Monday, October 4, 2010

Top 10 Worst Executives in New York Sports History

As with my Top 10 Worst Coaches, I'm going to limit "History" to 1920 onward, with "The Golden Age of Sports" effectively beginning the modern age of sports. So this absolves Andrew Freedman, the nutcase who owned the Giants at the turn of the 20th Century, and Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery, the ex-police commissioner and current bootlegger (or was it the other way around? Didn't matter, whichever had been Commish was pretty damn corrupt) who owned the New York Highlanders/Yankees from their 1903 founding until 1915.

Actually, all of these disasters are pretty much in my lifetime, 1969 onward. I didn't even think to include Horace Stoneham, who owned the baseball Giants from 1936 to 1976, and moved them to San Francisco in 1957, talked into it by Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers who needed another California team, after Stoneham was already deciding to move to Minneapolis, where the Giants' top farm team was.

It would have been so simple to save the Giants: Robert Moses, practically the dictator of New York City already, had the plan for the building in Flushing Meadow that would become known as Shea Stadium. If Stoneham had just asked for it, the Giants might be playing at Citi Field today, and, as there would have been in 1962, and could have been a few other times (they would've been in the NL East, not having to face the Dodgers and Reds in the NL West), there could, in the fall of 2010, be a Subway Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants. Willie Mays was beloved in New York. Think of what New York fans could have done with Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Jack Sanford, the Alou Brothers, Gaylord Perry, Bobby and Barry Bonds -- Barry might've gotten the love he needed to not try steroids.

But all Stoneham could see was his crumbling Polo Grounds in a disintegrating upper Harlem and Washington Heights, with the Yankees and Dodgers both making money hand over glove, and he thought he couldn't compete. If he had just held on for another year...

But he didn't, so I'm putting him at Number 11 on this list. But the rest are all guys who did foolish or rotten things that I'm old enough to remember, and seriously mucked up some great teams.

10. George Steinbrenner, Yankees, 1980-90. Okay, officially, George wasn't the GM. But, let's face it, he was the man making the personnel decisions, no matter how much he blamed "my baseball people" for trades.

When he had Gabe Paul from 1973 to '77, Al Rosen in '78 and '79, Gene Michael stepping in after his suspension in 1990, Bob Watson in '96 and '97 and Brian Cashman from 1998 to 2010, George was a great owner, which is why he's only Number 10 on this list. But he was a horrible GM, and that's why he makes this list at all.

9. "The Secaucus Seven," Nets, 1978-98. Led by Joe Taub and Alan Cohen, these guys got little to work with, and they made less out of it. Having to pay $8 million -- and, as sportswriting legend Bert Randolph Sugar would say, these were Jerry Ford dollars, not Barack Obama dollars -- just to get into the NBA following the collapse of the ABA and to pay off the Knicks for "territorial indemnification" -- the Nets had to sell off their best player, Long Island native Julius "Dr. J" Erving, and a year later trade their next-best player, Bronx native Nate "Tiny" Archibald. In other words, just to remain in the Tri-State Area, the Nets had to dump 2 of the men who would be named in 1996 to the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players. (Even 14 seasons later, Doc is probably still one of the game's top 20.)

So how many times did the Nets make the Playoffs in those 20 seasons that the S7 owned them? 10. How many Playoff series did they win? One. (1984, against the defending World Champion Philadelphia 76ers -- with Erving -- before falling in 6 in the next round against the Milwaukee Bucks.) How many Playoff games did they win? 9 (with 5 of those coming, as I said, in '84). Maybe the Nets weren't as big a joke as the other "little brother" team in the NBA, the Los Angeles Clippers... but even when they were a good team, 1982-86 and 1992-94, they didn't exactly sell out the Meadowlands. (Partly because the established, glamorous Knicks were also good at the same time.)

