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Former GMs find satisfaction in new roles

By Alan Schwarz

Bill Bavasi
Bill Bavasi
Photo: Larry Goren

NEW YORK–Bob Watson’s and Bill Bavasi’s departures as major league general managers did not come under the best circumstances. Watson burned out two years ago in the prestigious but pressurized job as George Steinbrenner’s second-in-command, having built a World Series champion in 1996 but also landing in the hospital with hypertension. Bavasi’s Angels deteriorated so unpleasantly both in the standings and in the clubhouse that both he and manager Terry Collins resigned last September.

The major leagues have gone on around them since, but each has re-emerged in a role they might not have foreseen years ago but take extraordinary pride in now. As co-chairmen of both the steering and selection committees for USA Baseball, they took the lead in piecing together the roster of players Team USA will take to Sydney.

"The pressure of this position is nothing like the pressure of a major league club, but there’s a different kind of pressure–the pressure of this being the first time we’re using professionals in the Olympics, and the chance to represent our great country and our sport," Watson said.

Added Bavasi: "It’s been a blast. It’s amazing how enjoyable it’s been to watch so many young players and talk to scouts about them. The Olympics are very different, and very special."

While the steering committee focused on hiring the manager (Tommy Lasorda) and his coaches, the selection committee was responsible for canvassing the nation looking for players and discussing the potential roster among 19 men. Watson and Bavasi were joined by Major League Baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson, USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler and 15 club executives.

Watson and Bavasi spent several months scouting players and then arranged conference calls among the entire committee–airport payphones were OK, while cell phones proved too unreliable–two or three times a month to bring the list into focus.

"There is no doubt that it will be the best team that we could possibly put out there," Bavasi said. "I could say I was nervous, but I’m very confident we did a good job. And once you put the club together and the game starts, it’s out of your control."

Division Of Labor

Both Watson and Bavasi participated in the construction of last year’s Team USA, which won a silver medal at the Pan American Games in its do-or-die pursuit to qualify for Sydney. Watson led the selection committee along with Pat Gillick (now Mariners GM), while Bavasi served on the steering committee. Watson assumed a more supportive role to Gillick last year, and Bavasi has chosen to do the same in dealing with Watson in respect for Watson’s experience.

"I’d try to do the dirty work–make more of the phone calls, type up the lists and e-mail them to him, schedule the calls," Bavasi said. "I wanted to defer decisions to him."

Watson, 54, spent a year away from baseball after resigning from the Yankees in February 1998. He longed to take his first summer vacation, and in addition to hitting some domestic jazz festivals went so far as to walk on the Great Wall of China. He says his two-year stint with Team USA has rejuvenated him. (Interestingly, after working with Gillick last summer he lost out to him for the Seattle GM job, and he interviewed to replace Bavasi in Anaheim.)

He spent much of this season crisscrossing the minor leagues scouting potential players. He saw each of the 29 finalists play at least once, if not three times, and near the end turned his attention toward scouting recent retirees such as Tim Raines, who ultimately didn’t make the cut.

Watson’s other responsibility was to consider and juggle the opinions of the other selection committee members: Some preferred more experienced minor leaguers, while others leaned toward younger prospects, and Watson had to allow each speaker to be heard.

"People on the committee had strong opinions, and he did a great job in balancing them," said committee member Omar Minaya, the Mets’ special assistant GM. "That took special leadership skills. He made people feel comfortable sharing their opinions."

Juggling Act

Bavasi assumed his role also because Team USA hasn’t been his only project since leaving the Angels. He jumped straight into other ventures, doing international scouting for three major league clubs. He also started a company called Inside Edge, which does independent advance scouting for 13 teams and Fox Sports. Fox uses the data to assemble its "hot zone" graphics that show hitters’ strike-zone preferences.

When Alderson called to offer him the Team USA job in spring training, Bavasi had already contracted with a Japanese team to scout Double-A and Triple-A clubs, so he was going to be evaluating the same talent Team USA would be looking at. "Hey, perfect," Bavasi said, and he spent most of his time before the all-star break evaluating players, consolidating reports and providing administrative backup for Watson.

"What’s kind of refreshing is doing the purity of player personnel–you’re just dealing with talent, not constantly looking at free-agent status, waiver status, options, arbitration, stuff like that," said Bavasi, 42. "The only thing we had to ask was if the player would be good for us and if his team would make him available. It was talking talent. It was great."

As for becoming GMs again, neither is particularly thirsty for that type of pressure. Watson is considering doing special-assignment work for a few clubs next year, as well as his continued participation in a group trying to purchase the Athletics. "I’d consider being a GM, but it would have to be perfect and a feel-good position for me," Watson said. "I was really burned out after the Yankees."

Since Bavasi put his other ventures on hold all summer, he says he has to turn his attention back to them and might actually have to miss going to Sydney.

"I’m going to miss the camaraderie of being with Bob and Sandy and the guys, but there won’t be that much for us to do at that point because our jobs are done, our hands are tied," Bavasi said. "But believe me, I’ve still got a passport. If I can get there, I’m going."

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