We're two games into the 2015 World Series—halfway over, if you're an optimistic a Royals fan or a pessimistic a Mets fan—but there are still a great many questions hovering over this match-up. Here is perhaps the most challenging one: Who do you want to have a ring, Kansas City Royals owner David Glass, or New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon?
To put it another way: Which is worse, having been the chief executive of one of the most virulently anti-labor and anti-worker corporate blights in history, or having participated in a massive Ponzi scheme?
Your first response might be yet another question: "Why should I give a damn about who owns a team when it comes to the actual drama of the game?" The wienery answer to which is that I've seen you complaining online about this team or that team's fans, and those people have far less to do with what's happening on the field than the men who own the ball clubs, so don't give me this purity of the game shit. The better, nicer answer is that you're not choosing to root for the Kansas City team or the New York team, not really. You're choosing to root for David Glass's Royals or Fred Wilpon's Mets, which happen to play in those cities.
Professional sports clubs have spent a lot of time and effort portraying themselves as, to borrow Craig Calcaterra's phrase, "quasi-public trusts." The way they slipped into that perception was as much accident as it was intentional misdirection, perhaps more so. The municipality of Kansas City has no staked interest in the baseball team that proudly bears its name besides, perhaps, lease agreements with the private company that constitutes the Royals. It is not a minority owner of the team, and has no input into any of the decisions that the team makes. The same is fundamentally true of the New York Mets, with a couple of distinctions-without-difference with regards to the lease on the six-year-old Citi Field.
Professional baseball in Asia, with its Nippon Ham Fighters and Chinatrust Brothers, has been remarkably honest about this for just about its entire history: teams are private businesses, run by companies, for profit. That's what "professional" means. Acknowledging that fact hasn't diminished the ability of Japanese and Taiwanese fans to enjoy their chosen teams.
So, between David Glass and the Wilpons, who you got? Up until about three years ago, Glass was one of the most reviled owners in baseball, a miser who couldn't make his penny-pinching work and didn't seem to care. After his ascension to chairman of the Royals' board in September 1993, the team would not have another winning season until 2003, when they eked out 83 wins and a third-place finish in the AL Central before slipping back beneath the waves for another full decade. Glass was also vociferously in favor of using scabs to break the player strike of 1994-95 and of locking the players out until they agreed to a salary cap. Of course he was: his previous resume centered on growing Walmart into the malignant and metastatic thing it is today. If anything, his persistent loathsomeness was reassuring—more proof that God knows how to write a consistent villain.
Two things rescued Royals fans: Glass finally backed into a good hire in then Braves executive Dayton Moore, and the analytical revolution in baseball happened. Suddenly any idiot owner able to hire a decent scouting department had a good blueprint for tanking their way to success. After spending only $38 million on the team in 2011, at the nadir of the Royals tank—at the time, most everyone saw it as fumbling, blind futility, and Moore as a buffoon—Glass has steadily invested more money in the team. This is not charity: with the ballooning media deals and postseason payouts that have come to the league as a whole and to the Royals specifically, Glass can now afford to spend money on the club while maintaining his margins. When the team's current window closes, the payroll will drop again. Glass has always been very transparent about what matters to him, and what doesn't.
If Glass is no saint, he's at least a typical American sinner. Who can be surprised that a career executive is dedicated to kneecapping labor at every turn? Who among us is shocked that the man running a business cares more about the margin of profit than the customer experience? The difference between Glass and most any other owner or ownership group in pro sports is one of degree, not kind. No, for hideousness that separates itself from the crowd, you need a Wilpon.
The Wilpons hardly need any introduction in this space, but let's give them one anyway. They made their fortune by being tax-dodging real estate speculators during the 1970s and 80s; they lost much, if not most, of that fortune to the one-two punch of the 2008 housing market crash and the collapse of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. That would be a case of what goes around coming around, except the Wilpons stayed afloat by using the Mets and the team-owned media partner SNY as their personal piggybank. As recently as this August, while the Mets were storming up the standings, the Wilpons leveraged their stake in the team, in which they bought a controlling interest in 2002, to refinance over $700 million in outstanding debt. Former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was run out of the league for less blatant financial shenanigans, and he was somehow permitted to purchase one of the league's marquee franchises with the leveraged debt on some parking lots.
Then there are the Mets' constant, mindboggling, insulting scandals. Jeff Wilpon, a team president whose only claim to legitimacy is his surname and with no claim to competence at all, should have been reassigned to a paper job in the organization by his father a long time ago—a position where he could still be paid a crass salary while being kept far away from anything important. Instead, he is all over everything, and the most obvious (and self-defeating) Anonymous Team Official quote in the game. The Mets' GM, Sandy Alderson, took the job at the behest of former commissioner Bud Selig, and the success of the current roster is in spite of the machinations of his employers, not because of it. Anyone who needs further proof of that after the Mets' near-disaster at the trade deadline isn't paying attention.
The likely outcome of this thought exercise isn't picking either Glass or the Wilpons as less bad than the other; it's throwing up one's hands at the stupid insidiousness of how professional sports conduct themselves in an age when teams are worth billions. No one's saying that you have to give up your team because of its owner's conduct. Hell, maybe you hate unions, too. Life is a rich tapestry, and there is always something to get upset about if you want it enough.
It is 2015, and everyone who cares to know understands that professional sports teams are not engaged in morality plays. Professional sports teams, like everything else in this country—like everything else in the world—are engaged in business, and play by its stark rules. Perhaps the behavior of the men who own and operate them should influence how we view the products they're selling. And if this casts an unpleasant pall over the consumption of those products, perhaps we should think about whose fault that really is.