Sunday, December 26, 2010

Volume 5, Number 32: Randy Smith, Bud Selig and the Ken Caminiti trade

With baseball's offseason now in full swing with winter meetings, trades and free agent signings, I thought I'd look back at one blockbuster trade, one made almost exactly 16 years ago, and analyze the unusual circumstances that led to it. It sort of ties in with Christmas in that, not only did said trade take place around Christmas, to one team, it sure felt like one heck of a present.

On December 23, 1994, about four months after Major League Baseball's 1994 playoffs and World Series were cancelled due to a labor impasse, and with its players still on strike, acting commissioner Bud Selig and baseball's other 27 team owners decided to implement a salary cap (that was one of the issues over which the players had gone on strike in the first place).

Once that cap was in place, the Houston Astros were well over it and needed to cut back in its payroll. Enter the San Diego Padres, a team that had slashed salaries under the ownership of TV producer Tom Werner. Randy Smith, the Padres' general manager at that time, was regarding as an up-and-coming executive in baseball and was also the youngest GM in baseball. Soon, Smith would become one of the luckiest executives in the history of sports management.
  • First, the condition that led the Astros and Padres to talk about a trade--the salary cap--turned out not to be a permanent condition. The cap was, not surprisingly, rejected by the players, and after a few more months of talks, they agreed to the "luxury tax"-based revenue sharing system that still is in effect today.
  • Second, it also worked to Randy's benefit that the Astros' president was Tal Smith--his father!
In the end, 3B Ken Caminiti, OF Steve Finley, SS Andujar Cedeno and three other players went to the Padres. Caminiti would win a National League MVP award, appear in two All-Star Games, and win three Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger award with San Diego. Finley would be a productive outfielder for well over a decade, earning two All-Star Game appearances, a few Gold Gloves and a World Series ring (with the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks). Both Caminiti (may he rest in peace) and Finley were key players on the 1998 National League Champion Padres.

If you were in charge of the Astros, you might have been expecting a passel of prospects. That wasn't the case here, though. In return, the Astros got OF Derek Bell, OF Phil Plantier, SS Craig Shipley, IF Ricky Gutierrez, and a couple of relief pitchers. Shipley and Gutierrez were supposed to replace Caminiti and Cedeno in Houston but didn't; Bell, while a productive everyday hitter, simply wasn't as good a hitter as Finley (and his career didn't last as long, either); and Plantier was dealt back to the Padres for two minor league pitchers in 1995. Basically, the Astros got some inferior, lower-salaried players in order to get under the "salary cap."

Thanks to the trade, the Pads went from 47-70 in the strike-shortened 1994 season to 70-74 in the lockout-shortened 1995 season. The Detroit Tigers must have seen how they had gone from 61-101 (Smith's first season as Padres' GM) to 70-74 and concluded that Randy Smith had done all the work behind the improved winning percentage, when in reality, Bud Selig (as the executive responsible for implementing the salary cap) had as much to do with it as Smith did. So in October 1995, the Detroit Tigers hired Randy Smith as their new general manager.

Thing is, the resurgence the Padres were undergoing at the time was not entirely Smith's handiwork. I have just argued here and now that Bud Selig had more of a hand in building the '98 Padres than Smith did.

As the Tigers' GM, Smith...
  • Oversaw a series of bad drafts (the best player he took turned out to be starting pitcher Jeff Weaver)
  • In two separate trades, traded away both 1B Cecil Fielder and 3B Travis Fryman to get a starting pitching prospect (Matt Drews) who never pitched in the majors (Drews rewarded Smith by going 2-14 with an 8.27 ERA in 1999, his final year in the Tigers' system)
  • Traded away a group of players and cash (most notably OF Gabe Kapler and SP Justin Thompson) for just one season of Juan Gonzalez
  • Offered Gonzalez a monstrous 8-year, $140 million contract (thank goodness that Gonzalez didn't sign it, otherwise the Tigers might have gone bankrupt)
  • Traded veteran outfielder Luis Gonzalez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a younger outfield prospect named Karim Garcia--a trade that backfired as Gonzalez played on a high level for several years afterwards, while Garcia wasn't even worthy of a starting job in baseball, and
  • Signed a group of players (Weaver, 3B Dean Palmer, 2B Damion Easley, OF Bobby Higginson) to long-term lucrative contracts that quickly became albatrosses around the Tigers' necks.
In four of Smith's six full seasons as Tigers GM, they had lost 92 or more games; when owner Mike Ilitch fired him just six games into the 2002 season, Detroit was on its way to a 55-106 season. Smith has not been a GM of any other baseball team since. In 2003, the Tigers would rack up the worst record in American League history (43-119).

