July 24, 2007

Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, and the Creation of Brand Equity

Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this coming Sunday. They were elected in January by the Baseball Writers Association of America in each their first year of eligibility.

They are both well deserving inductees who put up stellar numbers, Gwynn in 20 seasons and Ripken in 21. Gwynn finished his career with 3,141 hits, a .338 career average, and led the league in average in eight years. Ripken won two MVPs, hit 431 homeruns, and holds the record for consecutive games played.

They are connected by their mutual stardom through the late-1980s and 1990s, meeting regularly each summer in the All-Star Game. Gwynn went to 15 games and Ripken to 19. They are now linked by their shared induction in Sunday.

They are also connected as two players who played their entire career for one team. Cal Ripken is identified with the Baltimore Orioles and Gwynn with the San Diego Padres.

Bill Carle studied players who played their entire career for one team and published his findings in the article, “One-Team Players” in issue 35 of The Baseball Research Journal published by SABR.

Carle identified 63 players in the history of major league baseball who played for one team for a minimum of fifteen years. Wally Ritchie, who pitched his entire four-year major league career for the Philadelphia Phillies, does not count. Carle does include Gwynn and Ripken in the 63.

Let us dispel the idea that the advent of free-agency has brought the number of players who play for only one team plummeting. Gwynn and Ripken are two of six players who made their major league debut in the 1980s and played for one club for at least 15 seasons. Six is the same number of single-club players who made their debut in the 1930s. The most for one decade is 11 – in the 1960s.

A third of the six 1980s-players is Craig Biggio. Biggio announced today that he will retire at the end of this season. When he does, he will have played his entire 20-season career with the Houston Astros.

Carle concludes his article on the subject by opining that “a player playing his entire career with one club has always been a rarity… and should be appreciated for their loyalty to their clubs.”

I would respectfully disagree with Carle on the issue of player loyalty to clubs.

First, I cannot fault a man for choosing an alternative employer who offers him more money. A player plays out his contract and while he is healthy enough to play the game, I wish him all the power in the world to try and make as much money as he can for himself and his family.

Second, loyalty only makes sense if it is reciprocal. Mike Lieberthal played thirteen seasons with the Phillies through 2006. When his contract expired last year, the club made no effort to resign him. Not that the Phillies should have resigned him. But just as players can be fickle in choosing money over a single postal-address, teams can be equally shrewd in cutting its employees.

Third, I would argue that the terms of this discussion is not so much “loyalty” to clubs, or even the fans, but rather the creation of a player’s brand-equity as identified with a team. Ripken, Gwynn, and Biggio are all paradigms of the successful creation of such equity.

Ripken is identified with the Baltimore Orioles. Gwynn is identified with the San Diego Padres. Biggio is identified with the Astros. When each goes into the Hall of Fame, there will be no question about which ballcap they will wear on their plaque. They are each not just great ballplayers but they are city heroes.

This is especially important in their post-career lives and in the creation and trade of memory and nostalgia. They each have value as personalities in their communities and because they played for one team can be associated with ideas like “trust”, “loyalty”, their individual cities, “reliability”. (This “loyalty” is the result of the career and not necessary the motivation for staying with the club).

Barry Bonds has such equity in San Francisco playing for the Giants. Bonds came to the Giants after starting his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bonds came to San Francisco in part because his father, Bobby Bonds, had played for seven seasons with the club and because his godfather, Willie Mays, played most of his own career with the organization. Today, Barry Bonds might be one of the most disliked current players but he is loved at home. Beyond his role as a baseball player, he has a role as city hero in San Francisco which he would not have elsewhere.

Each city has its own icons. In Philadelphia, these icons include William Penn, Ben Franklin, David Rittenhouse, and Frank Rizzo, as much as it includes its sports heroes, Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Clarke, Julius Erving, Ron Jaworski, and Mike Schmidt.

Think about Pittsburgh with Andrew Carnegie, the Heinz family, August Wilson, and its own sports heroes, Roberto Clemente, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino, and Mario Lemieux.

I wonder what Alex Rodriguez’s baseball career might have been like had he spent it all in Seattle with the Mariners. He played his first seven major-league seasons with the Mariners. He left as a free-agent after the 2000 season and is now on his third-team.

When he hits his 500th career homerun in the next few games, he will be the youngest player to reach the mark. He has won two MVP awards and if he retired tomorrow at age 31, would still make the Hall of Fame. He is that good.

But for one of the best players of this generation, he is not exactly popular. He has an uneasy relationship with Derek Jeter. It is even unclear if the Yankees will bring him back in 2008. Even without his wife wearing obscene t-shirts to the ballpark, he does not bring much to the table beyond his bat. Yes – it is a ginormous bat. But the Yankees are struggling this season because of pitching and ARod is playing third.

Rodriguez could have owned Seattle from simply being so good in one place for so long.

I also wonder if Roberto Alomar will be elected into the Hall of Fame. He illustrates what not to wear in building such brand-equity.

Alomar has Hall of Fame numbers. He has 2724 career-hits in 17 seasons and a career .300 batting average. He won ten Gold Glove awards at second-base and went to twelve All-Star Games. By comparison, Ryne Sandberg finished his 16-year career with 2,386 career-hits and a .285 average. While Sandberg did have 282 career homeruns, Alomar had 210 and more career RBIs than Ryno.

The biggest difference between Alomar and Sandberg is that Sandberg was a one team player. Yes, Sandberg started his career with the Phillies and we see that “1981 PHI G 13 AB 6…” on his career stats entry. But Sandberg is not a Phillie just as Lou Brock is not a Chicago Cub and Trevor Hoffman is not a Florida Marlin.

Roberto Alomar played for seven teams in his 17 seasons. His longest stint came with the Toronto Blue Jays where he played for five years. I associate Alomar with Cleveland where he played from 1999 to 2001. I was living in Oberlin, Ohio then and he and Omar Vizquel anchored the middle-infield for those great teams.

Ripken and Gwynn have each leveraged this regional brand-equity in their post-playing careers. Ripken has established a base in Aberdeen, Maryland where he runs an operation that includes ownership of minor league baseball franchises, a youth baseball camp and academy, and a memorabilia company, Ironclad Authentics. Gwynn is the head coach of the San Diego State University baseball team and often sits in on television broadcasts of Padres games.

I am all in favor of ballplayers spending their career with one team because it is not just the team and fans who stand to benefit, but the players who give themselves a chance for increased future earnings when their playing career is done.


Post a Comment

<< Home