Commentary

End of a Major League Baseball era

As Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Bobby Cox near the end of the line, the game adjusts

Originally Published: July 30, 2010
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Bobby CoxGetty Images, US PresswireThese three are links to a power structure of the past. We might not see their likes again.

When George Steinbrenner died earlier this month, the eulogies were careful in noting his public evolution, curiously spending little time on the surrounding forces that as much as any individual epiphany were responsible for his transformation.

He was ferocious, firing managers at an average of one per season over his first 18 years as owner of the New York Yankees. He was the furious Boss, tyrannical and driven, unpredictable and impossible to control.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner
AP Photo/Ron FrehmIn 1990, George Steinbrenner's was the only face that mattered in the Yankees' organization.

Then, in the final two decades of his life, Steinbrenner was publicly rehabilitated, celebrated for what came to be seen (if you viewed him from afar) as nothing more than benign and impatient grumpiness. The new take: The old man just wanted to win for his city. By the end, Steinbrenner was as much a maverick as Mr. Ed.

In the same week Steinbrenner died, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre turned 70. Days later, 66-year-old Lou Piniella announced he will follow in the footsteps of 69-year-old Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox and retire at the end of the season.

Death and retirement are not merely opportunities for nostalgia for a time when baseball had personality to go along with its dysfunction, but these departures signal the end of one era while they reinforce another that actually began years ago. The game now is marked by the codifying of power in the office of the commissioner and among the game's general managers, an era engineered by Bud Selig and Sandy Alderson, whose influence over the future of the game grows stronger as the giants of the old guard fade.

Selig, who is within a couple of years of the end of his time as commissioner, too, sees himself in the fourth quarter of a half-century relationship with baseball.

"People keep saying that I'm going to change my mind," he told me two weeks ago, "but 2012 will be my last year. There are other things I'd like to do."

The football metaphor is appropriate for Selig, and not only because he and Henry Aaron used to watch Selig's favorites, the Green Bay Packers, play Aaron's Cleveland Browns at City Stadium when Aaron was a member of the Milwaukee Braves and Selig ran the family Ford dealership.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Mary AltafferBud Selig says he will step away in 2012. He's already accomplished much of his vision for baseball.

Usually, when a commissioner is appointed, he lauds the great men who came before him. Selig, who became acting commissioner in 1992 and was officially elected to the job in 1998, was different. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was not his hero; nor was Happy Chandler or Ford Frick, Bowie Kuhn or Peter Ueberroth. As early as the 1970s, Selig thought interleague play and the wild card would be good for baseball. As owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, Selig took notes, and not always complimentary ones, about how selfish his fellow owners were, about how ownership did not understand the value of a united front, either in its battles against the players or in viewing baseball as one entity. He was offended by the owners' lack of vision, by their boorish behavior, by how they saw no commonality of purpose -- the purpose to make money.

Selig was not enamored of Ted Turner's free-spending, maverick ways when he owned the Atlanta Braves, but he was clearly listening when Turner said during a particularly contentious owners' meeting, "Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country and we're [expletive] it up."

So, for a functioning model, Selig turned not to baseball's past but to the NFL, and to Pete Rozelle in particular. Rozelle, and not the legacy of Landis, sparked the idea in Selig that team owners should think with common purpose. Rozelle's ability to convince the large-market New York Giants that it was vital for the small-market Green Bay Packers not only to exist but to thrive impressed Selig.

There will be much baseball scholarship over the coming decades dedicated to assessing the time of Bud Selig. He is as sensitive about being labeled the steroid commissioner as he is proud of interleague play, the wild card, labor peace under most of his watch and the enormous financial gains that have made baseball richer than ever.

But Selig's greatest impact may be on who is allowed to own teams. Steinbrenner's passing did not end the day of the dominant owner wielding enormous influence; those days have been gone for nearly 20 years, since The Boss returned from his last suspension. During Steinbrenner's time, franchises were owned by Charlie Finley, Bill Veeck, Turner, and yes, even Marge Schott. Tom Yawkey and Walter O'Malley were both alive when Steinbrenner entered the league. So were Walter Haas and Edward Bennett Williams. These were the days of the power owner, when the owner, following a recipe perfected by Steinbrenner, became the public face of the franchise.

