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Managing baseball becomes a more complex job

Monday, November 07, 2005 By Stefan Fatsis and Jon Weinbach, The Wall Street Journal
Why did Theo quit?

That question has reverberated through the baseball world since Theo Epstein, the wunderkind general manager of the Boston Red Sox, declined a multimillion-dollar contract offer and resigned last week, just a year after helping the team win its first championship since 1918.

In media reports and cyberspace chatter, Mr. Epstein's departure has been linked to a power struggle in Red Sox upper management. The 31-year-old Boston native, an icon in his hometown, was expected to stay forever. But his dramatic departure played out against a basic backdrop: The role of the Major League Baseball general manager is changing.

As the sport's GMs gather in Indian Wells, Calif., today for their weeklong annual meeting, a new generation of young executives is taking over -- or, in some cases, already leaving -- key positions in team front offices. Among the fresh faces: two 28-year-olds with fewer than seven seasons of baseball experience between them. Among the missing: in addition to Mr. Epstein, the recently fired 32-year-old GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The youth movement mirrors a shift in the nature of running a big-league baseball team. The general manager used to be relatively anonymous, was often a former player and held near-total control over baseball operations. Now, as media scrutiny has increased and owners are forced to focus more than ever on the game's high financial stakes, the job has morphed into a corporate-executive position that has to report up the line. "A general manager having complete autonomy is a thing of the past," player agent Scott Boras says.

Many of the job's core activities -- fielding trade offers, keeping tabs on prospects, negotiating contracts -- haven't changed. But today's general managers work in a baseball landscape that is vastly more complex than even a decade ago.

Consider: When the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988, they had about 15 baseball-operations staff members in the team's main office. This season, the Red Sox had nearly double that, including eight "player development consultants" and the famed statistics guru Bill James. Likewise, as player salaries have soared -- the average payroll on the 30 big-league teams in 2005 was about $70 million -- the deadlines on baseball's year-round business calendar have taken on greater importance. GMs are under constant pressure to make personnel decisions that can affect a team's financial flexibility for years. They must seek players in Europe, Asia and South America, and play poker with a bevy of shrewd agents.

All the while, their moves are dissected by ESPN, sports-radio hosts, newspaper columnists and thousands of online fanatics. Mr. Epstein has complained privately that he spent a quarter of his time in Boston on media issues.

"There used to be a press conference held quarterly or someone inquiring two or three times a season," says Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz, who at 65 years old is the dean of big-league GMs. The media crush, he says, "is far more challenging even for the most intellectually competent among us, especially the young among us who have less experience."

Yet the demands and pace of the GM's job often require the energy of a 20-something, a reality that has fueled the rapid rise of junior executives like Mr. Epstein. Steve Phillips was named general manager of the New York Mets in 1997 at age 34. His six seasons on the job included a daily news conference and death threats. "I joke that it's like dog years, so I was a GM for 42 years," says Mr. Phillips, now an ESPN analyst. "I feel like I'm still recovering."

The influx of young executives is often portrayed as a clash between Ivy League-educated, laptop-wielding statistics mavens and radar-gun-toting, tobacco-juice-spitting baseball lifers. That's partly true. But the real trouble may reflect a basic disadvantage of youth: a lack of management experience.

Baseball GMs increasingly are relied on to communicate with large staffs and to negotiate prickly political situations involving players, coaches, agents, scouts and even bickering owners. They also have to manage much older employees, often without the playing, coaching or scouting credentials considered so valuable in the sport. "You have to earn the trust of a lot of people, and that doesn't come overnight," says Fred Claire, who worked for the Dodgers for 30 years and was the team's GM from 1987 to 1998.

The lack of management experience appears to have contributed to the firing late last month of 32-year-old Paul DePodesta as general manager of the Dodgers after just two seasons on the job. Mr. DePodesta majored in economics at Harvard and worked under acclaimed Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane (playing a supporting role in Michael Lewis's bestselling book "Moneyball"). While earning respect for his ability to blend traditional talent scouting with modern statistics-oriented research -- and while leading the Dodgers last year to their first playoff win since 1988 -- Mr. DePodesta had never run a team department at any level before taking over the club.

As a result, baseball executives say, he struggled with some traditional management tasks, such as communicating with underlings and managing public-relations crises. For example, Mr. DePodesta was criticized in the local media for failing to call a long-time Dodgers coach regarding his job status. The coach took a position with the archrival San Francisco Giants. After the team slumped to discord-laden 71-91 record, the GM was fired by club owner Frank McCourt. Mr. DePodesta couldn't be reached for comment.

Most big-league GMs are still closer to middle age than drinking age. Even before the departures of Messrs. Epstein and DePodesta, the average age of general managers was 45. But the youth movement is likely to continue. Today's new hires grew up mimicking team executives in fantasy-sports games, learning about franchise minutiae on TV and studying exhaustive statistical breakdowns on the Internet.

"Young guys are able to access information about being a GM from the time they can turn on a computer at age 5, and by the time they're 15 can know everything about what GMs have done," Mr. Schuerholz says. "At 25, they're more prepared informationally and intellectually than the GMs when I began were at 35."

Another advantage: Young, well-educated baseball executives might relate better than former players or scouts to financially savvy team owners. "They have a decisive advantage in an interview," says Mr. Boras, the agent. "They speak the language of CEO-dom. They quantify the game into a measurement that's most understandable by ownership: a paper trail."

Mr. Schuerholz spent a quarter-century working his way up to a general manager job. By contrast, the new GM of the Texas Rangers, 28-year-old Jon Daniels, has just five seasons of experience. The new principal owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Stuart Sternberg, ditched the GM title completely. He installed 28-year-old Andrew Friedman, less than two years removed from Wall Street, as executive vice president of baseball operations and last week hired 55-year-old baseball veteran Gerry Hunsicker to back him up. "It's not a one-person job," Mr. Sternberg says.

Mr. Epstein's career began 13 years ago as an intern with the Baltimore Orioles. He was noticed there by senior club executive Larry Lucchino, a former Washington attorney. Mr. Lucchino hired him to work for the San Diego Padres, advised him to attend law school and was instrumental in promoting the former Yale Daily News sports editor to GM of the Red Sox in 2002.

At a news conference last week, Mr. Epstein cited "complexities" in his relationship with Mr. Lucchino, president and part owner of the team, but he didn't blame them for his resignation. "In the end, it just wasn't the right fit," he said. Mr. Lucchino didn't return a request for comment. In an email responding to questions, Red Sox principal owner John Henry said: "Differences are common in management."

Mr. Epstein insisted he wasn't burned out. Baseball executives believe he will resurface with a team willing to grant him autonomy on baseball matters, a club presidency or even a small ownership stake, perks gained by Mr. Beane in Oakland. The Dodgers already are said to have contacted Mr. Epstein, and Major League Baseball is expected by the end of the month to choose an owner of the Washington Nationals, who might be interested in his services.

Still, Mr. Epstein's departure was startling to other GMs. "I'm not disappointed that he's out of Boston," says J.P. Ricciardi, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, who play in the same division as the Red Sox. "But we lost a good guy. If he's unhappy enough to walk away, sometimes it makes you sit there and say, 'Is it worth it?'

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