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Alderson returns to his roots
by Alan Schwarz
It was a good day for San Diego, a bad day for baseball as a whole. Sandy Alderson's exit from Major League Baseball in early May, to return to his club roots as president of the Padres, comes after seven exemplary years of getting baseball's house in order: fixing the umpire mess and the strike zone, restoring some order to the amateur draft, speeding up game action and more. The longtime Athletics executive, Alderson brought intelligence and pragmatism to MLB's central office and substantially improved the modern game. On one of his final days with MLB, Alderson sat down to discuss the Padres, the work he did (and couldn't do), and what lies ahead at MLB.
ALAN SCHWARZ: What is the biggest difference between working for central baseball and moving back to the club side?
SANDY ALDERSON: It's having a vested interest in the outcome every year. At the league level, obviously, one is concerned about the game, its reputation, its growth. At the local level, you certainly have an interest in all those global issues, but at the same time, it's all about winning and losing and the relationship with the fans.
AS: Padres owner John Moores said that his organization went "to sleep" recently, and that your hiring should be interpreted as a wakeup call. They did win 87 games last year. How do you feel about coming in under those conditions?
SA: Well, I know that John has a point of view, and that's predicated on 10 years of ownership at this point. They've accomplished some great things. They've opened a new stadium which is very highly regarded around baseball and in San Diego. They were in the World Series as recently as '98. They won 87 games last year, they drew over three million fans, so I'm not really in the same position as John to comment on the organization and where it needs to be.
AS: You're the CEO--Kevin Towers remains with the title of GM. Will he have the same discretion as he once did moving forward? Are you going to be a higher-type GM, given your background?
SA: Well, not necessarily. My sense is Kevin has discussed player issues with (former CEO and now COO) Dick Freeman and with John (Moores) from time to time in the past. That certainly will continue. But in a way, I hope to lend Kevin even more credibility and to some extent discretion just by virtue of my familiarity with the kind of things he is doing and the kinds of decisions he has to make. My sense about what he is doing and the decisions he makes won't be just as a result of communication--I will have a sense of that through my own experience.
AS: Maybe unfair to Kevin, but there is a feeling that you're really the GM.
SA: That won't be the case.
AS: Getting to your work at Major League Baseball, probably the most visible impact you've had is with the umpires. Last year, in the ALCS between the Red Sox and Yankees, two times umpires got together, discussed a call that might have been wrong, realized it was wrong, and corrected it. Was that perhaps your proudest moment?
SA: I was happy that the system that we had promoted worked in a very critical situation. The evolution of umpires over the past five or six years, I think, has been very a positive development for baseball. Beyond the merger of the two staffs, it was trying to create a situation where the umpires were more highly respected, and the only way that that perception was going to change was for the umpires to improve. I think they really have.
AS: How would you assess the state of the strike zone?
SA: It's still a little bit of a work in progress, but I think we've made tremendous improvements in terms of both accuracy and consistency. In spite of some of the criticism, I think the use of Ques-Tec has a lot to do with it. You cannot try to obtain an objective standard without providing objective feedback along the way. The problem with the strike zone over the years is that most feedback to umpires has been anecdotal--subjective and anecdotal--and subject to dismissiveness on the part of umpires generally.
AS: Moving on to the draft, which was a big thing for you when you got here--in the last three years, first-round bonuses are down 2.2 percent, 16.2 percent, and 6.9 percent last year. Is that evidence of the education that you've tried to provide?
SA: I think that this office has done a great job in the last three or four years counseling clubs, and clubs have been more receptive, to the notion that they can lose a draft pick from time to time and it's not the end of the world. A lot of the success for that program goes exclusively to (MLB senior vice president) Frank Coonelly. One of the things it also represents is the importance of resources being allocated to issues within the commissioner's office. Prior to '98, we didn't have enough people here--we didn't have enough resources to deal with issues. The umpire situation arose in part because Richie Phillips and his management group out-resourced Major League Baseball and its management group. It wasn't until '98 that more resources were devoted to issues like umpiring and the draft that we started to make some progress.
AS: The Padres drafted Matt Bush No. 1 overall last year basically because he was the most signable of the players they liked. Would you have drafted Matt Bush in what was clearly a safety-oriented choice, or would you have gone for one of the elite players who were more risky?
SA: That's a difficult question, and one I can't answer because I wasn't there in the draft room and the months when they were preparing for the draft. I don't know what factors were taken into account. But there's no question that signability continues to be something of an issue in the draft. There is a much more rational system that exists today than existed four years ago, but it's not completely rationalized. If the notion is the best players go to the worst teams, and . . . clubs jump those players to ones perhaps lower down on their list, it means the system isn't totally rationalized.
AS: When you came here, you were very interested in developing a worldwide draft. Fervor seems to have died down a lot about that. Why?
SA: When we actually figured out what it was going to take in the way of concessions to the union to get an international draft, we assessed what those were and decided that perhaps the tradeoff wasn't worthwhile. That was all against a backdrop of what was happening on the domestic draft side, in which there has been a more rational approach. So the urgency kind of disappeared.
AS: What challenges await your successor? What will fall on his or her plate?
SA: I think perhaps more aggressive development of baseball internationally. The umpires are an ongoing management. There is a new collective bargaining agreement that will be negotiated soon, and people in this office will have to advise and be available to labor and the commissioner as these negotiations proceed.
AS: You realize that every interview with you has to end with the question of whether you might someday end up back here--as commissioner.
SA: I'm anxious to get to San Diego and I look forward to a long association with the Padres and stay in San Diego. Throughout my professional life, I've never worried about what was going to come up next or thought about what was coming up next. My goal was to do well what I am doing currently. If I can accomplish that, I'll be happy.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.