sure there are. Like hire away one of the best general managers in the game. And his former assistant GM, too. That will make fans happy.
It's more than that, obviously.
I'm no expert. Just seems to me that new team owners -- especially ones that take over a franchise with a long history of losing -- need to act with caution and purpose and honesty.
If a quick turnaround is possible, say that and make it happen. If you promise it and you're wrong, admit your mistake, explain why it happened and fix it going forward.
If rebuilding looks more like a three-to-five year process, explain that to the fans, build reasonable expectations, and hold yourself and your executives accountable for the results. Don't promise champagne and caviar but deliver Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante and salmon roe and say it's exactly the same thing.
Sports Ownership 101. Jim Crane, the new Astros owner, seems to get it. So did Mark Attanasio when he bought the Brewers in 2005.
It seems so simple, doesn't it?