Scout's Honor: Dick Balderson Interview

The Braves' hierarchy over the past 15 years has included an impressive group of executives, many who have run their own organizations. Dick Balderson was a protégé of John Schuerholz 30 years ago in Kansas City, and the last 9 seasons he has been one of his trusted lieutenants in Atlanta. As part of the coverage for "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," Bill Shanks talks with Balderson about his days with Schuerholz and his philosophies on scouting and player development.

SHANKS: How did you get involved in baseball operations?
BALDERSON: I got released in July of 1975 from Jacksonville, which is an AA team in the Southern League. I had just married my wife. We stayed in Jacksonville. She was a nurse and I ended up working in the insurance business. The following April, of 1976, I got a call from John. Lou Gorman has just accepted a position in Seattle as the General Manager of the expansion club. He was going to be leaving and John, as the Assistant Director of Scouting and Player Development, was being promoted to the Director of Scouting and Player Development. John called me and asked if I'd like to come to Kansas City and join him as his assistant.

SHANKS: Did you just get along with him real well when you were a player?
BALDERSON: Extremely well.

SHANKS: Had you ever talked with him about being in the front office before?
BALDERSON: I had always expressed some interest of staying in the game after I finished playing. I knew my abilities were only going to take me so far. I think I had a college degree and I had some amount of intelligence and respectability and conducted myself in a manner which I think made me a candidate but that doesn't necessarily get you the job. I think I was very lucky.

SHANKS: Did you ever want to coach? Was that ever an option?
BALDERSON: I thought I might want to be a pitching coach. But it never materialized and once I got the opportunity to go into the office I never pursued anything on the field. I enjoyed the office stuff so much. I had been a player for eight years and had enough of the clubhouse stuff and locker room stuff. A lot of people who want to go back into baseball want to be in uniform, but that was not my primary concern. If I had to be that to stay in the game, I would have loved to have been a pitching coach.

SHANKS: As a player was it easy to watch John and Lou run the farm system and know that they were doing a pretty good job?
BALDERSON: Very young organization. Quite frankly, you don't know whether it's good, bad, or what because you don't have any other exposure to other organizations. You were a member of the Royals organization. You kind of took for granted what you did and what you didn't do, what the rules were, and how they conducted business. You kind of took it for granted because you didn't know any difference. But they were always very pleasant to me and always very nice as much as a Farm Director / Office person can be to a player. There were always a certain guidelines you follow and certain lines you don't go over and we never did that. I didn't know the difference. I just knew that they were sharp people and very honest people.

SHANKS: So you were pretty much John's right-hand man?
BALDERSON: Well for ten years. I was his assistant from 76 to 80. Then he got more involved in the major league end of it, whether it be contracts, player personnel, or whatever the case may be. He got more responsibility under Joe Burke. Then I ended up taking over the minor league system. I ran that and he ran the scouting and I assisted him in the scouting. But I ran the minor league system. Then in 81 I took over both of them. He in essence became the General Manager in Kansas City and I ended up running scouting and player development. Then we went out and hired Dean Taylor. He was my assistant and to assist some things with John. At that time he didn't do much at the major league level. Dean was very much of a detail guy as you well know. Computers were just coming into play, and he was big into that. He was a very good compliment to John and myself.

SHANKS: What was the office structure like then?
BALDERSON: We had a quality of group of older guys mixed in with some young guys and John utilized them. I learned how to utilize them and lean on them and trusted their judgment. From a player development standpoint, we always believed in giving people a chance to play. Obviously recognizing those who had more ability than others, finding out what they could and couldn't do, and giving kids a chance to play. Hence, we ended up with some pretty good players.

SHANKS: What was the philosophy on high school vs. college?
BALDERSON: I think we were very oriented into high school players. A lot of that came out of our experiences with the Kansas City Royals Academy dealing with young people, giving them a chance to play and understanding that patience was so important. We had great ownership in Kansas City. Mr. Kauffman was unbelievably fair and reasonable and just hired baseball people to run the baseball business and didn't get involved in pushing and shoving and who was playing and whose not playing and why are they aren't playing and all that. It was just a blessing in disguise because you didn't how bad some of the other organizations were going with the involvement of ownership. But we had a tremendous owner in Mr. Kauffman and Joe Burke, who was the President and Operating Officer of the club. We were very patient. We didn't have to push things, but at the same time when we recognized we had good people, a la Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen, we realized we could push those and accelerate the process and that's what we did.

