Baseball needs more icons like Magic

The Denver Broncos have been one of the NFL’s most-talked-about teams in recent months — partly because of Tim Tebow, partly because of Peyton Manning and partly because of what John Elway, the executive vice president of football operations, thought about each of them.

The Texas Rangers, coming off consecutive American League pennants, are now a nationally recognized baseball franchise. Nolan Ryan, the CEO and president, helped to transform the organization’s culture and make it a destination for free agents. Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish mentioned his admiration for Ryan as one reason he was eager to join the team.

Now the Los Angeles Dodgers will be owned by a group that includes Magic Johnson, one of the most beloved figures in modern sports history. It hardly matters that Johnson’s Hall of Fame bust is in Springfield, not Cooperstown. He’s a successful businessman, a natural marketer and a winner who understands his internal and external role as the face of the franchise.

Elway, Ryan and Johnson are icons, recognizable to those who care little about sports. They elevate the profile of their respective organizations. They engage fans. They make news whenever they speak, because their opinions carry that much weight. They give powerful, authoritative advice to players.

They are what baseball needs.

For years, baseball has lagged behind other sports — notably basketball and hockey — in the visibility of its superstars after their playing careers are over.

The 1992 Dream Team was the greatest collection of talent in basketball history, and six of the 12 players have attained positions in NBA management or coaching: Johnson (former Lakers head coach and minority investor); Michael Jordan (Bobcats chairman and majority owner); Larry Bird (Pacers president of basketball operations); Chris Mullin (former Warriors general manager); Patrick Ewing (Magic assistant coach); and Scottie Pippen (Bulls ambassador).

NHL players of the same era have been just as active. Mario Lemieux rescued the Penguins from bankruptcy and won the Stanley Cup as co-owner in 2009. Wayne Gretzky owned and coached the Phoenix Coyotes. Hall of Fame players Steve Yzerman (GM), Joe Nieuwendyk (GM) and Cam Neely (president) have high-ranking positions with their respective franchises.

It hasn’t been that way in baseball. One could argue that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were the best player and pitcher, respectively, of the last 30 years. Now they are in the headlines for court cases about performance-enhancing drugs. Their peers with pristine images — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Ken Griffey Jr., to name three — are only now returning to the game in part-time roles as instructors and advisers.

After spending eight or nine months away from home every year, no player is obligated to sign up for a stressful executive position, and baseball is quite healthy as an industry with MLB’s current group of owners. But Ryan (over four seasons) and Magic (over a few days) have proved there is star power in the necktie.

So emotional is the bond between fan and superstar that grown men wear jerseys of players they idolized in their youth. In some cases, players preserve that relationship by moving into broadcasting, coaching or managing jobs. But the loyalty between fan and team grows even stronger if that same player ascends to the executive box. An owner with a recognizable face, a respected name and an indelible on-field moment has the best chance to earn the trust of his customers.

That is why Rangers fans roared for years at old footage of Ryan pummeling Robin Ventura after he unwisely charged the mound. And that is why Braves fans don’t wear jerseys with "LIBERTY MEDIA" spelled across the back. Corporations can’t smile like Magic — or grimace like Nolan.

But there is hope, because baseball is a copycat business. On-base percentage, WAR, WHIP, young managers, old managers — trends and innovations tend to multiply quickly. Ryan is one data point. Johnson, who rejuvenated an entire fan base with a single press release, could be another. If the Rangers and Dodgers meet in the 2012 World Series, then it might be time to start the pre-approval process for Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr.

Some in the industry believe it’s inevitable that more ex-players will buy back into the business.

"Two trends — increasing player compensation and larger ownership groups — have combined to create more opportunities for players to become owners," said Houston Astros CEO George Postolos, who held the same position with the Houston Rockets. "It’s only a matter of time until it becomes more common. You will see it as the current generation of superstars retires."

So, let’s think about that group. Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte (again), Chipper Jones and Jim Thome are approaching retirement. Alex Rodriguez and Roy Halladay are a little younger. Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Cole Hamels are in their primes.

What do you think? Would any of them blend in at the owners’ meetings?

“I haven’t thought about that yet at all,” said Toronto slugger Jose Bautista, one of today’s most charismatic and business-minded superstars. “Even though it sounds like an unbelievable opportunity, it’s certainly not the time in my career to be thinking about that.”

Jerry Krause, the title-winning former Chicago Bulls GM who is currently a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said, "In baseball, the guys have made so much money that they don’t need the game. They don’t want to go to Dubuque, Iowa, to scout a player — then drive 300 miles to see the next one."

Such hardships are required of scouts and some general managers, which may be why superstars tend to avoid those jobs. Owners increasingly prefer statistically oriented GMs, anyway. Not one of the current 30 baseball GMs made an All-Star team in the big leagues. Only four — Ruben Amaro Jr., Billy Beane, Jerry Dipoto and Kenny Williams — reached the majors at all.

That’s why a limited ownership stake should be so appealing to today’s stars. While Jordan has been in charge of player moves for the Bobcats with little success, Johnson already has said publicly he won’t have those tasks with the Dodgers. Longtime sports executive Stan Kasten will have oversight of baseball operations, leaving Johnson to focus on his strengths in marketing, business and communications.

Players need not purchase the entire team to get involved in ownership. Ryan didn’t. To the public, his presence matters far more than the percentage of his stake. Besides, how could an exorbitantly wealthy player — even one who earned, say, $150 million in his career — purchase the Dodgers for $2.15 billion all by himself? (This is where athletes realize that, yes, there are more lucrative businesses than their own.)

“With the current franchise valuations, the net worth you would need to purchase a 10 percent share is in the neighborhood of $200 million,” said Scott Boras, the high-powered baseball agent. “As successful as athletes are, that’s going to eliminate 97 to 98 percent of them.”

Even among those who can afford it, there are risks. Jordan (worst record in the NBA) and Gretzky (Coyotes went bankrupt) are examples of icon-owners-gone-bad. “When you are the greatest in the world at what you do and then take on ownership of a franchise in the same sport, it can only cloud your status as an icon,” Boras said. Because of that, Boras believes superstars can protect their brand by (a) owning a team in a different sport or (b) assuming a minority share that doesn’t involve accountability for personnel decisions. In Johnson’s case, he’s doing both.

“If you look at all of his other business holdings, everything is outside of basketball, but I don’t think it’s because he’s worrying about tarnishing an image,” said Greg Kelser, the Detroit Pistons television analyst and a friend to Johnson since their playing days at Michigan State. “He never wanted to just be remembered as a basketball player. He wanted to show that, if you played basketball at a high level, it can help you transcend the game. He wanted to be a role model in that way.”

And let’s not overlook one key consideration: The recruitment of retired players into ownership groups is one way for baseball to address the shortage of African-Americans in leadership positions. Thanks to Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron and so many others, baseball will always have a sacred place in the history of American civil rights. But now baseball is long overdue to have its first black majority owner.

In fact, one baseball executive told me Wednesday he knew of only two African-American investors among the 30 ownership groups — not including Johnson. Baseball must recognize its responsibility to increase that number, while appreciating the immense potential of the sport’s retired legends from all backgrounds. The goals overlap, and the Dodgers found themselves at the happy intersection this week: Less than 24 hours after the announcement of Johnson’s purchase agreement, Opening Day at Dodger Stadium sold out.