ORLANDO, Fla.—Brian Sabean, 14 years into his tenure as Giants general manager, comes across as the reclusive type. His wardrobe consists largely of blacks and grays. He keeps his circle of advisers tight and small, and believes in old-fashioned values like loyalty, continuity and the judgment of a seasoned baseball scout. He can be blunt to the point of disarming, but he’s more a listener than a talker as a rule. That’s a by-product of his personality and his New Hampshire roots.
In reality, Sabean is more effusive than his reputation suggests. But there’s nothing like a seat in a parade to heighten a man’s senses and carry his emotions to new heights. Two days after Tim Lincecum beat the Rangers to give the Giants their first World Series victory since 1954, Sabean found himself in a staging area with his wife and sons, waiting to be part of a 65-vehicle procession. You hear the awe in his voice as he recalls the scene, and there’s not a trace of the usual New England reserve.
“One of our senior officers came over and told us, ‘When you turn that corner on Montgomery, you’re not going to believe the sea of people,’” Sabean said. “Then it happened, and I got a lump in my throat. I almost lost it, and everybody I talked to was the same way. Just the enthusiasm and the outpouring of emotions . . . We weren’t ready for the crowd.
“City Hall was like something you see at an inauguration, or a visit from the Pope. Everybody was blown away because we really didn’t know what to expect. I think all of Northern California was there.”
Giants fans were celebrating the first World Series title since the team had come to San Francisco. It was a team built around a homegrown pitching staff, amazing rookie catcher Buster Posey, and a veteran roster pieced together by Sabean and the rest of the front office as the season went on.
If Sabean feels a sense of personal vindication for bringing a championship trophy to the Bay Area, he has no interest in sharing it with the world. He’s too happy for Willie Mays, Felipe Alou, Shawon Dunston, J.T. Snow and other former Giants mainstays, not to mention generations of title-starved fans.
With its front-office stability, renewed commitment to building through player development, an improved farm system and one of the most effective runs of drafting in recent memory—not to mention that World Series trophy—the Giants were a clear choice for Baseball America’s Organization of the Year.
Premium On Loyalty
Like Pat Gillick, Sabean is a firm believer in delegating authority, hiring good people and letting them do their jobs. Bob Evans, the Giants’ vice president of baseball operations, oversees many of the team’s free-agent negotiations and other daily operations. The Giants are also more progressive and sabermetrically inclined than their reputation suggests. No move is made at either the major or minor league levels without statistical analysts Jeremy Shelley and Yeshayah Goldfarb crunching the numbers first.
But in the end, nothing beats the comfort level of a familiar voice. Dick Tidrow and Paul Turco, two of Sabean’s most trusted lieutenants, go back with him to his Yankees days, and some Giants aides go back further than that. Senior adviser Joe Lefebvre and Sabean were high school teammates in Concord, N.H., while big league scout Steve Balboni played up the road in Manchester.
During the World Series, Balboni laughingly recalled how Sabean, Lefebvre and their old Concord High teammates had a flair for bench-jockeying opponents into submission. Sabean was an all-state linebacker and a pretty fair second baseman, but his competitiveness transcended the seasons.
“We had a pitcher who had a pretty bad temper, and he couldn’t beat those guys,” Balboni said. “Every time he pitched against them, they would get on him from the dugout. And he’d want to fight them, so he couldn’t pitch anymore. They were really good at getting under people’s skins.”
Anyone with a similar competitive streak is welcome in the club. There was a bittersweet quality to the Giants’ title run, because Joe DiCarlo, Ted Uhlaender and Pat Dobson, close friends and trusted confidants, all died in recent years and never got a chance to see things through to the finish. But Sabean is forging new relationships all the time. His bond with manager Bruce Bochy, for example, is strong enough that they seem to be mind-melding at times.
“They don’t always agree, but they have an enormous amount of respect for each other,” Giants CEO Bill Neukom said. “These guys almost finish each others’ sentences.”
At heart, Sabean is and will forever remain a scout. While some GMs casually watch games from private booths, he immerses himself in each pitch and takes copious notes, as he did during his scouting days, so that he can have instant recall if he’s dissecting a sequence with Bochy or the team’s coaches.
Conversely, you’ll almost never find Sabean lingering around the batting cage before games. He’s more at home sitting in the stands during batting practice, where he talks to scouts and personnel people and makes mental notes for future reference.
“It drives me nuts when you see (GMs) around the back of the batting cage,” Sabean said. “That’s the office for the manager, the hitting coach and the players. People don’t need to hear from me. Our message is best delivered through the people in uniform. The more attention front office people expose themselves to, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Decision-making is a collaborative effort in San Francisco. The Giants made several cost-effective, high-impact acquisitions this year—from Aubrey Huff in January to Pat Burrell in June to relievers Javy Lopez and Ramon Ramirez at the trade deadline—that were driven more by feel and scouting instincts than numbers. You can argue that the Giants got lucky landing Cody Ross on a waiver claim when they were more intent on preventing him from going to San Diego. But how many “inspired” personnel moves in sports are really just happy accidents?