SHANKS: There seems to be two traits that run rampant here: Patience and trust. Did the patience with the players come from the fact KC was an expansion franchise?
BALDERSON: I think that was a part of it. I just think it's a trait of a director and a trait of an individual who is running a department knowing what the overall picture is and what it takes to be big league player and that it doesn't happen overnight. We were dealing with more high school kids than college kids, even though we had our fair share of college kids. We had a big share of high school kids Patience was just an established trait and when you grow up in an environment like that you take over that particular belief. It's a trait that's being lost today.

SHANKS: And that's proven today with Scouting Directors having such a short shelf life with their respective teams.
BALDERSON: Precisely.

SHANKS: So it was 1985 when you got the call to go to Seattle?
BALDERSON: After the World Series in 85 we packed up and headed to Seattle. I got fired in August of 1988.

SHANKS: Was that a catch 22? You wanted your shot as a GM but you had to know walking in it wasn't going to be like it was in KC?
BALDERSON: I didn't know that. I interviewed mostly with Chuck Armstrong, who I remain close to today. I had exposure to George Argyros and obviously had to past muster with him. But my dealings were more with Chuck and not so much with George. But the longer I was there I was more involved with George, and he wore you out. He just wore you out. The second-guessing. It was just the way he operated. It was just the way he did it. That's not an environment that I was most productive in.

SHANKS: Can that discourage you and make you wonder if you are doing right?
BALDERSON: Sure because you don't know. You don't know whether you are doing right and whether you'll get another chance to do it. Is everybody else in the game that pushy and that persistent and that impatient? It makes you wonder. It makes you wonder.

SHANKS: Do you feel you were ever able to truly implement any Kansas City philosophies since he was so impatient?
BALDERSON: They couldn't be implemented in the Seattle environment with George Argyros as the owner because the atmosphere wouldn't allow it. The demands and needs of that particular franchise would not allow that type of patience.

SHANKS: That had to be totally frustrating to you?
BALDERSON: Totally frustrating. It gets old very quick.

SHANKS: It really wasn't a Dick Balderson team, was it?
BALDERSON: No, not at all. Consequently, I never got another chance. So I was either real bad, which I didn't think I was even though I certainly made my share of mistakes. But I just never got another chance.

SHANKS: As you've grown as a baseball executive, are the things you learned in KC with John still the core of your beliefs?
BALDERSON: Without a doubt. That's the way I operated when I went to Seattle. That's the way I operated when I ran the scouting department with the Cubs, and the farm systems with the Rockies and the Braves. Patience, hire good people, surround yourself with good people, ask questions, and hold those people accountable.

SHANKS: How is John to work for? How would he work with you about asking questions about the prospects and keeping up with their progress?
BALDERSON: He was pretty good. In Atlanta versus the way he was in Kansas City obviously a little older, wiser, more experienced, and more comfortable because of all the success we've had here. He had more people around him in the office. In Kansas City, if we had 50 people, there are now 150 in Atlanta. It's a different operation. The game has changed to the point that it's much different.

SHANKS: How did find things when you went to the Cubs and the Rockies as far as being allowed to implement your philosophies?
BALDERSON: The Cubs were fine. I worked for Jimmy Frey and had some of the most memorable experiences. Jimmy Frey is a hell of a man. I just enjoyed the environment. Working for the Cubs was a very unique situation because of all the history and all the glamour and Wrigleyville and all that stuff. It was different. We have so many day games. The mode of operation working for Jim Frey was just fine. He said, "I want you to do the scouting. Just keep me abreast of what's going on. Don't surprise me. Don't bring out any ghosts in my closets." Let me know what's going on and that's what we did.