The S7 sold the Nets in 1998, and in 2001 new ownership made the trade for Jason Kidd and the team made 2 NBA Finals, reaching the Playoffs 6 straight seasons, before Bruce Ratner bought the team and put their breakup and move to Brooklyn into motion. Despite a 20-year record of ineptitude, I can't rank the S7 any higher, for two reasons: There were 7 of them, not any 1 that was more responsible than any other; and the Nets have always been the 2nd basketball team in a 2-team town. Sometimes 3rd, when you consider St. John's. In fact, counting all the area's major league teams, they're the 9th team in a 9-team town. And, frankly, counting the Liberty and the Red Bulls may not be doing the Nets any favors, either.

8. Mike Milbury, Islanders, 1995-2006. He was one of the players who typified the Boston Bruins' late 1970s-early 1980s "Lunch Pail Athletic Club": Not especially talented, but hard-working, the kind of guy you needed to win. As head coach of the Bruins, he got them to the 1990 Stanley Cup Finals, but got swept by the Edmonton Oilers, whose GM and former head coach was Glen Sather. (See #5 below.) In 1995, the Islanders named him head coach and GM. He was asked by a reporter how he expected to compete with the Devils, who had just won the Cup, and the Rangers, who had won it the year before. He had the right attitude: "You know, fuck the Rangers and fuck the Devils! I'm running the New York Islanders!" From Flushing to Montauk, you could hear Isles fans saying, "Hell yeah!"

But even when they were winning 4 straight Stanley Cups, the Islanders have never been a team with deep pockets. The moves Milbury made were terrible, pretty much demolishing a team that had come within 3 games of the Finals just 2 years earlier. He removed himself as head coach, reinstalled himself, and removed himself again. He never hired a good head coach, and in the 14 seasons since Milbury was hired, the team has made the Playoffs 4 times and won exactly zero series.

So the way he messed things up on the Jericho Turnpike has already well outlasted his tenure. When he was hired, they were a viable franchise that may have had an interesting future. When he was finally canned after 11 years, they were a team in trouble, and remain so. With the Pittsburgh Penguins about to open a new arena, the Nassau Coliseum the smallest arena in the league and as inconvenient as ever, and the Lighthouse project stalled, the Isles are probably the NHL franchise in the most danger of moving.

Milbury's heart was in the right place, and no one could question his courage, but if he only had a brain. And if something isn't done for the Isles soon, there may soon be no place like home. Milbury is not solely to blame, but if Long Island's only remaining major league team -- the Nets left in 1977, and the Jets may have had their offices and practice facility there until 2008, but that hardly counted -- leaves, even if it's just for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn or a new arena on the site of Shea Stadium next to Citi Field in Queens, it'll be a terrible blow for the Nassau-Suffolk region, and Milbury will bear some responsibility.

7. Wilbur "Weeb" Ewbank, Jets, 1968-73. Bear with me: In order to make you truly understand what Weeb did to the Jets, I have to make this one long. A truly great football coach, he was the only man to be head coach of both an NFL Champion (1958 and '59 Baltimore Colts, both times over the New York Giants) and an AFL Champion (1968-69 New York Jets, over his former team, the Colts). But look at what he did with the team as GM after owner Leon Hess fired Sonny Werblin.

Think about it: It is August 1969, and you are the General Manager of the New york Jets. Your team has not only won the World Championship of American football in its last game that counted, but done so in a fashion that stunned and excited the nation. You've just won an exhibition game (strangely played at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut) in which you decisively defeated the Giants, the City's NFL aggregation. So now you are definitively the best team, both in New York and in the world.

The Knicks have glamorous stars like Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley and the courageous Willis Reed, but they haven't yet won their first title, and even after 2 titles they won't be as big as a popular football team. The Mets are in their first Pennant race, but haven't yet gotten their "Miracle" fully onto the City's radar. And even when they do, their marquee player, Tom Seaver, as great as he is and will be, is a private man who can handle the spotlight, but does not relish it. You have Joe Namath, a glamor guy at the glamor position (quarterback), in the glamor city, in what's becoming the glamor sport, and he loves the spotlight, eats it up. You've just proven that the Giants stink. So do the Yankees, whose big star Mickey Mantle just retired. The Nets are in the ABA, out on Long Island, they're an afterthought. The Rangers are a bunch of Canadians, not exactly popular in an America that elected Richard Nixon. The Islanders and Devils don't exist yet. No college team in the area is doing big things.

