The A-Rod City

Our local governments are chasing that next Alex Rodriguez, that big, splashy project that will excite the electorate and make it seem like we're making progress. Too many are pretending they're the Yankees, trying to cover up their shortcomings by spending more and more money instead of doing the little things that build up to success. For every Alex Rodriguez that signs the big contract and then leads their team to victory, there are dozens of teams where the Alex Rodriguez player blows up and the team's competitiveness is sucked away while they pay off a bloated contract. Our cities can't be run like the Yankees if they want to have any chance at long term success. We need a strong towns approach.

Thank you to everyone who filled in last week when my family and I were on vacation. We had a very nice trip to the Rocky Mountains in Northern Colorado, a memorable way to wind down the summer. It hardly seems like the girls will start school again in a couple of weeks, but there it is on the calendar. Either way, I'm happy to be back and, as usual after some time off, feel very refreshed and ready to rock. I'm headed back to Greensboro, NC, this week and am really looking forward to it. If you emailed me while I was gone, I'll likely try and get back to you Tuesday while flying.

I'm a Minnesotan and a passionate baseball fan. That means I hate the Yankees. I mean, I really HATE the Yankees.

Back in 2009, when my oldest daughter was five years old, the Minnesota Twins were swept by the Yankees in the League Division Series. That was the third time in seven years the Twins had been beaten by the Yankees in the playoffs (it would happen again the following year). When I yelled at the TV that "I hate the Yankees!!!!" my innocent child looked at me with those blue eyes and repeated some wisdom from my wife.

Start them young. This is Chloe and I back in the Metrodome in 2007."Daddy, we don't hate anybody in this family."

This is the day I taught her the difference between rules and guidelines, something that is sure to come back to bite me in a few years.

"Honey, we don't hate any person in this family, but we do hate the Yankees."

Part of my hatred for the Yankees is not that they beat us -- after all, the Angels (2002) and the Athletics (2006) both beat us in the playoffs and I rather like both of those teams -- but that they did it with an approach that I find distasteful. In 2009, the Yankees had a payroll of $201 million. The Twins were just $65 million. While I don't think a major league baseball team can outright buy a championship, they can tilt the deck so far in their direction that they give their opponents little room for error. That was Twins versus Yankees. David versus Goliath. Grit versus the best team money could buy.

I hate it when the bad guy wins.

In 2009, the Minnesota Twins fielded a team that management built from the bottom up. Of the nine position players, five were drafted or traded for early and then worked their way through the Twin's farm system (Mauer, Morneau, Casilla, Cuddyer and Kubel). Three were aquired through trade, two in the off season (Young and Gomez) and one midseason (Cabrera). Only Joe Crede, an injured third baseman trying to resurrect a career (he would only play 90 games due to injury) was not home grown. 

This was even more true for the pitching staff. Seven pitchers started twelve games or more for the Twins that season. Five were a product of the Twins scouting and farm system (Blackburn, Baker, Perkins, Slowey, Swarzak), one was acquired through trade (Liriano) and one was a mid-season pickup to bolster the rotation (Pavano). There were no big money free agents.

Contrast this with the Yankees. Of the starting nine in the field, five were high priced free agents (Texeira, A-Rod, Damon, Swisher and Matsui) while only four were products of the Yankees system (Posada, Jeter, Cano and Cabrera). The Yankees also had acquired high-priced pitching (Sabathia and Burnett) to go along with their own talent (Pettitte and Chamberlain). It was the best team money could acquire and retain.

And they beat us. Four times in eight years, a total twelve games to just our two. That hurt. Bad. 

"I hate the Yankees."

Here's where it gets interesting. Some of you might think this is jealousy, that if the Twins had the Yankees' money or market I would revel in the high-priced free agents they could acquire. I would not. I think that is stupid baseball and I wouldn't run a team that way if I had the money to burn. And that is what bothers me so bad about the Yankees: they have the capacity to cover up their mistakes with more money.

And it's why I love the Twins, and most other MLB teams. We have to be smarter than that. We can't pay Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez millions of dollars and guarantee long term contracts. We pay A-Rod $25 million a year with a $65 million payroll and we're done, not just because we wouldn't have enough money for the rest of a competitive roster but because, when our star player flames out in a steroid scandal and, without the juice, turns into a broken down shell of his former self, we'd be paying all that money and getting nothing for it.

That's stupid.

And it's predictable. Yes, the Yankees had a great run and, because they can throw money at their problems, will likely never be completely inept, but aren't their struggles predictable? The Yankees went on to win the World Series in 2009, but have not won it since. This despite outspending every team in Major League Baseball every year. Every team! Every year!

The peak year of performance for a MLB player is when they are 27. Statistically, from that point on the average player tends to decline in performance. Right now the Yankees have on the disabled list Hafner (36), Jeter (39), Teixeira (33) and Youkilis (34) that are making a combined $54 million. Those are players that are not playing today and have a high risk of being fragile in the future. The average Yankee position player is 32 years old and makes $10 million. Their average pitcher is 33 and makes $12 million. Those are raw statistics from a team that is old and bloated and not going to win anytime soon.