SHANKS: Jim Frey learned everything in the same system, didn't he?
BALDERSON: He did but he was different since he had been a manager. John is a true administrator. Jimmy Frey was a field guy coming into the office. It was a little different style, but again some of the same basic components. He delegated and communicated like John. Jimmy wasn't quite as articulate as John. But it was a good experience. The experience in Colorado was good as well. Working for Gephard was interesting. He was not a delagator. He's not that good a communicator. He's very, very detailed and was involved in everything and does everything. After a while, if you are used to a system where delegating is a big part and then works in a system that's not, then it becomes frustrating.

SHANKS: That was not an easy job to start a farm system from scratch?
BALDERSON: It wasn't but it was fun. That's what you long to do. I joined them in August of 92. They had had people on board since February. They had a rookie league club in the Northwest League and I think they had half a club in the Arizona Rookie League. They had gotten out of the gate but had not solidified things. They had some people in the minor league system already on board. Gene Glynn, Rick Matthews, Paul Zuvella. There were three or four solid guys. Then I came in and got the system going and hired some people that I had experiences with, people that I knew of whom I would love to work with. I kind of had a green light for the first couple of years and then as we got more involved, Bob got more involved. That proved to be detrimental in the long run I think.

SHANKS: Is it hard for a GM to not want to be more involved with scouting and PD?
BALDERSON: No. Again, one of the best people I ever hired in my life was Roger Jongewaard. I hired him to run the scouting. We were on the same page and I didn't get involved with it. I didn't go out and see players. I didn't have any interest in that. I was busy doing other things. My most successful way to do things was to get good people and let them do it. You don't get involved in it. Now you got people who are involved in everything and there are just not enough hours in the day to do everything.

SHANKS: So John called you back. When did that happen?
BALDERSON: I got fired in August of 1997 from the Rockies. John indicated he might have a major league scouting position available by the end of the year of which he did. I was hired in January of 1998 as a major league scout and I had never done that before. I went through some learning with that with his direction and some direction of the major league scouts we had. I leaned on people that I could call and ask for advice. I did this out of Denver. About a year later John decided he wanted to do something different in the minor league system and wanted to know if I was interested in running the minor league system. It would involve moving to Atlanta. At that point I had an interest in getting back into the office. I thoroughly enjoyed being the Farm Director. I had no interest in running the scouting program or getting involved in free agent scouting. But I had interest in running the minor league system. So the chance was provided again and we packed up and went to Atlanta. I think I started to burn out a little bit. I think John had interest in Dayton becoming more involved. So it was a good time for everyone concerned and I got a chance to move back to Denver and go back into major league scouting. It's worked out extremely well.

SHANKS: Is it tough to do both Scouting and Player Development at the same time?
BALDERSON: You can't do it. You can't do it today. I did it for four years and I just couldn't do it the fifth year. In 85 I said, "John I can't do both anymore." I had two young kids. It left me away all the time, but it was starting to wear out me. There's always something going on. There are some plusses to it, but the negatives outweigh the positives. Now you've got International Scouting and stuff like that. It's tough to do. Tough to do.

SHANKS: But if it's not under one umbrella is it good to have good synergy with the Scouting Director about philosophies?
BALDERSON: Without a doubt. I think you have to have that. The plusses of having one guy overseeing both is why scouting people sign a player and from a development standpoint you know what you've got to do and that you have the patience to do that. In Chicago, Bill Harford ran the minor league system and I ran the scouting and he and I got along extremely well. In Colorado Pat Daugherty was over scouting and he and I were the best of friends and worked extremely well. I think sometimes you do get some personality conflicts that don't allow the job to be done properly.

SHANKS: The accumulation of pitchers we've had that has allowed John to trade Adam and Bubba and others to help the big league club. How crucial is that for a farm system to accumulate that type of talent for the GM to have at his disposal?
BALDERSON: I always felt that scouting was the most important function of your organization. This is an example of why that is. You have to have good young players in the system either 1) to come and play for you or 2) to be traded to another club to get the guy you need or want. The issue is talent and people that can come to a big league club that can perform and contribute and make you a first division club. Not just to get to the big leagues and play and lead your club to 60 victories every year. That's not a very good player. We do as good a job as anybody at scouting our own guys. We do that better and more often than any other club I've ever worked with. We know who we are willing to give up and we know who we are not willing to give up. We may end up giving some guys out of reluctance, but you do it. But you've got valid judgment from valid-judging people. Sometimes you have to give up good people.

