Building The Dynasty #1: Breaking down the success of the Chicago Flames
Former GM Skip Peters discusses how they did it
Welcome to the first edition of our dynasty series where elite GMs come and give us insight in their own words about how they were able to find success with various clubs throughout the majors. Naturally for the first edition, we had to talk to now FORMER Vice President of Baseball Operations for the five-time champion Chicago Flames Skip Peters.
You know the story by now, the Flames were the Kansas City Katz from 1940–2006. They moved at the end of the 2006 season to the South Side of Chicago to become the Chicago Flames. The franchise had previously missed the post-season five straight years has now reeled off ten straight playoff appearances, seven NL Central titles, six NL pennants and five Sunset Series titles. The turnaround is unlike anything we’d seen in recent years. Now that Peters is awaiting his next move, we thought we’d bring him in to tell us how they did it and what was going through their minds over that time.
Foreward (By Cob Bostas)
To understand the story of the Kansas City Katz is largely to know a story of futility and what happens when a bad team is bad for longer than anybody cares to notice. Sure, there were playoff appearances. The first playoff drought came from 1935 to 1961, dating back to the last few years as the Detroit Pontiacs. Two more division titles came in 1969 and 1971, but it wasn’t until 1987 that the franchise began their stint as a decent playoff team.
1998–2001 represented the highwater mark of the team’s history, claiming four straight post-season appearances but no pennants. Tank mode began and a five-year playoff drought were the final straw for everybody — the fans and ownership. The team was sold and packed up for Chicago where that city had already gotten accustomed to a loser in the Chicago Rogues who last claimed a championship in 1949.
So what’s another loser to a city that already had one? The South Side was starved for baseball after losing the Chicago Packers who left town, went to New York (okay, Connecticut) became the New York Comets and reeled off seven straight playoff appearances and two titles.
The Katz became the Chicago Flames and the goal was to city ablaze with a Fire Fever.
Skip Peters was the nephew of D.C. Goodman, the architect of the last Milwaukee Zephyrs title, won titles in Las Vegas with the Aces and later, those successful title teams in New York (okay, Connecticut) with the Comets. Success ran in their blood, but the last thing Skip wanted anyone to think is that he was some kind of legacy selection that couldn’t hack it on his own merit. He’d taken his MBA into baseball, lucked into a job with the Katz organization shortly after his 25th birthday and when the new regime took over, someone told the new owners “the kid” might be a good shot to be a GM someday.
Recognizing his talent, they thought, “why not make him a GM now? Maybe he’ll grow into it?”
So here he was at the age of 27, the youngest GM in baseball.
How To Build A Champion
By Skip Peters
I appreciate the chance to tell our story. The first thing to mention is there’s no way this was a one-man job. I had a lot of help and we did a great job of bringing in top quality people who could help develop this franchise that we really built from scratch into something that was really all-new in a lot of ways.
It was better than an expansion team because we had players already, but we worked hard to remove the culture of losing and replace a lot of the older staff because we thought going to a new city with new ownership, meant an entirely new attitude. You still can’t fault the folks in Kansas City though. They supported that team for a really long time and the management did draft well, but they didn’t always have a lot of show for it. If they didn’t leave us with some good players to deal and some decent stock in the minors, there’s no way you could talk about the success of the Flames organization today.
As I get older (37) it’s fuzzier and fuzzier to remember the specific events as they happened. Some things are easier than others to recall. I’m just going to do more of a countdown-type list that gives you a glimpse into some of the big moments that revolve around our players and how we didn’t turn things around, but managed to sustain our success after a while. Not all of our moves worked. Our stadium isn’t suited for everybody. This is a success story, but not one that the entire road is paved with gold. We didn’t have an unlimited budget, either. (Everybody thinks we did.)
I’m excited to tell this story, because no matter what happens next, I’m happy to have been part of the story of the Chicago Flames.
1. A true home-field advantage
Everybody who doesn’t belong to the organization complains about South Side Park and I get it. It’s a very weird place to build a team. To be honest, we weren’t really thinking about it all that much when we moved in. They’d built the park before we showed up, the city of Chicago managed to get a stadium built on the South Side in the South Loop and were told they’d either get a team by expansion or move by 2010. We ended up moving for the 2007 season and we inherited the park without any real input.
