By Sridhar Pappu
Dear Jerry Reinsdorf:
Why? That's what people ask me when I go to Comiskey Park. Why do I pay money to sit in a vast, empty stadium that looks and feels like a Wal-Mart? Why do I go to see a team whose players are surly, whose shortstop leads the American League in errors, whose pitchers--on their best days--are only a little less than terrible, and whose left fielder and first baseman have both been accused of domestic battery--the latter pleading guilty? Most of all, why do I give my money to you? You, the man who tore down the stadium where Dick Allen found redemption in the summer of 1972, the man who put a parking lot on the ground where Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio turned the best double plays ever for seven straight seasons? You, the man who could have built a new ballpark like Jacobs Field in Cleveland, with sharp corners and grandstand seats, but instead erected a monument to luxury boxes? Why do I give my money to the man who, for the sake of some foolish pride, helped rob a country of its World Series and a city of its chance for not one but two championship teams?
I usually try to be thrifty with my response. I say that on weeknights you can buy a ticket for $5 and then sit anywhere you want. Or I paraphrase something once said by Pete Rose--though I've loathed him since I was a kid in southwest Ohio--that I would walk through hell in a gasoline suit to watch a baseball game.
But the fact of the matter is I actually like going to Comiskey Park. Because despite its failure to live up to its predecessor's storied past and its own unrealized potential, it remains the city's last great meeting place. It's a place--despite your ambition to make it some sort of Du Page County wonderland--that's shared by both black and white. Here Chicago's different races have something in common, even if it's only a sloughing, bitter three-hour rite of disappointment before they walk down to the 35th Street CTA platform to take their separate trains home.
I can date my short, thoroughly tortured love for the Sox to April 5, 1997, to an afternoon game played on the brink of Armageddon. It lasted four hours and 20 minutes under a cold dark sky, at the time qualifying as the second-longest nine-inning game in major-league history. The Tigers outscored the Sox 15-12, and I watched the entire game from the right-field bleachers, shaking my head at the ineptitude of Sox pitching and gawking in the late innings as mounds of garbage swirled onto the field. For a moment the trash would lie jittery on the grass, until picked up by the next gust of wind, which spun it around the outfielders until they seemed to be standing in a kind of hell. Just my luck, I thought, that my life would end against the Tigers.
Sitting in front of me was a graying, jowly, big-bellied man with a shiny black Sox jacket and a longing for the past that hit with both fists. In the early innings park staff had asked him and his friends to put away their cigars, and after that he began to talk to me. I like to think that he thought we had a shared belief in the order of things, though he seemed to have another beer in his hand every five minutes and spent the last innings in the field-level bull-pen bar.
"I remember when the Sox wouldn't hit 44 home runs at home in an entire season--dead center field was 420," he said in the midst of a lecture about McCuddy's Tavern, the bar where the visiting Babe Ruth would stop for a hot dog between innings--torn down when your park was built.
"What they need to do is paint all the seats green," he said, moving for an instant into the present. "The old place was this dark, beautiful green."
I made a disparaging remark about Sox pitching.
"It's still early," he said. "It'll get better."
But it never did. I've been back 20 times since, and each time I go it's out of a tiring, insistent need to try to redeem the place in my mind. Nothing can hide the state the Sox are in. No quantity of racial good cheer or quaint old men can disguise the fact that Sox attendance currently averages 17,579 a game--third worst in the American League and fourth worst in the majors. And most of those fans are filled not with that resonant, balled-fisted anger underlain by the hope that it can and will be better, but with resignation, sickly and pale.
"It's as bad as I've ever seen it at Comiskey Park," Tribune sportswriter Bill Jauss says. "It's absolute apathy. It's like in a relationship. If there's anger, at least there's some emotion there. With time and nurture and good luck, sometimes you can turn that emotion from hate to love. But if you're involved in a relationship where neither party gives a damn about the other, that's just about the end of the road. I'm afraid this is where the Sox have come."
Jerry, I try to find you when I go to Comiskey. I look into your luxury boxes--both rows of them--then into the vast emptiness of the upper deck, where I see your face ground into every blue-light-special seat. When I think about that day last April I see you in that garbage too.
Perhaps I'm being harsh, but I feel you've taken something precious from us. Individually, your failures may look like bad luck or, at worst, ineptitude. But taken together they amount to a systematic crackdown on belief, a squeezing of the joy from our lives. You took our optimism. Now it's time for you to give it back.
Fifty-one years ago Branch Rickey and your childhood team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the first tier of baseball's monarchical control by defying the "gentleman's agreement" and bringing Jackie Robinson to the game. In 1970 Curt Flood took on the second tier when he challenged the reserve clause, the contract provision, in place since the late 19th century, that bound a player to one team for his entire career. Free agency--emancipation, really--followed in 1976. Now, Jerry, you have a chance to achieve that same sort of stature, to seize upon and put your name to a trend that's already begun, to lead baseball's next revolution and make it your own.
