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Fighting To Get In
Everyone wants to be a major league GM these days, but getting to the top isn't easy
By Alan Schwarz
2005 General Manager Package:
• General Manager Roundtable
• Ten Tips For Getting Into The Game
• Three Major League GMs Recount Their Path
• Fighting To Get In: Getting To The Top Isn't Easy
• GM History Lesson: Dave Dombrowski's College Thesis
• Minor League GMs Focus On Customers
• Indy GMs Find Added Worries
• The Baseball America Executive Database
INDIAN WELLS, Calif.--The envelopes thwump onto general managers’ desks like Albert Pujols batting lines. Sent from all over the world, they are résumés from the hundreds, probably even thousands, of young men and women trying to break into baseball front offices every year.
“I get at least 300,” one GM says.
“Probably a dozen a week,” adds another.
“I don’t know how many I get,” one sighs, “but I know I look at every single one.”
Some of the submissions don’t come on paper. One kid penned his qualifications onto an official league baseball. Another burned a PowerPoint presentation--complete with video--on a compact disc. “I get front-office baseball cards all the time,” says David Forst, Oakland’s assistant GM. “I haven’t gotten any lavish gifts, but I’m open.”
To each of these panting applicants, the greatest gift they could ever get is their first job in baseball. With the high-profile rise of ever younger executives such as Jon Daniels (Rangers) and Andrew Friedman (Devil Rays) to the role of general manager, and with legions of fresh-faced baseball-operations assistants jockeying for position behind them, more and more outsiders want to join what they see as the fast-moving, front-office assembly line: intern to full-timer to baseball ops to assistant GM to . . . cigar-chomping in the GM suite, baby.
It's not that simple. For every Theo Epstein, the Boston prodigy who became so powerful that he could tell the Sox to stick it and leave an entire city shaken, there are hundreds of others just scraping their way across baseball’s ocean floor, scrounging for scraps to move up the baseball food chain. They will wake up early to transcribe minor league game reports (future Marlins GM Larry Beinfest, circa 1990); they will work for $1,200 a month and sleep in an unfinished Colorado basement for a summer (Daniels, 2001). “I emptied trash cans, cleaned out file cabinets and picked up dirty laundry in spring training,” one GM boasts. His name? John Schuerholz.
Although twentysomethings are advancing faster than ever, no one’s starting out as assistant GM of the White Sox. Most are dancing around in mascot outfits in Peoria. Or driving cross-country to the recent GM meetings outside Palm Springs just to get some face time with the men they want to become.
“Where you from?” Blue Jays boss J.P. Ricciardi asked one eager kid.
“How’d you get here?”
“Where you staying?”
Ricciardi recalled afterward, “For us who are in baseball you don’t realize that people are doing a lot of stuff to get in. You look at them and your heart breaks a little bit. They’re fighting an uphill battle.”
There are proven approaches. The most obvious is the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities event at the Winter Meetings, the annual minor league job fair at which workshops, billboards strewn of available positions--sorry, that Peoria gig went to an Ivy League MBA--and in-person interviews attract hundreds of baseball wannabes like teens to Texas hold 'em. Jobs in small, distant burgs might not seem that enticing, given how Epstein, Daniels and others pulled a Willie McCovey and never set foot in the minors, but many baseball executives believe the bushes remain the best place to start.
“If you should land a position with a major league club initially, chances are you’re going to be stuck in a cubicle someplace, or it’s going to be a very well defined role as a specialist. Major league offices are so big today you’re not going to have any interaction with a GM or assistant GM or anything,” says Astros president Tal Smith, who is approaching his 50th year in professional baseball. Smith broke in through the Reds farm department in 1958, at a time when Cincinnati had 14 total employees, including three ticket-office people and a switchboard operator. Now they can be 10 times as large, while it’s minor league clubs who are short-staffed enough to offer more rewarding work.
“I use the argument that a lot of us at the major league level--GMs, assistant GMs, scouting directors, farm directors--are all out seeing minor league clubs,” Smith says. “After BP you have that dead time early at the start of the game, you need rosters, phone numbers, what’s a good tee time, what’s a good restaurant, and you get to interact. You’re talking to these young kids that are working there. I think that’s great exposure.”
Everyone has advice for how to break into baseball--see Page 14 for Baseball America’s handy-dandy 10-step guide--but most teams keep it straightforward with some sort of formal internship program. These low-paying positions, usually lasting a summer or six months, offer streamlined access to opportunities in baseball operations, public relations or other divisions. They gave many current young executives their major league entrée.
