The Ownership Question: Part IV

We’ve hashed out ownership against so many different standards, but what we’ve not looked at is this ownership, led by Bill Dewitt, and prior ownership under the Anheuser-Busch brewery after the death of August “Gussie” Busch.

A quick recap for those that aren’t up on Cardinal history. Anheuser-Busch bought the Cardinals in 1953 and Gussie, as head of the brewery, was also in charge of the team. Gussie was well-regarded as an owner (barring that little spat with Steve Carlton) and fielded strongly competitive teams for the most part. He was so highly thought of that he has a retired number, something no other non-playing Cardinal achieved. (Jack Buck just has the microphone.)

Gussie, as far as I can tell, was active with the Cardinals until his death in 1989. After that, the corporate heads took over the team, with noticeable results. Let’s compare some numbers from 1988-1994 and from 1995 to the present to see where we are coming from.

The data on the USA Today site only goes back to 1988. I’m not going to rework all the stats I did in Part I, but let’s first get a rough feel for things. I took the seven years from 1988-1994 and compared the Cardinals’ rank in salary in that time vs. the first seven years (1995-2001) of the Dewitt ownership.

The average payroll rank in the first seven years was 14.4, while the next seven years averaged at 10.86. Remember that there were only 26 teams for most of the first time period and 28 and 30 teams in the second. So, at a rough glance, you can see things have picked up.

What makes that more dramatic is the quick downturn after Gussie’s death. Here are the rankings for that seven year period:

Year Rank
1988 6th
1989 7th
1990 8th
1991 18th
1992 20th
1993 24th
1994 18th

The 1990 team was old, overpaid, and finished last, so it’s not too surprising that the ownership moved the expensive guys and let youngsters like Todd Zeile, Ray Lankford and Bernard Gilkey play. Still, to drop all the way to 24th in payroll? Out of 28 teams, two of which were brand-new expansion teams? That’s pretty drastic.

Of course, payrolls were smaller back then. Maybe it was easier to rank in the lowest part numerically and still have a payroll that was competitive with the rest of the league. Let’s take the percentage of Cardinal payroll vs. the total payroll in the league, as we did in Part I. See if you can guess where new ownership took over.

You can see that the Cardinals were well under the expected league average for the years leading up to the sale of the team.  That hasn’t happened under the new regime.  Overall, it seems to me that ownership has made quite a step up from the post-Gussie Brewery days.

Now that I’ve spent most of a week looking at ownership from a quantitative viewpoint, allow me to come at it from the qualitative side.

Part of the problem that ownership has is that fans today are imbued with a severe “What have you done for me lately?” attitude. If fans from 1992-1994 could be dropped straight into 2007, with a new stadium, a large payroll, a recent World Series, they’d be rejoicing and singing management’s praises. But since these fans have come to this place in a gradual slope, they easily forget how bad it was and expect it to always be better.

I consider it a football mentality. I’ve often said I don’t know how people follow a football team, when they play only once a week, only 16 times a year and if you lose your first 2 games you can just about call it a season (especially in college). That kind of paradigm gives rise to heated passions and less reasoned thinking, in my mind.

We here in Arkansas have seen that this week with the Razorbacks football coach. If you follow football, you know the story, if not, you probably don’t care. But it was a situation where, again, if you told people from the early 90s that the Hogs would a couple of times be threatening for a national title, would play in the SEC title game three times and go to a bowl game almost every year, they’d wonder where the statue of the coach was going to be put. Since expectations were raised on a gradual level, though, what would have been great 10 years ago is now unacceptable. (Granted, there’s more to that situation, but that’s a large part of it.)

It’s basically greed. We get a division title. That’s great. But soon the novelty wears off and we want a Series berth. Then we want a Series title. Then we want every top free agent and regular Series runs. Sometimes it takes a long stretch of bad to help us really appreciate the good. You think Pirate fans would be happy with a wild card berth now? Sure. But if they did that for three years in a row, there would be rumblings about firing the manager and getting someone in here that “can get us to the next level.”

Ownership’s second problem was winning the World Series. Or, more accurately, Tony LaRussa was the manager when the Cardinals won the Series. When I first started getting on-line in forums about six years ago, there was a strong division among fans. A section of Cardinal Nation, which termed themselves “The Faction”, had determined that TLR would never do anything here in St. Louis and must be run out of town. You may remember hearing about an airplane with a “Fire LaRussa!” banner that flew over a spring training game a few years back. Those fans were the ones responsible for that.

Then 2006 comes along. LaRussa actually wins the last game of the year and the Cardinals are champions. While the honeymoon period after that has most all fans in a happy place, even before 2007 starts some people, having no way to go after TLR, instead focus their frustrations/ranting on ownership.

We’ve seen this ownership step up with extensions to contracts for players they consider core. Pujols will be with us a long time, and Carpenter got one even before his contract was due to run out. Rolen was signed for a good bit of time and Edmonds was kept as well. They’ve not been shy about keeping their players, starting with McGwire after he was traded for. They’ve not let them hit the free agent market, then say, “Well, we can’t afford them.”

But you put that restlessness and negativity that needs to go somewhere with the fact that the last two free agent markets were fairly weak and people start screaming “cheap” even though they made major plays for a top pitcher in each class (A.J. Burnett and Jason Schmidt). You can’t force someone to sign a deal, and in Schmidt’s case, he wouldn’t have even have helped in 2007 and would have tied ownership’s hands for the next year or two.

Spending just to spend would be madness. Somehow, though, there are fans that don’t seem to grasp that. Hopefully these last few days have helped them understand that ownership has been making an effort and we, as Cardinal fans, really do have it good.

Tomorrow: The Cardinal Blogger Awards!


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