How Baseball Might be Different if George Steinbrenner Had the Indians
It’s one of the best debates in Cleveland sports history: What if Vernon Stouffer accepted George Steinbrenner's bid to buy the Cleveland Indians instead of rejecting it for the bid of Nick Mileti?
While one would guess that the Indians would’ve gone on to win World Series’ in 1977, ‘78, ‘86, ‘98, ‘99, 2000 and 2009 with additional pennants in 1976, ‘81, 2001, 2003 and 2008.
But let’s say we go out to the garage, fire up the flux capacitor and take the DeLorean out for an 88-mph spin.
How would the baseball world be different if Stouffer picked the Cleveland-born shipping magnate instead of the Cleveland-born real estate developer?
Would the Indians be the Steelers of baseball? Would the Yankees be the baseball equivalent of the L.A. Clippers? Or somewhere in between?
While this is inherently pure conjecture, I still think what I’ve come up with has a lot of reason and logic behind it. I’m not trying to make you agree; but I hope it makes you think with a perspective on the life of George Michael Stenibrenner, a man who was just as admirable off the field as he was controversial on it.
Now let’s humor my inner Marty McFly.
His Early Years
While many owners reviled free agency, Steinbrenner is credited for figuring out how to use it correctly.
Whether he was with the Yankees, Indians or Padres, he would’ve opened up his checkbook to sign lucrative free agent contracts to top-notch players.
Some might argue that it would’ve been tougher to get them to Cleveland than New York, like it is today.
But in the early-to-mid 1970s, it was a different story. This is the pre-rustbelt Cleveland we’re talking about here.
Thriving industry. The second-most Fortune 500 headquarters, second only to New York. And New York at the time was the decaying Gotham that Travis Bickle hoped for that “real rain to come wash away the scum from these streets.”
Player salaries were also a lot more equal than they are today. And local TV revenues weren’t as they are today. He easily could’ve assembled the same talent in Cleveland.
But would it have won? That all depends on someone else…
You almost cannot have a biography of Steinbrenner without him. The five stints Martin had in the Bronx, including the Bronx Zoo that won his first three pennants and two rings.
While the second was won after Martin was fired mid-season, Martin’s on-field and public feuds resulted in wins.
When Steinbrenner had a manager who didn’t stand up to him, they wound up perennially missing the post-season, right until the Yankees finished 1990 in last place.
Martin made no secret that although he couldn’t live without baseball, managing the Yankees was special in ways other jobs weren’t.
First, would Martin have come to Cleveland? And if he did, would he have stuck it out or let Steinbrenner run him out of town, leaving his successor to the proverbial wolf?
But since he was the first to properly use free agency to build a ball club outside the farm-system and trades, let’s assume he’d have more success than Mileti did.
He’d be seen as the Champion of the Little Guy
He said it himself: Winning comes second only to breathing. In New York, he competed to get every advantage he had.
Unfortunately, it happened to using the resources of the biggest market in the nation.
However, In Cleveland, he would’ve applied those competitive energies not for the benefit of large markets, but against them.
I doubt he’d have gone for absolute revenue sharing like the NFL does, but he would’ve found ways to allow larger teams to grow so they could more easily compete.
Therefore whether he’d be seen as building a dynasty in Cleveland like he did in New York would almost be a moot point.
However, it’s how we would’ve channeled those competitive energies that I think could’ve made a huge difference
(okay...I admit, the photo's a little tongue-in-cheek. But after all, he DID pose for it)
Baseball Stadiums would likely be bigger
Assume that Steinbrenner “buys” a few rings in Cleveland. At the time, that would mean he’d nearly be filling the 80,000-seat Municipal Stadium every night*.
At about $5 a pop, that’s roughly $400,000 a home game. That’s some serious revenue that he wouldn’t have to share at that time.
Given the average player’s salary was a lot less than that, buying a ring would almost be inevitable after that.
Other teams would look and say “Whoa. We can’t compete with that!” and start demanding not these small, country club setting loaded with more and more luxury boxes, but larger cathedrals with more and more seats in general.
Then again, Fenway and Wrigley would be mere memories if that was the case.
*After all, there’s “nothing to do” in Cleveland, which critics say is what currently keeps free agents away from here. And we did sell out seasons in Jacobs Field within three days during the Hargrove Years, so this is not out of reach.
Every team would have its own channel by now.
Unlike certain Kevin Costner movies, when they build it, the fans won’t necessarily come. The big markets would eventually figure out that local TV revenue would help them catch up.
