In the Fall of 1993, Jerry Reinsdorf was at a high point. His basketball team, the Bulls, had just won a third straight NBA championship with ESPN’s greatest athlete of the 20th century at the helm. Reinsdorf’s baseball team, the White Sox, had clinched the American League West with a roster filled with young and rapidly improving talent. Meanwhile, he had under contract four of the biggest stars in sports at the time (at least when it came to shoe endorsements) with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Frank Thomas, and Bo Jackson. Considering the curse-worthy collective lack of success of Chicago’s sports franchises in the past, Jerry Reinsdorf should have been the most celebrated team owner in the city’s history from that point on. Instead, he became the most vilified.
Even though the Bulls would win three more championships following MJ’s first retirement, Chicagoans blamed Jerry Reinsdorf and his stubborn loyalty to Jerry Krause for prematurely sending His Airness into his second retirement along with running Pippen, Phil Jackson, and everbody else on probably the most popular team in all of sports history out of town. That led into multiple failed rebuilding plans that saw Krause trade future All-Star Elton Brand for a straight-out-of-high-school prospect in Tyson Chandler (whose time in Chicago has just ended pursuant to a great trade to the Hornets for P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith – watch out for Smith, who was a throw-in here, to become the real impact player in this deal), MJ allegedly coming out of retirement to play in something other than a Chicago uniform (once again, the sports seasons of 2001 through 2003 are completely erased from my internal hard drive, so I can’t confirm that this actually happened), Jay Williams tragically end his career along with a lot of Bulls fans’ hopes in a motorcycle accident, unsuccessful bids to bring Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, and any other decent free agent to the team (culminating in the franchise blowing a wad of money on Ron Mercer just so that it could spend its money on something), and the horrific sight of the Bulls turning back the clock by playing five pasty white guys on the court at the same time on a regular basis in 1999 (they were awesome at the Mikan Drill, though). Simply put, the most exciting team that any us had ever seen or will see in our lives turned into the most unwatchable club of all-time literally overnight.
That would have been enough to give Chicago fans several legitimate reasons to hang Reinsdorf in effigy, but the sad thing is that the news was even worse for the White Sox during the same period. At least the Bulls had built up substantial capital with its fan base during its 1990s dynasty to weather through the lean years. The Sox, however, were still stuck with a franchise that hadn’t won since 1917 and built a sterile ballpark that was outdated within a year after Camden Yards opened up. Then came the two biggest blows to the Sox fan base on top of that already shaky ground. First, Major League Baseball players went on strike in 1994 right when the Sox had the best record in baseball. With Reinsdorf being the most visible ringleader of the owners that wanted to dig in against the players, he received an inordinate share of the blame for the cancellation of a World Series that a lot of Sox fans thought we would have won. After that traumatic event which tested the faith of Sox and baseball fans in general, the team then proceeded with the infamous “White Flag Trade”, where they traded away a number of veterans in exchange for a bunch of prospects at the trade deadline in 1997, even though they were only 3 1/2 games out of first place. It became the ultimate symbol of a baseball franchise that was willing to give up in the middle of a season even though it was in contention and, in the process, destroying its relationship with its fan base. (Note: Ultimately, this was judged to be a positive long-term trade for the Sox as it put into place the pieces for the team’s division winner in 2000. Therefore, the substance of the trade was actually fine, but the timing of the trade caused the fallout that wouldn’t be rectified for nearly a decade.)
So, as a quick recap, Reinsdorf was blamed for running the most iconic athlete of our time out of town, breaking up the greatest basketball team in history, cancelling the World Series just when a star-crossed franchise was in position to win it all for the first time since 1917, and flat-out giving up on a contending team and its fans in the middle of a season – while doing all of that in a 4-year timespan. If he wasn’t considered the worst owner in Chicago sports (with Bill Wirtz, the McCaskey family, and the Tribune Company as competitors on the scene, this exercise has always been like picking your favorite son of Sadaam Hussein), he was certainly the most hated.
Yet, look at where the Bulls and White Sox are at today. The Bulls have finally climbed out of the abyss of the post-Jordan era to field playoff teams again and were able to grab the top free agent prize of this offseason in Ben Wallace, making them a legitimate threat to get back to the NBA Finals next year. Meanwhile, on the South Side of Chicago, the attitude of the White Sox and its fans has gone from negative to a glorious passion for winning. Riding the motor mouth of Ozzie Guillen, the Sox finally won the World Series last season and then proceeded to take steps to field an even stronger team this season. A franchise that was ignored and had a completely apathetic fan base up until a couple of years ago has now become the model team for all of baseball.
What has Reinsdorf done differently since the debacles of the 1990s? The answer: nothing. Reinsdorf has proven to be one of those people that rewards loyalty over anything else, which was a severe detriment in his continued backing of Jerry Krause but has been in boon in terms of his current organizations. As Bob Verdi pointed out in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, a lot of credit has to go the owner for hiring a superb pair of general managers, John Paxson and Kenny Williams. At the time of each of those hirings, Reinsdorf took a lot of flak for staying in-house as opposed to going after the marquee names such as Jerry West and Billy Beane or bringing MJ back into the fold. Meanwhile, the Cubs were thought to be bold in bringing in a battle-tested pennant-winning manager in Dusty Baker rather than engaging in “conservative” nepotism such as the Sox in hiring Ozzie Guillen as the team’s field general. Instead, Ozzie is now the one that gets to manage in the All-Star Game as the defending World Series champion next week while Dusty might be searching for a new job.
Reinsdorf has also had somewhat of a reputation of being cheap considering that his teams are in the nation’s third largest media market. I personally never thought he really could be blamed too much for being a relative penny-pincher since he didn’t enter the world of sports with billions of dollars in his pockets in the manner of Mark Cuban or Tom Hicks and the White Sox never have been and never will be a spontaneously regenerating cash cow like the Yankees or crosstown Cubs. However, during the very period when Reinsdorf was hated the most in the 1990s, he actually had the largest individual contracts in the histories of both the NBA (MJ) and Major League Baseball (Albert “Corky” Belle) on his teams’ payrolls at the same time. Thus, the way the Sox and Bulls have been spending money today shouldn’t be surprising at all. The owner can hardly be called a cheapskate when the Sox currently have a payroll that’s higher than the deeper pockets of the Cubs and the Bulls put up the mega-dollar long-term contract to lure Ben Wallace from his comfort zone in Detroit.
The fact is that I believe Jerry Reinsdorf is as commited to putting winning teams out on the field and the court as anyone else in sports. He won’t sign random players to huge contracts just to appease the fans in the offseason a la the Knicks or Mets, but if he sees a viable plan to winning from one of his general managers, he will fully make the necessary financial commitment. At the same time, while Reinsdorf isn’t the most charismatic person with the media, you can count on one hand the number of owners that have won world championships in two different sports while setting both of his franchises up for extended success. So, it’s time that Chicago sports fans to forget about what was conventional wisdom for over a decade and reassess the world we live in now. Mark Cuban might the most fun owner out there, but it’s hard to argue against Jerry Reinsdorf as being the best.