The baseball formula for disaster

The turnstiles in baseball stadiums across the country now stretch into the front office, as teams are changing GMs with regularity. Why can't clubs figure out how to build a winning team?

The events of the last few weeks have been rather intriguing. It all started in early October when the Texas Rangers hired 28-year-old Jon Daniels as their replacement for General Manager John Hart. Then last week the Arizona Diamondbacks hired 35-year old Josh Byrnes, one of Theo Epstein's lieutenants in Boston, as their new GM. And then earlier this week Epstein himself resigned from the Red Sox, and one of his fellow whiz kids, Paul DePodesta, got the boot in Los Angeles as the Dodgers' GM.

The point of this article may surprise some, since I have been an outspoken critic of the Moneyball generation, writing a book on how the traditional baseball people do their job. I have serious problems with some of these Harvard-types taking over baseball franchises, as other more experienced traditional baseball people get passed over. But the changes that have happened expose a more serious travesty in baseball.

Ownership has a right to be impatient. It is not easy to lose grand amounts of money while watching your team lose. But impatience has become the cardinal sin in baseball, almost a sickness, and it's amazing how the people who own these teams continue to suffer from the malady.

I didn't agree with many of Paul DePodesta's philosophies, although I feel he was much more open-minded than many of his comparable colleagues. While the Dodgers did draft more college players under his watch, DePodesta did work closely with Scouting Director Logan White to formulate a more balanced approach than Billy Beane and others that follow that direction.

The more serious problem with the Dodgers' situation is ownership. Frank McCourt is the man that brought DePodesta in as the GM two years ago. McCourt had fired Dan Evans, who had done a remarkable job working with White to re-build the Dodgers' farm system into one of the best in the game. But McCourt felt he needed a fresh start and brought in DePodesta, who at that time was getting a lot of publicity from the Moneyball fad that was well underway.

So now two years later McCourt has fired DePodesta. It's obvious that McCourt feels he made a mistake in hiring the young executive, and you read different accounts of how dysfunctional the relationship may have become over the last few months. Some believe McCourt was a meddlesome owner, who had fired eleven high-ranking executives since he took over as owner in 2004. Others paint DePodesta as someone who was distant from many of his traditional baseball advisors, only interested in hiring a manager that could be his "yes man," much like his mentor, Billy Beane in Oakland, has in Ken Macha.

Who knows who was at fault? It's probably a little bit of both. McCourt probably is a meddlesome owner, and DePodesta is probably just too much Harvard and not enough baseball.

But McCourt should have known better. He hired DePodesta over Pat Gillick. Pat Gillick? Are you kidding me? Gillick is one of the most respected executives in the game. Yet McCourt drank the Moneyball Kool-Aid and hired the flavor of the month.

There are two problems here. First, the Dodgers, one of the most storied franchises in the game, became enamored with a fad. They got caught up with the Moneyball craze that has hit this game and turned their back on many of the traditions that made the franchise one of the most successful in baseball. It seems McCourt is trying to fix that, by listening to Tommy Lasorda and possibly bringing ‘home' true Dodgers like Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine.

But McCourt's actions are also silly because he shows the tremendous impatience owners have with their executives. He hired DePodesta, so shouldn't McCourt have at least given him a chance to put his philosophies in place? Was two years enough?

Two years is never enough. We don't really know how good Theo Epstein was as a GM. Certainly, he led the Red Sox to a World Series title, but it's not like he totally built that team. Was he truly able to implement all his philosophies? No. And we really didn‘t know how good DePodesta might have been as the Dodgers‘ GM.

Ownership has these executives on short leashes, and you'd think they'd learn by now that consistency can be the key ingredient to success. If you pick someone to lead your team, you should give that person the right to implement their philosophies. But too many of these owners want the quick returns, and when it doesn't happen, they just up and fire the people in charge.

That is their right as the owner, but how good is it for the organization? Yes, if you feel you just downright made a mistake, then you should make a change, as McCourt did with DePodesta. But look at the Orioles. They have a meddlesome owner in Peter Angelos that has gone through GMs like George W. Bush has gone through Supreme Court candidates. From Frank Wren to Syd Thrift to the peculiar two-headed General Manager structure that was in place until last month, the Orioles have lacked the very stability that made them such a successful franchise so many years ago.

The Brewers hired Dean Taylor before the 2000 season. He immediately made changes to the philosophy to try and restore the farm system. But Taylor was fired after only three years on the job, and now his replacement, Doug Melvin, is reaping the benefits of the work by Taylor as the Brewers have now become a competitive team. Shouldn't Taylor had been given the full chance to see his philosophies implemented? Certainly.

There were rumors the Reds were going to fire Dan O'Brien this fall, only two years after he assumed the job as General Manager. Probably the only thing that saved him from being let go was the uncertainty in the ownership structure, but it was clear that the people that hired him had at least considered firing O'Brien. That's nuts. If you hire them, give them time to fully see their work implemented, and thankfully for O'Brien's sake, he might get that chance.

This is the one thing the Braves have not had to worry about. John Schuerholz has been in place as the GM since October of 1990, so for the last fifteen years the same man has run the show. Winning helps, obviously, but in today's climate, it doesn't necessarily guarantee an executive much of a future. Having the philosophies in place for so long has helped the Braves created a well-oiled machine, one that could probably run even if Schuerholz were to step down and be replaced by one of his assistants. That continuity has been critical to the Braves' success.

When a GM is let go and a new one is brought in, an entire new philosophy is put in place. You just start over, usually from top to bottom. They bring in their people, who usually have different philosophies from the people they replace. Can organizations that change GMs win instantly? Certainly, it can happen, but more often than not it simply puts franchises on a slow course of change.

And now we get back to the Dodgers. If McCourt had been careful enough in the first place and hired Pat Gillick, he undoubtedly would not be in the position he's in today. Gillick would have continued the course set by Dan Evans and kept building from within as the primary objective, and it's doubtful Gillick would have traded half the team, as DePodesta did.

Owners must be careful in who they hire, and then once they hire someone they must give them time. I'm not saying new people shouldn't get a chance, but there are so many traditional baseball people who deserve a shot at leading an organization. Is handing your team over to a Harvard-type really the answer for these teams? Well, so far, it hasn't been.

Baseball owners must take a look at the teams that have been successful, like the Braves. And talk about the Yankees' money all you want, but you also have to say that they've been pretty consistent in their personnel, which was proved important when they violently wanted to keep Brian Cashman. The Twins have had Terry Ryan in place as GM for a number of years, and that stability has kept them consistently competitive in the American League.

It's funny in a way to watch a team like the Braves show everyone in the world how they've built a winning team. Yet you see so many organizations show us the other side, of how to not build a winning team. You'd think some of them would learn their lesson.


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.


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