25 For 25: Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Larry Scmittou, John Schuerholz, Bud Selig
It would be impossible to properly
catalog all the people who have played a part in the evolution of
baseball and Baseball America over the past 25 years. From the bullpen
catcher for a Rookie-level team to the men who have served as
commissioner of baseball, thousands of people have helped bring the
industry to where it is today.In
celebration of our 25 years in the game, we're focusing on the 25 most
significant of those people in our world. As a reflection of our
coverage of the game wherever it's played, you'll see much more than
just major league figures in the following pages. So while many of the
people you'll read about are quite familiar to you, some probably won't
be. We're happy to introduce or reacquaint you with them. After all,
that's what Baseball America is all about.
CAL RIPKEN JR.
Every generation has its collective memories--a "where were you?" moment--whether it's the JFK assassination in the 1960s or 9/11 in the 21st century. And for any baseball fan who was alive on Sept. 6, 1995, the name Cal Ripken Jr. will always have a certain resonance.
It was that night that Ripken officially broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak, playing in his 2,131st straight game in a run that became known simply as The Streak. The achievement taken on its own was significant enough, but in the context of the times it was a pure baseball, feel-good moment that the sport desperately needed.
The lockout had ended just a few months before, and an abbreviated season was doing little to ease fans' hard feelings. But for one night in Baltimore, with the nation watching thanks to ESPN, a lot of bad feelings were washed away. Few people could forget his walk around the ballpark, soaking up the adulation of the fans and giving something back to them.
But it's important to remember that Ripken was more than just The Streak. He had to be a pretty darned good player to get into the starting lineup for 2,632 straight games. He helped introduce a new generation of shortstops, combining solid defense with increased offensive production as few before him had.
Ripken won two American League MVP awards, in 1983 and 1991, and won two Gold Gloves and eight Silver Sluggers, and his career numbers are among the most prolific in baseball history. He was a 19-time all star who owns six career major league records and three season records, and he's one of seven players to hit 400 home runs and collect 3,000 hits.
"One question I've repeatedly been asked these last few weeks is how do I want to be remembered," Ripken said when he retired after the 2001 season. "My answer has been simple: To be remembered at all is pretty special."
Ripken remains one of America's most recognized and best-liked athletes even in retirement, a testament to his character. And in testament to his drive, Ripken is building a second career that could be even bigger than his playing career.
It gets much less attention than Cal Ripken the player, but Ripken Baseball the company is involved in minor league ownership, ballpark construction, collectibles, youth baseball, instructional camps and clinics, video production and more. The organization started with a small ballpark in Ripken's hometown of Aberdeen, Md., and it continues to grow from that home base.
Based on what we know of Cal Ripken, there's no limit to what the company might do.
Of all the players who have appeared in the pages of the magazine over the last 25 years, perhaps none better exemplifies Baseball America's comprehensive coverage of stardom from his high school days to the big leagues better than Alex Rodriguez.
As the first high school player ever featured on the magazine's cover, Rodriguez was anointed as a potential all-star from his days as a skinny shortstop at Westminster Christian High in suburban Miami. We covered his selection by the Mariners as the No. 1 overall pick in 1993, saying he was clearly the best player available. Mariners general manager Pat Gillick was criticized for not selecting Wichita State's Darren Dreifort, who was considered a safer pick who would contribute in the majors quicker. But by July 1994, Rodriguez was in Seattle, where he became the first 18-year-old since Robin Yount in 1974 to start at shortstop in the big leagues.
"With experience, he'll become above-average in all . . . phases," read his scouting report prior to the 1995 season, when he was ranked as Seattle's top prospect. "He projects as a .280-.300 hitter with annual totals of 20-25 home runs and 20-25 stolen bases--superior numbers for a shortstop."
True, the predictions were lofty for a teenager without a professional at-bat under his belt. But they turned out to be woefully conservative.
Rodriguez entered 2006, his 12th major league season, with a .307 career average and 429 home runs. A two-time BA Major League Player of the Year (2000 and 2002) and American League MVP (2003 and 2005), Rodriguez is well on his way to a spot in Hall of Fame. Rodriguez became the youngest player ever to hit 400 home runs, and has a pair of AL Gold Gloves and nine All-Star Game appearances as well.
He's lauded not only for his remarkable production as a player, but also for his work ethic and willingness to lend his hitting expertise and advice to teammates as well as youth players. He has been active in community service and has donated millions of dollars to various charities.
Of course, Rodriguez' money has become a point of contention that permeates beyond baseball. After five seasons in Seattle, he signed the most lucrative contract in American sports history: a 10-year deal worth $252 million. Rodriguez spent three years with the Rangers but the team finished last in its division each one of them, and the team traded him to the Yankees in February 2004.
He has become universally known simply by his nickname, A-Rod, and has more than fulfilled his promise. He is still searching for a World Series title, and it would seem to be the lone missing piece of what is nonetheless an awe-inspiring career.
Many know his story, but BA readers know it best.
Larry Schimttou already had plenty of success in baseball.
He was the head coach for the Vanderbilt baseball team for 11 seasons, from 1968-78, carving out a 306-252 record, with two Southeastern Conference championships. But in 1978, Schmittou took another step and moved into the professional ranks, a move that had repercussions far beyond Nashville.
"I kind of went to doing something everyone said would be a flop," Schmittou said, explaining that minor league baseball was floundering financially at that point. "But I had a firm belief this city would support it."
Schmittou bought a minor league team and footed the bill for a new ballpark in Nashville, bringing new life and new marketing energy to the minor leagues. His team took off, and the spark from Nashville started a minor league renaissance that still burns today.
