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The GM Revolution

A young generation of general managers are testing conventional baseball wisdom as they make their marks in front offices around the Majors
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

(continued from page 1)

For decades, such an empirical approach served to limit the pool of men who made the personnel decisions for big-league teams. Outsiders, no matter how intelligent, didn't bother to apply. Judging baseball talent was positioned as a special skill, unique to the profession. A pianist might have the hands to play Chopin, but did that mean he could build a house? But now here came Beane's computerized evaluations, and the high-SAT backgrounds of Epstein, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Paul DePodesta and the Cleveland Indians' Mark Shapiro: brainy, young executives who had been promoted all the way to GM having barely worn a batting helmet. If some Harvard graduate could run a baseball team just as easily as he could run a hedge fund, the lifers were out of luck.

You couldn't have a baseball conversation for much of 2003 and 2004 without someone pushing you to take sides. "Moneyball became a buzzword," says Toronto Blue Jays general manager J. P. Ricciardi, who has a standard-issue baseball background—6 years on the field as a minor-league player and coach followed by 16 years scouting or supervising scouts—but helped undermine the established order while working for Beane in Oakland. "And Theo was Moneyball with money. People attack countries with the budget he has."

Then Epstein's Red Sox won the World Series. All of a sudden, this wasn't a theoretical discussion involving a book someone had written, and kids who didn't know a fastball from a fungo. Now this was about winning at the highest level. And if there's any tradition in baseball as strong as maintaining the established order, it is the slavish copying of success. Soon, nearly every Major League team was out trolling for an Epstein of its own, even as the original advised against imbuing his success with undue meaning.

"I'd be careful separating into groups and slapping labels, because it isn't 'us against them,'" Epstein says now, but it's far too late. The door has swung open wide and the college kids with the shiny resumés are streaming through. For better or worse, baseball may never be the same.

The first thing that must be understood is that Theo Epstein isn't Billy Beane. Beane was a Major Leaguer, albeit a not particularly successful one. When he walks into the Oakland clubhouse, author Lewis notes, he earns respect as the best athlete in the room. Beane moved directly from a stellar high school career to the minors. His path to the front office was traditional, though he has used very untraditional means of evaluating talent since arriving there.

Unlike Beane, Epstein can be best understood as the personification of a gradual move by the baseball industry toward the business practices of other industries. "Baseball people look at the bottom line differently," says Paul Godfrey, a former head of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto and publisher of the Toronto Sun who now serves as the chief executive officer of the Toronto Blue Jays. "'Best practices' was never part of the nomenclature."

When Godfrey arrived in baseball in 2000, he found an industry different from any he'd known. "Baseball is so traditional," he says. "After every out, if there's nobody on base, they've got to throw the ball around. Everybody's got to touch it, like it's some mystical thing, though there's absolutely no reason why they should. In the same way, I don't think that even today half the organizations in baseball are run the way someone would run their private business, which is what earned them the money to buy a team in the first place. Baseball teams are looked at with a different set of principles. To me, that's a ridiculous situation."

Godfrey should have seen baseball in the 1960s and 1970s. It was run more on the level of a YMCA than a major industry. At the time, player salaries were in line with those of middle-management executives. Ticket prices were affordable for any kid with an allowance. Marketing meant throwing the doors open and announcing that the season had started, perhaps giving away free bats to turn a Saturday afternoon into an event. Sponsors were limited to exposure on radio broadcasts. "It was a game that was a little business," says John Schuerholz, the general manager of the Atlanta Braves. "Now it's a big business that's also a game. And the realization has occurred around the industry that perhaps we need some different types of people running it."

Schuerholz was the first of them. In 1966, he was working as an English and geography teacher in Baltimore County when he wrote to Jerrold Hoffberger, who ran the Orioles. Schuerholz had played baseball at Towson State, and had known and loved the game as a fan and participant. His letter expressed hope that his perspective might possibly be helpful. Astonishingly enough, the Orioles agreed. They offered an entry-level job, and Schuerholz accepted. It wasn't as if he was getting rich teaching world capitals to eighth graders.

Years later, Schuerholz would be named general manager of the Kansas City Royals at age 41, which made him younger than every other Major League general manager, and one of the very few who hadn't played the game professionally or grown up in a baseball management dynasty. He'd win a World Series in Kansas City in 1985, then move to Atlanta and begin an unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division championships, including 2005. When you consider the rapid player turnover of the free-agent era, Schuerholz can be considered the most successful baseball GM in history.

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