Jerry, redemption will be yours if you do this one small thing: sell us the Sox.
"I love men in charge who are leaders," Reinsdorf was quoted as saying in the June 3-9 issue of Baseball Weekly. "I loved Harry Truman. He was always making tough decisions and didn't give a damn what anybody thought because he was right."
There was once a time when "give 'em hell" Jerry and Sox vice president Eddie Einhorn were known as the Sunshine Boys: the men who bought the Sox and old Comiskey Park for $20 million from Bill Veeck, the men who signed free agents like Carlton Fisk and Greg Luzinski and Floyd Bannister and brought home the American League West championship in 1983. "You can't win today if you're going to do it like [former Minnesota Twins owner] Calvin Griffith or Bill Veeck did," Reinsdorf proclaimed the night the Sox clinched, referring to two of the game's more impecunious owners. "But there is no guarantee you are going to win if you spend a lot of money--if you're not smart about it."
That season the team drew 2.13 million--breaking by nearly a half million the Chicago record held by the 1969 Cubs. Reinsdorf had the Sox outdrawing their crosstown rivals four of the first six years of his reign, bringing to mind the years between 1951 and '67, when the team never posted a losing record and bested the Cubs in attendance 16 out of 17 seasons.
Yet the alienation had already begun. After the consummation of the sale, Einhorn went out of his way to slight Veeck, saying that both the club and the park had fallen apart and that the new ownership would run a "class" operation--a comment that sent the most beloved owner in the city's history to the bleachers of Wrigley Field. In 1981 the club fired color commentator Jimmy Piersall, then forced Harry Caray to follow Veeck north. By 1985 most locally televised games had moved to cable.
"What are we in baseball if not programming and software for media companies?" asked Einhorn, who also described free TV as a "stupid giveaway for spoiled fans."
Perhaps these moves could have been excused as misunderstandings had Reinsdorf not looked around at old Comiskey--which he found unstately and decrepit--and at his neighbors in South Armour Square and decided that the team's days as south-siders had come to an end. The future, he and Einhorn told us on July 7, 1986, was in Du Page County, in Addison, in a modern stadium to be built on a site that was supposedly closer to the team's fan base and had as many people within 20 miles of it as the dinosaur at 35th and Shields.
"Addison isn't in Iowa," Reinsdorf said. "Addison is Chicago as far as I'm concerned."
What the Sunshine Boys didn't count on was that the citizens of Addison didn't want to be Chicago. A public-advisory referendum supporting a new Sox stadium lost by 43 votes. But Chicago, especially Mayor Harold Washington, still wanted the Sox, and by December Washington and Reinsdorf had a deal. What they agreed to was this: a new $120 million stadium, to be built with public money and overseen by a city-state authority, to which the Sox would pay an annual rent of $4 million for 20 years, then $2 million after the construction bonds were paid. Reinsdorf and Einhorn told public officials that they wouldn't look at any other sites while the Illinois General Assembly considered this plan. And everyone--for the moment--was pleased.
"We're here to stay," Einhorn said on December 6, the day after the Illinois senate approved the measure. "And we're here to stay in the city of Chicago."
Why couldn't they keep their word while Washington argued with Governor Jim Thompson over who the authority's members should be? The Sunshine Boys (which they were no longer being called) could have made themselves over at this juncture. They could have become understanding, even empathetic men--gracious owners waiting patiently for whatever was agreed to when the political scrap ended. What did they do instead? When the state and city (now without Washington) reached a truce, the Sox scoffed at them and deemed the original deal no good. Now they wanted more. They called for $30 million in additional state subsidies, a halving of the rent, and a no-rent clause if attendance fell below 1.2 million per year. If Illinois legislators couldn't resign themselves to those terms, the boys had found another place to play: Saint Petersburg, Florida, which was in the midst of building an $85 million, 43,000-seat nonretractable-dome stadium. The Sox claimed that staying in Chicago wasn't in their best interest, that going south would yield them almost $10 million more a year. Reinsdorf's vice president in charge of marketing called Florida "the last virgin franchise area in the country" and "the greatest opportunity in baseball since Walter O'Malley took the Dodgers west to Los Angeles."
In April 1997 Reinsdorf admitted to the Chicago Tribune Magazine, "We said to them [Saint Petersburg], 'We want to stay in Chicago, but if we talk to you, you might be the vehicle that gets us the stadium in Chicago. Do you want to be used?' They said, 'We're willing to be used if you promise us that if you can't get the stadium, you'll come to Saint Petersburg.' So, that's what we did."
What happened next was all we expected to happen: the legislature gave in to Reinsdorf's stadium terms in a late-night session on July 1, 1988. About 1,000 residents of South Armour Square fought to keep their homes and lost. Fan hatred gutted attendance in 1988 and 1989, during which the team filled a total of 2.16 million seats, only slightly more than its single-season record in 1983.