And in any other market, with the possible exception of Los Angeles, a team with these numbers would be doomed for half a decade or more. No other team can operate this way and be successful in the long run. Any other team can carefully augment their roster with strategic free agent signings, but the bulk of their talent has to come from within so it is young, productive and affordable. There is no other way.

That doesn't mean the Yankee approach is not enticing. Every off season the uninformed Twins fan laments the free agents that aren't signed, the players we must trade before they get too expensive, the young stars that are kept in the minors to hone their skills a little longer than necessary. Why don't we just sign that player? Why don't we make that big trade? Why don't we load up and go for it? 

In short, why don't we act like the Yankees?

The answer is simple: we can't. Adopting the strategy of the Yankees -- one where we keep throwing money at marquee players to try and buy more wins -- is not only a really high risk approach for most markets, it doesn't have a track record of success. We have to think more strategically.

Most of our local governments believe they have the same problem: lack of money. Like a new startup business (or a young non-profit), if we only had more money, we could do so much more. We would be so much more successful. If we could just have (____fill in the blank___) that the other city has, that would put us on the right track.

I can't tell you how many places I've been where they point to New York's High Line as a project worthy of emulation. It is a beautiful project, but how many cities have an elevated rail line and $152 million sitting around that they can commit to a parkway?

I'm headed back to Greensboro, NC, this week, a city that is planning a new arts center. I love the city -- it is a fantastic place -- but if I were to list the top twenty challenges Greensboro faces and some potential responses nowhere would art center be mentioned. In fact, the coliseum and the minor league baseball stadium would not be mentioned either. I don't see any of these things bringing median household income or unemployment in line with the state average.

The Greensboro Coliseum complex in relation to the actual city of Greensboro.

This past weekend, the Minneapolis Star Tribune had an article about how the $6 billion being invested in Rochester, MN, "could" transform the city into a powerful economic engine for the state. Now again, I like Rochester a lot and have nothing but admiration for the Mayo Clinic, but I found some of the quotes in the article quite disturbing. For example:

The Rochester project alone is massive. Mayo and the city are on the brink of a $6 billion building boom to transform the clinic and community into what they call Destination Medical Center, a world-class facility designed to be on par with Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic. It will be the development equivalent of dropping six new Vikings Stadiums or nine Malls of America into a city a third the size of Minneapolis, and everyone is waiting to see what effect it will have on the economy, not just of the region but of the whole state.

It is like 2007 and the Minnesota Twins, not the New York Yankees, are signing Alex Rodriguez. He's a great ballplayer with a marquee track record on the field and off. Sure, his salary is larger than anything we've ever done -- by many multiples -- but this is what it takes to make a world class team. Let's do it and see what effect it will have on the rest of the team. What could go wrong?

Last time I was in North Carolina, Joe Minicozzi and I traveled the Piedmont region evangalizing on the financial benefits of the traditional development pattern. In city after city Joe would show how the dumpy little pizza joint in the downtown was twenty times more financially productive than the huge shopping complex on the edge of town. It was just stunning. Here was this dive -- every town has one -- that everyone discounts, yet it pays a higher rate of taxation than that shiny and new place out on the edge that the city moved heaven and earth to get. 

So they could be successful. World class. 

Yet if any of those cities has just built from within, had simply created a few blocks of buildings the size of that old pizza joint and then surrounded them with some simple, walkable residential neighborhoods, they would be vastly more wealthy. Vastly more successful. Vastly more productive.

And the people of that city would be far better off.

When it comes to local government, we're all trying to be the Yankees. We're all acting like that next big project is the one that will make our team successful. We discount all the little things that make a team/city successful, the things that we can do with our non-Yankee budgets.

Reconfigure that street crossing to improve foot traffic. Narrow that STROAD to make the street more livable. Plant some shrubs along that parking lot to break up the dead space. Fight the light pollution on the commercial/residential interface. Focus on the transition between your roads and your streets.

None of these things are flashy. None will get the fan base all excited and give tons of accolades to management for "making things happen." The same can be said in baseball about drawing a walk, hitting the cutoff man or making contact on the hit and run. But those are the little things that win games. Do them well and you'll win more often than you'll lose. And most importantly, you'll never completely blow up.

One of my favorite books, and one of my favorite movies, is Moneyball. In the latter there is a line by Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) that gave me chills.

Baseball thinking is medieval. They [the people who run ball clubs] are asking all the wrong questions.

Our local governments are asking all the wrong questions. We're chasing that next Alex Rodriguez -- that big, splashy project that will excite the electorate and make it seem like we're making progress -- and we're pretending we're the Yankees, trying to cover up our shortcomings by spending more and more money instead of doing the little things that build up to success. This is medieval thinking. It has only worked in a few places in a few instances. For every Alex Rodriguez that signs the big contract and then leads their team to victory, there are dozens of teams where Alex Rodriguez blows up and the team's competitiveness is sucked away while they pay off a bloated contract.

I hate the Yankees. If you care about cities, so should you.


We've started a contest over at the Strong Towns Network for those who like to write and have some thoughts to share. Even if that is not you, come and hang out with us there. There is a good conversation going on and we'd all benefit from your thoughts. 

And if you'd like more of my work, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.