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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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.
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