"We all knew we'd been screwed," Bill Jauss says. "Right from the start. Eddie Einhorn came to me that first night they were dedicating the new stadium and said, 'Whaddya think? Whaddya think?' And I said, 'Eddie, it's beautiful. I just wish that you had paid for it, not me.' That was the widespread feeling right from the get-go. So that didn't help endear the fans to the new ballpark or the people who were running it."
But baseball fans are nothing if not hopeful and forgiving, and the new park did offer many comforts the old one lacked. In 1991, its first year, attendance reached 2.93 million, and fans held to the belief that the team's play could negate the actions of its owner. Naive, perhaps, but with reason enough: the Sox team they saw was a combination of veterans and emerging charismatic stars. Fans believed Carlton Fisk would teach Frank Thomas and Jack McDowell to win, and that the Sox would tame the American League for a decade, if not more.
"It never occurred to me," F. Scott Fitzgerald said through Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, "that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people--with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe." But Reinsdorf gave Sox fans warning. Never one to allow good feeling to continue for too long, he predicted the future of Major League Baseball in that upbeat year of 1991. "Disaster is coming," he said. And a year later he began the process of bringing it about. By leading the owners' revolt to force commissioner Fay Vincent from office, for what he saw as Vincent's soft stance on labor in 1990's 32-day lockout, Reinsdorf declared a labor war.
What he and his fellow owners said they wanted in disposing of Vincent and then reopening the players' collective-bargaining agreement was to control the costs of the game, to stop the $1.14 million rise in the average player's salary since the advent of free agency in 1976. But to do that they would have to limit the movement and salaries of free agents. It never occurred to these men and women who'd made their fortunes by the rules of American capitalism that they were trying to tell their employees that a man shouldn't want the most money for his family, that he couldn't go to work for the organization or the city that he chose.
In June 1994 the owners made their initial offer: If the players would agree to a salary cap--a check on the owners' foolishness, really--the owners would agree to impose a team minimum salary and allow players to become free agents after four years of major-league play instead of six. If the players didn't accept this deal they would be at fault. Greedy bastards on strike--that's how it would read in Peoria, if not in Chicago.
"If we don't fold," Reinsdorf said on July 3, a day when the Sox lost, having won 10 of their previous 11 games, "they've lost their leverage. It's like if you have a hostage and you're surrounded by the police--once you kill the hostage you're dead."
Reinsdorf predicted that if the players walked out the strike might last all the way into 1996. "Once the strike starts," he said, "then I'm a hawk. I'm a dove now, but if the strike starts, then I'm a hawk."
Perhaps he was just testing the sense of possibility that lapped around his ball club. Because the team just got better: having won the American League West in 1993--coming within two games of the World Series and drawing 2.58 million people to the park--the Sox now seemed schooled enough not only to get to the World Series but to win it. They held a one-game lead in the brand-new American League Central Division and had drawn an average of 41,000 fans in their last three home games.
At which point the season whimpered to a close. The strike that Reinsdorf built began on August 12.
In 1992 he'd explained how to win in negotiations with the players' union: "By taking a position and telling them we're not going to play unless we make a deal." And that's what the baseball owners now did. Over the course of 232 days they claimed that 19 of 28 teams, including such major-market franchises as the Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers, had been losing money and that by refusing the players' offer to end the strike--to resume play under the old system while negotiations continued--they were protecting the best interests of the fans. That paternal sensibility helped do what two world wars could not: eliminate a World Series.
No hand was extended. Reinsdorf said players' union chief Donald Fehr--whom he equated with religious cult leader Jim Jones--had a "pathological hatred for baseball owners." Three times the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the owners had engaged in illegal bargaining strategies. That spring the owners were ready to begin the 1995 season with replacement players. ("South-side people can relate a lot more to 30 guys making $115,000 than the guys making $7 million," quipped Sox general manager Ron Schueler. "Hey, for two months they might have some new heroes.") Finally on March 31, just days before the season was to start, a federal judge granted an injunction against the owners and reinstated the old rules. By "taking a position and telling them we're not going to play unless we make a deal," by canceling the World Series and blowing his own team's first chance to participate in one since 1959, Reinsdorf had achieved--what? Despite the implementation of a "luxury tax" in the current collective-bargaining agreement, baseball continues today under essentially the same rules that were in effect in 1993.
"Why did the other owners listen to Reinsdorf?" says Marvin Miller, the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association. "Perhaps I could illustrate a little by going back in time when [Dodgers owner] Walter O'Malley, before he became ill, really was a one-man ownership that controlled baseball. He controlled commissioners, he controlled league presidents, he controlled the owners, and I used to question the other owners, 'How can this be? How does one guy do this?' And finally one owner at the time said, 'Well, the best example I could give you is, when we have a meeting of the owners, a major-league meeting, there's probably not one owner outside of O'Malley who even knows what's on the agenda. Whereas O'Malley not only knows what's on the agenda but is prepared to speak on every single item.' By sheer preparation, by study and intelligence, O'Malley controlled the game."
