Sports

If I Owned a Sports Team

The Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hits a double against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park in Detroit, Mich., May 5, 2019. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)
One man’s fantasy

I  was talking with my friends Rahul and Vivek — we’re all Detroit-area kids (if you want to stretch the word “area” a bit). The question arose, “If you could own one sports team, which would it be? The Tigers, Lions, Pistons, or Red Wings?”

For the uninitiated, I’d better say: We’re talking about baseball, football, basketball, and hockey, in Detroit.

We had an interesting discussion, the three of us. For some years now, I’ve thought about owning a sports team. I’ve indulged in a fantasy or two. (More healthful than some fantasies.) What would I do? What would you do, if you owned a sports team?

Well, here’s some of what I’d do.

Going to a game can be like going to a rock concert. Constant, pounding, deafening noise. A few years ago, I was at a Tiger game with my mother. It was almost impossible to talk to the person sitting next to you. Seriously. As soon as there was the slightest break in the action, noise started: music, or blaring announcements over the p.a. system. Some mindless game or contest in the stands. Something.

Anything to keep you from talking or thinking.

At Madison Square Garden, where I’ve spent a little time, you can’t hear the sounds of basketball: the dribbling, the squeak of shoes, the whistles of the refs. Everything is too loud — inhumanly so. Management must be afraid that people will have one moment of quiet, one moment without hugely amplified noise.

It’s like you’re in a giant, deafening pinball machine.

In my park or arena or stadium, that would not happen. People would find it weird at first — abnormal; too quiet; maybe dull. They have been conditioned to the noise. Over time, however, they would like the new atmosphere, I feel sure.

The national anthem would be sung by a variety of singers, and played by a variety of instrumentalists. But it would always be done well, in whatever style.

Former players would be honored — from both teams (the home team and the visiting team). The sport itself would be celebrated, as much as our own team. Visitors would enjoy coming to our site.

Cheerleaders? Not the porny kind (if any). Guys can go to the strip club after, if they want.

Concession prices would be reasonable. There would be no “gouging.” And the food would be good — very good. Vendors would compete for the right to sell their products at our venue. Price and quality would be foremost considerations. Our customers would enjoy a nice “market,” a nice choice.

Believe it or not, people could bring their own food, if they wanted. We might be the only venue in America that permitted that. The fans could bring picnic baskets. But they might not want to: because our concessions would be so good, and so affordable.

Outdoors, on very hot days — as at Tiger Stadium in July — we would give out bottles of water, to make sure everyone was okay. A “goodwill gesture.”

Okay, here’s the big thing — hold on to your socks: No alcohol would be permitted. This would be my most daring and controversial reform. We would phase it in, not spring it on the public all of a sudden. At first, there would be a rebellion. An uproar. Even boycotts.

As time passed, however, I think people would settle in — and come to like it. They would come to appreciate a different atmosphere. Drinkers would shrug and say, “I can wait” — as smokers do, on an airplane. I mean, hit the bar after the game. After a while, people would forget about the freaky new rule. It would be normal — no big deal.

Ticket prices would be such that there would seldom be an empty seat. Our team — and the visiting team — would play in front of a full house.

You know how, at some motels, you can get a deal if you arrive late at night? What’s better for the motel owner — an empty room or a reduced price? Maybe people could get bargains just before kickoff, or tipoff, or what have you.

Frankly, I think the revenue would pour into our club. I think people would love attending our games.

Where litter is concerned, the Walt Disney principle would be in place: not a gum wrapper on the floor or ground. I would have hordes of bright, friendly, crisply uniformed young people, on the lookout. Seeing things so clean, no one would litter. It would be almost a pleasure to go to the bathroom — they would be so clean and fresh. We would be militant about this.

Here is something big — almost metaphysical, or spiritual. Over time, a certain etiquette would develop. A certain culture. Our fans would not boo or jeer at opposing teams or officials. Opponents and officials would be accorded respect. In the basketball arena, there would be no obnoxious behavior when someone is trying to shoot a free throw — no waving of pom-poms and all that BS. Old values of sportsmanship would be reinstituted.

People all over the country would say, “It’s different in Detroit.” Who knows, maybe other cities would follow suit? Sometimes it takes just one to set an example.

