Did running a baseball team help prepare George W. Bush to run America?
Dec 13, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 13 • By DAVID BROOKS
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.