John Ricco, now the Mets’ assistant GM, began as a $100-a-week Yankees PR intern soon after graduating from Villanova in 1990, then landed another five-month internship with Major League Baseball’s communications office that developed into a full-time job. He moved into MLB operations and became the resident waivers guru--regularly conversing with almost every club and often saving their irrevocable bacon--before working in labor relations, before being offered his current position by Mets GM Omar Minaya. “I learned you get a taste of everything, including baseball operations, at the very bottom level,” Ricco says.
Mike Chernoff is another intern success story. During his junior year at Princeton in 2002, he noticed that the marketing director of the Mets was a fellow Tiger; he scored an interview and got a summer job, unpaid. (He happily spent $20 a day in gas and tolls driving back and forth from his parents’ house in Livingston, N.J.) He later applied for a slew of baseball-ops internships for after graduation, and the Indians responded. He is now assistant director of baseball operations, basically the deputy to assistant GM Chris Antonetti.
“I would say apply to as many teams as you can,” Chernoff says. “Get your foot in the door somehow and once you get in, that’s your opportunity to show what you can do to try to make some kind of impact on the staff around you, so they feel forced to keep you around. I think that’s the only way you can do it in this game.”
For those interested in having a chance to become a GM, assumptions about roads to take are almost as old as the position itself. Although Ivy Leaguers are today’s well-publicized hotshots--Ricciardi, for example, claims to prefer candidates with a top-notch education--Twins GM Terry Ryan says, “I don’t worry about how book-smart a person is. Some with a tremendous résumé are qualified, and some you bring in are educated idiots.” Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng assesses what one takes from any experience: “I look at the way you describe what you have done in your short career. Even if it’s being a cash register person at Starbucks. I look at what positives you took from the job. I want somebody who doesn’t mind that they work at Starbucks.”
Long before GMs lived on café lattes, they were infiltrating baseball from outside the game. As early as the late 1940s, when many owners started delegating operating power to a general manager, resentment was building against non-playing beancounters running teams--something many today consider a modern phenomenon. “The club owner wouldn’t think of putting a greenhorn into his managerial seat,” Baseball Magazine coughed in 1948, “yet will go into the oil, ice or almost any other business to find a man to run his team from the office.”
And 50 years before best-selling heretics described managers as less important than GMs, that dynamic was widely acknowledged. In 1954, the New York Daily News reported, “Baseball managers today are secondary figures. The big men are the general managers.” (This chafed at longtime Senators owner Clark Griffith, who never had or wanted a GM to do his business: “All they do,” he said of the lot, “is gamble with other people’s money.”) GMs weren’t always grizzled baseball lifers, either. John McHale was 35 when he became the Tigers’ boss in 1957, while Smith ascended to top man in Houston at age 32; and many championship architects, such as Buzzy Bavasi (Dodgers) and Bob Howsam (Reds), never played professional baseball.
That being said, while today’s bent toward education gets all the headlines, most executives still believe that playing experience, if only at the college level, is an inimitable advantage for some job applicants. “If you played,” says Braves assistant GM Frank Wren, a former minor leaguer himself, “you’ve got a sense of why you’re not playing any longer.” The contact-building is also unsurpassed, though outsiders can still find back doors if they look hard enough.
Beinfest got his entry-level job with the Mariners because his uncle went to college with Jeff Smulyan, who had recently purchased the franchise. Smith was a family acquaintance of Tampa Bay’s Friedman and offered advice on how to start a baseball career. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski did his senior honors thesis at Western Michigan in 1978 on the history of the GM position (see Page 18 for an excerpt), and while researching the paper got to know Bill Veeck and Roland Hemond, who were sufficiently impressed to hire him after graduation.
The problem with the path for almost any front-office aspirant, whether it’s an internship, a family connection, a short playing career or blind luck at a ballpark, is that more avenues mean more competition flocking to the starting line. And if new Phillies GM Pat Gillick has his way, the number of applicants should soon double.
“I think there should be more women in baseball,” Gillick says. “I think women are more dedicated and more loyal than men sometimes. I think they are more organized. They have more attention to detail. They are quite loyal and at some points they are more appreciative of the opportunity.” Asked if he would hire a woman for his Phillies baseball operations department, he says, “I would in a second.”
That’s about all it will take for hundreds more résumés
to land on his desk, along with all the others. How do you get 20 college
students into a Volkswagen? Put a major league internship in the glove