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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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."
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