Unfortunately, the odd dimensions meant that it was a great place to pitch — surely the best in the bigs — but not a great spot for our power hitters. It meant a team filled with contact hitters and guys who liked to run for extra base hits made more sense than a team of sluggers for our park, because the wind really depressed the ability for balls to leave the yard beyond just the shifty dimensions (320 to RF line, 380 to the LF line and 440 to CF with the lakefront wind blowing in. Not. A. Picnic.)
I like a speedy team anyway, so that wasn’t really a problem for me. The real issue is, getting power hitters to a team where they’re going to easily sacrifice 15–20 HRs a year playing in a windy breadbox does not sit well with everybody. It would be hard to attract elite free agents because they’d see their stats depressed in our park. On the flip side, getting pitchers to show up was never a problem because they knew they could cash in on big paydays after playing with us. Once we proved that a few times with some of our younger guys we kept plugging into the rotation, people started to really take notice.
I like a speedy team anyway, so that wasn’t really a problem for me. The real issue is, getting power hitters to a team where they’re going to easily sacrifice 15–20 HRs a year playing in a windy breadbox does not sit well with everybody.
2. Have a core group
Some GMs talk about having “their guys” but I really do follow the Parcells model in that way. You need some dudes who can impart wisdom on the way you do business and the way your organization treats guys who are loyal. For us, that was an easy thing to do, because I learned it from my uncle during his lessons talking about leading winning teams in Milwaukee, Las Vegas and New York. “Always do it the right way,” he’d say. “And you’ll never look back and wonder.”
We had six guys who won at least 4 rings with us. Known internally as “The Six Pack” SS Jody Carroll, SP Bill Anthony, SP Julian Helmer, SP Rich McGrath, 1B Ray Greathouse, RP Andres Marroquin. I will talk more about them later and give you a better sense of what they really did for us in more detail in a different chapter.
But it began with pitching for us and we always managed to have guys who would step up, beyond just our aces. You can’t win a title with a team full of #1 starters because you’re not going to ever be able to really afford a team of #1 starters. It’s the back of the rotation and your bullpen that get the job done. It obviously helps that we had the best place to pitch in the bigs, but if nobody delivers when they need to, none of that will matter.
3. Don’t spend because you can.
There were years after the first couple of titles (no, saying that never gets old) where ownership flat out told us not to spend big money on anybody. People liked to think we had an unlimited checkbook for all of the years we did this, but the reality is something else.
Our first playoff year, we had a payroll of $55.4 million, which was the lowest in the entire Nationwide League. We deliberately moved salaried guys and worked to get younger and cheaper. Many of those moves put us in position to get where we are now, but it was less about fiscal prudence. We were trying to get “our guys” and figure out who they were. Plus the team we inherited wasn’t very good, so the last thing we wanted to do was just waste a bunch of young guys surrounded by a core of aging veterans who they might not have fit in with.
Supportive ownership changes everything.
Only once during our entire run (2011) did we have the highest payroll in baseball ($170.7 million that year) and that was mostly due to some late-season acquisitions, taking on some big contracts to move a few others. That year our franchise lost over $65 million. We cut payroll each of the next three years ($139.6, $126.9, $109.4) from 2012–14, won a title in 2013 during that span and tried to plug holes internally where we could.
Supportive ownership changes everything. When you have an owner who supports the team and wants you to capitalize on the moment, that obviously reflects a different situation than being in a situation where you have to pinch pennies or aren’t allowed to be flexible when big opportunity show up at your doorstep.
I left the franchise when the team was sold, because I felt after a decade with the same club, I needed to see if I had the skills to do this elsewhere. I have no idea what that means. Heck, maybe I’ll go to Japan and try my hand at this. Sky is the limit! I have no doubt though, that the Chicago Flames will keep winning because the culture is built now and that foundation will outlast all of us who had a hand in creating it.
MAJOR LEAGUE DYNASTIES (since 1902)
New York Gothams (1903, ’04, ’07) (1926, ’28, ’30)
Toronto Blue Collars (1908, ’10, ’12)
Las Vegas Aces (1980–82, ’84)
Philadelphia Quakers (1986, ’89–91)
Chicago Flames (2009–11, 2013, 2016)
In the next edition, Skip Peters discusses the key members of the Flames dynasty during his tenure and we take a look at the past Flames teams over the last decade to pick the best of the title teams.