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Baseball executives, players weigh in on what makes a good owner

Soon after he bought the Angels in 2003, Arte Moreno endeared himself to fans by going on a $146-million free-agent shopping spree and lowering prices for beer and merchandise.

Former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley was beloved for the family atmosphere he created, his first-class treatment of players and buying his staff ice cream every day the team was in first place.

George Steinbrenner ruled the New York Yankees with an iron fist, engaged in bitter public feuds with managers and players and popularized the phrase, “You’re fired!” long before Donald Trump.

But in the eyes of Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who worked 23 years under “the Boss,” the bombastic Steinbrenner was “the greatest owner in all of sports. He was second to none.”

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Beauty, when it comes to major league baseball owners, is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

O’Malley received high praise from executives and former players who, in light of Frank McCourt’s upcoming sale of the Dodgers, were asked what makes a good baseball owner.

“An owner needs to care about and listen to the fans, be passionate about the game and involved in the community, know the importance of his brand,” Arizona General Manager Kevin Towers said. “As a kid growing up in the Bay Area, the O’Malleys had a brand.”

Former Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros said O’Malley was “great in some respects,” noting he spared no expense when it came to travel accommodations for players and their families.

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“The way we were treated was a joke as far as how good it was,” Karros said.

But Karros, whose Dodgers tenure (1992-2002) spanned the end of the O’Malley regime and the beginning of News Corp. ownership, stopped short of deifying O’Malley.

“We had an opportunity to get Robin Ventura during a pennant race in 1995, and he didn’t want to take on salary,” said Karros, now a Fox Sports commentator.

“Other teams spent more money. Our trade-deadline deals were getting guys like Chad Curtis. We never got that big blockbuster guy. As a player, you want an owner who will spare no expense to put the best product on the field.”

That’s what separated Steinbrenner, who bought the Yankees for $8.7 million in 1973, from most. Steinbrenner, who died in 2010, spent lavishly on free agents, and those investments helped fuel five World Series championships since 1996.

The Yankees started a television network and built a stadium, and Forbes magazine now values the club at $1.7 billion.

“The bottom line is he put great players on the field, and he delivered championships,” Cashman said. “He built something the fans can be proud of, and that’s what a great owner does.”

Even if there was a madness to his methods. Steinbrenner meddled in team affairs, fumed when the Yankees lost three games in a row and churned through 11 managers from 1974 to 1990, firing or forcing out the equally fiery Billy Martin five times.

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“George was very passionate; he wanted to go 162-0,” said Pat Gillick, who was the Yankees’ farm director from 1974 to 1976 and went on to become a general manager in Toronto, Baltimore, Seattle and Philadelphia. “But I don’t know … he wouldn’t be the best guy I ever worked for.”

Did Steinbrenner’s bluster contribute to the Yankees’ success?

“No, but it made things more interesting,” Cashman said. “He had a football mentality, but from the owner’s box, he couldn’t apply it as easily. If you’re Bill Belichick on the sidelines, you can apply it, because you can directly interact with players.”

Cashman recalled the time former Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, in an effort to end a 16-game losing streak, donned a uniform and replaced Dave Bristol as manager in 1977.

The next day, then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned Turner from the dugout, citing baseball’s rule forbidding an individual from managing a team in which he owns stock.

“Believe me,” Cashman said, “George would have wound up in the dugout eventually if they didn’t enforce that rule.”

Gillick worked for an owner in Baltimore — Peter Angelos — who possesses some of Steinbrenner’s traits but no championship rings.

“Owners make big investments and want to be involved, but they have to let employees do their jobs,” Gillick said. “Sometimes they get too involved, and it short-circuits the chain of command.

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“An owner has to stay out of anything concerning on-field performance. I was a GM for three good owners. The only one that was a little off the track was Baltimore. They have a difficult time making decisions there.”

There were similar chain-of-command issues when the Walt Disney Co. owned the Angels from 1996 to 2003.

As Disney chairman, Michael Eisner owned the team, but he was rarely around. Tony Tavares was the team president, but he couldn’t make significant moves without running them by corporate executives in Burbank.

“With Disney, there was never really a personal connection with an owner,” said former outfielder Tim Salmon, who played for three Angels owners — Gene Autry, Disney and Moreno. “There was Tony, but we knew he wasn’t the owner.

“With Arte, you see an owner with passion, who wants to win desperately and has the resources to get you there each year. That’s the ideal situation, what makes him a great owner.”

Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon, who spent 31 years with the Angels, works for an owner — Stuart Sternberg — who reminds him of Autry and Moreno.

“They all had a personal touch,” Maddon said. “You felt very comfortable speaking with them and a strong sense of loyalty toward them. You wanted to produce for them and felt like they had your back.”

The Angels under Disney, Maddon said, “didn’t have that family feel. There was no one who came down, shook your hand and looked you in the eye. There was no person who gave you that warm and fuzzy feeling.”

The Angels won their only World Series championship in 2002 under Disney, so the company did something right. But Tavares, now interim president of the NHL’s Dallas Stars, acknowledged that the Angels never turned a profit under Disney.

“I recall Michael [Eisner] saying that if I do what fans want me to do, my stockholders hate me because we lose money,” Tavares said, alluding to the ill-fated, six-year, $80-million contract the Angels gave Mo Vaughn. “And if I do what my stockholders want me to do, the fans hate me.”

Tavares listed three requirements of the next Dodgers owner.

“He has to be a billionaire with very deep pockets and liquidity,” Tavares said. “He has to be passionate about the sport — buying a team just to make money doesn’t make sense. And he has to have thick skin.

“He’ll probably buy the team because he wants people to like him, but as soon as he gets banged up in the papers, he’ll realize it’s not much fun. You have to see past that and do the right things and not be influenced by fan and the media criticism.”

Going from player to fan to media member has given Karros a new appreciation for owners.

“As a fan, you want to see the best product on the field, something similar to the Yankees,” he said. “As a player, you want a guy who will spare no expense to make the team competitive.

“If I’m an owner, I want someone who is prudent financially, who isn’t going to escalate salaries by signing everyone and their mother. That’s what makes it tricky.”

To Ross Newhan, who spent 36 years covering baseball for The Times before retiring in 2004, the perfect owner would be a hybrid of O’Malley, Moreno and Steinbrenner.

“O’Malley was in the office on a daily basis and created stability and security in his staff,” Newhan said. “At times that may have created complacency in certain areas, but it definitely was superior to the revolving door operated by Fox and the McCourts.

“Moreno was in touch with the fans and vice versa. Steinbrenner put winning first and would pay any price to achieve it.”

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

twitter.com/MikeDiGiovanna


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