Miller goes on, "Now, I don't think this guy [Reinsdorf] was in O'Malley's class, but I think that some parts of this were pretty applicable. Because you kept dealing with owners habitually who don't pay much attention to the game as a business, and this was getting worse and worse in the years we were talking about. As more and more new owners came in, the old guard, as it were, was dying and selling out. I think that was a factor. [Reinsdorf] was kind of established by 1994. He was one of the clearly senior owners in terms of length of tenure by that time. I think his success, even then, with the Chicago Bulls was part of it. And he's far from a stupid man, and a lot of the owners are stupid--so that's also helpful."
Of course when Reinsdorf's so-called heroes did come back, the crowds that had encouraged and enabled him before the strike, had made him brash and confident, stayed home. The bright future everyone saw on that September night in 1993 when the Sox won the division, that future was a last lie told before the moment of full disclosure. The real future would come on May 10, 1995--a Wednesday-night home game against Minnesota that drew only 15,816 fans, an all-time low at the new Comiskey Park.
The fans' displeasure wasn't a complete surprise--but it was supposed to be a temporary chill, a pique that would pass as memory of the strike faded. On the south side, however, it took hold. In 1996 the Sox had a three-and-a-half-game lead for the American League wild card in August, set a club record with 195 home runs--and finished ninth in the American League in total attendance, with an average of 20,696 per game.
"It's very disappointing that the team is playing well and the fans still aren't here," Rob Gallas, Reinsdorf's senior vice president in charge of marketing and broadcasting, told the Daily Herald that September. "The $64,000 question is why?"
Reinsdorf knew who to blame. Not himself, because he walked the path of the righteous. It was the players, whom he felt the fans didn't like. "They need to show you how they really feel," he told a group of 400 season-ticket holders for 1996 who said they wouldn't renew their seats for '97. "We will have a more friendly team."
And how did he intend to accomplish that? As it turned out, by offering a five-year, $55 million contract--the richest in baseball history at the time--to Cleveland Indians outfielder Albert Belle, a man who'd been accused by his first big-league manager, John McNamara, of having "the most blatant lack of hustle" he'd ever seen; who'd been suspended five times in six major-league seasons and assessed the biggest fine in baseball history for lashing out at NBC broadcaster Hannah Storm during the World Series; who'd been dubbed "Mr. Freeze" by his teammates in Cleveland after he smashed a clubhouse thermostat; and who on Halloween night 1995 had chased teenage pranksters in his Ford Explorer, telling the police, "You better get somebody over here, because if I find one of them, I'll kill them."
Reinsdorf thought that with Belle and Frank Thomas--baseball's top two run producers between 1991 and '96--the Sox could slug their way to the World Series and bigger box-office receipts. He raised his payroll to $54.4 million, had his people predict an attendance rebound to as much as 2.75 million, promised a more fan-friendly Comiskey Park--then in February 1997 raised ticket prices $2 across the board.
"We want to be positioned to increase our payroll further later this season," he told the Tribune. "History shows that teams in the World Series usually get there because of a key move made in August. I want to be able to say yes if Ron Schueler needs to add payroll later in the season."
You know the rest. In spring training third baseman Robin Ventura broke his right leg and tore ligaments in his right ankle; he spent most of the season trying to come back. The team with the third-highest payroll in baseball allowed 14 unearned runs in its first 19 games. By April 24 Belle and Thomas had hit more double-play balls than home runs, and by May 8 the Sox were averaging only 18,937 fans per game. Belle--who'd promised a new openness with the media--grew sullen, refused to play in the All-Star game when selected, refused even to pose for the team picture.
But they hadn't reached bottom. On the major-league trading deadline, July 31, with two months left in the season, the Sox trailed division leader Cleveland by only three and a half games. There was reason to hope. Ventura had made an early return, and Cleveland had lost six of its last ten games. The Seattle Mariners in 1995 and the Baltimore Orioles in 1996 had come from 11 and 10 games behind respectively to earn a playoff berth. In September the Sox would play the Indians seven more times.
But then Jerry Reinsdorf brought the season to a close with these words: "Anyone who thinks this White Sox team will catch Cleveland is crazy." He approved a trade (the Great Surrender) that sent Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez, and Danny Darwin--three pitchers with 31 years of combined experience, 258 career victories, and 194 saves--to the San Francisco Giants for six minor-league prospects. That left a team in the thick of a pennant hunt with seven rookies on its 25-man roster and no chance of getting to the World Series.