(Note: This blog entry also talks about the trade in more detail, and does mention that the trade appeared "to be a straight salary dump" by Houston, but does not mention the fact that just five days earlier, Selig had attempted to implement the salary cap. I just posted a comment on there mentioning just that.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Volume 5, Number 31: Facebook Comments in Review

I don't just put my commentary on this blog. Sometimes I come across things on Facebook that I "like," and then sometimes the things I like go and post stuff that provokes a thought or two out of me. With that in mind, here are highlights from the last seven months' worth of deep thoughts, wisecracks and other comments I've contributed to the Facebook universe, on subjects ranging from sports and entertainment to food and education:

June 3: Kellie Martin, one of my favorite actresses, posted on her blog about making ravioli. (She doesn't act much now and spends more time gardening, cooking and raising her daughter Maggie, age 4.) I said, "If Gordon Ramsay ever does a celebrity Hell's Kitchen (the UK version of HK is just that--all celebs), you'd have a leg up on your competition." KM replied, "I'd be way into that! Love that adorable Gordon Ramsay!"

June 29: The producers of Food Inc. (the Oscar-nominated documentary about the food industry) posted an article on "crop mobs"--groups of people who help independent farmers--and that very term reminded me of the Facebook game Mob Wars, which in turn led me to make this wisecrack: "FarmVille meets Mob Wars! 'You get any of those Round-Up resistant seeds anywhere near my crop, I swear I'll whack you so bad you'll be eating soft food for 3 months!'" 6 people liked that little remark--a personal record up until today. The bit about "Round-Up resistant seeds" refers to a part of the Food, Inc. documentary in which Monsanto, the makers of Roundup, had developed a soybean seed that was resistant to that herbicide, and subsequently won the right to get a patent for that seed, then proceeded to put farmers who used those seeds without paying Monsanto out of business.

July 29: Rotten Tomatoes (a great film review web site) posted the trailer for Resident Evil: Afterlife. I said, "I wish film studios would have realized already what a waste of time it is to make bad movies. Story comes first, guys, not special effects, guns or explosions!!!" 2 people liked that.

August 12: Chunky Soup asked me which flavor I would choose when I'm hungry for it: "Look for a time machine to go back to '83 so I can get some Campbell's Chunky Fisherman's Chowder!" Eight hours later, they responded back: "A 'hot soup time machine'?" (Fisherman's Chowder is one of a few Chunky Soup varities that Campbell's Soup no longer makes; I mentioned it in this blog entry from 11 months ago.)

August 17: The makers of the Back to the Future films asked its fans to tell them what I was doing in 1985: "25 years ago... I was 13 in the summer of '85, and oddly enough, I was writing a series of short stories about a mad scientist and two teenage assistants and each story involved some weird invention the mad scientist had made up (including stuff that didn't make sense, like synthetic bread dough and a potion that would allow trees to keep their leaves forever--the first story involved a time machine and was called 'That Was Now, This Is Then')."

August 24: Kellie Martin asked, "Do you guys think early reading is good or bad for young kids?" and I said, "To me, the key is to let kids read what they want to read when they're ready to read it. Sounds simple but not really--too many teachers and school administrators prescribe certain books for certain grades even if not all the kids in that grade are ready, and some kids may grow up thinking that reading is just another chore, no different than cleaning up their room or taking out the garbage." Five minutes later, KM responded, "Right, hopefully it's never a chore."

September 5: notes that former Chicago Bear defensive lineman and Pro Football Weekly commentator Dan Hampton made the terribly insensitive comment, "The Vikings need to go down there and hit (New Orleans) like (Hurricane) Katrina." I commented, "Absolutely terrible. Stick him in a house that floods all the way to the attic and let's see how he feels about that choice of words then."

