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
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005
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Such certainty melted away as college progressed. Senior year, DePodesta interviewed with banks and consulting firms, but found himself wondering about his passion for such professions. Looking for something different, he decided to send letters to sports teams, only to wind up with a pile of rejections on nice stationery. Finally he landed an unpaid internship with a Canadian Football League team, the Baltimore Stallions. In the Stallions office, he happened across Alderson's bio in an A's media guide. "I'm looking at it, and I see, 'Dartmouth, Harvard Law, and now he's GM of the A's,'" DePodesta says. "He didn't play the game, he had a similar background to me. That was the first time it hit me, that I could actually give this a try."
That fall of 1995, DePodesta started volunteering at night for a minor-league hockey team, trying to stay in sports. He knew law school lurked around the corner. About ready to give up, he used a distant contact to approach the Indians, and Shapiro recognized a kindred spirit. "Two weeks later," DePodesta says, "I was in spring training with the American League champions."
DePodesta thought he knew baseball. He'd followed the game his whole life, played for the junior varsity for a year in college. "It took me less than a week to realize I knew nothing, absolutely nothing," he says. From that humility came insight. "I don't have 30 years' experience," he says. "I didn't play in the big leagues. I didn't coach and manage in the minors for 15 years. I had to find a way to evaluate guys in order to make decisions. I knew I wasn't good enough to walk into a high school game, point to some kid, and say, 'He's going to be a star.'"
He started exploring other methods to gauge the inherent value of a player. At one point, DePodesta's parents visited, and he explained to them what he did each day. "As I did, I realized we were doing a lot of the same things as other businesses," he says. "We had to make the same decisions and deal with a lot of the same issues, at least in a parallel format." As he'd later tell Beane, "We're glorified human resources men. That's all we are."
He brought that mindset to Oakland after the A's hired him from Cleveland in 1998. Beane was headed in that direction, anyway, looking for clues to why terrific natural athletes like himself hadn't succeeded in the majors. There was value in the numbers, Beane felt, if you knew how to find it. But much of the innovative thinking that Beane gets credit for, DePodesta actually did. "I hired Paul because I knew what he would bring to us," says Ricciardi, who'd emerged as Beane's second-in-command the previous year. "Billy and I are baseball guys. I knew that Paul would be the missing piece."
It worked. And when the Dodgers came looking for a general manager before the 2004 season, the success that Oakland had managed with a tiny payroll—four straight postseason appearances—made them salivate over what the same approach might accomplish with money. They hired DePodesta, who wasn't even a decade removed from Harvard.
Like Epstein, DePodesta made a controversial and much-criticized mid-season trade in 2004, sending catcher Paul Lo Duca to Florida for pitcher Brad Penny as part of a six-player deal. Like Epstein, he landed his team in the playoffs. Typical of the new generation, DePodesta would rather explain his thinking than take credit. "Our industry is an outcome-based industry, but I focus on process," he says. "A lot of times in baseball, people say, 'We'll see in five or six years if it was a good pick.' No! You had to make the pick today, so was it a good decision? Forget about whether it was a good outcome. Was the process leading up to it sound? If it was, you move on. That's how I judge what we do."
DePodesta and the other new-wave general managers contort themselves to include the opinions of baseball men in their evaluations. They do that because, despite their success, baseball still clings to the known, the time-tested, the traditional. "Anytime they see someone who is not a traditional baseball guy, they feel threatened," Ricciardi says. "They say, 'I played 10 years in the big leagues and you should listen to me.'"
But it's also because none of them, least of all Epstein, believes he has all the answers. "Like everyone else, I wanted to play," Epstein says. "Early in the process, I realized I wasn't good enough. As soon as that happened, I wanted to work in baseball operations, having some sort of an impact. Playing a meaningful role."
Epstein started as a public relations intern for the Orioles, hired by Lucchino. Soon he segued into baseball operations in San Diego, where Lucchino had landed after Williams died and the Orioles were sold. By then, Shapiro had helped Cleveland win a pennant. Alderson was in the process of handing the A's to Beane. Epstein was able to catch a glimpse of some of the most intransigent baseball mindsets retreating out the back door. "I thought there'd be a glass ceiling for people who hadn't played professionally," he says. "But before I had to deal with that or reconcile myself to it, it seemed to evaporate. Suddenly, GMs just wanted people around who could help them get the right answer. Most still had traditional backgrounds, but some didn't."
The Padres were a small-market team, with a taut staff that pitched in where necessary. It was the perfect proving ground for a bright, young executive. "We were such a small operation, there wasn't time to assess and debate backgrounds and skill sets, just time to get stuff done," says Epstein. "If you could help, great."