"Advance tickets have already been sold," Reinsdorf said the day before the move. "We'll draw within 100,000 of projections whatever we do." In other words, people who'd bought tickets hoping to see a team en route to a pennant would now see a team that had given up hope. What was important was that Reinsdorf already had their money. "I'll have to deal with next year next year," he explained. "This is about trying to get better and not allowing ourselves to finish second in a poker hand."
Ventura, of course, had a different point of view. "I've never heard of a contender giving up in August," he told Sports Illustrated. "If I had known it was going to be like this, I would have taken my time and gotten ready for next year. I still can't figure out why it happened. And you know what? I don't think I will ever understand, and I don't think I want to know."
We're now in the aftermath, a season in which we've seen the addition of Wil Cordero, who last year pleaded guilty to beating his wife, and the fall of the great Frank Thomas, who--plagued by the breakup of his marriage and stripped of his position in the field--started slowly and stayed close to 90 points below his 1997 league-leading batting average. Mike Caruso, the centerpiece of last August's trade with the Giants, has hit well (.308) but leads American League shortstops in errors. And the pitching staff ranks as worst of all major-league teams, with a 5.32 team earned-run average.
The fans' response to all this has been to stay away, beginning with the first game of the season, which drew just 25,358 people--the smallest opening-day crowd in 23 years. I was optimistic, or dumb, enough to buy tickets to that game in advance, forcing a friend who'd grown up in Hammond, Indiana, whose family once held Sox season tickets, and who'd spent half a lifetime in the left-field grandstand to come along.
"I can't believe this," he would say sporadically as he looked into the upper deck, where the empty seats were flooded with sun. "I was happy at first when they got the funding for this place. But then I thought, 'Why are we giving money to this guy?'"
What he was expressing, of course, was a desire to hold on to his childhood memories of his White Sox, a wish to erase the hurt that came with having them stay. "Man," he finally said, "we should have let them go."
And there it was, at least for me--the bottom. The last glimpse of a team that with each Cubs win, each Sammy Sosa homer, each Kerry Wood strikeout, would seem more and more removed from the world, more a secondary figure on somebody else's stage.
But there's one last way out, one last chance for reclamation. Together Sox fans could buy the team.
And why not? We already own the stadium. We're the ones who will pay if attendance continues to drop. If you accept the rhetoric of Reinsdorf and his fellow owners, we're the only ones who benefit from having the team around. And perhaps it would change the rules of engagement between players and owners--relaxing the fiscal demands of star players that have been an outgrowth of free agency, a backlash against the stranglehold owners kept on them for 100 years.
"It would be wonderful," says Daily Southtown columnist Bill Gleason. "But community ownership? Fans are always talking about this, but they would never put their money where their mouth is."
I wouldn't be writing this if some fans hadn't begun to do just that. Since the Great Surrender of August '97 a group that calls itself SOS--Save Our Sox--has been trying to mount a fan-based buyout of the club, hoping to raise capital by selling shares at $500 each. They'd limit the sale of shares to ten per person or group--to make sure no individual could seize control--and they'd force Reinsdorf to sell, using his unpopularity and shrinking profits against him. Once bought, the team would be controlled by a board of directors elected by the shareholders. The board would include at least one SOS member as well as former Sox players such as catcher Carlton Fisk and pitcher Billy Pierce.
"I wouldn't have control," says Terry Ryan, head of SOS. "That's not what this is about. We're looking for a shareholder-owned situation, where everyone would vote on the team president and the general manager. We're trying to get away from somebody who owns the team. We don't want the head magoo, the czar, but a one-man-one-vote kind of thing.
"We're looking to have a budget that exceeds the purchase price," he says. "We're looking for $185 million. Look, I know it sounds crazy, but we have 14 states where people are committed--not just Sox fans, but baseball fans who are sick of things. I know it's an incredible number, but we're absolutely confident it can happen."
Since last August the SOS brain trust has been meeting anywhere from twice monthly to three times a week. Ryan has spent $2,500 out of his own pocket on postage and telephone bills. On average he spends 20 hours a week returning letters and calls, updating the group's database, and searching for ways to reach more potential shareholders--80 percent of the current crop come from "south of Roosevelt [Road]."
The group has reached a lot of people electronically--its Web site (www.
netchoice.com/sos/index11.html) gets 3,000 hits a month, and more than 1,000 people have committed to buying shares totaling $3.5 million. SOS isn't collecting money yet; when it begins to, Ryan says, the money will be deposited in a trust administered by a financial institution, so that no one from SOS will have access to it. But even if everyone buys the maximum of ten shares, SOS will have to find at least 37,000 investors for this plan to work.
"What you're talking about is the Green Bay model, right?" Gleason says. "It just can't happen."
The Green Bay Packers have always been a sports fan's too-good-to-be-true fantasy, with fan-to-team relations strong enough to pull one's emotions toward lust. Because we want what they have--what they got in 1923, the year they became a community-owned nonprofit organization.