September 29: The group "Republicans Are Idiots And Arguing With Them Is A Waste Of Time!" mentioned how Republicans are big proponents of deregulation. My bottom line on the matter: "Every time anyone expects Corporate America to be able to 'police itself,' we end up with ValuJet, the Peanut Corporation of America, Bernie Madoff, and so on. I'm not saying deregulation sucks, just that it only works when Corporate America demonstrates that it really *is* able to police itself. Which is why I'm firmly in the corner of what the roody poo GOP calls 'Big Government.'" 4 people liked that.

October 15: Food Inc. had a poll about who people thought was "food's greatest enemy." I said, "I want to cast a write-in vote for Stewart Parnell, the owner of the Peanut Corporation of America, who cared more about profits than people to the extent that he ordered salmonella-tainted peanut products to be retested until they tested negative, then shipped them out. The toxic peanut products he sold killed at least 9 people. Then PCA filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid having to pay any money. Slimy bastard." 5 people liked this comment.

October 26: Parade magazine interviewed Rupert Grint on life after the Harry Potter films. My two cents: "Rupert should get plenty of opportunities in the UK. Besides, if worse comes to worst, Rupert will just tour the world for the rest of his life with the J.O.P. (James and Oliver Phelps) doing Harry Potter and other fantasy-genre conventions (not unlike certain Star Trek actors who went on to do those Creation conventions)." 3 people liked it. (For those not familiar with the Harry Potter films, Grint played Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley; James and Oliver Phelps played Ron's mischievous older twin brothers, Fred and George.)

November 8: reported that the Dallas Cowboys fired head coach Wade Phillips, one day after getting shellacked by the Green Bay Packers, 45-7. My comment: "Phillips looked like a man who had already lost his job the last two weeks. It was no longer a question of 'if,' but a question of 'when.'" 2 people agreed and must have also been watching the Cowboys-Packers game.

November 17: Food, Inc. asked, "What do you think is the worst food in America?" The question was related to this article, but I decided to answer the question directly: "To answer the question, what do I think is the worst food in America, anything that's tainted with E. coli, salmonella, listeria, or other pathogen due to poor food hygiene and/or food inspection programs. I know it's got nothing to do with the article, but I'm not going to answer the question any differently." 2 people liked that answer.

November 24: On Thanksgiving Day, asked, "Who have been the biggest fantasy football and NFL turkeys this year?" My response was creative because it addressed players who aren't used in fantasy football, but have an influence on how their teammates perform, the offensive line: "How about the Carolina Panthers' offensive line (as it as hurt the production and/or health of a lot of the Panthers' skill players)? Already 2 QBs and 3 RBs are banged up and that's hurt WR Steve Smith's production. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are having their worst seasons due to injuries, and DeLo is on the IR. And I thought my Detroit Lions had a bad O-line..." What prompted me to make that remark was, I own Williams and rookie QB Jimmy Clausen in a very deep (16 teams), very competitive dynasty football league.

December 21: Paula Apsell, senior Executive Producer of NOVA (a very good documentary series that has run on PBS since 1974), commented that Spider-Man had too many "mad scientist" villains. My response (liked by 8 people, my new personal record): "For a moment there, I thought I was reading an Onion article. Anyway, mad scientist characters don't make people think that science is bad... they remind us that as long as there are people who strive for great power or personal gain, there will be people who misuse and abuse science to accomplish such ends."

For those of you wondering about whether I've tried any different diet sodas: I finally have; I like Diet Dr. Pepper Cherry and Kroger Diet Dr. K and I especially like Sprite Zero. I also have some Kroger Big K Cola Oh, but I haven't decided whether to go "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," and anyway, I'm starting to think that the only diet colas I really like are the ones with the extra flavoring in them (Diet Pepsi Lime, Coke Vanilla Zero, Coke Cherry Zero).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Volume 5, Number 30: The Fox-New World Deal

Note: I originally posted this entry a week ago on my brother's Journal of Historical TV, Radio and Communications blog.

