The Hollywood approach has rarely worked in baseball.
Teams need to get fans to form an allegiance with the team for years to come. Focusing on a single player only works in the here-and-now. And the string of what-ifs — injuries, trade, free agency, a significant slump — make marketing a team based on a single player or two too risky.
Several seasons back, the Los Angeles Dodgers made the point that it was a team effort by hanging enormous murals of players outside the stadium. They picked players from the April roster who, by mid-summer, were either on the disabled list, in the minors, riding the pine or had been traded.
But it drove the point home: Be careful when you promote an individual in a team sport. Market the product, in this case the Dodgers, the way you would a film franchise such as "Star Trek."
Manny Ramirez brought an excitement to Dodger Stadium that made fans get there for the first pitch the way Eric Gagne made fans stay until the final out was recorded several years ago. The prior management waited until Gagne was firmly established as the game’s premier closer before marketing “game over” merchandise with Gagne’s goateed mug. Once his arm fell off, the fans returned to the habit of departing after the seventh inning — or about 9:30 p.m.
Ramirez, who signed a contract that could last as little as just the 2009 season, brought dazzle to a team that lacked anything resembling a superstar. And the McCourts ran with it, creating Mannywood in left field, selling dreadlock wigs, making 99 the number du jour. And they did it with no long-term commitment from Ramirez.
Mannywood was a nice place to visit, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Fernando-mania or the Koufax-Drysdale days. That connection between fans and players had purity that we so rarely see these days — Derek Jeter in New York, Albert Pujols in St. Louis.
Players like Ramirez — and there are very few like him — ensure the sell-outs and prevent the expensive seats from being empty for the first three innings. But then came last week, when Ramirez was banned for 50 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The Red Sox and Dodgers fans enjoyed the benefits of his malfeasance but only the Dodger fans feel burned.
Promoting a superstar seems to rarely work out well for teams. Somehow, the San Francisco Giants managed to resist promoting Barry Bonds at the expense of the rest of the team until so many quality players had departed and the lifetime home run chase to celebrate.
Across the bay, the Oakland A’s have truly executed the team concept. They have a crummy ballpark, undistinguished leadership, no superstars and zip of a national reputation despite having invented marketing in professional baseball in the early 1970s. They hang in there by promoting the less than attractive combination of green, gold and white and the power of a team operating as one.
In places like St. Louis and Chicago, it’s obvious the fans and the front offices have not lost site of the fact that baseball is a team sport made up of individual achievements. For the next 50 games, the Dodgers have to re-learn that. They have lost a luster that might not return with Ramirez in July, but by then perhaps the concept of team will be a bigger-seller than the guy in left field.