The Miami Marlins are an awful team playing in front of few fans in a ridiculously opulent, publicly-financed mausoleum. They’ve settled into their rightful place at the bottom of baseball’s standings, and the only surprise is that it’s taken this many weeks to get there. They are everything that’s wrong with professional sports in America today, but to get at the heart of why they’re so terrible, don’t look at the field. Look up at the owner’s box.
A bad player can cost your team a season or a whole lot of money. But a bad owner? A bad general manager? Those can cost your team an entire generation’s worth of success. And while they can sometimes stumble into success, or coast on past achievements, these front-office types can shut down your hopes and dreams in ways far worse than a four-game playoff sweep. Behold the guiltiest of the guilty, the owners and general managers who have turned your beloved teams, your cities’ pride, into jokes and embarrassments. When your friends laugh at your jersey, these guys are to blame.
Jeffrey Loria, Florida Marlins: The owner in the sorry Marlins saga noted above, he once obliterated an entire team when he took over the Montreal Expos and then, following failed attempts to get Montreal to build him a new stadium, sold them to Major League Baseball. Then bought the Marlins, and later pulled off the grand scheme of convincing the city of Miami to build him a billion-dollar ballpark. But within a few months he’d traded away virtually every player worth watching. Just a year after its opening, Marlins Park is a ghost town even as Loria has enriched himself. A full record of his actions ought to be required reading for any city that even considers publicly financing a new stadium.
Donald Sterling, Los Angeles Clippers: Don’t let Lob City’s recent success fool you; Sterling ranks among the worst owners in American sports based on an enormous body of work. He was long one of the cheapest owners in sports, and his team’s win-loss record showed it: he’s owned the Clippers for 32 seasons, and prior to the emergence of Blake Griffin two years ago, he had posted exactly two winning seasons. The Department of Justice and one of his own executives have filed suit against him for discriminatory business practices. He’s actively heckled his own players from courtside, most notably Baron Davis, whom he accused of being out of shape. He’s the longest-tenured owner in the NBA, and proof positive that you can outlast all your critics if you hang on hard enough.
Isiah Thomas, New York Knicks/CBA: Thomas owns the distinction of ruining both one of the NBA’s most storied franchises and an entire league. Thomas bought the Continental Basketball Association in 1998, but by 2001 it had been forced into bankruptcy, in large part because of Thomas’ management and overspending. He then failed upward, hired by the New York Knicks as president of basketball operations. While there, he threw truckloads of money at every free agent who wandered anywhere near Madison Square Garden. He traded three players and four draft picks (who would be Joakim Noah and LaMarcus Aldridge) to the Bulls for the chronically underperforming Eddy Curry. He kept New York at the top of the payroll scale and the bottom of the standings before being ushered out the door in 2008. Perhaps not coincidentally, New York is back to winning again...though Thomas' influence remains.
Jerry Jones, General Manager, Dallas Cowboys: This is a tricky one, because Jerry Jones the owner has been a major success. The Cowboys are one of the most valuable franchises in sports, and Cowboys Stadium is one of the most technologically advanced arenas on earth. Jones the owner also hired Jimmy Johnson, who laid the groundwork for the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl wins in the 1990s. But Jones the general manager refuses to cede control of the team to football-savvy outsiders, and as a result the Cowboys have suffered through draft after unspectacular draft. This year’s first-round pick, center Travis Frederick of Wisconsin, drew heavy criticism as being of second- or third-round-caliber at best. The team has won but a single playoff game since 1996, and the GM is a main reason why. Too bad the owner has no intention of firing him.
Peter Angelos, Baltimore Orioles: A Baltimore product who led an ownership group to buy the hometown team in 1993, Angelos has nearly obliterated the Orioles’ legacy of success. The team has finished below .500 in 16 of his 20 seasons, including a run of 14 straight years that only ended with last year’s playoff berth. He’s chewed through managers like crab cakes, meddled in personnel decisions, and given Charm City little reason to hope for long-term success.
Matt Millen, Detroit Lions: Where to even begin? Millen is simply one of the most disastrous general managers ever to sit behind a desk. His coaching hires were at best inept, throwing at a dartboard would have improved his draft record, and it was clear that he didn’t know how much he didn’t know. Under Millen, the Lions posted a 31-84 record. The only people sad to see him go were opposing GMs. At one point in the 2000s, Millen spent four of five first-round (high first-round) picks on wide receivers. Just because one was Megatron doesn’t excuse the rest. Hired Steve Mariucci, who brought none of his San Fran mojo to Motor City, and Marty Mornhinweg, whose legacy remains that he lost a sudden-death playoff game in which he deferred the kickoff after winning the coin toss.
Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner: Seeing the sport under your watch get locked out once would be enough to get most people fired. Seeing it locked out three times? Somehow Gary Bettman has kept his job through that. Like many of the people on this list, Bettman has overseen a moneymaking operation, which is not necessarily the same thing as a winning or a competently-run one. Hockey fans are among the most loyal in sports, and they deserve far better than to be jerked around by a commissioner incapable of exerting influence over owners or players. Under his reign, the NHL, which has never had much television presence, dwindled from a multi-network broadcast (ABC/ESPN, NBC and Fox all held broadcast rights in the 1990s) to a single network, NBC, with many games buried deep in cable lineups.
Daniel Snyder, Washington Redskins: This is what happens when a very rich guy tries to play fantasy football in real life. The Redskins remain a highly profitable team, and with the addition of Robert Griffin III are suddenly relevant again. But Snyder’s I’ll-punish-you-till-you-love-me style of management has alienated (or priced out of the market) many longtime fans. He charged fans to watch practice, banned signs from FedEx Field, and in 2009 actually sued some of his season-ticketholders who had the audacity to ask out of their contracts.
The Atlanta Spirit: A seven-man collective that gets along like wet cats in a sack, the Spirit own the Hawks and (until 2011) hockey’s Thrashers. Their near-constant squabbling and internal litigation kept free agents far from the Hawks and scared off potential buyers who could have kept the Thrashers in Atlanta. The Hawks remain, yet are still unable to get past the second round of the NBA playoffs. For the Atlanta Spirit, mediocrity is a way of life.
Frank McCourt, Los Angeles Dodgers: Former owner of the Dodgers, which became a $2 billion scrap of meat in the vicious divorce battle between McCourt and his now-ex-wife. Under McCourt’s ownership, the Dodgers were on such shaky financial footing that Major League Baseball had to step in to help oversee the team’s operations. The Dodgers were finally sold in 2012 to an ownership consortium that included Magic Johnson, and all of Dodgerdom breathed a sigh of relief...as did McCourt, who left as the most profitable baseball owner ever.
All right, your turn. Got an owner/GM who's shattered your dreams? Bare your soul in the comments below. You're among friends.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-