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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 3)

He was hired by John Hart and Dan O'Dowd, traditional baseball men who had the groundbreaking notion that it was harder to teach a baseball lifer the requisite economic understanding than to hire somebody young and certifiably smart, show him the business, and surround him with baseball minds. "They believed in me and gave me responsibility almost right away," Shapiro says. And why not? They couldn't do worse than they'd been doing.

The Indians implemented a strategy of tying up young players to long-term contracts, then praying that they'd picked the right ones. Shapiro wasn't the architect; necessity was, as interpreted by Hart. But Shapiro had played a major role in the decision-making process and, as farm director, in evaluating baseball talent. When the Indians won the American League pennant in 1995, he began to get noticed.

Then Hart left for Texas and O'Dowd for Colorado, and Shapiro was elevated to the general manager job in 2002. By then, he was 33. He'd earned the reputation as not simply smart, but a smart baseball man. Part of that came from knowing when to challenge established notions, and when to defer to them. "There's still plenty of resistance to someone like me in this industry," he says. "In order to manage people effectively, you'd better be aware of it. You have to have respect for tradition—and the traditional baseball people—or you aren't going to get far."

He'd already started to seek out future executives in the same mold, the next generation of Mark Shapiros. In most cases, they had no connection to the game at all. But Shapiro believed that didn't matter. "Why limit yourself?" he says. "Get the best candidates out there. Sometimes the best guy is going to be a Billy Beane, but sometimes it's a Georgetown grad."

Those young protégés of Shapiro began, ever so slowly, to populate the industry. For a college senior typing up his resumé, it offered a glimpse of the possible. Paul DePodesta was one of them. Arriving at Harvard in the fall of 1991, he'd had his future planned. Asked for some sense of what he might like to major in, he handed his freshman adviser his schedule for the next four years. "Time slots, all the classes I was going to take, everything," he says. "And the guy stared at it, flipped it over to the back, then looked at me and said, 'Where's law school?'"

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."

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