Paul Burka , senior executive editor
Larry Dierker , former Houston Astros pitcher and manager; author of This Ain’t Brain Surgery: How to Win the Pennant Without Losing Your Mind
Tom Schieffer , former Texas Rangers president; currently U.S. ambassador to Australia
Burka: Texas has had 72 seasons of major league ball—41 for the Astros, 31 for the Rangers—and not a single World Series to show for it. Why can’t our teams win?
Schieffer: We thought we were close a couple of times. We won the division in ‘96 and again in ‘98 and ‘99. Particularly in ‘96 we felt we had caught magic in a bottle. We beat the Yankees in the first playoff game and were ahead of them in the second, and the game got tied up and ultimately we lost. John Wetteland was the closer for the Yankees, and we felt if we could have gotten him to change uniforms, we would have gone to the World Series. And we signed him after the season, but we still couldn’t get by the Yankees.
Dierker: The Astros went wrong by making a lot of unwise trades in the late sixties and early seventies. We let guys like Rusty Staub and Joe Morgan and Jerry Grote go. If we had just kept the guys we had, I think we would have made it to the World Series. In ‘98 I thought we had the best team in the National League, but Kevin Brown beat Randy Johnson in the first game, and then we went out to San Diego and played games at six o’clock, when the batters couldn’t see the ball at dusk, just so they could be televised at prime time in New York.
Burka: How much does ownership have to do with winning?
Schieffer: One of the charms of baseball is that everybody feels they can run a franchise, and you get lots of advice. But once you get on the inside, you realize it’s a much more difficult proposition.
Dierker: Oh, yeah. You get some advice from people who are intelligent baseball fans and some from people who don’t know what the heck they’re talking about. And it seems like those fans make the most noise. Sometimes the people in ownership can be more susceptible to having to listen to that drivel than the general manager or the manager.
Burka: That reminds me of something Larry said in his book—that there are a lot of institutional tensions built into running a baseball team. The farm system people are always talking up the kids, and the major league people are always skeptical.
Schieffer: Absolutely. The scouts always sign great players, and if they don’t work out, they say the player-development people ruin them. The player-development people think their guys can play better than the major league players. If you look at the Braves and the Yankees over the past few years, they have organizations that are able to manage those tensions pretty well.
Dierker: You have to continue to improve. One of the failings of successful teams is that once they win the division, they want to stay with a pat hand. We did that after we won the NL West title in ‘86, and by 1990, we had to rebuild the whole team.
Burka: Can you look back and say, “There was just one thing we needed to win, but we didn’t do it?”
Schieffer: You have to be very careful that you don’t think it’s just one thing. It’s always a combination of things.
Dierker: Boy, you’re right about that. It’s kind of like a Rubik’s Cube: As soon as you get the greens together, the reds fall apart.
Burka: So what do the Rangers and the Astros have to do to bring us a championship?
Dierker: You don’t have to look any further than the Braves and the Yankees. They understand that the place where you get the guys who really want to play is your farm system. People talk about how much money they spend, but the Dodgers and the Orioles have spent money and they haven’t won. It’s the kids who give you the kind of fierce aggression that you want on the field, not a lot of guys thinking about their stats and next year’s contract.
Schieffer: The Rangers are the perfect example of that. They’ve had staggering payrolls that were beyond our wildest dreams when we owned the ball club, and they’re getting ready to finish last for the fourth time in a row.
Dierker: I’d rather be in Australia than be president of the Rangers.
Schieffer: It’s probably easier work. All we have to do here is deal with war and peace.