On December 11, 1994, WJBK (Channel 2 in Detroit, my local TV market) switched its affiliation from CBS to Fox as the result of a deal struck more than six months earlier between the News Corporation (parent company of the Fox Broadcasting Network) and New World Communications. On that same day, CBS began broadcasting shows on low-powered WGPR (Channel 62).

WJBK and stations in eleven other markets were recently acquired or about to be acquired by New World Communications. Eight of those stations were CBS affiliates, including WJBK. It led to a rash of affiliation deals and switches affecting many markets across the country, as outlined in this Wikipedia article.

I hated that deal at the start, mainly because it was one of those deals where a few rich guys made a deal and didn't give a crap that it affected so many people, consumers and TV station employees alike. WJBK found itself with large time gaps after losing its CBS affiliation, and CBS had to broadcast on a low-powered UHF station. I especially hated the latter part because I did watch one CBS show on a regular basis (Christy, starring my favorite actress, Kellie Martin) and picking up that show on Channel 62 was a pain in the neck without cable. If you were to travel back in time to 1995, I doubt you would have found a single TV viewer who found anything good in the shake-up that resulted from the deal.

I've read on a number of sources (including Wikipedia) that Fox's acquisition of NFL broadcast rights in 1993 (the NFC portion thereof, that is) was a compelling factor in the deal. That is baloney, simply put. If NFL football--sports programming that only airs a few games a week on weekends for just a few months a year--was such a strong driver for affiliation switches, then CBS would have lost even more affiliates to Fox in 1994, and NBC would then have lost affiliates to CBS in 1998 when the latter began carrying the AFC package.

The deal was, simply put, a bona fide case of corporate money controlling what people watch--usually, it's a network cancelling a show because the advertisers sponsoring the show don't want to pay for that sponsorship anymore, but this deal was corporate control on a much higher level. Following the deal, Detroit very nearly had no CBS affiliate at all.
  • First, the former Fox affiliate (WKBD, Channel 50) was owned by Paramount Stations Group and thus bound to become affiliated with the new United Paramount Network in January 1995;
  • The owners and management at NBC-affiliated WDIV (Channel 4) were not about to switch affiliations, as NBC was doing very well in the Nielsen ratings (and would be the dominant network of the late 1990s);
  • WXYZ (Channel 7) stayed with ABC after its owners, Scripps-Howard, agreed to affiliate all of its stations with ABC--a deal that led to repercussions in other markets.
  • Finally, the owners of WXON (Channel 20) and WADL (Channel 38)--both independent stations at that time--refused to sell their stations to CBS. The former subsequently affiliated itself with the fledgling WB Network, while the latter simply made unreasonable demands to CBS.
The only option CBS had left was low-powered religious independent station WGPR (Channel 62). It had only been operating for 19 years and was generally regarded as a low-budget station that aired lots of religious and shopping programs. It aired CBS programs that WJBK declined to air (most notably CBS This Morning, the weak sister among the "Big Three's" 7am-9am morning shows; WJBK dumped it in 1992 in favor of producing its own morning show). CBS had a problem promoting its new Detroit affiliation: it aired TV spots about the change on Channel 62; the problem was that hardly anyone was watching, so CBS had to rely on print media to promote its new station. By contrast, WJBK was allowed to promote its switch to Fox even when it was still affiliated with CBS. Its weak signal discouraged viewers from tuning in, especially older ones who lived without cable TV and were frustrated over no longer being able to get CBS' soap operas with just "the rabbit ears." In the months that followed, CBS' ratings in Detroit suffered terribly, as did its ratings in Atlanta and Milwaukee (markets where CBS also had to work out eleventh-hour deals with high-numbered UHF stations after losing affiliates to Fox). The ratings decline was especially evident with The CBS Evening News, because WGPR did not have a 6pm newscast, whereas WJBK always did.

