What Baseball Can Learn from Agribusiness

In baseball, teams have gotten ahead in recent years by bringing in the wisdom of individuals whose expertise lies outside the game–the Astros and Rays, among others, have recently hired GMs who got their start in the world of business rather than baseball as such, and both teams are in the process of reaping  the benefits (the Rays more so than the Astros, but Jeff Luhnow is relatively new on the job, so let’s be patient).

Anyway, I bring this story from the world of agriculture, in the hope that it might shed some light on the Phillies’ potential moves at the deadline.

Back in the mid-20th Century, a man named John O’Neill ran an extremely successful industrial pig farm in North Carolina, producing millions of pounds of swine every year. What’s more, he was able to process the meat on-site, producing sausage, ham, bacon, and pork ready for the supermarket shelves. O’Neill accomplished this by building an on-site coal-fired power plant to run the processing center without having to rely on the local power company, which, this being rural North Carolina in the 1950s, provided sometimes-spotty coverage.

O’Nell, as you might imagine, became an extremely rich man, and began to indulge his passion for horse racing by setting up a thoroughbred farm adjacent to his pig farm. There, he raised extremely successful racing horses, and what started as an indulgence and a hobby turned into a multimillion-dollar business in its own right, as his horses took in incredible amounts of money in race winnings and stud fees.

By the early 1970s, however, O’Neill’s trainers began to report some rather disturbing trends. Some of his older horses were developing lung cancer, and the incidence of birth defects among the foals born on the farm was rising rapidly. Soon, the mares were producing more sick offspring than healthy, and O’Neill’s veterinary staff grew more and more concerned. The horse farm nearly foundered, and while O’Neill’s pig farm was producing more ham than ever, he was extremely unhappy.

Finally, in 1976, O’Neill hired a team of environmental scientists to test the air and water quality around the processing plant, and they found that the old power plant was  producing alarming quantities of toxic gases, leading to lung disease and birth defects among the horses. O’Neill immediately commissioned a new combination wind and solar power plant to power his processing mill, first to take some of the load off the old power plant and reduce pollution, and then to replace it entirely. In the next decade, enough clean and renewable power was being produced so that O’Neill’s company didn’t have to use any fossil fuels at all. The next generation of horses was born healthy and began winning races, and the females on the farm in particular prospered. O’Neill’s pig farm continued to turn a profit, and he died a very happy and very wealthy man. To this day, O’Neill’s company produces an incredible amount of ham and an incredible number of winning racehorses at little cost to the environment.

The moral of this story: Sometimes it’s in the best long-term interest of the fillies to get rid of coal ham mills.