Maybe you don't own the New York Tri-State Area, but you're co-owning with the Mets and Knicks, and that's pretty good. You've got it made.

And your franchise loses in the first round of the next season's Playoffs... and then doesn't reach the Playoffs again for 12 years! And doesn't win another Playoff game until a year after that!

Weeb couldn't keep the Super Bowl team together. He resigned as coach prior to the 1973 season, by which point an oft-injured Namath was the only one from 1/12/69 still contributing. He hired his son-in-law, Charlie Wimmer. Charlie didn't do too well. Weeb hired Lou Holtz, who had done a great job reviving North Carolina State. And would go on to revive the programs at Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina. Of course, the reason he was able to do so well in college is that, like a lot of college coaches (hello, Steve Spurrier), he couldn't handle the pro game. (The veer offense? With Namath's knees? Hello, anybody home? Think, McFly!) He was fired before finishing his first season in Flushing Meadow and Hempstead. The Jets didn't have a decent GM after Werblin until Hess handed Bill Parcells the keys to the kingdom in 1997.

The Jets could have become THE team in New York football, instead of becoming a joke franchise, which, despite the work of Woody Johnson, Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan, they still are, at least for the moment. Considering the kind of opportunity Ewbank had in 1969, it is almost a crime that, by 1986, Sports Illustrated could put Lawrence Taylor and Mark Gastineau on their cover, with the words, "In the Big Apple, the Jets are always the second banana."

Weeb never should've been named GM. Jerry Izenberg, the legendary columnist of the Newark Star-Ledger, calls the Jets' inability to win a Super Bowl, or even to reach one, these last 41 seasons "The Curse of Sonny Werblin." Doesn't make much sense, since they did win the next Super Bowl after firing him. Maybe "The Curse of Weeb Ewbank" is better.

6. Mike Burke, Yankees, 1965-73. A genuine hero of America's effort in World War II. A great businessman. A man who loved sports. And, along with Mayor John Lindsay, the man who saved the original Yankee Stadium for an additional 2 generations.

But while he loved baseball, he didn't know how to run a sports team. Granted, the Topping-Webb regime left CBS, and their handpicked team president Burke, a pig in a poke, basically a brand name and nothing else. But he didn't do much with it: When the team finally won the whole thing in 1977, only 4 players were left from before George Steinbrenner owned the team: Roy White, Thurman Munson, Sparky Lyle and Graig Nettles. I think when George came in, and then bought Burke out, it was a great relief to Burke.

5. Glen Sather, Rangers, 2000-present. One of the great coaches and GMs in hockey history when he coached the Edmonton Oilers to 4 Stanley Cups and was GM for 5, what has he done in 10 years in New York?

Not once have the Rangers reached the Conference Finals, and his head coaches have been abysmal: John Muckler (who succeeded him in Edmonton and won the 1990 Cup, but awful at the Garden), Ron Low (aptly-named), Bryan Trottier (real smart, hiring one of the greatest Islanders with no head coaching experience to run the Rangers), himself (not so easy when you don't have Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Coffey, Lowe and Fuhr all in their primes), Tom Renney and now John Tortorella (won the Cup with the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning but doesn't have Andreychuk and Lecavalier here).

Of course, Sather hasn't done as much damage to the Rangers as Milbury did to the Islanders in roughly the same span of time. The Rangers are not getting moved out of the Tri-State Area. Besides, somebody had to make the mistake of hiring Sather, and then keeping him for this long.

4. Omar Minaya, Mets, 2005-10. He was going to lead the Latin Revolution. He brought in Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez. And David Wright. (How'd that Gringo get in there?)