The team has also been incredibly effective in its recent drafts, getting Matt Cain (2002), Tim Lincecum (’06), Madison Bumgarer (’07) and Posey (’08) with first-round picks, as well as Brian Wilson (24th round, 2005), Jonathan Sancez (27th, ’04), Sergio Romo (28th, ’05) and Travis Ishikawa (21st, ’02) in later rounds.
Focused On Job At Hand
Giants senior adviser Tony Siegle, who has worked for 23 general managers, said Sabean’s loyalty, scouting acumen and willingness to listen and engage in spirited give-and-take all contribute to the organizaton’s success. “He has no ego whatsoever. None,” Siegle said. “We all would throw ourselves under muni street cars for him, because that’s what he inspires. And he’ll do the same thing for us.”
“He has to make a lifestyle change if he wants to keep his career going,” Sabean said. “All the red flags are there, and he knows what he needs to do. He’s been given some tough love, and we hope he gets the message. If not, the guy could end up in Triple-A to figure it out.”
Sabean isn’t the first formerly vilified GM who has an opportunity to rub his critics’ noses in it. Minnesota’s Terry Ryan and Colorado’s Dan O’Dowd could have easily been fired before their teams’ farm systems began producing and they won Executive of the Year awards. Now Dayton Moore might be going through a similar transformation in Kansas City. Even Pat Gillick, who will be considered for induction to Cooperstown by the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee in December, has been the target of a “Fire Pat Gillick” website.
There are still critics, of course. They’ll never forget the Giants signed Barry Zito for seven years and $126 million or Aaron Rowand for five years and $60 million. And why the heck didn’t they bring Posey up from Triple-A Fresno until late May?
“Sabean caught lightning in a bottle with the FA pickups, and I am terrified at the confidence that it gives him,” wrote one anonymous critic on a bash-Sabean site. “As long as he refuses to even talk to other GMs on the phone, I want somebody that can sustain this run, rather than get lucky on a FLUKE.”
Another poster who calls himself “Timmy C” offered up the following astute observation:
“Look at all these idiots here kissing Sabean love [sic] just because the Giants won the Series! The only good Sabean did this year was fix all the bad he had already done. Yay for him. He still sucks.”
Whether those opinions are the work of a few dyspeptic cranks or discerning Giants-watchers who think Sabean lucked into a title, they’re a reflection of the stress inherent in the job these days. In an age when everyone has access to a social network site and a forum to express a knee-jerk opinion, the concept of a “honeymoon” is obsolete.
Sabean, with all the sincerity he can muster, insists that he doesn’t care. He broke into pro ball as a Yankees scout, and his eight years in New York helped drum home the importance of having a thick skin.
“I don’t think of ‘vindication’ as a word,” Sabean said, “as much as we proved this game is a lot more than stats and what meets the eye. It’s easy for people to play GM and second-guess, but we have to do it in real time. And we have to answer to a lot of people, including ownership, day in and day out, from the inside out. We don’t have the luxury of cherry-picking when we’re involved or how or when we judge things.
“Nobody can be harder on us than ourselves—starting with me. That’s insulated us and kept us strong. We know when we deserve criticism, because we admit it to each other and to ownership. But that’s also one of the reasons we have been able to carry on here. We have a tremendous work ethic.”
Sabean has been busy catching up on his sleep and regaining his voice after an action-packed postseason run. After the Giants’ team plane arrived in San Francisco from Texas following Game 5, he went to bed at 5 a.m., woke up at 7:30 and was back in the office by 10. There were so many items on the agenda, it’s a wonder his head didn’t explode.
The San Francisco brass had little opportunity to strategize while the Giants were eliminating Atlanta, then Philadelphia and Texas, so Sabean gathered his advisors to address the main orders of business. They discussed which players to add to the 40-man roster, and who would be taken off. They talked about free agents, salary arbitration-eligible players and budgetary matters, and made evaluations on the fly.
And now the work of defending the title has officially begun. The Giants have contacted the agents for Huff and Juan Uribe in hopes of keeping those players in the fold. They need to determine if Burrell and Edgar Renteria are willing to return in complementary roles. Dan Runzler, a promising lefty reliever, will try to make the transition to starter. Mark DeRosa should return from a wrist injury, and the Giants are taking a hard look at first-base prospect Brandon Belt, who slugged .620 in three minor league stops in 2010.
Sabean does not expect to be a major player in the free-agent market, and he makes it clear the Giants won’t be used as a “stalking horse” for agents looking to drive up the price. The team has also given a stern directive to Infielder Pablo Sandoval to get in better shape if he wants to be a factor in 2011.
Sabean is already the longest-tenured GM in baseball, and this little franchise-altering run ensures he’ll be around a while. Long after he’s gone, the memory of all those jubilant, liberated parade-goers will endure. He still feels the love each day, in e-mails and handwritten notes and expressions of gratitude when he walks down the street.
“What’s really emotional is how the city has embraced this and people have reacted to it,” Sabean said. “I can officially bury the statement, ‘It’s only a game,’ because it’s not only a game. People’s lives revolve around this. Baseball will break your heart. But with the drought this organization had and the way we did it—without superstars—it was a lot bigger than you would expect.”