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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

Deep inside Fenway Park on a damp evening early this past season, Theo Epstein leaned back in a metal chair and exhaled. It had been a long day, and Boston's game against Atlanta was half an hour away from even beginning.

Epstein wore an elegant white shirt, untucked, and had the first stirrings of a goatee on his chin. He looked ready to walk onstage with an electric guitar. Instead, he'd just put a pitcher on the disabled list and signed a hitting instructor. On a similar day the previous summer, he'd traded fan favorite Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs. Over the winter, he'd ended the bidding on future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who escaped to the Mets. Then Epstein took a flyer on the portly David Wells.

As the general manager of the Red Sox, Epstein is responsible for the personnel decisions for the team that won the 2004 World Series and led the American League East for nearly all of 2005. He is 31 years old.

Epstein is the extreme example in a new wave of baseball executives: decision-makers with the attributes of investment bankers or lawyers. Instead of thousands of innings accumulated watching ballplayers at every level, this new breed has high SAT scores and degrees from prestigious universities. They are blessed with nimble minds and knowledge of other disciplines, and are challenging the conventional wisdom of how to effectively build and run a baseball team. And because almost nobody like this existed in baseball until quite recently, they are younger than nearly all of the executives they're supervising—and many of the players, too.

The day he was named to his position in late 2002, Epstein became the youngest general manager in baseball history at 28. He was also one of the least qualified—or one of the most qualified, depending on the criteria. He had an American Studies degree from Yale and experience as a sports editor of the Yale Daily News. He had law school in the on-deck circle. But he hadn't played baseball past high school.

A Renaissance type, Epstein could have been working on Wall Street or writing a novel. Instead, he'd chosen baseball. He seemed so young, so callow, that it was no surprise to learn that he'd been driving a car for only five years. Jay Leno joked that the new GM had been held over a balcony by Michael Jackson.

The summer after Epstein's youthful ascendance, Michael Lewis's Moneyball was published. The book detailed the unorthodox (for baseball, at least) thinking of Oakland general manager Billy Beane, a former Major Leaguer who had come to trust statistical analysis more than empirical observation, then constructed teams that overperformed considering their limited payrolls. Together, Epstein and Moneyball caused a crisis of confidence among career baseball men—"a bunch of old guys sitting around in windbreakers," as former Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams once called them—who did things a certain way because that was how they had always been done.

The baseball lifers were scared. For decades, they'd been operating under the rarely questioned belief that nobody could truly understand their game without playing it at the highest level. What really mattered in baseball, they believed, was unquantifiable. The only way to evaluate a player was to watch him play and match what you saw against your mental snapshots of decades' worth of similar players.

This seems strange, if you think about it. Of all the sports, baseball requires the longest time for the talents of standouts and scrubs to separate themselves. Any untrained observer could see within five minutes that Michael Jordan at the height of his career was the best player on a basketball court. Neither a varsity football letter nor a Yale degree was necessary to ascertain that Jim Brown ran the football better than other mortals; a single handoff sufficed. But in baseball, even a three-game series might not be long enough to glimpse the historic talent of, say, Barry Bonds. He could go 2-for-10 with three strikeouts even as some marginal Major Leaguer happened to bang out seven hits and make a game-saving grab. It would all mean nothing. As anyone who follows the game even superficially understands, it's the accumulation that counts.

But if you make your living evaluating talent, your mandate has always been to know something the statistics skimmers at home don't know—can't know. So you flew to Augusta or Amarillo and noted how the player carried himself, how confident he seemed at the plate, how he took his cuts. You assumed—you knew—that such attributes could predict his success better than statistics. Nobody could just come off some college campus with an American Studies degree and see that special something. If someone really wanted to be able to see it, he'd be better off not going to college at all.


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