Ten years ago this week, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Florida Marlins made the biggest trade in baseball history, and one would have thought baseball to be subject to imminent apocalypse. Looking back, we now know that the biggest threat to the sport's well-being was a bottle of androstenedione lurking in Mark McGwire's locker, waiting only for an honest Associated Press reporter named Steve Wilstein to ask about it. At the time, though, the threat seemed to be that Mammon, in his various guises, would devour the game whole.
"Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., more specifically its Fox division, left no doubt that the mom-and-pop operation of the O'Malley family is no longer the Dodger way," wrote Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, in a piece that captured the nervous, jittery tenor of the day. Verducci described how "team presidents, one a marketing man, the other an accountant, and two TV suits from Los Angeles" worked out a trade involving Mike Piazza, Gary Sheffield, Todd Zeile, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, and $108 million in contracts without bothering to cut in Dodgers general manager Fred Claire. Nothing could be further from the ideal of gentlemanly remove represented by the O'Malleys' stewardship of the Dodgers. Baseball, it seemed, was going fully corporate.
Predictably, the high guardians of the sport's pristine culture were often to be spotted in the sports page, sniffing at the prospect of suited barbarians taking over the American game. When Florida eventually traded Piazza to the Mets, for instance, New York Times columnist George Vecsey managed to work in rather superfluous references both to "the let's-make-a-deal Murdoch empire" and "Murdoch minions." Others worried that the wave would simply drown them: After the trade, Peter Schmuck of the Sporting News cited several anonymous owners who fretted to him that the Dodgers sale would "irrevocably alter the balance of power in the NL West."
If all of this seems a bit hysterical at a remove, that's probably because big stories often happen in slow motion and are as often about what doesn't happen as what does.
When the Piazza trade was consummated, News Corp. was one of six Omni Consumer Products-type concerns to own a team. Tribune Co. owned the Cubs, Nintendo owned the Mariners, Disney owned the Angels, Time Warner owned the Braves, and Belgian beer conglomerate Interbrew, makers of Stella Artois, owned the Blue Jays. Additionally, dead people (or at least their estates) owned the Red Sox and the Royals, and commissioner Bud Selig owned the Brewers. Of the 30 teams, then, barely two-thirds were owned by the Montgomery Burns sorts who have traditionally run baseball and tolerated such charming folkways as letting professional operators make the trades.
Not only didn't the Fox-owned Dodgers ever do so much as make the playoffs, though, but the whole wave of corporate ownership of which they once seemed the apotheosis receded, and quickly. The Monty Burns types are as firmly in control of the game as they ever have been, and their power is increasing. Today, no team is owned by an estate or blind trust, and just four teams — the Cubs, Mariners, Blue Jays, and Braves — are run by corporate owners. The latter two are owned by smaller companies than they once were (Rogers Communications and Liberty Media, respectively), while the Tribune Co. has been vaguely attempting to sell the Cubs for more than a year.
By contrast, many teams once run by impersonal entities have been snapped up by independently wealthy gadflies. Financier John Henry led the group that took over the Red Sox from the Yawkey Trust and quickly made them over into the game's premier franchise; his fellow moneyman Mark Attanasio has done a lot more with the Brewers than Selig's supposedly blind trust ever did, and advertising mogul Arte Moreno has sustained the winning tradition that Disney improbably fostered with the Angels. Finally, although parking lot tycoon Frank McCourt hasn't been wildly successful with the Dodgers, the team has made the playoffs twice under his watch. Nowhere have the TV suits and marketing men taken over teams in ways that seemed possible a decade ago.
There are several lessons to draw from this, but there are two particularly worth keeping in mind. The first is that you never know what will actually end up being a big deal; a decade from now, the present and continuing emphasis on lurid tales of drug use in baseball will probably seem as quaint as concern over the rapacious forces of global capitalism does now. The second is that baseball's system of governance, curious and corrupt as it can be, basically works. It brings in the odd bum owner like art dealer Jeffrey Loria, but over the last decade, the quality of the sport's ownership class has notably increased, with fewer Belgians and deceased pillars of the community owning clubs, and more people with some idea of what they're doing. I find baseball's poo-bahs and bigwigs as ridiculous as the next person does, and there is never any harm in poking a sharp stick at this country club of buffoons with more money than they can burn. It's worth remembering, though, that they don't get everything wrong after all.