2005: No Playoffs, but that's okay, because they're still working their way up. 2006: One run from a Pennant, but a 9th-inning homer by the opposition, and Beltran leaves the bat on his shoulder. 2007: Up by 7 with 17 to go, and they don't even make the Playoffs. 2008: Up by 3 1/2 with 17 to go, and they don't even make the Playoffs. 2009: Disaster. 2010: Another sub-.500 season. All the while, the Yankees remain the Number 1 team in town, winning a 27th World Championship. The Mets are still looking for a 3rd. The Yankees have won 40 Pennants; the Mets are still stuck on 4.

Can't blame it on the manager, because the Mets failed under Willie Randolph and failed harder under Jerry Manuel. Nope, don't blame the waiter, blame the chef. People say the Mets should spend more money, like the Yankees, but the guys Minaya did spend money on didn't pan out.

Frankly, Fred and Jeff Wilpon should have dumped Minaya after 2008. After all, '05 was a rebuilding year, '06 was pretty successful by Met standards, and '07 could be written off as a fluke -- a mind-numbing, nasty fluke, but a fluke nonetheless. But 2008 should have been the alarm bell. The Mets should've broken up with Minaya then. Fortunately, the Wilpons finally told him, yesterday, "This relationship isn't working, and I think we should start seeing other executives." No, Omar, it's not them, it's you.

3. Isiah Thomas, Knicks, 2003-08. It was bad enough that Isiah made some bad moves as GM. It was worse that he trusted some guys who couldn't coach, including himself. But through his private life becoming public, he dragged the Knicks through the tabloid muck. Once the team of Clyde Frazier, cool and stylish, a team the ladies could love as much as the guys, the Knicks had become a festering sewer, both competitively and morally.

Of course, Thomas didn't do as much damage to the Rangers as the Secaucus Seven did to the Nets. And the damage he did, while severe in terms of public relations and competitiveness, both on the court and in the boardroom, hasn't put the Knicks in danger of moving or going out of business. Besides, somebody had to make the mistake of hiring Thomas, and then keeping him for that long.

2. M. Donald Grant, Mets, 1962-78. He was a friend of Mets founder Joan Payson, and she hired him to be the team's first chairman of the board. After the 1969 season, the Mets owned New York every bit as much as the Jets did. After the 1973 season, when they'd won another Pennant, they were so far ahead of the Yankees it wasn't funny -- though you can be sure Met fans were cackling with glee. Surely, with their new ballpark and exciting young players in a nice neighborhood, they had the advantage over the Yankees, with their old ballpark and failing players in a disastrous neighborhood, not to mention their crazy new owner.

The Mets, or rather Grant, frittered away so much of that goodwill, to the point where a few Met fans -- not many, but a few, including college student and aspiring filmmaker Spike Lee -- switched to the Yankees after they returned to the top, a rise coinciding with the Mets' collapse.

A blog called "Mike's Mets" -- not connected to me in any way -- pretty much sums Grant's mindset up:

<< Grant, a stockbroker, was Mrs. Payson's close personal advisor when she became the original owner of the Mets. He probably had very little influence in player movement for the first several years, and in the days before free agency, no one could say that the Mets were particularly cheap. But... Grant did not believe that a ballplayer deserved to be making as much money as a stockbroker or real estate magnate, and probably didn't think they belonged at the same parties or meetings, either.

Grant's meddling, no doubt, played a part in driving Mets' GM Bing Devine, who was doing a nice job of trying to build a winner, back to St. Louis. It was probably after Mets' GM Johnny Murphy passed away in 1970 that Grant's influence began to increase. Whitey Herzog was Mets' player development director and heir to the GM job, but Grant passed him by because he knew he wouldn't stand for any interference from someone who in Whitey's words "knew nothing about baseball".

The next two Mets' GM's, Bob Scheffing and Joe McDonald, probably had their hands tied by Grant, his frugality, and his belief that ballplayers should be quiet, sign their contracts, and just play ball. When a player became outspoken about salary issues such as Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman did, it was only a matter of time before they would be sent away. When Gil Hodges died just before the 1972 season began, Grant again chose to bypass the outspoken Herzog, driving him out of the organization, in favor of Yogi Berra.

