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.
Tom Schieffer was given broad authority in the Rangers organization. Schieffer, the brother of Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, was a Democratic state representative in Texas who was swept out of office in 1978. He went into law, specializing in the oil and gas business, and prospered. In 1989, when Bush, Rusty Rose, and others were organizing the group to buy the Rangers, they were told they would have to include more Texans. Schieffer was invited to join the partnership and did, investing $ 1.4 million for a 4.2 percent interest in the club (actually a greater share than Bush owned).
Schieffer was not an obvious choice to be team president, having rubbed a lot of people the wrong way during his political career. But in 1989 Schieffer attended almost as many games as Bush, and the two became close friends. In the Rangers' front office, they established a seamless and highly successful working relationship. "He's not much on details," Schieffer told the San Antonio Express-News. "But he likes to participate in strategic decisions, and then he likes to recruit people to his staff." From the pattern Bush set at the Rangers, one could infer that the chief of staff in a George W. Bush White House would be the most powerful one in history. But Bush disagrees. "I wouldn't draw a conclusion that a single person would have a lot of authority," he says. "As governor, I've got a much flatter organizational chart. I have direct access from more than one person."
Their biggest accomplishment, and Schieffer's major responsibility, was building a stadium. When the Rangers moved to Texas from Washington, they were housed in a glorified minor-league ballpark, with lousy seats and few luxury boxes to generate revenue. Bush, Rose, Schieffer, and Richard Greene, the mayor of Arlington, developed a proposal to hike the city's sales tax by half a cent to raise $ 135 million for the new stadium. It was put to the voters in a referendum. Bush campaigned for it, while critics called it welfare for millionaires. In the biggest turnout in Arlington history, the measure passed by 2 to 1.
They drew up a list of 100 features they wanted in the new ballpark. "I wanted grass of course," Bush says. "It's like foreign policy. You're either an isolationist or an interventionist. You're either for grass or artificial turf. There are certain threshold issues." They wanted an asymmetrical outfield, to increase the number of triples, which Bush says are baseball's most exciting play. They wanted tight space around the foul lines so fans would be closer to the game. They wanted old-fashioned lighting pillars. They wanted plenty of features for families, so that fans would bring along the spouse and kids when they went to games. They also wanted a lot of nooks and crannies throughout the stadium. "We noticed that different culture clusters grow up in different sections of a ballpark. We wanted the nooks and crannies for the cultures to develop," Bush adds. He says the weeks doing stadium design were some of the most fascinating of his life.
They selected Washington architect David Schwartz and asked him to build the park -- Baltimore's Camden Yards, the first of the retro-parks, was just under construction. Schwartz came up with an art deco design and an old-fashioned one. Bush chose the more traditional one. Bush insisted that the stadium have a Texas feel. When they talked about concession stands, Schwartz says, Schieffer wanted to know how many points of sale there would be from a revenue standpoint; Bush wanted to make sure there would be quality Texas barbecue.
The stadium was built quickly and at a relatively low cost. The building, which opened in 1994, is generally regarded as esthetically inferior to similar parks in Baltimore and Cleveland -- it is thought to be kitsch. But the new stadium transformed the franchise. Revenues were $ 28.8 million the year before Bush and company bought the team. They were up to $ 62.4 million in 1993, the last year in the old stadium. But in the new park, attendance jumped by 700,000, with revenues skyrocketing to $ 116 million last year. The new money allowed the owners to sign better players and jack up the payroll (now around $ 75 million). The Rangers were hapless cellar-dwellers in the decades leading up to the Bush ownership; now they are a playoff team, drawing nearly 3 million fans a season. The Rangers were worth $ 84 million when Bush's group bought them in 1989. The team sold for $ 250 million in 1998. By any measure, Bush, Schieffer, and company were fantastically successful. And their architect, David Schwartz, got to enjoy the full Bush Glow like everyone else: "Some clients treat architects like the help. But he was incredibly kind to me. My wife and I got to know George and Laura. He was interested in learning about architecture."
Over and over again Bush uses the word "traditionalist" to describe his approach. Not only was "The Ballpark at Arlington," as the stadium came to be called, traditional, but his attitude toward the game was too. In his dealings with other team owners, Bush waged a series of lonely and losing battles to preserve traditional aspects of baseball. During his tenure, the major-league owners decided to adopt interleague play, an expanded playoffs format with wild-card teams, and a reformed division structure, with three rather than two divisions in each league. Bush opposed all those changes. When it came time to vote on interleague play, he insisted on casting the first vote, to make it clear where he stood. He did, and lost 27-1. "I made the most eloquent speech in history, and persuaded one guy . . . me," Bush said after the meeting.
On the expanded playoff idea, Bush was motivated by his traditionalist instincts. "The traditions of baseball are sacred. The outstanding thing is you can compare today with yesterday, a team of the thirties against a team of today." He was inclined to oppose anything that might mar the comparisons. He also argued that baseball is properly a long-distance ordeal. "You build a team to win a 162-game marathon, not to get lucky in a 5-game playoff." His opposition to interleague play was motivated in part by a marketing judgment. "The primary asset of baseball is the World Series. It cheapens the World Series if the two teams have already played each other," he says. His opposition to the new division structure was more narrowly self-interested. The new alignment put the Rangers in the same division as three Pacific Standard Time teams, the Oakland A's, the California Angels, and the Seattle Mariners. That meant away games would start at 9 in Texas, screwing up the local TV schedule.
