Winning really is everything Dynasties: Nothing lasts forever. Just ask those who have discovered that winning tomorrow is even harder than winning today.

SUN JOURNAL

October 10, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

They were nearly invincible.

Throughout a glorious, pinstriped, 30-year run that began in 1927, the New York Yankees epitomized success in professional sports. They won the American League pennant 18 times and more World Series than every other team combined. Their players set some of the most enduring records: most runs batted in, most consecutive games played, longest hitting streak, highest batting average, most home runs. They were a marvel of human enterprise that outlived managers, owners and superstars.

Then the magic seemed to evaporate.

The mighty Yankees gradually became just another ballclub. The laws of nature, and human behavior, caught up with them.

Such it must always be.

Next to a vacuum, nature abhors nothing so much as a dynasty. Every grouping of humans - whether a warrior tribe, a Silicon Valley upstart or a seafaring superpower - that makes it to the pinnacle soon discovers a precipice there.

In baseball, liberalized rules allowing players to change teams have worked against an enduring champion. But even before free agency, few teams managed to stay on top for long.

"The next year was always a challenge," recalls Hank Peters, general manager of the Orioles from 1975 to 1987, a remarkable period that encompassed two World Series. "When you've conquered the world, you think you are invincible and you think nothing will stop you. Sometimes that confidence leads to complacency."

Hubris is but one of the human traits that, ironically, both nurtures and poisons success. It infects all organizations, manifesting itself as blinding arrogance and waning motivation. It contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, the near collapse of Chrysler in the 1970s, and the downfall of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s. Dynasties that seem all- powerful come to an end.

The cycle is inescapable.

"After a while, successful imperialists, usually not the first generation, squander their dominance. The first generation builds it, the second generation consolidates it and the third generation wastes it," says Charles Korr, a history professor at rTC the University of Missouri at St. Louis and an expert in Britain's Golden Age and sports history.

Decline is partly due to a simple desire to take a break from our labor and enjoy the fruits.

Also, it's nearly impossible to convince people to sacrifice for an organization that is flourishing. They inevitably put their own interests and comforts ahead of the group's - turning upside down the formula that got them to the top.

But there is more to it. For example, winning in sports and business and nation building requires innovation and adaptation. Those are uniquely tricky commodities to work with.

"Once you've achieved a dynasty, usually the circumstances, technological and otherwise, change," Korr says.

Britannia's rule of the waves lost its relevance in the aviation age. General Motors Corp. perfected the gas-guzzling luxury car just as oil prices made attractive the efficient compacts sold by foreign carmakers. Tom Landry's unsentimental efficiency in building a football dynasty in Dallas was poorly suited to attracting and motivating athletes in the age of pampered prima donnas.

"Don't ever underestimate the power of inertia," says Korr. Achievers are disinclined to jettison the methods and techniques that got them where they are. They are likely to continue doing whatever has worked in the past. This often proves ruinous.

Likewise, innovations, once loosed, are hard to contain. The anonymous metallurgist who at some time before 3500 B.C. discovered the pliability and strength of bronze spawned a new age. Its commercial and military advantage was lost, though, as soon as the technology spread. The nuclear genie, released over a New Mexican desert 52 years ago, quickly found its way elsewhere, negating a brief American hegemony.

It didn't take long for other coaches to notice Paul Brown's success in reducing football to X's and O's on a chalkboard. His 1940s and 1950s Cleveland Browns dynasty - seven championships in nine years in two leagues - ran out of steam when other coaches mimicked his techniques.

Branch Rickey racked up great seasons running the Cardinals in the 1930s and Dodgers in the 1940s with a revolutionary idea: Develop players in a "farm system." Once copied, the edge of a minor league network was lost.

Which raises another issue: "If you look at the great dynasties, they were usually built by somebody who did something different," Korr says. But revolutionaries are notoriously unsuited to the mundane task of governing. Institutionalizing a revolution is an oxymoron that has bedeviled leaders throughout history. See: communism, post-World War II.

"I think it's the same with creating an industrial empire or winning a war and building an empire," Korr says. "There's a boredom factor."

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