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A Tale of Two Owners

Goodman Sports associate Liam Ray reports:

It is a cool, late fall night that finds Yankee Stadium packed full with more than 50,000 fans. They watch their hero, the great Mariano Rivera, stare in at his teammate and friend, Jorge Posada. He might be looking for a sign but everybody, including Shane Victorino, the man in the batters' box, knows what pitch is coming.

This isn't just another regular season game. It is game six of the 2009 World Series. The Phillies have fallen behind 7-3, their pitchers victims of a powerful Yankees offense driven by eventual World Series MVP Hideki Matsui.

Of course, Yankees fans have seen this before. Almost a decade ago, a younger Mariano (one who was not yet bald beneath his cap) had closed out game five against the Mets, clinching the fourth title in five years for a Yankees dynasty which many fans thought had a chance at a few more rings before all was said and done.


They were wrong. A series of big time free-agent sluggers came and went, but there were no more parades for the Yankees in the Canyon of Heroes. The fans clamored louder and louder as the years went by. Finally, the ace pitcher the Yankees had always needed came on the market. In 2008, George Steinbrenner agreed to pay CC Sabathia $161 million over seven years to come to the Bronx. Yankees fans rushed to buy #52 jerseys, immediately embracing the big lefty. Nobody thought too much about the huge contract (contracts, actually – Mark Teixeira also came to the Yankees that offseason along with an 8-year, $180 million deal) Steinbrenner had given out; after all, it certainly wasn't the first time he had bought the best free agents available. Maybe, after all those years, Yankees fans had begun to take Steinbrenner's commitment to winning at all costs  for granted.


In Los Angeles in the late spring of 2010, another proud franchise is trying to close out a championship. The Lakers are up by six on the Boston Celtics with a minute and a half left in game seven. Boston's timeout ends and the players take the court. Seven seconds later, Rasheed Wallace swishes a 3-pointer to narrow the gap to 76-79. As the Lakers inbound the ball, just under 19,000 fans have collectively gone quiet the same way 50,000 Yankee fans did in 2009. Will their team hold on?

As Derek Fisher brings the ball across half-court, he looks at his friend and teammate, Kobe Bryant. Fisher and Bryant won their first championship together in 2000, about four months before the Yankees' turn of the century dynasty won their last World Series. A lot of things have changed in the intervening years. Fisher left the team, and then returned, Shaq departed in acrimonious fashion and Bryant, like Rivera, lost his hair, but Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss still sits courtside, as he has since 1979. His commitment to winning is as strong as Steinbrenner's. The two men have won a combined 17 league championships, but while Steinbrenner vocally led his team and repeatedly spearheaded its efforts to sign big-name free agents, Buss has led with his shrewdness in hiring excellent coaches and talent evaluators while he retains a more behind-the-scenes role. Either way, you can't fault their leadership styles. The results speak for themselves.

Back in the Bronx, Mariano grits his teeth and begins his windup. At the plate, Victorino's eyes widen as a cut fastball comes spinning out of Mariano's hand. Even though he knows it's coming, he still can't make solid contact. He grounds the ball weakly toward Robinson Cano, who scoops it up and flicks it easily into the open glove of Mark Teixeira. The World Series is over. The Stadium is rocking as 50,000 people explode in jubilation. They don't know that this is the last gasp of the Yankees' aging dynasty. Maybe they would have cheered even louder if they had.


At the Staples Center, Kobe has the ball as the shot clock winds down. Ray Allen guards him tightly at the 3-point line. If someone is going to put a dagger in the Celtics, they are determined that it won't be Kobe. Finally, the Black Mamba sees Ron Artest (as he was known then) open on the perimeter. He slings him the ball. Artest quickly jab steps and then pulls up for a 3-pointer with Paul Pierce's hand in his face. The arena goes silent as the people in the crowd nervously watch the ball spin through the air, ready to curse Artest for not throwing the ball back to Kobe, who had been calling for it, but they don't have to. The ball swishes through the net. There is a minute left in the game, but with the Lakers up six, it is essentially over. The clock runs out and the Lakers have won their 16th title and their second in a row. The assembled fans high-five one another and pump their fists in the air. Another three-peat doesn't just feel possible; it feels inevitable.


On the Stadium's Jumbotron, there is a picture of the Commissioner's Trophy that Bud Selig has just handed to Hal Steinbrenner. George is 1000 miles away at his home in Florida, now 79 years old and too frail to travel to New York, even to watch his team accept the trophy it has now won seven times under his watch. "Boss, this is for you," says the text beneath the trophy graphic. It is a fitting final gift for the owner who returned the Yankees to prominence. Unfortunately, he will die just eight months later, three months into their title defense.