Bush's most passionate confrontation with his fellow owners came in 1992 over the decision to fire Fay Vincent, baseball's last powerful commissioner. Vincent is an old family friend, who used to stay at the Bush house back when George Bush the elder was in the oil business. But he offended most of the team owners, often by taking actions that were in the best interests of the game. Above all, the owners were afraid Vincent might insert himself into the upcoming negotiations with the players' union (the talks that led eventually to the disastrous strike). White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf led the group that wanted Vincent's head. "When we go to war with the union, I want [the commissioner] to have an obligation only to the owners," Reinsdorf said.
Bush led the group who wanted to save Vincent. The crucial meeting was in Rosemont, Illinois. "It was a bitter moment. I can remember a row of klieg lights, like it was a giant inquisition," Bush recalls. "Fay Vincent was a friend. I was also concerned because terminating a commissioner before the end of his term set a bad precedent." But when Bush's people got there, they quickly realized that they had been outmaneuvered and out-hustled by Reinsdorf's group. Reinsdorf had worked the phones and sewed up the votes, so that by the time the owners gathered, there were no owners left to be swayed. Bush made some passionate defenses of Vincent, in closed-door sessions and in the media, but again, he lost badly.
History has shown that Bush was on the right side of the fight. If Vincent had stayed on, perhaps baseball could have avoided the owner-player confrontation, the replacement players, and all the subsequent foulness. But it's hard to tell whether Bush defended Vincent because he had thought through what would be best for the game, or just out of personal loyalty. Furthermore, it is striking that even amidst these disagreements, Bush never offended his fellow owners. If their testimony is to be believed, Bush left each confrontation even more popular with his peers than he had been before.
As owner, Bush loved talking about trades and free-agent signings. He often peppered his manager and general manager with trade ideas: "Maybe we can get those two guys, for these four," is how Valentine describes it. Valentine is careful when talking about the quality of Bush's suggestions. "At first we wondered if he was a guy who thought he was trading playing cards. But his ideas were not crazy." Bush would think through the salary implications of each trade idea before he suggested it. On the other hand, it's not clear any of Bush's trades were ever pulled off. "He did get us thinking outside the box," Valentine says diplomatically.
Bush never interfered with field decisions, and much to his manager's relief, he wasn't the sort to hold player meetings to give "Win One for the Gipper" speeches. He was friendly but rarely intimate with the players. He enjoyed the company of some, such as outfielder Jose Canseco. He apparently regarded many as spoiled brats who didn't live up to their obligations, such as pitcher Kevin Brown. He went out of his way to speak Spanish with the Hispanic players. And he defended his on-field personnel when they needed it. The toughest test of that came in 1993, when new manager Kevin Kennedy allowed Canseco to pitch at the end of one lopsided game. Canseco promptly blew out his elbow, and the $ 4.1 million outfielder was lost for the season. Kennedy had made an awful blunder. "I'm not going to second guess my manager," Bush said right afterwards.
Bush and Rusty Rose did approve all of the big player signings and trades. The worst of them was the one that sent the young Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alverez to the Cubs for Harold Baines. Some of the other owners recognized it as a disastrous trade at the time, and Bush had to smooth ruffled feathers. "I take responsibility for that one," Bush says. "It was late in the season and we were making a run. The baseball people came to me with the suggestion that we trade these young players. Baines was an offensive threat. But if I had said no it wouldn't have happened." While the Rangers were negotiating to re-sign first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, they signed first baseman Will Clark. Palmeiro was outraged, calling Tom Schieffer a "backstabbing liar," and went on to have productive years with the Orioles before returning to Texas last year.
But many of the moves worked out better. Bush and Rose were roasted in the media in the winter of 1992 for letting pitcher Jose Guzman leave. "This franchise has absolutely no commitment to win," was a typical commentary from the Dallas Morning News. But Guzman, already hurt, never pitched effectively again. Their basic approach was to find players who really wanted to play in Texas, and dump players, like Brown and Ruben Sierra, who didn't. Bush, Rose, and Schieffer were known as moderate spenders in the free-agent market and big spenders on player development. The Rangers' farm system has been quite productive, producing stars like Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez.
Obviously running a baseball team is a lot different from running a country. Baseball is about grown men trying to hit a little white ball with a stick. The presidency is supposed to be about statesmanship. But Bush's experience with the Rangers is at least as telling as Bill Bradley's touted experience with the New York Knicks. Bush's record with the Rangers will not assuage those who doubt his readiness for the Oval Office, who believe that he knows too little about government and policy, and that he lacks the gravitas to head a great nation. But his record with the Rangers does illustrate qualities that would have relevance in the White House. He can disagree with people and still get along with them. He can delegate (and how!). He is able to set a tone for an administration and build morale. He doesn't try to play outside himself (as hitters say). And he has discovered a management style that fits his awe-some interpersonal skills. In the post-Clintonian age, a president's power is often measured by his approval ratings. George W. Bush is a popularity superstar.
David Brooks is a senior editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.