He helped. When Lucchino became part of the ownership group that purchased the Red Sox in 2002, Epstein came with him. And when they went looking for a general manager, they put their heads together and found the perfect candidate: Beane. Lucchino had tried to hire him in 1995, when he was still working under Alderson in Oakland, but Beane demurred, saying he had more to learn. This time, he went so far as to accept the job, but ultimately his West Coast ties were too strong. Instead, Lucchino startled New England and the baseball world by giving control of one of the most storied—and frustrated—franchises to someone who was a decade younger than several of his players.
Epstein remains reluctant to flash his generation's credentials, even with a World Series championship to his credit. "Maybe we have degrees from more prestigious universities, but we don't have the battle scars," he says. But there is no doubt that his success with the Red Sox has made life easier for his peers. It also has turned the Epstein archetype into the flavor of the month. "Now it's spreading like wildfire," says DePodesta. "Everyone's got to get one."
You'll find these newly minted graduates now in team offices from Boston to San Diego, diplomas from Harvard, Haverford, Amherst or Yale tucked away in desk drawers. They're punching numbers into computers, visiting minor-league parks to scout farmhands, learning how to be deferential to former players who might not have finished high school but know where the shortstop should run during a suicide squeeze. And they're pulling down salaries in the low- to mid-five figures that wouldn't pay some of their ex-classmates' restaurant bills.
Some of them played baseball in college. Others arrived with different credentials. "When I was a kid, I played Strat-O-Matic," says Josh Byrnes, who went from Haverford to the Indians to the Rockies with O'Dowd, and now works under Epstein in Boston. "So personnel decisions were always important to me."
These days, too, the offices of Major League teams are flooded with unsolicited job applications that would make McKinsey proud. "Hundreds every year from Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Yale," says Shapiro. The same type of kids who went to work for JFK in the '60s, joined newspapers as investigative reporters after Watergate, and created a dot.com in the '90s are seeking baseball jobs now. "We just hired someone who was trying to decide between the Red Sox and an investment bank," Lucchino says. "And it will continue. The game is inherently appealing enough."
Is this necessarily good? "Bring in the best and the brightest, and empower those guys," Shapiro says. "It's an entrepreneurial environment." But he hastens to add that, in the end, baseball is not exactly like every other business. In fact, there's a critical difference that lends much validity to the traditional way of doing things. "It's the drive for efficient and effective decision making, but in an arena where it's impossible to be efficient because your assets are human," he says. "You're trying to quantify the unquantifiable."
"We never said that thinking outside the box precluded thinking inside the box," acknowledges Ricciardi. "But we're not afraid to try things. That's the difference."
In 2005, Ricciardi's best practices finally started to pay dividends. Despite a restricted budget, the Blue Jays stayed competitive in baseball's priciest division through the All-Star break. DePodesta's Dodgers spent the first months of the season in first place in baseball's worst division before fading. Shapiro's surprising Indians had a grip on the American League wild card until the season's last weekend.
In Atlanta, Schuerholz won yet another division title with the Braves. And Beane's A's, after a slow first half, surged to the top of the AL West and swapped leads with the Angels despite trading their best two pitchers for financial reasons the previous winter.
Still, plenty of doubters remain. The Texas Rangers already have been heavily criticized for making Jon Daniels their general manager in early October. Just 28, the Cornell graduate is nine months younger than Epstein was when he was handed the position in Boston. Unlike Epstein, his sum total of baseball experience consists of a single season as a Colorado Rockies intern and four years behind a desk for Texas. Though he has never so much as run a franchise's farm system, he seems undaunted. "That's the challenge I signed up for," he said in his introductory remarks.
At some point, Daniels or another of the whiz kids will become the first of his generation to be fired. As Billy Bavasi, the general manager of the Seattle Mariners and the son of a former GM, told DePodesta, "We all have two press conferences. The second one just hasn't been scheduled yet."
And Epstein? Despite winning, he still hasn't become part of the baseball establishment. He thinks about spending another decade in baseball, then stepping out to do something slower, and perhaps more socially meaningful—like his social-worker brother, whom Epstein has described as his "hero." There is talk of a political future, which is certainly more than could ever be said about any of the windbreaker types. He probably turns down more proposals for television reality shows, more invitations to birthday parties and bar mitzvahs—and certainly more blind dates—than the rest of the profession combined.
Yet in other ways, Epstein is more one of them than the windbreaker types will ever know. In the late innings of a night game at Fenway, he sits in the darkness with a knot in his stomach. He may not be battling for a cause or a life as a lawyer or doctor, but if he ever forgets how much communal happiness is at stake from the decisions he makes, he has baseball's most passionate fan base to remind him.
Now Epstein sees a reliever he signed for big money coax a ground ball out of a power hitter. He sees the shortstop he acquired range far to his left to turn a possible run-scoring single into a double play. He feels the same surge of pride—no, make it relief—that every general manager has felt since the game began. At those moments, he knows, he's just where he ought to be.
Bruce Schoenfeld writes about sports for Cigar Aficionado and recently authored The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton (HarperCollins).
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