The sale of Channel 62 from the International Free and Accepted Modern Masons to CBS was not smooth, either. Two ethnic groups protested the sale--African-Americans because WGPR was the only African-American-owned station in Detroit (and the first such station in the United States), and Arab-Americans (because WGPR aired a locally-produced two-hour Middle Eastern variety program called Arab Voice of Detroit, and that show left the air upon WGPR's agreement to become CBS' Detroit outlet). After much legal wrangling, the sale to CBS was approved in July 1995. At that time, WGPR has changed its call letters to WWJ-TV, in an effort to enhance its brand image by tying itself to the far better-known all-news radio station, WWJ-AM 950, which CBS bought in 1989.

One thing that surprised me about the Fox-New World Deal was a lack of intervention by either the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). For one thing, Fox had deliberately avoided being regulated by the FCC by programming just under the number of hours to be legally considered a network (in particular, Fox has still never aired a non-sports program at 10pm Eastern time on any day of the week). If Fox didn't want to be regulated by the FCC, why should it have been allowed to gain high-profile stations at the expense of those networks that did comply with FCC regulations? Surely one of these commissions would say that this deal was not in the best interests of viewers in various markets, including Detroit, Atlanta and Milwaukee.

One immediate effect of the affiliation changes was that both WJBK and WGPR had large time gaps to fill in their schedules--the former because it no longer carried CBS programming, and the latter because (other than CBS network programs) it had virtually no programming. WJBK filled the time once occupied by the CBS soaps with reruns of Night Court, Amen and Top Cops, and curiously, also reruns of the Canadian-produced legal drama, Street Legal. WGPR went to the bottom of the rerun barrel with 21 Jump Street (a Fox show, for Pete's sake), Knight Rider, Night Heat, Rescue 911 and a cancelled talk show, The Jane Whitney Show. You read correctly--at 5pm, instead of news, CBS' new affiliate was showing reruns of a cancelled talk show.

In an ideal world--OK, the Mark Rabinowitz version of an ideal world--the Fox-New World deal would never have taken place. Instead, 16 years ago, CBS would have remained on Channel 2, and Fox would have moved to Channel 20 in January 1995 (after WKBD moved from Fox to UPN at the same time). However, I have come to realize that if the Fox-New World deal had not taken place, then surely, another deal would have shaken the local TV landscape in Detroit. An example is the CBS-Viacom merger in 1999. If CBS was still affiliated with WJBK at that time (instead of owning and operating WWJ-TV), might CBS have moved their affiliation to Viacom-owned WKBD as part of that merger? And if so, would Fox have moved from WXON Channel 20 to WJBK, even though it would have meant moving to its third different Detroit affiliate in five years?

16 years later, there is some consolation to be found in the deal.
  • WJBK's news programming has improved considerably since becoming a Fox O&O. When it was a CBS affiliate, it was owned by Storer Broadcasting--a company that was not willing to pay to keep its best talent--and Gillett Communications, a company built on debt and thus was too cash-strapped to possibly hold on to talent. Its newscasts were filled with unfunny banter and cheesy slogans. Not surprisingly, WJBK had a high turnover of on-air talent. By contrast, its current anchor team of Huel Perkins and Monica Gayle has been together since 1998 and Fox 2 News has won numerous local Emmy awards, perhaps because Fox is willing to pay to keep WJBK's best talent, whereas Storer and Gillett were not.
  • Furthermore, Channel 62's broadcast signal improved after the CBS-Viacom merger. In 2000, CBS moved Channel 62's operations to WKBD's studios in Southfield. Between the stronger signal, CBS' acquisition of the AFC portion of NFL broadcast rights in 1998, and a better slate of programs than it had in the mid-1990s, CBS' ratings in Detroit are much better than they were 15 years ago.
  • Finally, the old VHF and UHF channel positions have become increasingly irrelevant. Being Channel 62 on the UHF dial was horribly inconvenient in the days before remote controls (which was why TV networks prized VHF channels so much back then). However, between the rise of digital television in the late 2000s and the increasing use of cable TV before then, switching to a high-numbered channel is as easy as pressing a couple buttons on the remote.
Final analysis: Boy, I hated that deal then (I still consider it a minor factor in the untimely cancellation of Christy). I've gotten used to it, but I still think back to the days when the CBS station had local newscasts at 5, 6 and 11, the Fox station was on the UHF dial, and Arab-Americans could catch Arab Voice of Detroit on Saturday nights at 10 on Channel 62.