With No Real Chance Of Failure, It's Hard To Tell An Exciting Story.
By Tom Danehy
NOVEMBER 16, 1998:
Big League, Big Time, by Len Sherman (Pocket Books). Cloth $23.
THIS BOOK IS sub-titled The Birth of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Billion-Dollar Business of Sports, and the Power of the Media in America. Whew! Sounds like enough for three books; but alas, this book turns out to be less than it advertises. Indeed, if author Len Sherman had taken on just one of the topics and gone after it with delirious delight, it would've been a hoot. Instead, he tries to wrap all three subjects up in a lifeless, humorless bundle of societal importance, and what he produces just sort of lies there, like a baseball fan after a four-hour, nine-inning game.
By just about any account, the Arizona Diamondbacks are an incredible success story--an instant hit with a sports-crazed community packing a state-of-the-art stadium and making the dynamic owner fabulously wealthy. The only problem is that unlike most success stories, this one has no drama. The success was pre-ordained; all risks were surgically removed before the quest even began.
Looming large over this book is Jerry Colangelo, the owner of the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Colangelo, despite what many think of him, is an interesting character, one worth studying before you learn to hate him. A former college basketball player and baseball minor-leaguer, Colangelo worked his way up from the absolute bottom of the business, rising to become general manager and then owner of the Phoenix Suns.
Had the story been about that phase of his life, the reader would be cheering for his spunk and amazed at how he bought the Suns at the franchise's low point and within a decade built it into a team owners envied and all players wanted to be a part of.
Unfortunately, this book is about the Diamondbacks, and that story isn't nearly as uplifting. Having grown powerful and arrogant with his running of the Suns, Colangelo saw the expansion Diamondbacks as a slam-dunk (if you'll pardon the mixed sports metaphor) and bristled at any and every criticism sent in his direction.
He quite clearly sees himself as a visionary, the desert-dwelling Del Webb of the sports world (except without the mob money). And indeed he has built a sports empire which prompts many Arizona sports fans to wish to God he owned the football Cardinals, as well.
Having worked with the pliant Arizona Legislature over the years, Colangelo came to view the lawmakers as useful tools with which he could smooth the mildly bumpy road ahead. As it turned out, the Legislature was so willing to bend over backwards, they looked like those Mummenschanz people in those weird tubes.
The story is told in a matter-of-fact tone, although the writer sometimes makes painful attempts at cutesy. When the major-league baseball owners kept jacking up the price of the expansion franchises, Sherman writes, "Colangelo was perturbed. Very perturbed. Extremely perturbed."
Who writes like that? Okay, I do sometimes, but not when I'm writing a book. If I ever decided to write a book.
Colangelo has stated publicly he's wounded by all the criticism about the way the Diamondbacks came into being and found a home with the downtown Bank One Ballpark. (And indeed, every financial study shows that the ballpark has been yet another boost to the booming downtown Phoenix area, making it a model for other communities desperate to revitalize their decaying central cities.)
Yet, Colangelo's words don't always ring true. It's very clear that he's been two steps ahead of the public and light-years ahead of the politicians all along. It appears that Sherman wants us to sneer at Colangelo, but he (like many of us) was so overwhelmed by Colangelo's presence and manipulative skills, even the criticisms leveled at The Owner seemed coated with begrudging respect.
(It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had this book not been rushed into print before the first-year D-Backs lost nearly 100 games and then blithely raised ticket prices by up to 40 percent.)
Where this tome does work is in the detailing of what went on outside the corporate offices. Sherman tells the story of how manager Buck Showalter put together a manual for incoming players. The book had instructions on everything from how to run the bases to how to act in public.
Sherman also does a decent job of outlining how the franchise meticulously went about marketing the team, from the cynical choice of team colors to the wooing of the nearby Mexican market. But again, it just all seems so cynical and planned-out, it squeezes all the fun and life out of the whole process.
The Diamondbacks are a huge success, but it's almost an empty success, because there was never any chance for failure. Is weeding out all the potential roadblocks just great business or is it arrogant, colorless bulldozing? This book really doesn't answer that question, and like baseball, maybe it doesn't even matter.
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