We want to be part of what the Packers are today: a wildly successful team (albeit playing in one of the smallest professional-sports markets in North America) owned by thousands of shareholders, none of whom controls enough shares to force his will on the club.
We want the sight of a standing-room-only crowd in Lambeau Field, the mythology of cheeseheads and subzero "Ice Bowls," the wide receivers jumping into the crowd behind the end zone in the warm afterglow of a touchdown scored. We want the naive, unmitigated emotion that inexplicably comes from a share that doesn't pay a dividend and that rightfully comes from winning the Super Bowl three times.
It's not only in Chicago that people have begun to look at the Packers model as a possible solution to the mess professional baseball has become. In Minnesota last November, when it became clear that the state legislature would refuse him funding for a new baseball stadium, Twins owner Carl Pohlad offered voters what seemed like that kind of answer. He would give the team away to a charitable foundation, which could sell shares to the community--a deal that, he said, would keep the Twins in place for at least 30 years. Yet the offer had a Reinsdorfian catch. The giveaway would be made only in return for a $440 million retractable-dome, baseball-only stadium--which would increase the team's value and the size of Pohlad's tax write-off.
In the end it went nowhere. A community-ownership bill was passed by the Minnesota senate, then rejected by the house that November. This bill, the baby of state representative Phyllis Kahn and state senator Ellen Anderson, was based on the work of Metropolitan State University economist Kenneth Zapp, who called for the state to act as catalyst. Under his scheme the state would have authorized the funds--$100 million--for a state agency to buy the Twins. The state agency would hold 25 percent of the team and put 25 percent up for sale to a private management company or managing partner; the remaining 50 percent would be sold to the public. If insufficient shares were sold in 18 months, the state would sell the team to the highest bidder, who would be free to move the team from Minneapolis.
Under Zapp's plan, stock would have been sold to Minnesotans in two forms--nonvoting shares at $100 per share and voting shares at $1,000 per share. A board of directors would have been elected, with five members coming from the public stockholders, two from the state operating agency, and two from the managing company. The Twins would have become a for-profit, closed corporation, with shareholders seeing a dividend if the team made money. Any voting stock that went up for sale would be sold back to the corporation and resold to another Minnesota business or individual.
Zapp contends that the model could be applied more easily to Chicago. "Minnesota needs true revenue sharing," he says, meaning that the Minnesota franchise will continue to have trouble unless Major League Baseball finds a way for rich teams in major media markets like New York and Chicago to share their wealth with smaller teams in cities like Milwaukee and Minneapolis. "In Chicago you will get your TV money no matter what. Moreover, the benefit of a big-city model is that clearly you have more people to sell shares to. You know, there's always the question, 'Would there be enough interest here?' But the larger the metropolitan area, the easier it will be to sell adequate shares in order to make it work."
Of course baseball businesspeople hate this idea. "I don't think that public ownership is something that's going to happen here," says Clark Griffith, whose family brought the Twins to Minnesota from Washington, D.C., in 1961. "And I doubt if it's going to happen in Chicago. It's a wonderful concept. However, when you get to the practical side, public ownership has great problems with respect to the decision making and control."
The businesspeople profess not to like the lack of a central authority figure--a man or woman the other owners of Major League Baseball (three-fourths of whom have to approve the sale of any franchise) can deal with and recognize as their peer.
Community ownership is "an intriguing notion," says Arizona Diamondbacks vice president and general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. "It might be something that ultimately sparks fan interest and fan allegiance, and those are good things. But I think that in all sports, the idea is to have a person who can make decisions. Now can that be addressed in a publicly held corporation, where the stockholders would effectively transfer that ability to make decisions regardless of the level or nature of the issue? I don't know. I think what professional sports in general want to avoid is a situation where a decision has to be made and the team feels the need, legally or otherwise, to hold a stockholders meeting or a board meeting or something like that."
What they fear is the knock on the door, the eyes of an angry group of shareholders demanding to know why Jim Parque was lifted in the eighth inning for Bob Howry. They fear a lifetime of kitchen-table frustrations suddenly turned into empowerment by a $500 check.
"Major League Baseball I don't think would be very enthusiastic about that ownership structure," says Robert Morris College professor and sports economist Mark Eschenfelder, "simply because within that sort of group, if you don't have a clear voice, then you have all sorts of interests, little squabbles occurring potentially. And that's something Major League Baseball doesn't want occurring within a franchise."
In Minnesota Zapp tried to answer this objection by adding a managing partner or management company that would own a quarter of the team. Any short-term losses--and the tax benefits that come with them--would have passed through them, and they would have been paid a fee based on their performance. Though overseen by a board of directors, the managing partner would have retained real operational control and would have represented the team in interactions with Major League Baseball--just as Jerry Reinsdorf does for the Sox, though he owns only 12 percent of the team.
