No, this story isn't about those loveable Seinfeld characters; rather, it's a tale about two self-made men who made a fortune and then went out and bought themselves a flagship franchise. And, let it be known in advance that I realize this is not a baseball blog. Oh, and I hate the Yankees.
This week, due in large part to the unveiling of George Steinbrenner's Yankee Stadium memorial alongside those of Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle, the airwaves have been abuzz (again) with opinions about Big George's legacy. Given that the Yankees owner and one Jerral Wayne Jones have been the subjects of frequent comparisons, I thought this might present an opportunity for early speculation about another legacy--that of our beloved Arkansas carpetbagger.
George and Jerry offer give us a good deal of fodder for such a comparison; indeed, their ownership trajectories have some eerie similarities. Let's take a quick look: both purchased successful flagship franchises during an uncharacteristic downturn in their on-field fortunes, and their teams both enjoyed immediate success. We know all about the story of the early 90s Cowboys; two years after he became principal owner, Steinbrenner's Yankees were in the world series-and represented the American League in the Fall classic in five of the next seven years.
After this early success, however, Steinbrenner's teams were often good, but not great. During the "Mattingly years" (1982-1995), the Bronx Bombers, typically a constellation of offensive all-stars and big-ticket free agent acquisitions who failed to do the little things to win (sound familiar?), endured their longest World Series drought. From 1989 to 1992, the team had a losing record; in 1990, they sported the worst record in the American League.
These teams all had Steinbrenner's stamp: not only was he notoriously meddlesome, he was mercurial, changing his mind about managers and players with terrifying frequency. His overriding characteristic was impatience; "The Boss" seemed constitutionally incapable of adhering to the long view, of settling on a clear, coherent talent acquisition plan or management philosophy. Yearly--sometimes hourly--he demanded a shift in the organization's focus and tactics.
It can be argued that Steinbrenner's impatience was a direct byproduct of his early success. The fact that the Yankees won early in his tenure, the argument goes, made him think that success comes easily, that all one has to do is to throw a bit of money at a Reggie Jackson and World Series titles will follow. He never had to cultivate a farm system with the utmost care and delicacy, never had to endure coming in a close second. In short, he never had to earn it.
This is precisely Jerry Jones' trajectory. He came into the league a laughing stock and almost immediately silenced his critics. With intoxicating speed, the Cowboys went from league whipping boy into the conversation about the greatest teams of all time. If we apply the Steinbrenner thesis, we can say that Jerry never had to develop a coherent organizational plan in order to succeed, so he never had one to fall back on in the hard times that followed (an extension of this argument is that Jimmy Johnson developed that plan and then took it with him when he left following the 1993 season).
Indeed, commentators on the Cowboys of the early 2000s remarked on a seemingly Steinbrenneresque operational model: Dallas seemed to develop a new plan of attack, a new way of evaluating players or prioritizing their skill sets every draft ("If that don't work, let's try somethin' different"). As a result, an acute organizational schizophrenia plagued the team off the field and negatively impacted the product on the field. We need look no further than the eminently forgettable 2000 season, a year in which the ‘Boys drafted Dwayne Goodrich and Kareem Larrimore and, for the trifecta, acquired Demetrius Underwood. This was two years after passing on Randy Moss due to character issues. Like the Yankees of the late 80s, Jerry's team was rotten. From within.
As well all know, Bill Parcells came on board and, in some sense, saved this team from Jerry. He pruned the dead wood (goodbye Larry Lacewell), and gave the organization a clearer chain of command. He restructured the scouting department and gave them clear sets of criteria to apply to players when judging their suitability for the team. Although Parcells is long gone, many of these structures remain in place, and the Cowboys recent success is a measure of the effectiveness of Parcells' program. One could say he saved the Cowboys.
The Yankees were saved because of a bizarre episode in which Steinbrenner's hired a goon named Howard Spira to uncover damaging information on Dave Winfield. When the fiasco was made public, Georgie was subsequently suspended from day-to-day team operations by Baseball's Commissioner, Fay Vincent. Without his constant interference, the Bombers were able to implement a coherent acquisition/development program, realigning the team's priorities: instead of high-priced acquisitions, they would develop talent through their farm system.
The Result? Yankees minor leaguers Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera--perhaps you've heard of them?--all joined the big club within a two-year period. At the same time, Brian Cashman became the Yankees General Manager. He fleshed out this core of young talent not with high-priced, big-name free agents, but a different player profile: fiercely competitive, hard-nosed guys who played sound fundamental baseball. The archetypes for this new breed of Yankee free agent were Scott Brosius and Paul O'Neil.
Brosius in particular is an interesting case study. The Yankee third baseman for three of their Series titles in the late 90s, he wasn't a particularly intimidating specimen: a 257 career hitter, he only hit more than 20 homers in a season once - and in the steroid era!. Yet he did all the little things that help a team win: gave them quality defense (he won a Golden Glove in '99), hit behind runners, and took pitchers deep into counts. With guys like Brosius aboard, the Yanks won four titles between 1996 and 2000 and were oh-so-close in 2001, losing in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game. Brosius and O'Neill both retired after the 2001 season, officially signaling the end of the "Cashman years." The Yankees were shut out the rest of the decade before winning a title last year.
Why did they stop winning? Because George came back, of course. And, once back, he began to meddle again, in all the ways he had during the Mattingly-Winfield era. Like Jerry, George was a magpie; he loved shiny things: sleek ballplayers with gaudy statistics who couldn't care less about hitting the cutoff man or advancing a runner in a one-run game. Scott Brosius wasn't shiny but, oh, did he help a team win. And The Boss wanted to win his way: the easy way. If we look over his career, however, we can see that his way of doing business never actually resulted in a championship.
Neither has Jerry's.
And here we are, in the second decade of Dallas' own, torturous "Mattingly years."
Like George, Jerry is going to rule Cowboyland until he goes to the great beyond. The Yankees caught a break when King George was banished from his kingdom by Saint Vincent; Jerry isn't likely to suffer a similar fate. As Cowboys fans, then, what are we to do? My suggestion is this: pray for a counterweight to Jerry, a Brian Cashman figure (Stephen Jones, are you listening?), a guy who can stick to a long-term development plan with patience and perspective. A guy who values football playin' dudes more than shiny objects. We have plenty of shiny toys on this roster, guys like A-rod; what we need are the gridiron equivalents of Scott Brosius.