Nashville had been without professional baseball for 15 years when the Southern League added a team and Schmittou was able to bring a Reds affiliate to town. He called his team the Sounds because of Nashville's extensive ties to the music industry, and he opened a 10,700-seat ballpark, Herschel Greer Stadium.
The Sounds were an instant hit at the gate, drawing more than 380,000 fans in their first season--more than double the second-place team--and were one of the best draws in the minors for years.
"It blew my mind," he said. "We didn't expect that. Six months before, the same people were saying it would never work, reminding me of how the old team went out of business."
Schmittou's success was due in part to a philosophy that was perfect for minor league baseball at the time: Make the tickets nearly free and make your money from fans once they're in the park.
"The thing I was most proud of was when I started, the general admission price was $2," he said. "And when I left, the price was still $2."
Schmittou also brought new marketing ideas that were critical to the team's, and the industry's success. He used a team name and logo identified with the community, rather than a major league affiliate, and Nashville's guitar-shaped scoreboard became a minor league icon. He also made sure his franchise got involved in the community.
"I thought that some things that work in promoting college football would work in baseball too, like marketing to kids, to mothers, and having promotions to promote the Nashville Sounds," he said.
Schmittou eventually took his approach to other markets, owning teams in Huntsville and Greensboro as the Sounds eventually moved up to Triple-A. By 1996, however, he had sold all his teams. He still lives in Nashville and now runs bowling alleys rather than minor league franchises.
"We had a great run and had great employees, but I was ready to accept a new challenge," he said. "I came in at a great time, and I'm glad some of the ideas worked. I would not do anything differently if I did it over again."
Remarkable . . . Consistent . . . Unprecedented . . . The list of adjectives to describe the career of John Schuerholz is lengthy. And, like most of the teams he's been associated with, they are all different ways of describing success.
Since Schuerholz was appointed general manager of the Royals in 1981, his teams have more wins (2,217) than those of any active GM in the major leagues. He has orchestrated World Series champions in both the American and National leagues, and his framework for success has become a blueprint countless other clubs have tried to replicate.
A native of Baltimore, Schuerholz left a job as a junior high school teacher to join the Orioles in 1966. He moved to Kansas City two years later, joining their front office as an administrative assistant. He worked his way up the ladder, serving in various roles in player development, and at the age of 41 he was named GM.
Schuerholz began cultivating his philosophy for building winning teams right away. The game's traditional institutions of savvy scouting and productive farm systems were a hallmark of the Orioles organization while he was there as an impressionable 20-something. He absorbed the lessons of assembling successful teams and mastered an ability to implement those principles. As the industry evolved, so too did Schuerholz, and today he combines both statistical analysis as well as the evaluations of his scouts in the field into each decision he makes.
One of the first trades he made after coming over to Atlanta as GM in 1990 was picking up Otis Nixon from the Expos prior to Opening Day 1991. Nixon hit .251 with a .331 on-base percentage and 50 stolen bases in 1990. He batted .297 with a .371 on-base percentage and led the league with 72 stolen bases as Atlanta's catalyst on a team that went from last place in 1990 to a pennant winner in 1991.
The Braves won 14 consecutive division titles from that point to 2005, and practically every one of those teams had a similarly savvy acquisition. From Mike Bielecki to John Burkett, Marvin Freeman to Julio Franco, Schuerholz' unwavering devotion to his system and his scouts have marked one of sports' most successful runs.
In 2001, Baseball America celebrated its 20th Anniversary and honored the Braves as the most outstanding major league franchise of the previous two decades. It was only fitting that three years--and three division crowns--later, Schuerholz received BA's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Schuerholz has the longest tenure among all current major league GMs, a stretch that, like the Braves' success, inevitably will come to an end. When it does, it isn't hard to imagine other executives taking a collective sigh of relief, knowing they no longer have to compete against one of baseball's brightest minds. And there is perhaps no better sign of respect.
America loves a good comeback story, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better comeback than the one Bud Selig put together as commissioner of baseball.
A decade ago he was de facto leader of Major League Baseball in the midst of a labor dispute so bitter that he had to stand in front of the television cameras in August 1994 and tell fans there would be no World Series. It was a low moment not only in his tenure but in the history of baseball.
Yet now it's little more than a memory. Baseball is in what Selig now calls a golden era, with attendance records falling year after year, robust television ratings, successful innovations like the wild card, and the most successful new media initiative of any major sport.
"When you think about where we were 10 years ago, it is stunning," Selig said last spring. "The sport in no way looks like it did back then. We have seen the greatest changes in the game's history. There's still a lot of work to be done and I feel great responsibility. But I must admit it is very gratifying."
Selig came to the commissioner's job almost by accident, getting into baseball as part of the Milwaukee group that bought the Brewers in 1970. His fellow owners made him interim commissioner when they forced Fay Vincent out in 1992, and though he didn't shed that label until 1998, he clearly established himself as the leader of the owners while navigating through the rough days of 1994-95.
He now has signed a contract extension that would take him through 2009, when he will have served 17 years in the job. That's longer than any commissioner except Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who served for 22 years. But while Landis ruled through intimidation, Selig has worked by building consensus. The remarkable part of his method is that he has been able to build consensus to make significant changes in the way baseball operates. He still faces major challenges with the continuing specter of performance-enhancing substances and the expiration of the current labor deal, but he says baseball is ready to face them.
"I've said it many times, baseball was like a dinosaur," he said. "We were so slow to change. There have been so many changes now, and we haven't damaged the game. We've made it better."