"Yes, there's a board of directors that oversees the managing partner," Zapp says, "and the board of directors is controlled by the stockholders. But the board doesn't make day-to-day decisions. It just provides oversight. Now if we could just get somebody like Mike Veeck in here, it would be great fun."
Mike Veeck and Clark Griffith--sons of Bill Veeck and Calvin Griffith--have both asked about buying the Twins from Pohlad, and both have been mentioned by Minnesota community-ownership backers as potential managing partners. Yet both see problems with this model and the role of the managing partner.
"You're asking someone to make a major investment," says Griffith, "and you are allowing control to reside in others. If you have somebody who invests a major amount in the team, they want control. This is a situation where all rights of ownership are stripped away. It's two things really--it's responsibility and control. They go hand in hand. The major burden of people in control is that if something goes wrong, you have someone there that's responsible for the actions of the team and the financial losses, if any."
Veeck agrees, saying the logistics of the scheme would be too demanding on the managing partner. "I'd be afraid of it," he says, "because anytime you have a partnership based on public and private, there has to be excruciatingly straightforward guidelines to maintain the relationship. I just don't think that's possible. I mean, if you were to have a 100 percent community-ownership group, I would rather see that than a partnership between public and private. But Melville was right. If you're going to chase Moby Dick, somebody's got to pull the trigger. You just have to have that point person is the first thing. The second thing is that with the White Sox in the late 70s I was an owner, my dad was an owner, and there were 42 other owners. If you accept the premise that my dad was a pretty good operator, we had an uprising. So imagine what you would have with 30,000 owners or 250 owners or whatever the number is. Unless they just have nonvoting stock--but that defeats the whole purpose.
"But that's the problem. You can become very upset with the guy that I signed to play center and your guy is better. You can tie me up forever. You can make life pretty miserable. So there has to be a point person. You're always going to have mutinies and little groups that form like little eddies offshore, little whirlpools. Also, where does the accountability to the fans come from? Then suddenly fans are accountable to fans? I don't know how that works. Every organization needs to have a Jerry Krause. If you only have one person you can really focus on and say 'I can't stand that guy,' you'll have a pretty healthy organism."
Veeck and Griffith may be right that a public-private partnership wouldn't work--or couldn't be made attractive to any conventional-minded private investor. But when they say that public ownership implies problems of authority and accountability, they're looking at baseball's past, not its future. Worse, they're ignoring one of the most successful professional sports franchises of the present. The Green Bay Packers' 109,723 shareholders, like those of any publicly held corporation, elect a board of directors, who in turn appoint an executive committee who hire and fire the management and set the long-term goals of the organization. And they (unlike Bill Veeck's White Sox) have never had a shareholder uprising, despite--or more likely because of--the owners' diversity of interests.
Besides, five baseball teams--our own Cubs among them--are already owned by publicly held companies, and approximately 52 such companies own some part of a franchise in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, or the National Hockey League. Look at Colonel McCormick's tower on Michigan Avenue and you will see not the owners of the Cubs but their representatives--people who are paid to manage the interests of the thousands of other people who own little bits of the Tribune Company. The individual operators who own the rest of baseball haven't failed to notice: in April Cleveland Indians owner Richard Jacobs authorized a limited stock offering of shares in his club, a move expected to take in $53.8 million. Public ownership, in other words, is already here.
"I'm all for it," says Marvin Miller. "I really don't see the difference anymore. If you're going to have a conglomerate or Disney [which owns the Anaheim Angels and the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks] owning a team, what's the difference? If you're a subsidiary of a corporation that sells stock to the public, then where's the difference?"
What the bugaboo of authority and control comes down to is this: the old guard's last excuse, their last attempt at self-justification before they're forced out as professional sports teams evolve into publicly owned assets. Yes, control of a community-owned team would have to be more democratic. Yes, probably, decision making would have to be changed a little. But is that worse than what we have now, a dictatorial structure created in the early part of this century by Charles Comiskey (the "Old Roman") and Connie Mack and continued today by the likes of Jerry Reinsdorf and Marge Schott? Does anyone want to argue that this system is working just fine? Does anyone think the Chicago team with the clear figurehead is doing better than the one controlled by a publicly traded corporation?
Sure, the democracy that baseball businesspeople fear is part of the package, admits Julian Empson Loscalzo, head of Fans Answer to a New Stadium, which helped introduce the community-ownership bill in Minnesota. "If there's 50,000 people that are stupid enough to give, let's say, $1,000 apiece to keep their team here and they're not happy with the management structure of the team, they have the right to get rid of them. They certainly do. But the other side of this is that this isn't a communist purge. When's the last time you got rid of the chief executive at 3M on a purge? You set up a contract. Just think of it like any other corporate board. Let's take the Tribune Company. It takes a great deal to get rid of your chief operating officer. And that's all part of it."