But I believe Steinbrenner, as Indians owner, would take note of the “superstations” like WWOR, WGN and the then-WTBS and he would see a need to keep his competitive advantage sooner than he did when he finally formed the YES Network.
It would easily be reasonable to see him buying the then-independent WUAB 43 and going national with it, since his fanbase would have bandwagoners in every city in the country.
He would’ve therefore proven that a mid-sized market could do it, which would also tip every city into either their own superstation, broadcast at least regionally, or their own local sports network, like FSN is now.
A kid in Houston could easily grow up watching every Royals Game.
I know the MLB package exists today. But I think if Steinbrenner had made his push for this to keep his potential edge back then, then a national package system wouldn’t exist, as individual teams would just sell their own TV packages through national cable providers.
You want Royals games in Montana? Pay Ewing Kauffmann $100. Or he could put on enough off-season re-runs of Law & Order until its added to your basic package.
(I mean, I think that’s all you have to do, right? About ten episodes of L&O a week. That’s what all the cable networks today do…)
The MLBPA would be almost as weak as the NFLPA – and it wouldn’t mind.
Assuming everything I stated came true – the enlarged stadiums, the regional TV empires battling for regional/national ratings for dollars, etc, it’d be more difficult for large-market teams to use small-markets as their personal farm system.
Players would instead see themselves as able to be revenue generators in more ways than putting local fannies in seats and at the team shops buying jerseys.
A small market team would therefore build a way to outspend a large market team.
Therefore, if a Yankee wanted more money/autonomy in how his situation was, the threat of “You wanna be traded to Kansas City?!?” wouldn’t be as much a threat.
All the union would have to do is supervise for deliberate owner mischief, but for the most part, a collective bargaining agreement wouldn’t be as necessary since individual bargaining would be fairer.
The “Hargrove Era” Still would’ve happened in Cleveland
Let’s assume he still micro-managed the team into oblivion as he did the Yankees in 1990, got the “Steve Howe lifetime” ban,” meaning he’d return in 1993.
By then, all those in the organization would’ve realized to win as the rest of baseball was catching up to free agency that the Indians, and not the Yankees, first perfected, they’d have to move free agency down to minors.
Which is what John Hart did at roughly the same time. Hart wasn’t the first to realize it, but he was the first to use it to make the biggest difference. After all, Steinbrenner’s Yankees, during George’s ban, had a farm system including Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte.
We’d Still Have the Yankee-Red Sox…Eventually
Despite their “best” efforts, Mets management still occasionally spits out a team that accidentally trips into the post-season.
Even if every team had their own network and stadium largesse made it so teams were playing in a baseball equivalent of Rio De Janerio’s Maracana Stadium (original seating: 199,000), market size would still make a difference.
Eventually, teams would have advantages in revenues from higher ad rates and demands for tickets would be higher, driving ticket prices up.
But the difference wouldn’t be as great as it is now, since market vulnerability would be less one-sided than it is today.
Football would still be King…by a little
Baseball is leisurely. Miss a game, you don’t miss much. It starts in chilly weather, provides a background soundtrack during our personal summer memories.
Football, however, is a different story. Miss one game, you could miss a lot.
The games happen at the end of our week, the season begins at the end of our summer and ends at the end of the year, with the post-season being a tasty leftover of unfinished business that attains an extra immediacy in our psyche.
When baseball ends, it’s kinda sad, as it signals the end of nice weather and days at the beaches (for those above the Mason-Dixon line)
However, remember the 1980’s, when it seemed half the teams would have a legitimate chance to make the post-season on Opening Day? And “Wait “til Next Year!” won’t met with cynicsm by half the mid-sized and small markets.
(And, as a sidenote, since we’re speaking of football…)
Art Modell would be in Canton
His biggest reasons for moving the Browns were that he had to keep the fledgling Indians afloat for many years.
If Steinbrenner came in and at least made them competitive to the point they could be self-sufficient, Modell could’ve easily made improvements on the Stadium himself (or in conjunction with “The Boss”), signed free agents and possibly won something like that strange thing he's holding there. (Doesn't look familiar. I'll call my friend in Pittsburgh. Maybe he'll recognize it).
At least all the arguments he had for moving the team would’ve been nullified. Ergo…no move to Baltimore.
(Please understand that this is all speculation. If you think I’m wrong, you don’t have to call me a moron. Comments are for opposing views. Show the views, not the bluster. Or at least prove why I'm a moron in terms that only a moron like me could understand.)