Thoughts On The Baseball GM By Bill Pruden (IBWAA)
The Builder: Thoughts On The Baseball GM By Bill Pruden
This article was printed in the IBWAA Newsletter (Here’s The Pitch) and is shared with permission.
Since the Los Angeles Dodgers completed their World Series run, the media has shined a spotlight on those who run major league baseball teams. From Sandy Alderson’s return to the New York Mets to address “some unfinished business” under new owner Steve Cohen, to the historic arrival of Kim Ng as the Miami Marlins’ general manager, to the departure of Theo Epstein (who when first hired as Boston Red Sox GM at 28 years old had fewer years on the planet than Ng had years of experience on her resume when she finally cracked the glass ceiling), those heading baseball operations have been under a media microscope.
Indeed, whether the formal title is President of Baseball Operations or General Manager or something in between—title changes that themselves say much about the evolution of the job—the few individuals who hold these posts, jobs that leave them open to second guessing by fans and media alike, are the objects of attention and fascination. But while the second guessing has long been part of the job, little else about running a major league baseball team has remained the same. It has become a different world.
Gone are the days when GMs were only heard from when they had to stare down a holdout that could blow up a team’s payroll as well as its competitive balance (think Buzzie Bavasi and the unprecedented Koufax-Drysdale holdout of 1966) or when they orchestrated a trade that provided the missing link for the team on the cusp of greatness (think Bing Devine’s 1964 steal of Lou Brock from the Chicago Cubs).
Today’s GM must deal with things previous generations never imagined. Whether they are navigating the luxury tax or worrying about arbitration, long-term contracts, and free agency, the GM is forever under pressure to perform. Off the field, they seek to strategically maximize the years of team control—remember the controversy when Epstein brought Kris Bryant up from the minors a World Series championship ago—and build a farm system that will provide trade chips or replacements for fading veterans. GMs are also reputed to be literally dictating on-field decisions that were once the exclusive province of the field manager. Or at least that was what the brouhaha that ensued over the lifting of Blake Snell in the World Series implied.
The scrutiny is multi-faceted, focused on the widest possible array of things while also being never-ending. Is it any wonder that in the aftermath of his demotion and resignation in Boston, Ben Cherington sought refuge in the halls of academia? And yet as his return to the game indicates, and as he also acknowledged, teaching at Columbia was less a refuge than a thoughtful change. It provided him an opportunity to reflect, learn, and better prepare himself for his next chance.
In the end, baseball is in his blood. His return to first the Toronto Blue Jays and now the top spot with the Pittsburgh Pirates indicates that it is not something that one can easily leave behind. Who can fully understand the pressure that Epstein was under in Boston and Chicago? While he built teams which ended historic droughts, cementing a reputation as a miracle worker, he also fed an insatiable beast, one that threatened to perhaps make him its next meal. To any reasonable person, Epstein wanting a year off is understandable.
Too, while he regularly cited Bill Walsh’s admonition that one has a limited amount of time in which they can be effective, a look at Walsh’s life while compiling his Hall of Fame record makes clear the human toll that such efforts inevitably entail, and which, amidst the optimism and the expectations, begin the day the contract is signed. In the end, one cannot help but wonder why these GMs do it.
Perhaps a look at Sandy Alderson’s most successful Mets predecessor offers a clue. After a barren 1970s, a decade remembered more for the exile of the iconic Tom Seaver than the “Ya Gotta Believe” 1973 National League pennant winners, the Mets turned to a proven winner when they brought in Frank Cashen.
The former Baltimore Orioles executive mixed the astute drafting of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry with thoughtful trade acquisitions of Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, all overseen by an innovative and creative manager in Davey Johnson. Cashen’s efforts gave fans the best decade of Mets baseball they have ever enjoyed, one whose 1986 World Series championship effort is iconic in New York baseball circles. The fruit of his labors had been rewarded with the ultimate prize.
Yet for all their success, that era also reflects the precariousness of a GM’s existence. As good as those Mets teams were, 1986 was the only time they even went to the Series. As the people in Boston will readily tell you, if not for a tenth inning bullpen meltdown capped by Bill Buckner’s error, even the ‘86 Mets would have come up short. It is a reality that raises again the question: given all the pressure, why would one want to be a GM?
Certainly not for the glory. After all, very few can aspire to be portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movies. While the comparatively recent additions of Pat Gillick and John Schuerholz to the Hall of Fame may reflect an increasing appreciation for the modern role of the GM, the fact you could count on one hand the number of individuals identified primarily as GMs in the Hall of Fame before them says much about its historic role.
Of those four, two were the builders of the New York Yankees dynasty both before and after World War II. Ed Barrow started the tradition of retiring player numbers when he honored the dying Lou Gehrig with the gesture. He is also credited with the fan-friendly move of allowing spectators to keep the foul balls that came their way. George Weiss’s building of the post-war Bronx Bombers was no less impressive.
Between the two of them there was Branch Rickey, whose exploits from the creation of the modern farm system to the integration of the major league, while putting together a few championship teams along the way, are well chronicled. Finally, there was Larry McPhail who is credited with pioneering night baseball, air travel, and regular television coverage of the game, as well as being the first of three generations of GMs.
So, if not the movies or the Hall of Fame, what is the allure? In the end, it is clear. What brought Ben Cherington back, why Theo already talks of a third act, and why Kim Ng waited 30 years for the chance, is the opportunity to build a team and lead an effort to put together a winner, in the hope of seeing one’s vision realized in the achievement of the ultimate prize. That, I believe, is truly the driving force for anyone who holds or aspires to the job of GM. What else could it be?
And yet, it can be the most unforgiving of processes. Consider that while Theo Epstein’s Thanksgiving weekend courting of Curt Schilling has become a staple of Red Sox lore, no less important to the 2004 breakthrough were the earlier acquisitions of Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, and Jason Varitek, as well as the other foundation-laying moves that only the most objective and forgiving Red Sox fans will acknowledge were made by Dan Duquette—who almost a decade later would return to the AL East, leading the Orioles to the 2014 flag.
As 2020 draws to a close, it is the Dodgers’ Andrew Friedman who, after many seasons of coming close, can bask in the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that a World Series championship provides. But the joy is both enduring and short-lived, for he and his 29 fellow builders are already hard at work putting the pieces together for 2021. It is a singular job, one coveted by many. Let the chase begin.
Bill Pruden is a high school history teacher, who over the course of almost six decades as a baseball fan has seen a lot of GMs come and go. He has been writing about the game–primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works–for about a decade.