Many years ago, I attended a University of Michigan basketball game at Crisler Arena. We won, the other team lost. As the other team left the floor, the p.a. blared, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no mo’, no mo’, no mo’, no mo’.” Disgusting.

My head coach — or manager — would be a person of great integrity. He would set a very good example. But the players? We would accept many a “problem child,” who had a hard time fitting in elsewhere. We would work around and work with such players, letting “them be them,” within reason.

I don’t expect the Boy Scouts. But not the Rat Pack either.

The head coach, or manager, would have some job security. He would not work with the Sword of Damocles over his head. I would say to him, “Your contract is through X year. Absent something moral — you up and murder someone — you aren’t going anywhere, unless you want to.”

Oh, yes, let me tell you this: I would keep no one — coach or player — against his will. Everyone would have to want to be in the organization. I would never hold anyone, no matter what his contract said. I want only the willing and content.

Anyway, I would say to the head coach or manager, “Don’t think about your job security at all. We will sit down and talk when the time comes. In the meantime, just do your job.”

It is very, very hard to coach when you’re scared — when you’re worried about job security. A coach needs room to do his job. He can’t be judged game to game. That’s now how sports works.

Chuck Noll, famed coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, died in 2014. I was struck by something in his obit, published in the New York Times.

[Andy] Russell, the linebacker who played in seven Pro Bowls as a Steeler, marveled at Noll’s ability to teach.

“He would teach new draft choices who were all-American guards how to get in a stance,” Russell once told ESPN. “In his first year, we won our first game and lost 13 in a row. He said, ‘We will get worse before we get better because I’m going to force you to play the right way.’”

As the owner, I would not enter the locker room except with the permission of the head coach or manager. That’s the team’s domain. If I owned the Pistons, I would not sit behind the bench, breathing down the team’s neck, so to speak. I would sit elsewhere.

To the extent possible, I would keep the team together — a certain core. Wheeling and dealing, sure. Some of that is inevitable. You want to improve your team. But let me tell you: I never know who’s on a team anymore. They come and go, before you can learn their names, or their numbers. Today, I can barely name a Piston — I used to know the whole lineup, or at least the starting five.

This is not good for business, I wouldn’t think. I want good players to feel they can, and should, stay in town. I want fans to know who’s on the team. I want a certain bond to develop.

Not so long ago, the Tigers had great pitchers: Scherzer, Verlander, Price, Porcello, others. They all dispersed, hither and yon. Maybe they would have liked to play together? Winning championships, winning World Series? Lots of glory. Plenty of money, too.

But listen: All the glory, and a full stadium, cheering them on adoringly, every time — that is a form of compensation, I would think.

Would players be willing to come to Detroit, or stay in Detroit, for somewhat less money than they could make elsewhere, just for the success and esprit of it all? I don’t know. I’d like to test it.

Periodically, we would have joint meals for our players and their families and visiting teams and their families (if any made the trip). Also, there would be parties — really festive occasions — where players and staff mingled: stars and ushers (for example) alike. Morale would be very high.

Our organization would be damn serious about winning. But, oh, we would have fun, too.

I can hear my critics: This is Ozzie ’n’ Harriet stuff. Get with the 21st century, Grampa. Hell, get with the last quarter of the 20th century. Yes, my plans, my notions, sound pretty hokey. But, you know? After the initial disbelief and derision, I think people would come to like my approach — fans, players, coaches, everyone. I really do.

Jiving with Rahul and Vivek, I laid out my plans, or some of them. They were supportive — or certainly polite. Tell you what Vivek said:

Reminds me a lot of Augusta National during the Masters. Respectful noise, affordable concessions, honoring of the old champions, and pristine grounds. (It is definitely a pleasure to use the bathroom!) There is a blueprint at Augusta that has clearly worked, and maybe someone will try it out in one of the major sports.

Also, if you were successful in getting a star athlete to take a pay cut to come to Detroit, you would be the greatest owner in the history of sports.

Ha, well . . .

Okay, enough of me and my pie-in-the-sky. What about you? What would you do, if you owned a sports team? If you wanna tell me, I’m at jnordlinger@nationalreview.com. Thx much and talk soon.

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