[+] EnlargeSandy Alderson
AP photo/Rusty KennedyTwenty years ago with the A's, Sandy Alderson was already de-emphasizing the role of the field manager.

These individuals controlled baseball and the commissioner -- not the other way around. In Selig's tenure, that dynamic has shifted. The absence now of Steinbrenner's physical presence underscores just how complete Selig's vision was, and how effective he has been in essentially crushing dissent.

Today, the voice of ownership is that of Selig. He is the commissioner. No one crosses or contradicts him publicly. There are no coups such as the one that finished Fay Vincent, no rogue owner undermining his authority. That is not to say individual owners are powerless; Selig still works for them, and Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox is still generally considered perhaps the most powerful man in baseball. But owners today sit at the leadership table while Selig heads it.

Selig has so consolidated power during his tenure that he doesn't even share authority with the two leagues. He eliminated the American and National League presidencies -- offices that had existed for nearly a century -- more than a decade ago. Unlike previous commissioners, Selig is not surrounded by adversaries. Bob Dupuy, baseball's No. 2 man, was Selig's longtime attorney; and Lew Wolff, the Oakland A's owner, was Selig's fraternity brother in college.

The commissioner has been well-paid for the way he's reshaped the game and its central office. Only a handful of players -- Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Howard, Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano among them -- earn more than Selig's annual salary of just less than $19 million. As the money has soared, the maverick owners -- and the work stoppages -- have disappeared along with the balloon chest protector, making the prospect of Mark Cuban winning ownership of the Texas Rangers unlikely, if intriguing.

Meanwhile, Alderson, the true father of the age of Moneyball, is witnessing in real-time the victory of his own vision. Billy Beane gets the credit and Michael Lewis got the book and the movie deals, but it was Alderson back in 1995 who first began to articulate the attitude that stripped the field manager of his role as the driving force behind player development and transferred that power to the general manager.

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe game will miss Lou Piniella's passion and stage presence.

The Ivy League-educated, Vietnam veteran Alderson, once unaccepted as a baseball outsider who not only didn't play the game but didn't even grow up in it, never understood why the field manager historically had carried so much power. To Alderson, the manager should be no more than fourth on the organizational food chain, behind the owner, the general manager and the player personnel director. And yet for 100 years, teams had based their organizational philosophy on the one person they replaced most often.

Years ago, Alderson, then the general manager of the A's, explained it to me this way: "Managers are very controlling. You look at the managers today and the ones that are 'my way or the highway' are very few. It's a remnant of another generation. If an organization is worth its salt -- we're talking about maybe the paradigm corporate existence where the corporation has a reputation, it's been doing things for a long time, it's innovative and had continuity -- why would you turn that company over to a middle manager? So the attitude was, 'We have a philosophy and we're going to find a manager who is going to implement that philosophy. We're not looking for someone to tell us how to run the team, or upon which theory it should be predicated. We already have that. We want someone who is going to implement it for us.' That's a very different approach."

The rest, as they say, is history. Now, with each retirement and birthday of a longtime field manager, the power of the GM is further solidified. John McGraw-to-Casey Stengel-to-Billy Martin-to-Lou Piniella is gone. Alderson-to-Billy Beane-to-Theo Epstein and Jon Daniels is in. Alderson has won.

The result should not be simply a postscript at season's end for Cox and Piniella -- Torre's contract is up at the end of the season but he shows no signs of quitting -- but for their time as the on-field face of the front office. Only two managers remain as the unquestioned leader of their organizations: Tony LaRussa in St. Louis and Mike Scioscia in Anaheim. A handful of others (Ozzie Guillen, Jim Leyland, Dusty Baker) share power with a strong general manager. Even Torre's best years in New York were the byproduct of his successful massaging of a pair of other powerful personalities  general manager Brian Cashman and, of course, Steinbrenner.

The game has labor peace and more money than ever. But it feels a little sterile, far less human, and infinitely more corporate. Managers, reduced to "mid-level employees," have been silenced, job security trumping candor. I, for one, will miss Piniella both for his knowledge of the game and his on-field theatrics. The same is true for Bobby Cox and especially Torre, should he soon leave the game.

The same is true, too, for owners who actually issue opinions rather than press releases. Without the personality and the insights into an interesting game, there is less of a reason to keep watching.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.