In LA, Jerry Buss stands proudly on a stage with the team he has built. Unlike Hal Steinbrenner, he does not accept the trophy from the commissioner. True to his style, he lets Magic Johnson, the player who initially built Buss's reputation by winning him five titles, accept it instead. It is Buss's tenth, and final, championship as an owner. The next season, the Lakers are eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual-champion Dallas Mavericks. In 2012, the fast-rising Oklahoma City Thunder dispatch the Lakers in five games. That offseason Buss manages one last "Bussian" move: in a three-team trade, LA acquires superstar center Dwight Howard. Howard's contract is due to expire at the end of the season, but this is of no consequence to Buss; his teams have never lost a high-profile free agent, and he has a long track record of successfully trading for and integrating marquee players into his Lakers squads. Unfortunately, the old and oft-injured 2012-2013 Lakers struggle all season long, and Jerry Buss passes away in February. The team is swept in the first round of the playoffs.


Great ownership, unlike many things in sports, cannot be quantified, sought, or traded for. Great owners in small markets win championships; great owners in big markets create dynasties. When George Steinbrenner was actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the New York Yankees, they acted aggressively and consistently to put a championship-caliber team on the field. Marquee free agents came to the Yankees, of course, but more importantly, marquee free agents never left the Yankees.

Jerry Buss was another example of what great ownership in a big market can do. You could always count on the Lakers to make intelligent decisions that put them closer to championship contention if they weren't already there. The idea of a major free agent leaving the Lakers for another team was about as realistic as the idea of chocolate milk falling from the sky. At the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, Jerry Buss had already ceded control of the Lakers to his incompetent son, Jim Buss. Immediately, you saw the difference between great ownership and bad ownership. Jim Buss fired coach Mike Brown five games into the season in a move that absolutely stank of panic. Great owners never panic. Ever. To compound the problem, Jim hired Mike D'Antoni to coach the team, despite Phil Jackson's request for two days to consider the Lakers' offer for a return. The difference between Jerry and Jim Buss was never more apparent than after D'Antoni's hire. Phil Jackson is the greatest coach in NBA history, and Jim Buss couldn't give him two measly days to make a decision. He picked D'Antoni, who had only succeeded in Phoenix because of the greatness of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire and who had failed utterly as the coach of the New York Knicks. Frankly, it was a stupid move, and great owners never make stupid moves.

After Hal Steinbrenner took over as the Yankees owner, it became clear that winning was not Hal's single-minded obsession the way it had been George's. Hal talked to the media about cutting the team's payroll, something George had never even considered. Hal wanted to stand pat with what he had because it was expensive. George never let money come between him and players he wanted. So the big time free agents came on the market and signed with other teams – Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton went to the Angels and Zach Greinke signed with the Dodgers. Cuban defectors Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig inked modest contracts with the Athletics and the Dodgers, respectively. Yu Darvish, the best pitcher  (at least statistically) who was ever posted by Japanese professional baseball became a Texas Ranger, despite the Yankees' glaring need for starting pitching.


Dwight Howard leaving the Lakers in the summer of 2013 was the moment that made every Lakers fan realize what they had lost when Jerry Buss passed away. It was something that simply wouldn't have happened under Jerry's ownership, especially considering that one of the main reasons Howard left was because of his dissatisfaction with D'Antoni. Jerry Buss understood how to evaluate coaching talent, and he understood who he needed to hire to evaluate playing talent. The way he ran the Lakers gave his superstars confidence that teams they played on were at least in contention for a championship, if not favored to win a championship, year in and year out. Jerry could promise you money, but, more importantly, he could promise you wins.

Yankees fans look with uncertainty at the 2013 offseason. Robinson Cano, the only Yankees superstar still in his prime, will become a free agent. The fans know the Boss would never let a superstar Yankee go to another team, but the Boss is gone. All outcomes are on the table. The fact that Cano is a second baseman, a perennially weak position for most teams in the majors, means the Yankees will undoubtedly face competition in their attempt to resign him. Other clubs have watched his natural hitting stroke and smooth fielding enviously for years. Losing Cano would be a seminal moment in Yankee history the way losing Howard was a seminal moment in Lakers history.


And so, Yankees fans will spend the summer waiting and wondering. Did George Steinbrenner take the Yankee ownership's competitive fire to the grave with him the way Jerry Buss took the Laker ownership's intelligence? Only time will tell.

How do you feel about ownership in sports? Do you think we will see another Steinbrenner or Buss? Share your thoughts. Comment below!

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