Because it’s finals week at universities across North America, I’d like to encourage everyone to do the following: if there’s a college professor who impacted your life for the better whom you never thanked, go back and do that. For me, it would be Dr. Gordon Smith, Director of the Walker Institute of International and Area Studies at the University of South Carolina and one of American academia’s foremost experts on Russian politics. My junior year of undergrad, I took his Russian foreign policy class because 1) I needed an international relations elective and 2) my girlfriend, a Russian major, was taking it.
That class was the first impetus for my choosing to attend graduate school for political science–international relations in particular–and Dr. Smith was a fabulous teacher. I wasn’t one of the star students, and I figured that if Dr. Smith remembered me at all, it would be as the sleepy-looking bearded guy who sat next to KTLSF in the back row–she was one of the star students–and thought it was funny to characterize the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko as “in Soviet Russia, tea drinks you!” But more than a year after our last class meeting, he spotted me on the street, called me by name, and we talked for several minutes about life, the universe, and everything.
This post was made possible because of one word–gerontocracy–to which Dr. Smith introduced me that semester. I’d like to dedicate this post to Dr. Gordon Smith, who, I’m sure would be proud to know that one of his students got just enough out of his class to spot the parallels between Ruben Amaro Jr., general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union.
Leonid Brezhnev, in case you were unaware, was General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, bridging the gap between the frenetic reign of Nikita Khrushchev and the short reigns of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the two forgotten Soviet leaders who preceded Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union. He’s the froglike gentleman in the khaki uniform pictured above and without question the owner of the most awesome set of eyebrows of any statesman in the history of this or any other planet. His were eyebrows worthy of a nuclear power, eyebrows to set the world tapdancing to the drumbeat of the vanguard of the worldwide worker’s revolution. Eyebrows that made Roman Cechmanek look like Charlie Villanueva.
But all joking aside, Brezhnev, despite being less celebrated than probably any other long-term Soviet leader, had a massive effect on the direction of Eastern Bloc, and by extension, world politics for two decades. After Khrushchev left office in disgrace in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Brezhnev was a steadier hand at the wheel for the Soviets, a conservative leader who represented a welcome change of pace from the choleric midget shoe-banger who preceded him. Brezhnev’s reign was in many respects quite successful–he guided the Soviet Union into the modern era without coming close to ending the world, as Khrushchev did, committing mass murder, as Stalin did, or causing the whole exercise to collapse on its head, as Gorbachev did. He was so steady-handed, Richard Nixon started acting like a lunatic just so the Cold War would get less boring.
But back to baseball and that word, gerontocracy, which means “rule by the old.” Brezhnev embraced the advice of a set of advisers who served with him in the Great Patriotic War, which, by the time his rule came to an end in 1982, made them very old indeed–in their 70s and 80s. Contrast this to Ruben Amaro’s policy of signing veterans to multi-year deals rather than promoting from within or taking risks on youth: Raul Ibanez, Jose Contreras, Ross Gload, even Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are signed to deals that take them well into their sporting dotage. I know Amaro gets credit for having the stones to make big moves (I even wrote something to that effect yesterday morning), but in some respects, he’s actually quite conservative.
Critics of Brezhnev note that he put the Soviet Union on sort of an economic autopilot that actually caused sustained negative economic growth–ask an economist how difficult that is to accomplish and how damaging that can be–that went largely unnoticed because price controls set by the Communist government kept Soviet citizens from starving due to the massive and rapid inflation that plagued interwar Weimar Germany. In reality, the USSR went through an economic ordeal under Brezhnev compared to which the contemporary and much-celebrated stagflation that derailed Jimmy Carter’s presidency was equivalent to leaving your wallet at home and asking your buddy to float you $10 for dinner and train fare.
Then there’s Afghanistan. In 1979, as you know, the USSR sent troops into Afghanistan and accomplished, well, not very much except to spend billions of rubles in military materiel and lose some 30,000 Soviet troops to hiding Mujahideen with Kalashnikovs.
Continuing the Amaro-as-Brezhnev analogy, we haven’t seen these parts of Amaro’s reign, but they’re coming. Brezhnev’s economic failures were the result of a planned economic model that didn’t adapt quickly to changing demands or incentivize innovation. As a result, Dr. Smith got to tell stories about how on the road from the airport to downtown in Moscow, the highway is lined with foundations with no buildings on top of them–because the people who lay foundations met their five-year quota and the people putting buildings on top of those foundations didn’t. Given the Phillies’ refusal to change their own economic model as their team gets older, either by acquiring younger players or by adopting innovative practices along the lines of what the Blue Jays or the Rays (who did another evil genius thing this morning) are doing.
As for that whole Afghanistan thing? Not wishing to belabor the point, I’ll direct your attention to Ryan Howard‘s contract and say no more.
I’ve been prone to senselessly bashing the Phillies’ general manager here in recent years, but I really want to make it clear that I’m not senselessly Rubenbashing. Amaro’s three years as Phillies GM are tied for the highest regular-season win total of any three-year span in franchise history. He’s 3-for-3 in division titles and has won a National League pennant–a successful set of results by anyone’s definition, including my own.
Likewise, Brezhnev managed to track the USSR back from the brink of nuclear annihilation without significantly losing face in the international community. By and large, he put a Lada in every driveway and a pot of borscht on every table. Brezhnev put down revolution in Czechoslovakia (though Flyers winger Jaromir Jagr, who wears No. 68 in honor of those who participated in the 1968 rebellion, might not agree this was a good thing) while maintaining the military strength to keep America at bay.
We can mock Brezhnev’s eyebrows and criticize his economic policy from now until the worldwide proletarian revolution, but the fact remains: he held the Soviet Bloc together for nearly two decades, he prevented internal economic panic, and most importantly he maintained enough military power to nuke you, your granddad, and Lyndon Johnson back into the paleolithic era. Brezhnev didn’t bang his shoe on the dais at the UN, and he didn’t make a Pizza Hut commercial. But he kept a superpower at the top of the Eurasian political and diplomatic food chain, which is analogous to what Ruben Amaro has accomplished here.
Perhaps in a generation we’ll look back on Ruben Amaro with the same sort of bemusement with which we look on Brezhnev. Maybe future Phillies GMs will institute the reforms to take this team into the 21st Century, but we can be thankful, for now, that the whole enterprise hasn’t collapsed. Sure, Amaro’s made mistakes, but so did Brezhnev. Be patient, everyone, because glasnost is coming.