SHANKS: Did John call you when he was making trades to get your opinion?
BALDERSON: I wouldn't say it was a lot but I think I was consulted on the appropriate occasions both as a farm director and as a scout. I think that people who have more experience than I do as a major league scout may be called more often. But I was involved in Tom Martin. There were some deals that I'm not involved since I might not have a judgment on a player.

SHANKS: Did he call you when you were farm director and say, "We're thinking of trading this prospect. What do you think?"
BALDERSON: Yes, as he did with Roy.

SHANKS: One thing that amazed me was the philosophy against young high school pitchers. That has been our strength in building our farm system up. Is that puzzling?
BALDERSON: And it's the same feeling that some organizations have about taking high school kids versus college guys. There are some organizations that won't touch a high school guy in any way, shape, or form. There are certain organizations that won't take young pitchers versus taking older pitchers. Now to me you're cutting your pool of players. The pool of players that may have not be strong that you can delete are a high percentage of the pool. I don't understand that. Now maybe they don't feel that they have the patience or the system that would allow the time to develop the players. Maybe they feel that their strong points are not teaching young pitchers how to pitch or young players how to play. Maybe it's taking some older, established college player and molding him. There are some different approaches. There are a lot of people take college guys because obviously they get their quicker. I go back to my patience thing. ‘Patience is a virtue' as someone said. Some people aren't willing to do that.

SHANKS: College players better have a pretty good ceiling since they won't have to develop.
BALDERSON: That's my position. That's always been our position. But other people think that they can. That's what makes the world go around.

SHANKS: If a college player gets into your system and they've already reached their ceiling, then you're not going to have the depth in your system that we've had the past years.
BALDERSON: No your not. Some clubs don't have the depth to do that.

SHANKS: When analyzing players as a farm director, how important is makeup? There's no real numerical value you can put on makeup is there?
BALDERSON: I would agree. We passed on guys because of signability, which is different than today with the money being as big as it is today money's not as big as a factor. When you talk about makeup, it's not about getting guys who say, "Yes sir" or "no sir" but it's guys who prioritize, know what their goals are, are willing to work, follow the guidelines of the program and the organization. Is that to say that they're not going to sway a bit over the course of their career to the left of the right? Sure they are. But they come to play the game, and they listen, and they're coachable. Coachability is probably the biggest factor. And to a lot of clubs makeup was never a big deal. I think they paid the price for taking guys with bad makeup. The clubs I've worked with have always felt strongly about makeup so we made an honest and sincere effort to get guys with good makeup. Do you accomplish that in every instance? Probably not. We never had many bad guys. When you got bad guys, you're wasting your time.

SHANKS: When analyzing the current debate about Moneyball, it all boils down to patience doesn't it?
BALDERSON: It does. It does. It goes right back to ownership. Ownership today is spending so much money that in hastening the process sometimes gets done. It's like bats today. All the broken bats, there's no drying period anymore. They all get young trees and cut them down. They're not solid full blown trees and the wood is terrible. That's exactly what you do when you push things. It doesn't work out.

SHANKS: Your job as a major league scout consists of what duties?
BALDERSON: I report right to John and Frank. I have ten major league clubs and the AAA teams that go with those major league clubs. I constantly go out and see games and file reports and make evaluations for future acquisition possibilities: guys we would have interest in, guys we wouldn't, listen to the scuttlebutt and report back to John about what teams are doing and what direction they may be going in. I hear things about the staff. It's a fact-finding mission as much of anything.

SHANKS: When you're doing your player evaluations if there is a player who is effective on the field but you know he's not our type of player, how do you balance that out?
BALDERSON: I make the comment, "In my opinion, this guy's got it on the field but his baggage off the field would make any possible acquisition counterproductive." Sometimes people feel differently. Maybe my information is incorrect or inaccurate or they may feel that won't be an issue because we don't have those types of problems on our club. Then you factor all of that stuff in.

Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team is out in bookstores now. Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com


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