In 2013, the cost of a New York City taxi medallion — the necessary registration to operate one of those famous yellow cabs — was more than $1 million; a truly precious commodity in one of the world’s great metropolises.
This summer, though, there were two auctions in New York City — one for 16 medallions, another for 60. Each medallion sold, on average, for roughly $125,000 each.
What happened? Uber and Lyft came around.
In April 2002 you could buy a share of Blockbuster stock for roughly $30. But after Netflix started sending DVDs to people’s homes through the mail, and then began to skip the disc and mail altogether in 2007, that same share of stock was worth less than a dollar at the end of 2008.
Alta Vista, Blackberry, Borders Books, Radio Shack, Sears — the world of business is littered with cautionary tales that all tell the same story:
Adapt or die.
But the San Francisco Giants had to learn that lesson in reverse.
The Giants needed to die a painful death before they could ever adapt to the new way of doing business in baseball.
And it seems as if some fans are still not on board with the shift.
The Giants’ precipitous fall from contender to basement dweller has put second-year President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi in one of the toughest positions in the sport, having to undertake a top-to-bottom rebuild of a massive-market team with a fanbase that’s used to winning and off-season splashes, all while not ever being able to publicly say “rebuild” because it’s bad public relations.
I suppose with that being the case, it shouldn’t be surprising that the main emotion of the Giants’ fanbase and media fan-boys this offseason is outrage.
Outrage at getting rid of a fan-favorite in Kevin Pillar and letting the greatest World Series pitcher of all time, Madison Bumgarner, walk out the door.
Outrage at hiring Gabe Kapler to be the manager of the team.
Outrage at even the mere rumor of signing Yasiel Puig.
Some of this outrage — the good majority of it being spread online, so it should be taken with a whole block of salt — is valid.
The Kapler hire wasn’t without legitimate controversy, though perhaps the media establishment’s zeal for pontificating took it to another level — still, Zaidi sees him as a perfect emissary for him in the clubhouse. Pillar wasn’t worth anything remotely close to $10 million a season, but I can see merit in keeping around a player that fans liked — there is value in being exciting and playing the game the right way, even if you don’t produce as much as people might think you do. And no one wants to see Bumgarner — who will go in the Hall of Fame as a Giant — leave at age 30.
But Zaidi’s job isn’t to appease, it’s to win.
As much as we want to make baseball out as solely an entertainment product, that is simply not the truth of this day and age. The nerds won. You have men and women who could be managing multi-billion dollar hedge fund portfolios now managing Major League Baseball teams, working for owners who have proven time and time again that their only interest is making more money.
Like it or not, baseball, like the cab industry or in-home video, is a business, first and foremost.
And in this business, it’s been proven that winning makes a ton of money while sustained mediocrity — constantly trying to fill a crack-filled foundation — is even more expensive than losing.
Perhaps the Giants’ pursuit of Bryce Harper last offseason sent the wrong message. Zaidi — I still believe at the behest of the business side of the franchise, aka Larry Baer — went bargain-hunting when Harper wasn’t signed in February. While the outfielder eventually went to Philadelphia, it was easy for fans to infer that the Giants would continue to spend on big-time free agents every offseason — to patch the roof after every storm — despite that being incongruent with the team’s status in the established model of successful team-building in baseball.
Look at what the Giants’ financial peers — the Cubs, Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers — have done in recent years. Some — ok, probably all of them — started in a stronger position than San Francisco was this time last year, but each team’s current success was built on the foundation of a strong farm system consistently producing elite, cost-controlled players, and then augmenting that lineup with free-agent spending.
Create, then spend.
In that model, the quants have exploited the loopholes of the sport’s collective bargaining agreement, and it’ll take a dramatic change in the governance structure of baseball for this model to no longer have merit.
And Zaidi knows this model like the back of his hand. He effectively co-authored it. First, he learned at the hand of the Moneyball master, Billy Beane, in Oakland, and then became general manager of the Dodgers, who implemented Moneyball 2.0, featuring big data and big money.
Zaidi, expertly educated and unquestionably brilliant, is perfectly equipped to build a successful baseball in this day and age.
And with the PR-sensitive Baer being muzzled in the past year because of his own bad decisions and the team’s new control person, Greg Johnson, being the literal CEO of a massive investment company, Franklin Templeton Investments, it’s clear that Zaidi now has free reign to execute his vision.
But first, he needs to clear back the brush.
When 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was hired three seasons ago, he was given a six-year contract — a year more than most NFL head coaches (especially first-time head coaches) usually receive. He demanded the extra year because he was taking over a franchise that had been so poorly managed in the build-up to his hiring that he would need a full year to demolish — to pull everything back to studs — before he could start rebuilding.
I’d argue that Zaidi needs two such “demolition” years, given all the bad contracts still on the Giants’ books and the now-evidenced difficulty in making dramatic culture changes to a baseball organization.
Yet the death rattle of the old guard continues to loudly shake.
It’s surprising. By now — after all those losses — I thought everyone would be in agreement that the old way of doing business in San Francisco had failed.
The Giants’ dynasty — if you’re so bold to call it that — ended after the team lost 98 games in 2017. The writing on the wall was clear: the core of the championship teams was aging, deteriorating, and expensive, and the style of ball that they played — the style that won them three titles in five years — and was antiquated. Their model — if you’re so bold to call it that — of team-building was too.
But instead of taking a long hard look in the mirror and adapting to the new way to doing business, the team doubled-down on failure, trading for two more underproducing, overpaid veterans in Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen.
How’d that work out?
There’s a reason Zaidi is here, making an ever-more noticeable chunk of die-hard fans miserable.
And while he cannot say it, I can: this is a rebuild.
It will be long, it’s already been painful, and won’t stop for a while yet, but I’m convinced that Zaidi’s plan gives San Francisco the best chance not just to be good in the next decade, but to be a juggernaut.
There’s a phenomenon — the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as I learned from The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss — wherein giving things a catchy, descriptive name helps normalize ideas. Language is the dominant force in our world, after all.
The A’s process of beating the big-money, big-market teams was an infinitely nuanced, complicated subject, but we just know it as “Moneyball”. Former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie’s loophole-exploiting model for success in the NBA — it too is complicated and nuanced but at its core is a systematic tank as to annually draft top prospects — was made palatable and eventually rallying when it was given a name: “The Process”.
Zaidi needs similar mnemonic help.
Giants fans need to start showing “Faith in Farhan”.
Because if the man in charge isn’t allowed to see his plan through — if pressure and public relations are allowed to once again pass as a plan for the Giants — then San Francisco will never be anything more than a richer version of the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, or Los Angeles Angels — big-market teams that are constantly searching and spending but never seem to go anywhere.
And no one wants that.