Did running a baseball team help prepare George W. Bush to run America?
Dec 13, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 13 • By DAVID BROOKS
In the early 1990s, the owners of the major league baseball teams held a meeting in Denver. Jerry McMorris, the owner of the new Colorado Rockies, decided to host a lunch not at a restaurant near the meeting site, but at a country club in suburban Castle Rock. It was a mistake. The men who own major league baseball teams are imperious types, with the attention span of a 4-year-old. They are not used to being herded onto buses for long drives. Worse, this bus got lost; the driver circled round and round. The mood on the bus got ugly. Gene Autry, the aging owner of the California Angels, needed to relieve himself. His wife went up front and said something to the driver. The bus pulled over to the side of the highway, where an embarrassed Autry got out and urinated. It was an awkward moment for everybody. Then, when Autry stiffly hoisted himself back onto the bus, George W. Bush's voice rang out: "Hey Gene, you still got a great spray for a guy your age." A smile opened up on Autry's face and the bus exploded with laughter. As one of the people who were there remembers, Bush had once again said just the thing to improve everyone's mood and to remind them how much fun it is to be around him.
Bush was the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers from March 1989 to November 1994. When you talk to baseball people about how he ran the team, again and again you hear about the Bush Glow. People simply loved being with him. Bush was not just liked by the other owners, he was extremely well liked. He was liked not only by the people he promoted, he was liked by the people he fired, such as former Rangers and current Mets manager Bobby Valentine. "I think he's a terrific guy. He exudes the right feel when you're around him," Valentine told me. "He used levity. He had a great sense of humor he used to break the tension in the clubhouse, which sometimes existed for real reasons."
But what's most interesting about Bush's tenure with the Rangers is the way he translated his personality into a management style. He didn't try to compensate for his weaknesses -- his lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of team operations. He played to his strengths. Uninterested in doing the things he was not good at, he delegated day-to-day management of the club and spent his time on climate control. He was a constant presence in the ballpark, keeping everybody, from the ushers to the players, feeling good about the franchise. His ownership group was an ever shifting stew of between a dozen and two dozen millionaires; he spent a lot of time keeping them happy. During games he sat in a box next to the dugout, not in the normal owner's box above. He ribbed the players, passed out autographed baseball cards of himself to fans, and shouted jokes to the managers. Bush spoke at Rotary Clubs about the glories of baseball and even made cold calls to prospective season-ticket buyers.
He was not merely a cheerleader. He was known around baseball as an activist owner -- less activist than Yankees owner George Steinbrenner or Orioles owner Peter Angelos, but more activist than most. Yet in his handling of each of the major challenges he faced, it is his social skills that stand out. Bush recently told Time magazine that firing Bobby Valentine was one of the most agonizing decisions he has made in his life. Valentine had been Rangers manager for over seven years, but in 1992, the Rangers got off to a relatively slow start, 45 wins and 41 losses. More important, attendance was down 170,000 from the year before. Bush, team president Tom Schieffer, and general manager Tom Grieve met for an hour with Valentine to give him the bad news. "It was a tough meeting. It was especially tough on Grieve. They had been best of friends," Bush now remembers. "I was the person who described what the decision was. Bobby was taken aback but he didn't argue. We visited about it." Bush spent the next hour telling Valentine what an outstanding manager he was and what a brilliant career lay ahead of him. "I was sitting in that room and being fired. But the way he made me feel about myself was wonderful," Valentine recalls. "He was firm. He didn't waver or try to make it seem that somebody else was to blame. But he was very encouraging." Valentine left the room enthusiastic about Bush, but he went out to the media and blasted team president Tom Schieffer. "I didn't get that kind of human touch from Schieffer," Valentine says.