"Imagine that--being held responsible for what it is you do," says sports economist Robert Baade, who teaches at Lake Forest College. "Yeah, that would be a whole new ball game, so to speak, for some of those folks--and I can't help but think that would be just a capital idea. There are advantages, and there are disadvantages. But I think that on balance--if you're concerned about the burdens imposed on taxpayers and the financial wheelings and dealings of the current roster of owners--it sounds like a good idea. Even though it would not be a tidy operation, to be sure, I think there are all sorts of pluses that outnumber the minuses."
But what of the Lords of Baseball, the established order, the owners who've continually tried to destroy the game for their own good? Would they approve the sale of a franchise to a fans' corporation? Imagine that by some miracle a scrappy band of baseball lovers not only managed to raise a few hundred million dollars, but also managed to persuade someone like Jerry Reinsdorf to sell them a team. Would the other owners object? Would they dare?
"We're talking about an entity that has to be careful about anything it does," Bill Jauss says. The entity he's referring to is Major League Baseball, and the reason it has to be careful is the game's antitrust exemption, in place since 1922, when the Supreme Court agreed with a lower court that the game wasn't engaged in interstate commerce and wasn't anything more than a game--and was therefore shielded from antitrust laws.
That shield protects the worth of every major-league franchise, yet Jauss thinks the owners keep putting themselves in danger of losing it. "It's gonna happen," he says. "The first time anybody with a decent lawyer tests it, they're just gonna knock the socks off it, the antitrust exemption. Baseball has to be very careful when it gets into these legal areas right now, because it's taken it on the chin ever since the Curt Flood case. One more is just going to knock them back. So I don't think even if [commissioner] Bud Selig feels passionately that there should not be community ownership, I don't think he's going to make a cause out of it. Now, will it work or not? I don't know."
So, Jerry, what do you say?
"I think that one of the things about Mr. Reinsdorf that's admirable is that he obviously is not a quitter," says Mike Veeck. "Because a normal human being would have been chased out of Chicago by now. I would have taken my front office and totally revamped it if I were going to stay. You know he's kind of in the same situation with public sentiment that Mr. Pohlad or Mr. Huizenga [of the Florida Marlins] find themselves in. And with the Bulls ownership, why not divest himself?"
"What does he gain by keeping the team?" the Daily Southtown's Bill Gleason asks. "With his image he gains absolutely nothing. He gains just more vilification and abuse--because, frankly, he's earned it. It's not just the White Sox. It's the Bulls too. When Michael Jordan goes, that whole franchise is going to go down the chute. And all those people sitting in the first two rows along the court, they'll go out of that building just as though they've been sucked out by the air conditioner. Whoosh! And they'll be gone, and they won't return. And the skyboxes, like the skyboxes at Comiskey Park, will be empty."
Maybe your biggest problem, Jerry, is that you deal and think in abstractions, while baseball is a game whose soul lies in the particulars--in the color of the seats, in remembering Dick Allen's home run on bat night to beat the Yankees, in those small moments of definition that add meaning to our lives. But what you have a chance to do now is deal with the ultimate abstraction: the chance for you and your partners to receive a kind of absolution, forgiveness for the surrender and the strike and the vulgar dismantling of old Comiskey Park. By selling the team now, you have a chance to do something more: to out-Veeck Bill Veeck. You have a chance to leave the game with one earned sneer, to say to us, "Veeck shook your hands coming out of the park. I sold you your team."
I'm looking now at a scorecard from a June 18 Sox game against the Twins. It was a Thursday, night and my friend and I bought upper-deck tickets, then sat in box seats just off home plate on the third-base side. I shouted a comment about Frank Thomas's weight ("You're not fat--you're just big boned"), which he repaid with a home run.
Then I looked up at a sky that had turned black and somehow hard. "I think it'll pass," I said in those seconds before I felt the first drops of rain. We went down under the lower concourse to eat funnel cakes, then watch clips from The Blues Brothers on the Jumbotron. We were going to wait it out. But then the iron grates in the floor began pumping gray black water across the concourse. A young, shirtless boy was ready to jump into one of the pools but was held back by a Comiskey Park attendant. "Don't do that," she said. "It's dirty water."
It had the smell of rotten eggs mixed with raw sewage--the stench of everything that had gone wrong since 1981. The odor was strong enough to drive us out of the park and into the cold rain, where I believe you, Jerry, have always wished us to be.
But by selling us the team you can expunge your name from this memory. The smell will lose its personal association. You will become the man who in the end was moved to say not only "My God, what have I done?" but also "How can I set it right? What can I do to make it better?" There's only one thing you can do to make us forget. Do it, and from that moment on you'll be remembered as the man who gave us all a reason to go back to Comiskey Park.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reinsdorf photo by Fred Jewll--AP. Wide World Photos/ Comiskey Park, August 28 photo by Nathan Mandell;.