Probably the best example of how out of touch M. Donald Grant was with the average fan was when he tried to explain the Tom Seaver negotiations and subsquent trade in terms of bluffing and playing tricks in a hand of bridge. How many Mets' fans have any idea how to even play bridge? >>

Things got worse when Mrs. Payson got sick, and died late in 1975. Her daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, inherited the team, and she knew that she knew nothing about baseball, so she trusted Grant even more. The autocratic Grant traded away Tommie Agee after the 1972 season, Tug McGraw after 1974, Rusty Staub (who would later return) and Cleon Jones after 1975, Jerry Grote after 1976, and Seaver and Kingman on June 15, 1977, a date which lives in Met infamy. Aside from the Dodgers and Giants getting moved out of town, this is the most hated transaction in the history of New York sports -- even if Steve Henderson had a few hits in him and Doug Flynn was a very good fielder.

Lorinda finally fired the old buzzard in 1978. By that point, attendance at Shea Stadium was so sparse it was being called Grant's Tomb: It had gone from a City record 2.7 million in 1970 to under 800,000 by 1979 -- or, per game, 33,000 to 9,740. Contrast that with the Yankees: 1972, 966,000 (12,000); 1980, 2.6 million (32,000).

Not until 1980, when Lorinda sold the team to Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday, did things begin to turn around at Shea. Grant died on November 29, 1998, 16 days after the death of Weeb Ewbank, and 12 days after the death of the Knicks' title-winning head coach, Red Holzman. Weeb and Red got a lot of praise in the New York media. Grant's death was barely even noticed. Serves him right.

1. James Dolan, Knicks and Rangers, 1999 to the present. His father Charles Dolan hired him to run Cablevision. Which owns ITT. Which owns Viacom. Which owns Paramount Communications. Which owns Gulf + Western. Which owns the Madison Square Garden Corporation. Which owns the Garden complex, the Knicks, the Rangers, the WNBA's New York Liberty, the MSG Network, and the Garden's boxing, concert and other special-events promotion companies. He has done great things. He has promoted the Concert For New York City after 9/11, and the Big Apple to Big Easy Concert after Hurricane Katrina. He is one of the most charity-sustaining people in America. He is, by most accounts, a decent person.

But this is the guy who hired Glen Sather to run the Broadway Blueshirts, and also the guy who hired Isiah Thomas to run the Knickerbockers. Through those 2 guys, whom he showed unbelievable loyalty, to the point where both New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica and I, independent of each other, have wondered what kind of pictures Isiah has of Dolan, he has managed to futz up one of the NBA's charter franchises and one of the NHL's so-called "Original Six" teams, the 3rd- and 4th-greatest franchises in the Tri-State Area (behind the Yankees and football Giants), for over a decade.

Think about it: Starting with 2000-01, the first full season in which Dolan has, effectively, been the big boss of both teams, the Knicks have won no Playoff series, and only 2 Playoff games, and haven't reached the Playoffs since the 2003-04 season, despite spending more money (even with the league's salary cap) than any team in basketball history; while the Rangers have won 2 Playoff series but haven't progressed beyond the NHL's final eight, despite spending more money (both without and then with the league's salary cap) than any team in hockey history.

Think about that: 2 teams, same building, 10 years, 16 Playoff games won. They haven't both made the Playoffs since 1997. That's right: By this coming spring, even if both manage to do it, it will have been 14 years since both the Knicks and the Rangers were still going at the end of April, to say nothing of May or June.

Messing up one franchise for a decade is bad enough. Jimmy Dolan has messed up 2. He's not a dirty bastard like Walter O'Malley or Donald Grant, or a sleazeball like Isiah Thomas, or an "ogre" as George Steinbrenner was often called. He certainly isn't a good man thrown into an awful situation like Mike Burke. And he isn't a legend whose game passed him by, like Glen Sather. But, like Weeb Ewbank (as GM, anyway) and Mike Milbury, he is a guy in over his head. But it's Knick and Ranger fans who feel like they're drowning.

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