added 1/2/2005 by Scott Barzilla
I hate to resort to this, but this time of year is really made for the bullet column. In journalism (at least in journalism school) the bullet column is seen as the height of laziness. Well, we won’t call this a bullet column, but a list of new year’s resolutions for the Astros and Major League Baseball. Without further ado, let’s get started.
Spend the rest of the off-season developing an identity.
This is difficult I admit. Every organization goes through cycles and all things must come to an end. The Atlanta Braves have been the kind of redeveloping an identity. They were built around Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz for nearly a decade. The same could be said of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell (more than a decade in their case). The Braves let two of the three go, but have still won the division the last two seasons. The Astros purposely put off the end of the Killer B era when they signed Biggio and Bagwell to extensions. Now, the end of that era is staring the club right in the face. Where do they go from here?
The Astros now have the money to go in one of two directions. They seem determined to get Carlos Beltran and if they are successful they will have a new group of Killer Bs (Berkman, Beltran, and Burke) with some good pitching as well. If Beltran spurns them, they will have to think quickly. There is no law that says they have to spend their largesse now. Certainly, they will face a fan backlash, but a temporary backlash is better than a series of bad contracts. The Astros have some promising kids at the minor league level (Taveras, Josh Anderson, and a bevy of young pitchers) that will be ready by 2006 at least.
What identity do you have in the front office?
When the Astros were led by Gerry Hunsicker they had a definite organizational identity. Yes, Gerry was a little conservative with young players and he fell in love with the occasional retread, but he was a sound general manager for the most part. The early part of the Purpura era has inspired little if no confidence. As time goes on they will need to answer the more global questions like: do we draft college or high school players? How soon do we call them up? Do we build around pitching, defense, speed, power, or some combination?
Usually, resolutions aren’t phrased as questions, but in this case it is not so important that they come to a specific answer, but that they all agree on AN answer. In my book, “The State of Baseball Management” I found that there were many ways to skin a cat. The key is to find one and stick to it. Personally, I would like to see a move to the Moneyball system, but you have to buy into it. Find a system and buy into it.
Become more fan friendly
We can complain about spending all we want, but in the end Drayton McClane can spend any amount of money he wants on players. There is a reason why teams like the Cubs and Cards draw consistently and it has little to do with how much they spend on their teams. Yes, I will acknowledge that St. Louis and Chicago are better baseball towns, but I don’t think that explains everything. There is something they do in those towns to make the game more enjoyable.
Now, I will be the first to admit that the McClane regime has been a vast improvement over the John McMullen regime. However, that is more of an indictment of owner/fan relations history than an endorsement of McClane’s ownership. Admittedly, I have not been to every ballpark in the big leagues, but I have been to enough to make the following observations. First, the ticket and parking prices in Houston are not outrageous, but it is a bit presumptuous to raise them by the levels that they did the last season. You cannot put the cart in front of the horse. Just because fans went out in droves to watch last season does not mean they will automatically do it this season. Fans in Houston need a reason to come. Re-signing Beltran would be a good start, but don’t believe they will keep going just to see him play.
Secondly, make the in park expenses more affordable for the fans. I have been to five big league parks outside of Houston and all of them allowed fans to bring in food and beverages. Of all the parks in big league baseball, the only other park I know of that does not allow fans to bring in refreshments is Milwaukee. Leave it to the Seligs to squander an opportunity for good public relations. Now, I have heard that this situation is due to the agreement that the Astros have with Aramark. Someone at my last SABR meeting suggested giving season ticket holders an “Astros Dollars” card they could use on concessions. Even a token amount would build some goodwill. As a salesman, Drayton can surely think creatively to come up with something.
Lastly, how about lowering the costs of some items? The Astros (or Aramark) sell beer at a higher price at Minute Maid Park then any other park I’ve been to. Many of those areas had higher standards of living and higher living costs than Houston. That makes the cost of beer that much more egregious. To make matters worse, at least up until a couple of years ago, the beer vendors got the lowest percentage of sales of any beer vendors in the big leagues. Anyone with a little common sense knows they can make a profit at four dollars a beer.
Get a stiffer steroids policy
This of course goes without saying. Fortunately, it looks like the players are finally motivated to do something. This is high time for Donald Fehr and Gene Orza to get out of the way and allow a stiff policy. They need to understand that it’s all well and good to protect players’ privacy, but the game itself has integrity issues. If fans don’t believe that what the players are doing is natural then many of them will go away. Fewer fans mean fewer profits. Fewer profits mean lower salaries.
While we’re at it, let’s get some work done on the next labor deal
Yes, the owners and players seem to have a good working relationship right now. Why not use that to get some headway made on the next labor deal. Yes, the deal is not up for awhile, but there is no need to turn the focus from the game to the labor negotiations like they did a couple of years ago. The best thing they could do is announce a deal long before the deadline. Include stiffer drug testing policy in the deal and while your at it, let’s get rid of arbitration. Move free agency back to four years and let the free market decide all.
Speaking of the free market, can we set up a kangaroo court for general managers?
This kangaroo court would involve stiffer penalties than the ones that clubs run during the year. This one would involve the kind of hazing that fraternities used to do before the good ol’ government cracked down on them. Maybe we could force Brian Sabean to hold up a sign saying “I’m an idiot” until he promises not to dish out another ludicrous contract. Get Omar Minaya to hold up a sign saying “How soon until I join the ESPN crew?” Maybe we can require him to French kiss Kris Benson and Pedro Martinez since he seems to love them that much. Oh, the tricks we could play on Brian Cashman.
The point here folks is that the free market works when those inside the market know what they are doing. In Economics 101 we are taught that all economic theories are based on the premise that consumers behave rationally. It’s hard to believe that Dave O’Brien and Brian Cashman were behaving rationally when they gave those contracts to Eric Milton and Jaret Wright. It’s time they understood that the contracts they gave those guys effect the Astros when they negotiate with Roy Oswalt (or any other team and their young pitchers).
At the end of the year, we do have a lot to be thankful for. The Red Sox gave baseball fans one of the best stories in baseball history and they did it at the expense of the Yankees. Guys like Roger Clemens continue to give the fans thrills that help us forget about the more negative things in the game. While we’re at it, how about one last resolution. Bud Selig: please step down or hire a public relations guy. When you undoubtedly go into the Hall of Fame (or a history of your regime goes) the picture they will put up is the picture of you shrugging at the 2002 all-star game. With the NBA being at such a low level of quality, you have a golden opportunity to challenge the NFL for supremacy. Instead, you complain about this and about that in between asinine decisions. Either learn some PR or let baseball have a real commissioner.